Tuesday, January 27, 2015
New England Patriots
ESPN Power Ranking: 2 (regular season)
Online odds to win the Superbowl: Favored by 1 point
The Patriots are back in the Superbowl for the seventh time in 19 seasons and the eighth time in franchise history. Tom Brady has a chance to join Joe Montana and Terry Bradshaw as the only quarterbacks with four Superbowl rings. Brady will become the first quarterback to start in six Superbowls. Unfortunately, this year's Superbowl is being marred by the "DeflateGate" scandal that the NFL has now allowed to fester for more than a week. The outcome of the investigation will certainly impact the state of the Patriots regardless of whether they found to be guilty of wrongdoing or merely of victim of false allegations by bitter AFC foes tired of losing to Bill Belichick.
The Patriots are about a one-point favorite to win the Superbowl. If not for DeflateGate, I would consider that point spread to be very accurate (I thought the line was too high against Baltimore and too low against Indianapolis). These teams are extremely even with the Patriots being slightly better on offense and special teams and the Seahawks being better on defense. Both coaches have won an incredibly high percentage of games the past 15 years (Carroll with USC and the Seahawks). Both starting quarterbacks are among the best in the NFL. This should be a great game. Unfortunately, we don't know how the non-stop DeflateGate controversy will affect the Patriots. Their character has been questioned. This has certainly disrupted their preparation and will likely increase the amount of the pressure they feel going into the Superbowl. Sadly, Tom Brady will be under the microscope. He might come out nervous. He might come out angry. Neither is a good situation for a quarterback. Hopefully, he can block out the noise and do what he does best. I think the first quarter will tell the story. Even without the deflated football controversy, the Patriots have had a lot of poor first quarters this season. That can't happen against the Seahawks. Assuming the Patriots can keep their cool early, I like their chances. For me, it comes down to this: bet on the team with a healthy Rob Gronkowski. So, I'll say Patriots 23-20.
It's hard to evaluate the Patriots future without knowing how this DeflateGate situation will play out. My feeling is that neither Brady nor Belichick conspired to deflate footballs after they had been approved by the refs. I base that mostly on this: I cannot imagine that either Brady or Belichick could be that stupid. Why risk everything for an infinitesimal advantage that they didn't need (they could have beaten the Colts blindfolded)? Why do something that you know will eventually be exposed to the public? It makes no sense. If the Patriots win the Superbowl and they are cleared in this controversy, it should help them in 2015. Many Superbowl champs some out flat the following season. Being falsely accused and having your reputation questioned would likely make them even hungrier in 2015 (I'd hate to be the Colts). Obviously, if the league does find Belichick and/or Brady guilty of tampering with football after the officials approved them (especially after denying any wrongdoing), it would have terrible consequences for the franchise.
Assuming a non-guilty "verdict" on DeflateGate, the Patriots will be in a great position to return to the Superbowl next season. However, those chances will diminish greatly if they cannot resign Revis (or pick up his expensive option) and McCourty. I'm sure keeping Vereen and Gostkowski will also be priorities though you wonder if Vereen will be a cap casualty. The Pats will probably add depth on the offensive line. The starting five is very good but there is a noticable drop-off when one of those guys is out. The Pats could also use some depth in the front seven with the emphasis on pass rushers (we say that every year). It's hard to imagine that Amendola will be back given his bulky contract. Beyond 2015, the big question is Brady. He looks like he can play for several more years and his contract (as of now) is team-friendly. The Patriots, as usual, have a great mix of young players (Collins, Jones, Gray, Stork), guys in their prime (Gronk, Edelman, Revis?, McCourty?) and veterans who can still get the job done (Brady, Wilfork, Vollmer, Ninkovich). The future remains bright. Let's hope deflated footballs don't ruin it.
ESPN Power Ranking: 19
Online Odds to Win 2015 NBA Title: 750/1
Last season was disappointing for the Celtics. Not because they went 25-57 but because the draft lottery didn't go their way once again. The Celtics picked 6th, the lowest possible draft position given their record. This is not meant to disparage Marcus Smart who was drafted in the 6th slot. I like Smart and I think he can play a key role in the Celtics future but I don't think he is the franchise player that the Celtics desperately need. I hope I'm wrong. In the offseason, the Celtics appeared to be flirting with the idea of trying to trade for Kevin Love (Carmelo Anthony's name even came up). In the end, the Celtics didn't sign any big name free agents which meant it made sense to trade Rondo and Green and fully commit to the rebuild. With Rondo and Green gone, the C's have a rotation made up almost entirely of guys who are under 27. James Young (age 19), Marcus Smart (20), Jared Sullinger (22), Kelly Olynyk (23), Avery Bradley (24), Tyler Zeller (25) and Evan Turner (26) were all picked in the top 21 of the NBA Draft in the past five years. There is clearly some basketball talent on the roster.
