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Papelbon Is Exactly What The Nationals Need

In a trade deadline flurry that was as consequential as any I can remember, the Washington Nationals’ acquisition of closer Jonathan Papelbon from the Phillies almost slid under the radar. But I think this has the potential to be one of the most significant by the time all is said and done.

It’s more about intangibles than tangibles. Papelbon doesn’t fill an obvious void on an otherwise outstanding team, the way Johnny Cueto did for the Royals or David Price does for the Blue Jays. The Nationals, after all, had an outstanding closer in Drew Storen, with 29 saves and a 1.64 ERA. They have pretty good bullpen depth.

In fact, if you look at the team overall, you would conclude that the bigger need was another bat to provide some support from Bryce Harper, the one-man wrecking crew who is the frontrunner for National League MVP, but needs help. Someone like Gerardo Parra from the Brewers, who could have stepped into left field, where Jayson Werth has been a disaster. Parra instead went to the other end of the Beltway, acquired by the Orioles.

So what’s the big deal about the Papelbon acquisition? Even allowing his 1.55 ERA, can’t you say that this is a case of quality being added to an area where its return is going to be weakest?

Yes, you can, if you were looking at this purely on paper. But if we were looking at this purely on paper, the Nationals would have won a postseason series, maybe even a World Series by now. Papelbon brings something else this team badly needs and it’s a big dose of postseason toughness.

Washington joins the Los Angeles Dodgers as really good regular season teams, akin to the Denver Broncos or what the Pittsburgh Penguins used to be. The Nationals and Dodgers both were ousted last October by teams with postseason toughness, the San Francisco Giants and St. Louis Cardinals. Papelbon doesn’t change that by himself, but he sure helps, and he does it at the game’s most critical part.

The Nationals have been an underachieving team so far in 2015. They opened as the betting favorite to win the World Series, but instead have the sixth-best record in the National League. Fortunately for them, they’re still two games ahead of the New York Mets in the NL East and we’ve seen over and over that October success is more about putting it together at the right time. There’s plenty of opportunity to turn that around.

Injuries have been a part of the problem and that’s starting to turn around. Anthony Rendon returned at second base, and joins Yunel Escobar and Harper as players who get on base consistently. Denard Span is expected to return in centerfield and he’ll provide further help. Stephen Strasburg is on a rehab assignment after an oblique injury that led him to struggle prior to going on the DL.

The offense ranks sixth in the National League in runs scored, which is enough to win. The starting pitching has to improve, at least by the standards of a World Series team. They also rank sixth in the league in ERA. Max Scherzer is having a great year with 11 wins a 2.22 ERA. Jordan Zimmerman’s 3.36 ERA is analogous to the team performance overall—it’s fine, but he’s capable of more. The same goes for Gio Gonzalez at 3.75, and Doug Fister has to pick it up.

October is often a time when players with a track record that have been modestly below expectations, find their natural level again. I would fully expect that this rotation, with a healthy Strasburg, is more than capable of giving the Nats the starting pitching they need to win the World Series.

Now we come to the bullpen. Storen has been at the heart of Washington’s recent postseason failures. He has an 8.44 ERA in the playoffs. Papelbon has a World Series ring with the Boston Red Sox from back in 2007 and I believe he should have been Series MVP that year (Mike Lowell won it instead). Papelbon pitched well in October again in 2008. That’s been a while, but Papelbon’s been away from the postseason stage for a while. I see no reason to think he’s lost it.

The estimation of the Nationals in Las Vegas has slipped modestly since the start of the year, and they now trail the Cardinals & Dodgers in the National League, and the Royals overall, in the esteem of the betting markets. But, priced at 9-1 to win it all, Vegas still has Washington as the fourth-best team in all of baseball. Papelbon’s playoff moxie is exactly what they need and gives them a chance to finally be more than a great team on paper and in the regular season.

