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Wednesday, June 30, 2010

South (World Cup Quarterfinals Primer)

What is it that they say about "best laid plans"?  The FIFA selection committee put together a bracket which was designed to the benefit of underdogs, particularly African underdogs, but as we enter the quarterfinals, five of the top seven teams in the world are still kicking, with #3 Portugal and #8 England only knocked out by virtue of second round matchups with #2 Spain and #6 Germany.  

There is good news for FIFA, however, at the expense of Americans.  Even though only one African team got through, Ghana has managed to advance to the final eight.  They were the second-lowest ranked African side at #32 and they are the lowest ranked team among the remaining participants, but they have looked much better than that ranking indicates.  They beat a highly regarded Serbian side during the group stage, a Serbian side who went on to upset the Germans.  Then they played an outstanding game against Germany themselves.  Even though it ended in defeat, Ghana threatened to take the group outright, as they held the imposing German team to one goal, midway through the second half, and actually exceeded them in shots and were nearly their equals in time of possession.

In retrospect, based on the level of competition they'd faced and how they fared against that competition, Ghana was probably the favorite entering their first knockout game against the U.S.  It was an exciting affair, and Ghana's tremendous fitness and their "home"-field advantage were probably the deciding factors, as they brought significantly more energy and hunger to the extra time.  

They will again wear the underdog label against Uruguay, but again, it might be misleading.  Uruguay has dominated their competition thusfar, but they've had, undeniably, the easiest path to the quarterfinals, as the top rated team in their group, France, essentially boycotted this World Cup, playing half-speed at best, and the South Koreans, though gutsy, were pretty clearly among the weakest teams to advance to the knockout stage.  

Ghana will need to contain the impressive Uruguayan tandem of Diego Forlan and Luis Suarez.  The Ghanese backline, particularly Hans Sarpei and John Pantsil, have looked very strong.  They will be the most tenacious and athletic tacklers that Forlan and Suerez have seen.  The key, to me, is that Kevin-Prince Boateng, who has been among the most impressive players in this World Cup, continues to create opportunities for himself and others.  If Ghana maintains a sizable share of possession and scoring chances, it will be because of his ability to draw a crowd of Uruguayan defenders.  If Ghana makes the semi-finals, which I think is a strong possibility, this World Cup should be considered a massive success for African soccer, despite the unfortunate early bow-outs by Cameroon, Nigeria, and Ivory Coast.

The most interesting quarterfinal match promises to be Germany and Argentina.  Look for it to be an aggressive, even dirty game, as both teams have that propensity, and many of these players remember the tumultuous showdown from 2006, which ended in penalty kicks.

Finally, here a few relatively unheralded players to watch:

Sergio Ramos - Right Back - Spain

Ramos, who plays his club soccer with Real Madrid, is pretty close to a household name.  Along with Maicon (Brazil) and Dani Alves (Brazil), he is generally considered among the best outside backs in the world.  However, as he did during Spain's 2008 Euro Cup championship, Ramos has raised his already high standard of play to yet another level.  He arguably did more to trouble the vaunted Portugese defense than even David Villa did.  His fleet and fancy runs down the side and into the corner often force two and even three opposing players to move from in front of goal, opening space for the likes of Villa, Iniesta, and Xavi.  That, and he usually eliminates the viability of one of the opposing forwards (see Ronaldo, Cristiano).

Martin Demichelis & Jonas Gutierrez - Defenders - Argentina

As it turns out, Diego Maradona, for all his eccentricity, knows a hell of a lot about soccer.  He took loads of flak for choosing these two backs over players of greater international renown, but thusfar Argentina has conceded only two goals, and both came when the games were already well in hand.  The truth is, they will be tested by Germany, among the most lethal scoring sides in the Cup, but these two impressive physical specimens will likely set the tone for the match.  They are extremely big and extremely fast.  Don't be surprised, also, if Germany's slender forwards, Miroslav Klose and Lukas Podolski, to have the "fear of God" put in them in the form of exploratory fouls in the early going.  Argentina has a deep bench.  If they suffer a yellow card, they can easily replace that player to prevent the going down a man.  Don't think Maradona is above such tactics.