The biggest problem with the guys I just listed is their lack of consistency. Olynyk ended December with nine consecutive double-digit scoring games then started January scoring 2, 0, 5 and 6. He followed up a 23 point game on January 10th with a 2 point game on the 12th. Evan Turner scored 29 points against the Bulls on January 3rd. He then scored a total of 24 points in this next four games. Sullinger, Bradley and Zeller have had similar ups and downs. Unfortunately, this is part of having a young team. Lately, they have played much better. The Celtics are 3-1 on the current road trip and lost to Golden State by only 3 points (the Warriors are 21-1 at home). Boston is beating the weaker opponents (12-7 against teams under .500) but they still don't have the talent and experience to defeat the top teams in the league on a consistent basis. I think Brad Stevens about as well as you can expect given the youth and roster turnover. I'm excited to see if the Celtics can continue to make progress in the second half. They are only two games out of the final playoff spot in the East.
Danny Ainge has done a great job accumulating draft picks. In addition to their own picks, the Celtics have an extra six first round picks and six second round picks through 2019. Some of the picks are protected with carryover provisions so only a few have the potential to be in the top five of the draft but the more picks you have, the better the chance you have to land a franchise player or at least add players who can contribute to your rotation. The key will probably be the Nets picks (acquired in the Pierce-Garnett trade) since they are unprotected. Boston has Brooklyn's first-rounder in 2016 and 2018 and can swap picks with the Nets in 2017. The Celtics future is highly correlated to the Nets success (or hopefully lack of success) in the three seasons that begin next fall. The Celtics won't actually keep all of these extra draft picks. Eventually, they will be in a position to trade picks for players that can help them.
I don't expect the Celtics to be competing for a title in the next two or three seasons. They will probably need to (finally) get lucky in the NBA lottery to turn things around. If they can get that franchise player and become a contender, then making trades and signing free agents becomes much easier. In the meantime, let's hope the young guys continue to develop and win a few more games.
ESPN Power Ranking: 11
Online Odds to Win 2015 Stanley Cup: 10/1
The bad news: the Bruins have had a very disappointing first half of the season. The good news: they are seven points ahead of Florida in the race for the last playoff spot in the East and only seven points behind Tampa Bay for the division lead and the best record in the conference. The Bruins played some horrendous hockey in the first half (they lost 6-1 and 5-1 to the Leafs and Canadiens on back-to-back nights in mid-November) but entered the All-Star break with 20 points in their last 12 games (7-1-4). Tuukka Rask has been much better (.946 save percentage in January, .896 in December) as has the defense. The Bruins have allowed just 13 regulation goals in their last 9 games.
Scoring remains an issue for the Bruins. They rank 21st in goals per game (9th in goals allowed per game). Brad Marchand is the Bruin on pace for 20 or more goals (last year they had five players with 20+ and two with 30+). David Pastrnak provided some excitement with back-to-back two goal games but he's a 167 pound, 18 year old rookie who is not accustomed to playing a full NHL season. His future is bright but we have to be realistic about what he can give the Bruins late in the regular season and in the playoffs. I think everyone agrees that the Bruins need to trade for a winger (maybe two) before the trade deadline on March 2nd.
I don't think many people would argue that the Bruins are as strong as they were when they won the Cup in 2011 or even two years ago when they went to the Finals. Chara is starting to show his age more and more and the players the Bruins have lost (Horton, Seguin, Ryder, Boychuk, Ference) have been replaced by guys who simply have not been as productive or consistent. Lucic has been disappointing (again) and Krejci has been injured much of the season. The Bruins were crushed by injuries early in the season. Not only that, but they had some guys coming back from injury who were not 100% (and still may not be).
If the Bruins can add a player or two (can't imagine they would let the deadline pass without at least getting a winger who can score) and be relatively healthy they should have a much better second half. The time Chara missed may be a blessing in disguise because it shortened his season. Given how much went wrong in the first half, it's kind of amazing the Bruins are only seven points shy of the best record in the conference. As for the playoffs, the fears of Bruins fans that they would actually miss the playoffs have hopefully subsided. As I mentioned, the Bruins are not as good as they were four years ago but I think they are as good as anyone in the mediocre Eastern Conference. As we know all too well, luck plays a huge role in the NHL playoffs (Bruins hit 14 posts in the first five games against Montreal last year). So with better health, a couple of trades and a little puck luck there is no reason the Bruins can't contend for a Cup this season. However, I think there will be seven other teams in the Eastern Conference playoffs who will be able to make the same claim.
