Monday, February 2, 2016
New England Patriots
Final ESPN Power Ranking: 5 (regular season)
Online odds to win the Superbowl next season: 8/1
For most NFL teams, 13 wins and a two-point loss in the conference championship game would be a successful season but not for the Patriots. The Pats should be in the Superbowl. Even with the absurd number of injuries, the Patriots had a clear path to the Superbowl until Chris Harper muffed a punt in the fourth quarter of the November game in Denver. If Harper catches that ball, the Patriots win that game, finish with the top seed in the AFC and never have to go to Denver where opposing teams struggle with the high altitude. Harper's turnover was the turning point in the 2015 season, but that doesn't absolve Bill Belichick. Not taking the football in overtime in Week 16 against the Jets was as bad a coaching decision as you will ever see. It was indefensible. Belichick also made a mistake in the final two regular season games with overly-conservative play calling (end of the first half against the Jets, first half against the Dolphins). The Nate Ebner rugby kickoff that turned around the Eagles game was another head-scratcher. I am not completely against the play but it was a terrible time to use it. I said a few years ago that I thought Belichick might be too eccentric to win another Superbowl. Thankfully, Pete Carroll was little more eccentric and the Pats won it last year.
Had they been reasonably healthy, I think the 2015 Patriots would not only have won the Superbowl but would have had a very good shot at going undefeated. They could have easily won the five games they lost. Had Solder, Edelman and Gronkowski never been hurt, I think we'd be talking about a second chance at 19-0. However, it's pro football where injuries are inevitable so you need to have adequate backups. At wide receiver and tight end, even the backups were injured so you can't do much about that but Belichick and his staff can be blamed for not having NFL-caliber replacements for Solder and Vollmer.
If you look at for good news from this past season, it is certainly the defense. The secondary was pretty solid and Malcolm Butler emerged as an All Pro cornerback. Jabal Sheard was a great addition in a much improved pass rush. Tom Brady had a great season considering how much of a beating he took in the second half of the season as Cannon and Fleming played the role of revolving door. James White showed some promise and should be a big part of the offense next season. The biggest disappointments were Brandon LaFell and Scott Chandler. Injuries may have played a role for both of those guys.
It's pretty clear what the Patriots need to do in the offseason:
The Patriots will head into next season on the short list of Superbowl favorites. They just need to stay reasonably healthy and Bill Belichick needs to stop making Bizarro World game decisions.
ESPN Power Ranking: 8
Online Odds to Win 2016 NBA Title: 75/1
The Celtics have made a lot of progress in the past year. A year ago they were 19th in the ESPN NBA Power Rankings and 750/1 to win the NBA title. They have risen to 8th in the power rankings and are 75/1 to win the title in 2016. Unless they make a big trade, the Celtics are not going to win the title this season but they have a legitimate shot to finish 3rd in the Eastern Conference. Danny Ainge has made several brilliant moves in the past three years. The Celtics still have the Nets first round picks in 2016 and 2018 and a option to swap picks in 2017. Other deals have netted (no pun intended) several other draft picks. As of now, Boston has three first rounders and five second rounders in the 2016 draft alone. Clearly, the one that really matters is the Nets pick which could land the Celtics a franchise player like LSU forward Ben Simmons. Last year at around this time Ainge was able to acquire Jae Crowder and Isaiah Thomas, two key players in the rebuilding process. Hopefully, Ainge will be able to get another impact player before the deadline without having to part with one of the Brooklyn picks.
The Celtics have been up and down this season. They have some great wins (13-12 on the road), some great performances that fell a tad short (OT loss vs Golden State, 3 point loss at San Antonio) and some ugly losses (1-3 against Brooklyn and the Lakers). They have lost three or more games in a row on three different occasions though they also have a four-game and a five-game winning streak. The biggest problem has been fourth quarter meltdowns and an ability to close out games. The Celtics are 1-7 in games decided by three or fewer points or in overtime. Isaiah Thomas has been great but he's not a true late game "go to guy" in the mold of Paul Pierce and that has cost the Celtics some wins. If the Celtics can finish 3rd in the Eastern Conference they would (a) start the playoffs at home and (b) avoid Cleveland for two rounds. After the Cavs and Raptors, you have the Heat, Hawks, Bulls, Celtics, Pistons and Pacers within two games of each other.