Lucas Barrios - Left Forward - Paraguay

This Argentinean turned Paraguayan is clearly the straw that stirs the drink for his team and will undoubtedly be moving to a more notable club in the very near future.  He's got a vicious right foot, tremendous aerial game, and a "nose for goal," which essentially means he seems to be in the right place at the right time and never gives up on a play.  His major disadvantage is that in the upcoming matchup with Spain he can expect to become very familiar with the 6'4", 200 lb. tandem of Sergio Ramos and Gerard Pique.  Um...sorry, Lucas.  It will be a handsome sandwich.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Not Quite "Done"

It happens almost every year: an American League team which seems left for dead in the season's opening months, surges forward during June to assert themselves, at least temporarily, among the contenders.  One reason for this phenomenon is that the month is laden with interleague play.  The AL has dominated interleague matchups for most of the last decade.  The interleague schedule is tremendously unbalanced, so solid AL franchises who get soft draws have an opportunity to gain ground on their less fortunate league rivals.

The result is that it is often difficult to judge whether an outstanding June is the result of a team truly coming together in a sustainable fashion, or merely taking advantage of the weak links on the senior circuit.  Last season, the Los Angeles Angels used June to assert their dominance.  Dogged by injuries and the tragic death of Nick Adenhart, the Angels struggled to achieve a .500 record during April and May, but a 17-9 month of June allowed them to surge to the front of the AL West, where they remained, finishing with 97 wins, second best in all of baseball, and eventually making it to the ALCS.  

On the other hand, in 2008, Detroit used a 19-8 run in June to get within striking distance of the AL Central-leading White Sox.  The remainder of the season was not nearly as kind, as the Tigers went 32-47 in the second half and finished in last place.

This season, no less than five AL franchises have caught fire in June.  Which of them will we still be talking about at the end of July?

Boston Red Sox (Sustainability Grade: A+)

Will we ever learn?  Every year one of the "Beasts of the East" has a rough time of it in the early going and we declare them finito.  And every year we are forced to bite our tongues.  This season, Boston was half a dozen games out a the end of April and many Red Sox fans were ready to throw in the towel.  Since that point, they've been the best team in the division and now find themselves comfortably positioned for an exciting pennant race: 2.5 back of the Yanks and only a half-game back of the Wild Card-leading Rays.  

There's no reason to doubt Boston.  Yes, they've gotten rich against the NL, going 10-4 in interleague play so far, but they've done it against the best the opposing league has to offer, playing six games against the Phillies, three against the Dodgers, and three against the Rockies.  They now possess the fourth-best record in all of baseball, despite the fact that they've gotten little contribution from Jacoby Ellsbury, Josh Beckett, Mike Cameron, and Daisuke Matsuzaka, all of whom are expected to be available throughout the second half.  It's impossible to predict who from among the so-called "Beasts" will be left out of October, but the Red Sox are not going to make it easy on their rivals.  

Texas Rangers (Sustainability Factor: B+)

Texas has played fairly well throughout the season, so their situation is slightly different from other teams on this list, but they have gone absolutely bonkers this month, currently riding a ten-game winning streak.  They've also won thirteen of their last fourteen and have not lost a series this month. 

Their interleague schedule is one of the softest around.  Their streak has been compiled against the Brewers, Marlins, Astros, and Pirates, with three more home games against Houston still to come.  They didn't play a single NL team with a record above .500 and Florida is the only one who even comes close.

That said, Texas is clearly for real.  They have the third-best run differential in baseball, trailing only the Yankees and Rays.  They've won series against the Rays, Tigers, and Angels, and are currently sitting on a 13-5 record in their own division.

Los Angeles Angels (Sustainability Factor: B+)

The Angels were in last place early in May, but have made a familiar climb back into the divisional race, now standing just 3.5 games back of Texas.  The Angels did not benefit from the soft underbelly of the NL Central the way that their division rival did, as they played six against the Dodgers, three against the Cardinals, and have three to come against the Rockies, so their 9-5 interleague record is pretty impressive.

The Angels have once again dealt with some tough breaks.  Kendry Morales is out for the season.  Erick Aybar could also miss significant time.  However, there real problems are a disastrous bullpen and a stagnant offense, which has not been about to score at will the way it did in 2009.  There's a strong chance players like Hideki Matsui and Juan Rivera will be much more productive in the second half, which could be enough to keep the Angels in the race, but don't be surprised if they are one of the most active teams at the deadline.  They will have flexibility in a way the bankrupt Rangers don't.     

Chicago White Sox (Sustainability Grade: C+)

On the third of June, the ChiSox were eight games under .500 and 8.5 back in the Central.  Rumors swirled about possible trades and maybe a precipitous end to the Ozzie Guillen era.  Now, the White Sox are three games above .500 and only 2.5 back.  They've won nine in a row and fifteen out of their last nineteen, including eight of nine on the road.  