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The NFL’s Indefensible Decision On Tom Brady

The NFL’s decision to uphold the four-game suspension of Tom Brady for his alleged role in deflating footballs at the AFC Championship Game last January simply can’t be defended by any reasonable person when you consider the context. And that context is this—every piece of available evidence says the league never considered this a serious infraction.

Let’s go back to last November 30. The Patriots were visiting the Green Bay Packers on a late Sunday afternoon, in what was the marquee game of the regular season. The issue of air in the footballs came up, but it wasn’t with regards to Brady.

CBS broadcasters Jim Nantz and Phil Simms recalled a pregame conversation with Aaron Rodgers, who prefers his footballs to be inflated on the high end. Here’s what they recall Rogers telling them

“I like to push the limits of how much air we can put in the football, even go over what they allow you to do (emphasis added).” So said the soon-to-be league MVP, who has a deserved Golden Boy image.

There was no media outcry. NFC rivals didn’t demand an investigation. Thus, making it all very clear that this is simply how business is done.

Furthermore, the NFL’s own rulebook provides concrete evidence as to how seriously they took this issue. The fine for playing with footballs outside the appropriate PSI range is $25,000.

Now there are loopholes, with words like “minimum fine”, essentially designed to say the commissioner can do whatever he wants. But the fact $25K is the recommended figure tells how serious the league considered this infraction—the equivalent of overstaying your time at a parking meter.

This is the context that Roger Goodell stepped into when he made his decision and it’s why the initial decision back in May to suspend Brady for four games was indefensible and why this past week’s decision to uphold that suspension is worse.

You will note that I have not gone into the issue of what Brady knows and what he doesn’t. That’s not because I think he’s guilty. It’s because I really don’t care. The evidence above is ironclad proof that the NFL and all of the players, fans and media—including Patriot-haters—didn’t care either.

If Brady fails to get an injunction in federal court and this suspension holds, the reality is now that the 2015 Super Bowl champion—presuming it’s not the Patriots—is going to deserve an asterisk. Even if New England still wins the AFC East or at least makes the playoffs—and I think they’ll do both—it’s hard to see their playoff positioning not being affected.

If that’s how this plays out, a reasonable observer has to conclude that Goodell and the Patriot-haters in ownership essentially rigged the game in ways far more dramatic than playing with a modestly deflated football, an offense that no one cared about.

It’s time for the Patriot-haters, who ignored the self-professed infractions by Rodgers and ignored what the NFL’s own rulebook said about this infraction to admit the obvious—that playing by the rules isn’t what they’re concerned about. Getting the Patriots is. Mission accomplished. And this season’s Vince Lombardi Trophy will be tarnished because of it.

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Royals Come Up Aces With Cueto

If there was a better fit for Johnny Cueto than the Kansas City Royals, I can’t imagine what it is. The Reds dealt their ace to Kansas City yesterday for two minor-league pitchers and talented young reliever Brandon Finnegan. The acquisition of Cueto makes the Royals the clear favorite to win the American League pennant, regardless of what other trades happen the next few days and their odds at winning the World Series went up markedly.

My statement that Cueto makes Kansas City the AL favorite may seem strange, given that according to Las Vegas they already were the favorite to get back to the World Series. They had, after all, won last year’s AL flag and had the league’s best record this season. What more did you need?

I needed to see a true ace at the top of the rotation, or at least a legitimate horse like they had last year with James Shields, since departed to San Diego. Someone you could rely on for seven innings or so every fifth day and could reasonably match up with the aces other teams have in the playoffs.

Depth wins in the regular season and Kansas City has a lot of that, especially in the bullpen. But it’s elite players that tend to carry teams in October, where the span of a short series gives them greater impact. And the Royals’ pitching staff was not suited to win in the postseason.

Kansas City’s pitching overall has been excellent this season, as evidenced by their best-in-the-AL team ERA. But if you look at starters’ ERA, they drop to 10th. If you look at innings logged by the starting rotation, it gets worse—no rotation in the league pitches fewer innings than KC’s.