The biggest surprise in the first half has been Jae Crowder. The small forward is averaging 14.3 points and 5.0 rebounds per game. He's been a nice two-way player and brings great intensity. Marcus Smart continues to struggle with the outside shot but he is outstanding on the defensive end and is a tenacious rebounder for a guard. Isaiah Thomas is an NBA All-Star. He's averaged 21.5 points per game and 6.6 assists. My concern is that the Thomas might wear down late in the season. He's been forced to carry so much of the offensive load and 5'9" guys who like to take the ball to the hoop take a beating. Avery Bradley and Jared Sullinger have been solid. Amir Johnson has been a disappointment though he's been more of a factor lately. Kelly Olynyk's inconsistency continues to drive me crazy. The same goes for Evan Turner.
Prospects for this year will depend on whether or not Danny Ainge can bring in another impact player before the trade deadline. The Celtics desperately need another scorer and another legitimate big man who can score and play defense. Interestingly, a guy like Paul Pierce and a guy like Kevin Garnett in their primes is exactly what the Celtics need. Of course, it is not likely you could get that kind of player at the trade deadline. Ainge may settle for an older veteran (maybe even a 1/3 season "rental"). If the Celtics can finally get lucky in the draft lottery (the draft lottery has been a horror show for the Celtics) and grab Ben Simmons, the trajectory of the franchise changes immediately. Even if the Celtics don't land Simmons, they should be able to secure a nice building block in the draft. I'm not confident that the Celtics can land a big time free agent like Kevin Durant but Danny Ainge might be able to put together a package of players and draft picks to get the Celtics closer to championship contention.
ESPN Power Ranking: 18
Online Odds to Win 2016 Stanley Cup: 22/1
After the Bruins started the season with three losses by a total of nine goals, it looked like this might be a very rough season. But since that time, the Bruins have played solid hockey with a 26-15-5 record and a +25 goal differential. They will return from the All Star break in the #1 Wild Card spot but they are just one point shy of being tied for second in the Atlantic Division and only six points behind first place Florida. Eleven Eastern Conference teams have between 50 and 59 points (the Bruins have 57) and it's likely that six of them will make the playoffs.
The Bruins success since that first week has been sparked by the usual suspects. Patrice Bergeron leads the team with 44 points in 49 games. Brad Marchand is Boston's top goalscorer with 20 and leads the Bruins with a +12 Plus/Minus. As usual, the Bruins are a noticably better team with David Krejci who has 36 points in 39 games (he's missed 10). Loui Eriksson is having a good season with 39 points and a +11 Plus/Minus. Ryan Spooner has been a pleasant surprise with 37 points despite getting fewer minutes than the top forwards. The power play has been quite a weapon for Boston. The Bruins rank second behind Washington on the power play (25.9%). They are third in goals scored. The Bruins have not been as good on the defensive end. Zdeno Chara and Dennis Seidenberg are not what they once were. Tuukka Rask is not having a great season. He has a 2.49 goals against average and a .917 save percentage (those numbers were 2.04 and .930 two years ago). It's hard to gauge how much of that is Tuukka's fault and how much is the mediocre play of his defensemen. I suspect a combination of the two.
The Bruins desperately need to add a reliable defenseman if they are going to go deep in the playoffs this season. They have lost Johnny Boychuk and Dougie Hamilton the past two years while Chara and Seidenberg have aged. The Bruins have let a lot of games slip away in the third period and that points directly to the mediocrity of the defensive corps. As usual, the Bruins could use another winger but the defense is the top priority. The Bruins had three first round picks last season (13, 14 and 15) so you wonder if they will offer one of them to get a defenseman at the trade deadline.
The Bruins will have an interesting offseason. They could trade prospects for veterans and try to win one more Cup while Bergeron, Krejci, Marchand and Rask are still in their prime and Chara is still serviceable. They could also go into full rebuild mode by trading some of those top players for prospects. I think a lot of that will depend on how this season ends.