Although the White Sox did just complete a sweep of the first-place Braves, they really got rich this June off the Nationals, Pirates, and Cubs, compiling an insane 13-2 record in interleague play, with another series against the Cubs still to come.  So, it is understandably tempting to call "bullshit" on the White Sox recent hot streak.  They have won only one series all year against an AL contender (New York, Boston, Tampa Bay, Minnesota, Detroit, Texas, and Los Angeles).  However, they will play 24 games against the Twins and Tigers in the second half, which should certainly be treated as "opportunity."  

Seattle Mariners (Sustainability Factor: D-)

The Mariners were a popular preseason choice to win the AL West.  They currently sit thirteen games back and, until recently, seemed on the verge of throwing in the towel.  A six-game winning streak could be enough to at least delay the Cliff Lee trade talks.  Seattle swept the Twins earlier this month and recently swept the Reds as well, both first-place teams.  In between, however, they lost series to St. Louis and San Diego.  

There are causes for optimism.  Chone Figgins has busted out of his season-long slump.  Ichiro has been dominant.  The rotation has been consistently fantastic.  However, their run differential this month is actually worst than it was in April and May, because basically everybody else stinks.  They have won only one series this season against a divisional opponent (Oakland), compiling a 3-16 record against the Rangers and Angels.  This team isn't going anywhere...not this year.

World Cup Bracketology

In my World Cup primer a couple weeks ago, I predicted that the peculiarities of the draw could favor the African squads and result in a situation where many of the top Europeans squads were lined up on one side of the bracket.  It appears I will only be half-right.

The first World Cup in Africa has actually been a showcase for the western hemisphere.  Teams from the Americas are likely going six for six in terms of advancement (Chile currently leads group H, but could still in danger).  Brazil and Argentina lived up to, perhaps even exceeded, high expectations, while Chile, Paraguay, and Uruguay surged unexpectedly to the top of their groups.

Europe, on the other hand, has seen two of its top teams sent packing, as the '06 finalists, France and Italy, both failed to make it past the group stage.  England and Germany needed wins in their finals games in order to avoid joining them, as does #2 ranked Spain, who faces off with a very tough Chilean side on Friday.

Though I would still contend FIFA had the best of intentions, it was to no avail, as it appears only one African side, Ghana, will advance past the group stage.  Nigerian striker Yakubu Aiyegbeni can look forward to a lifetime of nightmares after missing an wide open net from two yards out against South Korea (in one of the best matches of the tournament thusfar).  A simple straight-forward strike could have assured Nigeria a spot in the knockout round.  The host nation also played admirably, but trailed Mexico slightly on goal differential.  Cameroon, Africa's top-ranked side, was the first team eliminated, a massive disappointment, only overshadowed by the pathetic performance of the French.  Ivory Coast has not yet been officially eliminated, but they will need a huge win over North Korea and some help from Brazil to catch the Portugese.

Africa now pins all their hopes on Ghana, who will face the U.S. in the first game of the second-round.  The knockout draw, now more than half set, is looking quite uneven.  The winner of U.S. v. Ghana faces the winner of Uruguay v. South Korea, assuring that at least one "underdog" will make it to the semi-finals.  The United States are the top-rated team in their quadrant (#14 according to FIFA).  They have not made the semi-finals since 1930, and have never advanced to the finals.  Ghana has never won a knockout game, having passed the group stage for the first time in 2006.  South Korea made the semis in '02 on their home turf, but this is only their second trip to the knockout round.  Uruguay are former champions, but they haven't made a semi-final since 1970.

By contrast, England's quadrant features three teams ranked in FIFA's top ten, two of which must be considered among the overall favorites.  So far, Diego Maradona has made his critics look rather silly.  His controversial selections, including 35-year-old Juan Veron and converted defender Jonas Gutierrez, have played extraordinarily well.  Argentina is currently the only team with three wins (Brazil and Chile could join them tomorrow) and are the tournament's leading scorers.  Both Germany and England were given wake-up calls in the group stage, as Germany dropped a game to the Serbs and England tallied draws against both the Americans and Algerians.  The chalk certainly favors a showdown of Argentina and Germany, countries with a long history of World Cup rivalry, most recently a quarterfinal showdown in 2006 that was decided on penalty kicks.

Tomorrow's games could easily result in an even more spectacularly lethal "quadrant of death."  Based on the current standings, Brazil (#1), Spain (#2), and the Netherlands (#4) would join Slovakia (#34).  The two incoming favorites, Brazil and Spain, would be forced to face each other in the first knockout round.  Spain's best chance of preventing this outcome is handily beating Chile.  Even then, if Portugal (#3) were to upset Brazil, they could still be set up for a showdown.