Even with Cueto, the Royals are still going to rely on their bullpen, but you can’t tax them that much during the season and even in October, you need a handful of games where a starter can go deep. While the Royals’ starters were averaging only 5.5 innings per start, Cueto was averaging 6.9. Problem solved.

The acquisition makes Kansas City, already in command in the AL Central, now highly likely to maintain their healthy 7 ½ game over the Minnesota Twins, who have overachieved just to stay that close. That means the Royals will be able to line up their rotation as they want it for the playoffs and that means Cueto on the mound for Game 1 of the ALDS at home.

Johnny Cueto is the best pitcher in baseball. He’s spent his career in the very hitter-friendly confines of Great American Ballpark in Cincinnati and posted phenomenal numbers.

In 2012, he was 19-9 with a 2.78 ERA in 217 innings of work. He should have won the Cy Young Award if not for the media’s love of the great story of knuckleballer R.A. Dickey.

In 2014, Cueto was even better, 20-9 with a 2.25 ERA and 243 innings of work. He should have won the Cy Young Award if not for the media’s rush to exclude anyone not named Clayton Kershaw from the discussion.

Even Cueto’s recent “bad” year, the injury-plagued 2013, was pretty good when he was available. In eleven starts, his ERA was 2.82.

The team that came within a run of the World Series title a year ago has added the best arm in the game to their rotation. The best teams in baseball are still in the National League—the Cardinals, Dodgers and possibly the Nationals if they can kick it into gear. But the acquisition of Cueto has quickly vaulted Kansas City to the status of betting favorite to not just win the pennant, but to win the whole thing. The Royals shoved their chips onto the table and bet big. And they came up aces in this deal.

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The Premature Burial Of Peyton Manning

When ESPN’s Mike Sando released his quarterback ratings this past week it created the usual buzz that comes with these silly overblown rankings. Is RG3 done? Is Andrew Luck now elite? Those were the questions buzzing around the media. What I found most interesting was the seemingly universal consensus that Peyton Manning is no longer an elite quarterback.

In the aftermath of the rankings I watched ESPN talk shows from Pardon The Interruption to First Take. A common theme was that there are two quarterbacks head and shoulders above the rest, and that’s Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady. After that there’s everyone else. Clearly, Rodgers and Brady are in that elite group. But why is Peyton suddenly left behind?

Of course I know. He finished last season on a down note. The NFL media, and for that matter, its personnel infrastructure, who was surveyed by Sando in his ratings compilation, is notoriously short-sighted. In a league where job security is non-existent, it’s all about what have you done for me lately. And when we last saw Peyton Manning, he was clearly not himself in struggling through a home playoff loss to Luck and the Indianapolis Colts.

The problem with writing off Peyton based on this is that we all know he was hurt. He was playing with a torn quad. It obviously impacted his play. He’ll be healthy for the start of the season—it’s a torn quad, not a broken neck. Although we know from past experience that he’s recovered from the latter too.

People have short memories. After three weeks of last season, Rodgers had to tell everyone to R-E-L-A-X, because the Packers were 1-2 and the offense had been inept in two road losses. All he did was win the MVP award. After four weeks of last season, everyone screamed that Brady was done, following a disastrous Monday Night game in Kansas City. All he did was author a fourth-quarter Super Bowl comeback against the best defense of the last decade and win game MVP honors.

Peyton had the misfortune to get hurt at the end of the year rather than the beginning, so everyone’s had several months to stew on that game and overreact to it.

The overreaction is reflected in the betting odds. Denver is 13-1 to win the Super Bowl. That’s not bad, but the favorites, Green Bay and Seattle are up around 6-1, a spot the Broncos have occupied the past couple years. Indianapolis is 8-1 and New England, even with no one knowing when Brady will be available, is 9-1.

There are going to be challenges ahead for Peyton. The Bronco offensive line is being re-tooled, with Ryan Clady out for the year and Orlando Franklin departed for San Diego. But offensive lines in today’s NFL are often in flux year-to-year. Peyton knows how to get rid of the football quickly and that will ease the transition.