Boston Red Sox
ESPN Power Ranking: 17 (2015 season)
Online odds to win 2016 World Series: 8/1
For the most part, the Red Sox had a miserable 2015 season. On the plus side, it was slightly less miserable than the 2014 season. In fact, a lot of good things happened last season despite the 78-84 last place finish. Those good things were the emergence of some the Red Sox highly-touted young talent. In his first full season Mookie Betts put up solid offensive numbers across the board with a .291 batting average, 18 homers (among his 68 extra base hits), 21 stolen bases and some great defense. Xander Bogaerts, another 22 year old, bounced back from a rough rookie season. He batted .320, drove in 81 runs and played great defense. Yet another 22 year old, lefty starter Eduardo Rodriguez, burst onto the scene in late May and went 10-6 with a 3.86 ERA and a nearly 3:1 strikeout to walk ratio. If you take away five or six really bad innings, the rookie put up phenomenal numbers. After a rough start, Jackie Bradley Jr finished very strong at the plate (9 HR, 16 doubles, 4 triples and 40 RBI in August/September alone) and played gold glove caliber defense. First baseman Travis Shaw was a huge surprise. Like Bradley, he was on fire in the final two months of the season (13 HR, 10 doubles, 36 RBI in August/September). Joe Kelly was 8-0 in August/September with an ERA below 3.00.
Pitching was the big problem for the Red Sox in 2015 (second worst ERA in the AL) and they did a great job in the offseason addressing that issue. David Price was pricey, but he gives the Sox a legitimate #1 starter still in the prime of his career. The bullpen improved with the addition of Craig Kimbrel and Carson Smith. Kimbrel will close. Smith will likely be the 7th inning guy with Uehara becoming the eighth inning set-up man. Assuming continued development from Rodriguez, a bounce back for Porcello, a continuation of Joe Kelly's progress late in the season and Clay Buchholz giving the Sox the usual 20 good starts before he gets injured, the Red Sox should have a solid rotation. Henry Owens, Brian Johnson and Steven Wright could also be in the mix. Boston could also look for a #2 starter at the trade deadline or even in the spring if the right deal comes along. The Red Sox could still use a lefty bullpen specialist but that might be a trade deadline move.
The Red Sox lineup appears to be set. I'd expect the following (or something close to it).
RF Betts 2B Pedroia SS Bogaerts DH Ortiz 1B Ramirez 3B Sandoval LF Castillo CF Bradley Jr C Swihart
Of course everyone is concerned about Hanley Ramirez playing first base. It could be a disaster but the Red Sox need to at least try to make it work. Ramirez will likely take over at DH in 2017. Anyone who follows me on Twitter knows how much I hated the Sandoval signing (and I still do) but I think Pablo could bounce back and have a decent season. "Decent" meaning the 15 HR, 75 RBI, .280 type of season he normally put up in San Francisco. Dustin Pedroia was off to a nice start last season before being injured. The 32-year-old has missed a total of 96 games the past two seasons and played hurt during the 2013 championship season. His health is certainly a concern. The amazing Big Papi will retire after this season despite a ridiculous .325, 22 HR, 65 RBI performance in just 234 post All Star game at bats last season. The catching situation will be interesting. Blake Swihart had a decent rookie season (.274 average) and remains one of the organization's brightest young stars. Defensive-minded Christian Vazquez will return from Tommy John surgery and Ryan Hannigan is a solid backup. I will be surprised if Vazquez doesn't start the season at AAA. Rusney Castillo, Chris Young and Brock Holt give the Sox plenty of outfield options. On paper, this looks like a pretty good team heading into 2016.
The Red Sox future remains very bright. Betts, Bogaerts, Swihart, Rodriguez and maybe Owens look like top shelf young players. Jackie Bradley Jr is still a bit of a mystery (prone to terrible stretches) but the superstar potential is there. I never viewed Travis Shaw as top talent but after last season, he's a legit prospect. Brian Johnson, Rusney Castillo and Christian Vazquez also have the talent to do big things but need to stay healthy. There is still some great talent in the farm system. 20 year old second baseman Yoan Moncada is ranked in the top ten in most lists of top minor league prospects. 19 year old third baseman Rafael Devers and 21 year old outfielder Andrew Benintendi (Sox top pick in last year's draft) are also considered top 50 minor league prospects.
Pitchers and catchers report in just 16 days.