I, personally, enjoy seeing the powerhouses clash as early as possible.  And, to that extent, this draw has worked out excellently.  The second round will likely feature at two matchups of top-ten teams (Germany v. England and Spain v. Brazil/Portugal).  Although some of the favored darkhorses (Serbia, Ivory Coast, etc.) did not survive, the draw is still set up for a historically deep run by one or more low-seeded teams.  The outcome of the USA/Ghana game will yield one such team, while Paraguay and Chile have favorable positions on the opposite side of the bracket.

Monday, June 21, 2010

The Auspicious Future of Brennan Boesch

On a Friday evening in April, following a barbecue, I sat down to watch a matchup between the Tigers and Rangers in a state of inebriation.  I found myself enamored of a hulking rookie who was making his debut as Detroit's designated hitter.  The 6' 4" lefty had an imposing presence at the plate, somewhat reminiscent of the once-great Pronk (a.k.a. Travis Hafner).  Not possessing the energy at the particular moment to look deeper into the prospects of young Brennan Boesch, who began his career by going 2-for-4, I unceremoniously added him to a number of my deeper fantasy squads in an act of drunken romanticism.  As far as the results of lowered inhibitions go, this was relatively harmless, but I will admit, two days later, when I got around to soberly browsing through Boesch's minor-league stats, I experienced a fleeting but nonetheless tangible flutter of regret in the pit of my stomach.

In at least two leagues I had spent a valuable transaction to procure Boesch, who hadn't posted a OBP above .320 since his first season in low-A Oneonta.  He had developing power, as his hulking body suggested, having hit 28 HR at AA in '09, but we have seen many, many players with Boesch's apparent lack of plate discipline struggle mightily upon reaching the majors.  I guessed, given playing time, that Boesch might be capable of 20-30 HR, but I also imagined, a la Chris Davis, he would be lucky to hit his weight (conservatively listed at 235 lbs.) and could be headed back to AAA in a matter of weeks.

To my considerable amazement (as with everybody else) Boesch is currently the frontrunner for Rookie of the Year in the American League.  He's hitting .337 with 10 HR, 36 RBI, and an astounding 1001 OPS.  That final number is enough to rank fifth in the American League among hitters with at least 175 plate appearances, trailing boppers like Miggy Cabrera, Justin Morneau, and Kevin Youkilis.  Even if a sharp decline is imminent, Boesch has already paid tremendous dividends for all who have owned him through the last couple of months, as only once has he gone as many as four contests without a multi-hit game.  His presence as protection for Cabrera and Magglio Ordonez has much to do with the Tigers hanging around in the AL Central, only a game and a half back of the Twins.

However, before you go judging this as an endorsement of instinctual scouting, I warn that such occasions are exceedingly rare.   A similar state of impaired judgment once convinced me of the imminent greatness of Kyle Lohse.  Almost certainly, Brennan Boesch cannot sustain his current pace of production, but the more serious question is whether he can continue to be a relatively cheap and functional run-producer, akin to Ryan Ludwick or Josh Willingham.  To answer this question, I call your attention to a pair of 2009 Rookie of the Year candidates who also came out of nowhere

Chris Coghlan began 2009 playing second base for the Marlins AAA affiliate in New Orleans.  He was a late first-round draft pick in '06, but at 24, he was becoming "old" for a prospect, and Baseball Prospectus, for one, projected him as a "utility infielder."  Much like Boesch, he began the season by setting fire to the Pacific Coast League, hitting .344 in his first 25 games with speed (9/10 SB) and power (.552 SLG).  Necessity prompted the Marlins to promote him in early May, turning him into an outfielder, and he went bonkers in the second-half, hitting at a .372 clip and becoming a favorite of the Baseball Tonight staff.  In retrospect, this performance was apparently unsustainable.  He had a .406 BABIP after the All-Star Break and slugged more than 100 points higher than he had in the minors.

Like many fantasy pundits, I shied away from Coghlan this spring, and as a result didn't have to to deal with five weeks in which Coghlan's OPS (422) was less than half of what it was in '09 (850) and he appeared dangerously close to demotion.  Since the middle of May, however, Coghlan has again caught fire (935 OPS).

Coghlan and Boesch are not similar hitters.  Coghlan has always been a top-of-the-order type, with good discipline, decent speed, and a high average, but very modest power.  Boesch was quite the opposite, until recently he was a pure swing-from-the-heels masher.  Their similarity lies in the fact that they both show evidence of being from that rare species of "late-bloomers."  Most prospects show a pattern of growth over the course of their professional careers.  It may be two steps forward followed by one step back, but given three or four seasons, you can see obviously incremental improvements in areas like power, discipline, and defense.  Coghlan and Boesch, on the other hand, stayed in a holding pattern until their mid-twenties, than made massive improvements over the course of a single calendar year.  Because of the inherently small sample size created by this phenomenon, it's difficult to tell whether or not they can sustain such production, but both are still young enough (25) that it seems feasible.  It will be important to watch how Boesch responds to his first slump.