In the meantime, C.J. Anderson represents the best running threat Denver has had in the Manning era. Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders are an excellent receiving tandem, and the raw talent in defense is capable than more than their #16 ranking in points allowed last year shows.  The addition of first-round draft choice Shane Ray, a solid edge rusher, is going to give the Broncos one of the best pass rushes in football, going along with Malik Jackson and Von Miller.

Denver has gone 38-10 in the three regular seasons since Manning arrived and they’ve reached a Super Bowl. The fact he tore a quad at the wrong time last year does not invalidate that. Enough with the overreaction. I don’t know if I’ll pick the Broncos to reach the Super Bowl. I do know that at a value of 13-1, they’re a good bet. Because after their great quarterback demonstrates how prematurely he was buried, those odds are going to tank back down in a hurry.

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Arkansas Is Coming In The SEC West

The Arkansas Razorbacks closed last college football season as the team on the rise in the SEC West. After going through a miserable 2012 season under John L. Smith, followed by twelve straight conference losses to begin Bret Bielama’s tenure, the Hogs got rolling down the stretch.

They shut out LSU & Ole Miss, got bowl-eligible and then hammered Texas, one of the few bright spots in a bowl season where the SEC West generally imploded. Now it’s time to ask if the Razorbacks are ready to move past simple bowl eligibility and into real contention in the SEC West.

I say yes. Bielama’s imprint on this program clearly showed at the end of last season. I’m a Wisconsin fan and was well-acquainted with the head coach’s ability to implement a physical attack and in a college football culture dominated the spread, the air-raid and any other number of fast-break strategies, the Hogs were a welcome throwback to authentic football.

They produced two 1,000-yard rushers in Jonathan Williams and Alex Collins. Both are back this season, as are three starters on the offensive line, including projected All-SEC guard Sebastian Tretola. They have a quarterback who knows his role and takes care of the football. Brandon Allen threw just five interceptions last year. Forcing tempo against the Hogs is just not that easy.

Arkansas’ defense made big strides at the end of last season and its ability to continue that improvement is where the ultimate success of 2015 will really be decided. They return six starters, which is the positive. The negative is that two of those that were lost, defensive end Trey Flowers and defensive tackle Darius Philon, were playmakers up front. The Razorbacks need someone to establish they can disrupt blocking schemes at the line of scrimmage.

All of the above is the reason I expect Arkansas to not only improve on its 6-6 regular season record from last year, but to take a substantial step forward. Las Vegas shares my sentiments and has set the Over/Under for the Hogs at 8. I’m taking the over and saying they will go 9-3.

Arkansas plays the usual SEC non-conference fare, which is to say it’s an automatic three wins and one game (Texas Tech) that’s marginal. The Hogs should sweep these four, then go 5-3 in conference play.

If you think that’s too bullish, keep in mind that Mississippi State is likely to take a step back. Is it asking a lot to suggest that Arkansas is now better than Ole Miss or Texas A&M? Or that the Hogs could win a home game with Missouri—whom they nearly beat on the road last year when the Tigers were playing for an SEC East title. That leaves just one more win to get, among the Alabama-Auburn-LSU power trio in this division, along with a road date at Tennessee.

In reality, Arkansas’ results probably won’t break down this neatly. The good news is that Alabama-Auburn-LSU all have question marks, the Hogs have demonstrated an ability to compete with them and can definitely win a head-to-head battle. The bad news is that football is a game of attrition and I think Bielama may need to pile on more recruiting classes to get the depth necessary to avoid an upset.

But somehow, some way, I think this balances out to a 5-3 conference finish, putting Arkansas in probably the Capital One Bowl at worst, and maybe even sneaking into the New Year’s Six.

The Hogs haven’t played in a major bowl game since 2010, when they went to the Sugar with Ryan Mallet at quarterback. That was the only big-time bowl they’ve reached since joining the SEC in 1992. But their time is coming.

 

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