I've been bullish on the Bruins future the past few years but now I'm not so sure. Bergeron, Rask and Krejci are locked up. Pastrnak and Hamilton look like they could be future stars. As for the rest of the team, I feel like they all have a fairly high probability of being traded. Lucic and Marchand have not developed into the consistent scorers we've been waiting for and neither one appears willing or able to grow up. Eriksson and Smith are nice players but I don't think anyone can be pleased with the Seguin trade at this point. Soderberg has been very good (and was one of the few bright spots in last season's playoffs) but will he stick around? Chara and Seidenberg are not getting any younger. If the Bruins have another early playoff exit, they are probably going to have to shake things up. They are paying too much for mediocre players. If you're spending "goal scorer" money, you need to get goal scorers.
Boston Red Sox
ESPN Power Ranking: 25 (2014 season)
Online odds to win 2015 World Series: 14/1
Last year I started the Red Sox section by saying "What a difference a year makes." Well, what a difference a year makes! The Red Sox have now sandwiched two last place finishes around a World Series title. Last season's flop was a little different from the 2012 flop in that it was more peformance-based than injury-based. Yes, the Sox had plenty of key injuries but the bigger problem was the fact that several good baseball players had horrific seasons. Will Middlebrooks and Jackie Bradley were believed to be two of the Red Sox best young hitters. They batted .191 and .198 with three home runs in a combined 599 official at bats. Xander Boegarts ended up at .240 with 12 home runs but batted .135, .228 and .123 in June, July and August. Stephen Drew (.176), Allen Craig (.128), Grady Sizemore (.216) were astonishingly bad at the plate. Down years for Napoli, Gomes, Ross, Pedroia and Ortiz made things worse.
The pitching wasn't quite as bad but managed to disappoint. Clay Buchholz was 8-11 with a 5.34 ERA (12-1 with a 1.74 ERA in 2013). Peavy (1-9, 4.72 with Sox) and Workman (1-10, 5.17) nearly created the team's 20 games under .500 record by themselves. Lester, Lackey and Miller were all great and all traded at the deadline.
One of the few good things about the 2014 season was Mookie Betts. In 52 games with the Red Sox, Betts batted .291 with 18 extra base hits and a solid .812 OPS. It was also fun to watch Jackie Bradley play centerfield. It's certainly the best outfield play I've seen by a Sox player in my lifetime. Christian Vazquez also impressed with his defense and batted a respectable .240. Brock Holt gave the team a nice spark. We saw a little of pitching prospects Matt Barnes and Anthony Ranaudo.
The offseason, in my opinion, has been a big disappointment. The Red Sox invested nearly $200 million in third baseman Pablo Sandoval and leftfielder-to-be Hanley Ramirez. Sandoval is a mediocre hitter with below-average power and average (at best) fielding skills. He might be the slowest player in baseball. Hanley Ramirez is a great hitter when healthy, which is practically never. The Sox traded Yoenis Cespedes for Rick Porcello who was a mediocre pitcher for five seasons before pitching very well in 2014. The Sox inexplicably traded both Rubby De La Rosa and Allen Webster for lefty Wade Miley who had a 4.60 ERA last year after two decent seasons. The Red Sox also signed Justin Masterson. It's possible they aren't done. The Hamels rumors persist. It's also likely that the Nationals will move one of their starters (Strasburg, Fister or Zimmerman) so Boston could be part of those discussions.
The 2015 Red Sox remind me of the 2014-15 Bruins. They have a ton of mediocre players but should be fairly competitive because the division is not very strong. The Rays are going in the wrong direction. The Yankees haven't improved. The Jays made some good acquisitions but still have plenty of holes. The Orioles were great in 2014 but lost a couple of key players. The AL East is a division where 90-92 wins could be enough. The Red Sox are certainly capable of winning 90, but that would likely require a bounceback year from Buchholz.
I give the Red Sox management team credit for not giving away their top prospects and young players. Betts is still in the fold. They didn't panic-trade Bogaerts or give away Bradley Jr for nothing. De La Rosa and Webster are gone but their top young pitching prospects - Owens, Ranaudo, Barnes, Johnson, Rodriguez - remain with the club. Their top minor league position player, catcher Blake Swihart, has not been moved. The Red Sox have done a great job building one of the best minor league systems in baseball. It seems they want these guys to be part of the Red Sox future, not traded for over-the-hill and/or mediocre major leaguers from other teams. I'm excited about seeing these guys at Fenway and perfectly willing to be patient as they develop. It may take a couple of years but if the Red Sox can develop a good young nucleus, we won't have the last-to-first-to-last type of gyrations that come with rolling the dice on major league veterans who are cheap because of injury risks or because they may or may not have passed their prime.