Which brings us to Casey McGehee.  McGehee differs from Coghlan and Boesch in that he is older and never showed any signs of being a capable everyday player during his tenure in the minors.  The Brewers brought McGehee to the majors at the beginning of '09 as a utility infielder.  They never envisioned, at that point, that the rookie would be capable of hitting in the middle of their loaded lineup.  And at this particular moment, that judgment seems founded.  McGehee has hit just .177 with a 536 OPS in his last twenty games.  However, during the time when Coghlan was struggling, McGehee was tearing through the NL, racking up 41 RBI in his first 45 games.  His major-league production has been superior to his minor-league production in every single category, by in a long shot in most cases.  At no point did he bat .300 in the minors, yet hit well above .300 in his first 160+ major-league games.

When the league "adjusts," developing a book on the unexpectedly productive rookie, it is usually curtains (see Francouer, Jeff).  For players who are dependent on power, this is even more the case, as an already all-or-nothing approach swings further to the "nothing" side.  Since his recall, Boesch has shown a surprising willingness to use all fields and hit situationally.  When he encounters his first slump, however, he may trend backwards into a Rob Deer disposition.    

BBA All-Star Ballot

I posted some All-Star Voting suggestions earlier this month.  However, in the lead-up to the break, BBA member are awarding their own All-Star nominations and things have definitely changed since the beginning of June, so here's an updated selection:

American League:

C - Joe Mauer (Twins)
1B - Miguel Cabrera (Tigers)
2B - Robinson Cano (Yankees)
3B - Evan Longoria (Rays)
SS - Elvis Andrus (Rangers)
LF - Carl Crawford (Rays)
CF - Alex Rios (White Sox) 
RF - Josh Hamilton (Rangers)
DH - David Ortiz (Red Sox)
SP - David Price (Rays)

National League:

C - Miguel Olivo (Rockies)
1B - Albert Pujols (Cardinals)
2B - Brandon Phillips (Reds)
3B - Ryan Zimmerman (Nationals)
SS - Hanley Ramirez (Marlins)
LF - Josh Willingham (Nationals)
CF - Andrew McCutchen (Pirates)
RF - Corey Hart (Brewers)
DH - Joey Votto (Reds)
SP - Ubaldo Jimenez (Rockies)

Sunday, June 20, 2010

A few potential All-Stars who might surprise you...

There are certain to be a few first-time All-Stars this season.  Ubaldo Jimenez, who has to be the current favorite to start the game for the NL, will certainly get his first selection thanks to a couple of history-making months.  Rookie outfielder, Jason Heyward, is currently among the leading vote-getters in the NL outfield, and should be destined for selection even if he isn't voted in by the fans.  Also much-lauded is the AL co-leader in homeruns, Jose Bautista.

There are, naturally, also a few superb performers who have been largely overlooked by the media.  I offer a handful of unsung heroes who certainly won't be starters and in some cases would be borderline selections, but who definitely deserved consideration and increased publicity based on what they're doing in 2010.

Jose Valverde - RP - Detroit Tigers

Several balked at the size of the contract he received during the offseason, but thusfar he has made Dave Dombrowski look like a genius, saving 16 games in 17 opportunities, and compiling a ridiculously low 0.59 ERA through his first thirty appearances.  Those supposedly much tougher AL lineups have managed to hit just .105 off Valverde, who had spent his previous seven seasons in the National League.    He got roughed up in his second appearance of the season, but has allowed one lonely run since.  Despite being one of the best closers in baseball during the last four season, Valverde has just one previous All-Star selection, in 2007, when he led the NL in saves with 47.

Aubry Huff - 1B/OF - San Francisco Giants

Many fantasy owners gave up on Huff after a shabby April.  Since then, he has been among the top hitters in the National League, batting .342 with 9 HR, 28 RBI, and 1052 OPS in his last forty-some games.  Considering how bad the rest of the Giants have been offensively, Huff has to be given a great deal of the credit for keeping them in the thick of the NL West race.  He move to the outfield certainly helps his chance of selection, as there is a logjam at first base.

Ian Kennedy - SP - Arizona Diamondbacks

I know, I know...I've beat this horse to death, but Ian Kennedy has been damn good this season, especially in the last two months.  His record is merely 3-5, largely because of very modest run support.  Kennedy's shot at selection increases because of his team.  The D-Back's top two players, Justin Upton and Dan Haren, are both having sup-par first halves, and other relatively big-name candidates, Stephen Drew and Mark Reynolds, haven't been spectacular either.  Kennedy's major competition as Arizona's rep comes from resurgent hitters, Kelly Johnson and Chris Young.  His disadvantage is that so many NL starting pitchers are having strong seasons that his avenue to selection may be much more difficult than that of his position-playing teammates.

Marlon Byrd - CF - Chicago Cubs

The Cubs stink.  They stink in no small part because their biggest salaried players - Aramis Ramirez, Derrek Lee, Carlos Zambrano, etc. - are all simultaneously having career-worst seasons.  Marlon Byrd, however, the 32-year-old outfielder who was supposed to regress following a breakout season in Texas, has actually gotten better...way better.  All that stands between him an his first All-Star appearance is the equally inexplicable Carlos Silva.

Rafael Furcal - SS - Los Angeles Dodgers

Furcal is very quietly having the season many expected him to have last year.  He has again missed some time, but in 167 at-bats is hiting .305 with a .354 OBP, 9 SB, and, of course, stellar defense.  He has been the Dodgers catalyst at the top of the lineup.  With Troy Tulowitzki and Jimmy Rollins lost to the NL with injuries, there's a good chance Furcal could get the nod as Han-Ram's back-up.

Chris Young - CF - Arizona Diamondbacks

Only eight major-leaguers have double-digit steals and double-digit homers at this juncture in the season.  The group includes superstars like Hanley Ramirez, Matt Kemp, Justin Upton, Ryan Braun, and  David Wright.  It also includes Chris Young, who after two horrible seasons of regression is finally fulfilling the promise of his rookie year.  He's currently on pace for 28 HR and 28 SB, so the 30/30 potential once heralded is still very much a possibility.  Crucially, Young has cut down on his strikeout rate and raised his average.  He's on base more often and is running far more frequently than he did in the past.  He's also been especially good in RBI situations (906 OPS with men in scoring position).

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Hippeaux's World Cup Primer

My baseball updates may be slightly less frequent in the coming month, in part because much of my attention will be turned to the World Cup.  I don't possess the same encyclopedic knowledge of soccer that I do of baseball, but during the long winter months, my sporting spectatorship is dominated by watching La Liga, the EPL, and Champions League.  So, based on what I do know, here are my power rankings and some general observations about this historic tournament.
  1. Spain: The Spanish squad, winners of the Euro Cup in 2008, looks a great deal like an All-Star team, almost entirely composed of starters from the top clubs in Europe.  In a tune-up with Poland recently, they showed that despite the fact that they haven't been playing together consistently for the past six months, these players are capable of incredibly creative and unselfish play.  There is no apparent weakness on the Spanish squad, as they feature incredibly tough, physical defenders (Puyol, Sergio Ramos); tireless, ball-controlling midfielders (Iniesta, Xavi, Cesc Fabregas); and two premiers strikers, Fernando Torres (18 goals for Liverpool in '09-'10) and David Villa (21 goals for Valencia).
  2. Brazil:  The fact that Brazil's manager, Dunga, left the legendary Ronaldinho off the 2010 roster, despite a solid campaign for AC Milan, give you a sense of the depth and quality of the Brazil side.  Similarly, there is a good chance that Barca defender, Dani Alves, considered by many to be one of the best defenders in the world, may be played out of position or used as a substitute, because Brazil is also home to Maicon, likewise considered.  Because of his controversial selections and lineups, and Brazil's uncharacteristically early exit in 2006, this tournament puts a great deal of pressure on Dunga.  Although they are natural favorites, Brazil's draw was not an easy one.  The "group of death" features Portugal and Ivory Coast.  
  3. Argentina:  They have many doubters, due mainly to the eccentricity of their manager, Diego Maradona, but they also have the world's best player, Lionel Messi, and the deepest selection of proven scorers of any team in the World Cup.  Messi (Barcelona), Carlos Tevez (Manchester City), Gonzalo Hiquain (Real Madrid), and Diego Milito (Inter Milan) combined for 143 goals during this past club season.  They will find the back of the net frequently.  Maradona will be challenged to get all of them into the lineup and will face continued questions about whether his team can control the ball enough after he made some very surprising selections in the midfield and defense.
  4. Germany:  They don't have as much star-caliber as some of the other contenders, but they have the pedigree and their conservative, physical style is well-suited to international competition.  The major question is where they will get their goals from.  Miroslav Klose is no longer the dominant force he was in '06, and Bastian Schweinsteiger, the hero of Euro 2008, had a disappointed club season.  Captain Michael Ballack was left off the final roster due to injuries.  The team's championship hopes rely heavily on the shoulders of talented, but inconsistent striker, Lukas Podolski.
  5. Netherlands:  The Dutch team is as exciting as any in the tournament, featuring a dynamic offensive system which helped them crush stiff competition like France and Italy in the early rounds of the Euro Cup in 2008.  Then they dominated the qualifying campaign and absolutely massacred the friendlies.  This is not a team to be taken lightly.
  6. England:  The British will have to overcome adversity, as an ugly story of jealousy and betrayal dominated the headlines for much of the lead-up to the tournament.  They've still got Wayne Rooney, arguably the second-best player in the tournament, and plenty of other talent, but they also have the weight of a curse.  They've made it past the quarterfinals only once since winning the World Cup in 1966.
  7. Italy:  The '06 champs have not really been the same since then, having perhaps aged themselves out of top tier of teams.  However, this ruthlessly and brutally competitive side, has a soft draw and something to prove, which could make them dangerous in the knockout round, not necessarily as somebody who could advance to the finals, but as somebody who could upset one of the favorites.
  8. Ivory Coast:  The most popular darkhorse through much of the build-up to the tournament was dealt a major blow when the face of African soccer, Didier Drogba, broke his arm in a friendly.  He is still participating, but we won't know until his first match how effective he can be.  If the EPL's leading scorer is up to the challenge, this is a very interesting squad, as they've got speed, athleticism, and several experienced top-flight players.
  9. Portugal:  They will play without Nani, the Manchester United winger who provided an experienced compliment to Cristiano Ronaldo, and Pepe's fitness, following a serious knee injury that cost him much of the club season, is still in doubt.  Portugal's misfortune also includes a seat in the "group of death," where they will have to pass either Ivorty Coast or Brazil to even play in the knockout stage.  However, they have one of the world's most talented strikers and a number of excellent defenders, so no single match is beyond their grasp.  That said, much like Italy, this is probably a potential dragon-slayer, but not a true contender.
  10. Nigeria: Sometimes success in this tournament is all about the draw.  Generally, squads from the host continent do well, and Nigeria is one of those with "home"-field advantage.  Also, possessing lots of quality players, but no true star, they haven't gotten the same attention as Cameroon, Ivory Coast, and Ghana, and thus perhaps have less pressure and more Cinderella charm.  Most importantly, however, they have a relatively soft draw.  If the tournament were to play out according to the Vegas chalk, Nigeria would finish second to Argentina in Group B and their path to the semi-finals would likely be through Serbia, Mexico, and the USA.  None of these teams are patsies, certainly, but none of them are powerhouses either.   
The draw is, in fact, one of the most interesting parts of World Cup prediction.  Let's imagine that the "group of death" turns out some interesting results.  Perhaps Brazil gets upset by either Ivory Coast or Portugal, or manages only to tie with both of them.  If that were to happen (well within the realm of possibility), they might finish second in the group, which would result (probably) in a second round match-up with co-favorite Spain.  

In fact, there is a fairly strong chance that all of the dominant European and South American teams could end up on one side of the bracket.  The only upsets necessary for this outcome are to Brazil and England.  Assuming those two teams finished second in their groups, one side of the bracket would feature Spain, Brazil, Argentina, Germany, Netherlands, England, Italy, and France (or, perhaps, Urugauy), while the other side would feature the likes of Ivory Coast, Nigeria, Cameroon, Mexico, Serbia, Chile, and USA, assuring that a darkhorse (quite possibly one from the host continent) would make it to the finals.  

From my perspective, this possibility makes the USA v. England game on Saturday all the more interesting.  Were the United States to win, it helps to set up this contingency.  

Sunday, June 06, 2010

Fantastic Thoughts: The Stream Team (Week Ten)

Just as I did for much of last season, each Sunday I will provide a look ahead at favorable pitching matchups for fantasy owners who utilize the "streaming" method (pulling mediocre starters off the waiver wire in an effort to win counting categories in H2H leagues).  If the preceding parenthetical makes no sense to you, you should probably move on to the next post.  I use the player pool from a 12-team 5X5 mixed league at ESPN.  Since all the owners in the league have previously won ESPN leagues (a qualification for entry), the competition is at least fairly stiff and the teams fairly active.  However, just because a player is available in that league, doesn't necessarily mean he'll be available in your league.  Remember, the idea of "streaming" is to win strikeouts and wins, while remaining as competitive as possible in ERA and WHIP.

Saturday, June 05, 2010

An Idealistic All-Star Ballot (NL)

Among the many things that bother me about the All-Star voting process is the fact that the ballot does not distinguish between left, center, and right field.  It's as though MLB is implying that defense makes no difference.  In a game that has World Series home-field advantage riding on it, the NL may end up starting Jayson Werth in center field.  Don't get me wrong, Werth is a very good outfielder, but there's a reason why the Phillies prefer him in right.  It could be even worse if Werth were to be overtaken in the voting by Jason Heyward or Matt Holliday (well within the realm of possibility, as the top six oufielders are only seperated by about 200,000 votes).  We could easily end up with Ryan Braun and his -7.2 UZR/150 patrolling center-field.  With the A.L. likely handing its spots to Ichiro, Carl Crawford, and Josh Hamilton (assuming Nelson Cruz is injured), all of whom are excellent fielders with experience playing center, the N.L. finds itself with at least one immediate disadvantage.

Here's a look at my endorsements for the senior circuit:

Friday, June 04, 2010

Super Two, Super For Who? (Part Deux)

This past Wednesday, I contributed a guest blog for Inside Pulse Sports, renewing my quasi-familiar rant against the "Super Two" rule in response to disingenuous public diatribes by Brian Sabean and Mike Rizzo in the week preceding their announcements of the promotions of Buster Posey and Stephen Strasburg.  Today I offer some additional notes regarding "Super Two."
  • As if on cue, the Pirates GM, Neal Huntington, responded to questions about Pedro Alvarez and Brad Lincoln on Tuesday by saying, "They're just not ready yet.  We're essentially through the arbitration window, so the reality is we're waiting for some finer finishing touches on all these guys.  We're still a ways away."  Alvarez had a 982 OPS in May.  He's third in the International League with 11 HR on the season.  Lincoln had a 2.38 ERA in May, with a ridiculous 31/4 K/BB rate.  When a GM describes player development using ambiguous terms like "finer finishing touches," it's usually because he's blowing smoke up your ass.  If the pattern holds, based on the similar masquerades by Rizzo and Sabean, we can expect Alvarez and Lincoln to both make their debuts before the end of June.
  • In the last two offseasons, the cut-off for "Super Two" status has been either 139 (Carlos Gomez, '09) or 140 (Taylor Buchholz, '08) days.  Based on that timeline, we could assume that the cut-off this season will be somewhere in the middle of May.  In order to get 140 days of service this season, a player would have to be promoted by May 17.  However, this is a little misleading.  When discussion the '09 and '10 arbitration classes, we are referring to players who (in most cases) made their major-league debuts in '05, '06, and '07.  Team have become much more cognizant of the "Super Two" designation in the intervening years and their reticence would suggest that the date will get progressively later (as fewer teams are willing to promote players in the opening months).  
  • In each of the last two offseasons, fifteen players qualified for "Super Two" status.  But, of course, it isn't as easy as counting the first fifteen promotions of 2010.  Many fans don't realize how often some players, especially young relievers and back-of-the-rotation starters, are shuffled back and forth to AAA.  Twins reliever Jeff Manship was recently promoted and demoted twice in less than three weeks.  Of the 146 rookies who appeared in a big-league games during the first two months of the season, 62 have already made at least one trip back to their minor-league affiliate, and many more will ride that bus before the end of June.  The roster math is made more complicated by the fact that some players who still have rookie status, have several weeks of service time accumulated from a previous season.
  • When the season began, their were 60 rookies on MLB rosters.  23 of them have already been returned to the minors, at least temporarily, meaning they won't get a full year of service time in 2010.  Of the remaining 47, less than 20 have played well enough in significant roles to make themselves safe bets to last on the MLB roster for the full season.
  • 86 rookies have been promoted since Opening Day.  39 of them have already suffered another demotion.  Of the remaining 47, at least 20 are filling expressly temporary roles (i.e. replacing injured regulars) and will almost certainly be returned to the minors for much of the remaining year.
  • So, in conclusion, I provide you with a list of the players with the best chances of securing "Super Two" status...

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

An Idealistic All-Star Ballot (AL)

It's that time of year, when one could responsibly consider being an informed participant in the All-Star Voting.  Last year, we fans elected Josh Hamilton to start.  At the time, he was hitting .226 with 6 HR and had spent much of the previous three months on the D.L.  This is merely the most recent of many ridiculous selections.  From the much-publicized perspective that the All-Star game now "counts," because it determines home-field advantage for the World Series, the fact the game is still treated as an exhibition in terms of voting seems counter-intuitive.  One could, I suppose, rationalize voting for the worst players on  the AL ballot, if you favored team is from the NL.

We'll set the incongruities of the process aside for now, as I offer what I deem the most deserving candidates at each position, starting in the American League: