Monday, July 21, 2014

Cleanthony Early Is A NBA Starter Right Now

July 21, 2014
By Anthony Tripicchio

Move over, Carmelo. The Knicks have a new starting small forward.

Cleanthony Early is not your ordinary second round pick. In fact, he is so polished that he should start at small forward as a rookie for the New York Knicks.

After posterizing rookie P.J. Hairston with an emphatic jam in Saturday’s Vegas Summer League quarterfinal, Early was showered with accolades by MSG’s color commentator Walt “Clyde” Frazier.

“I told [MSG’s play-by-play man Mike Crispino] he reminds me of Bernard King a little bit, man. He’s got that quick step,” said Frazier.


Frazier, who is one of the greatest Knicks in franchise history and second on the team’s career scoring list, was an instrumental piece to the Knicks’ championships in 1970 and 1973.

When one of the NBA’s 50 Greatest Players of all-time makes a statement like that, you listen.

Crispino added kudos for Early.

“He seems to me to be an instinctive player. He does what is necessary in a given moment in a game whether it’s offense or defense,” said Crispino.

Early, the Knicks 34th overall pick in the 2014 NBA Draft, went to Wichita State and impressed many this past year throughout the regular season and the NCAA Tournament. As a native New Yorker, he is thrilled to be in his home state to begin his NBA career.

Imagine his exuberance if he is announced by Madison Square Garden P.A. announcer Mike Walczewski on opening night as part of the starting lineup.

Obviously, small forward is Carmelo Anthony’s natural position. However, he has thrived in the last two years as a power forward. Therefore, sliding the 6-foot-7 inch Early into a spot he’s accustomed to aids the overall lineup and bench.

Early has a very similar offensive game to Anthony. Granted, no one is expecting him to win scoring titles as Anthony has. Still, Early can score in a myriad of ways, is athletic and can give the Knicks a secondary offensive punch that they have been searching for since Anthony arrived in New York.

Mid-range shooting, scoring from the post and finishing are all great strengths of Early, similar to Anthony. His handle needs work, but it won’t stop him from being productive immediately at the NBA level. His body has also been criticized as he may not have the strength to post power forwards.

However, if he’s used appropriately, that won’t be a problem. Anthony has the bulk Early lacks to bang with the big boys alongside him.

One observation you could glean from watching Early in the Vegas Summer League is that he is the epitome of a two-way player; he plays exceedingly hard on both offense and defense. The well-rounded attributes of Early will serve the Knicks as they attempt to rebuild their nucleus.

Early is a very intense perimeter defender and highly aware of his surroundings, which is a quality that Phil Jackson and Derek Fisher would love to see Amar'e Stoudemire and Andrea Bargnani learn through osmosis.

Help defense might not be their forte, but Early knows where people are supposed to be positioned. It was evident during a Summer League play in which Early was beat on the perimeter and a big should have been helping out, but was not. Early, showing remarkable confidence and leadership for a rookie, called the center out after the play questioning him for his poor awareness.

He will be an incredible asset for Fisher in shell drill throughout training camp and practices (shell drill is a defensive positioning drill that stresses the importance of help defense and teaches players habits and rotations that they must learn for game situations).

Beginning his collegiate career at Sullivan Community College, Early won Division III NJCAA Player of the Year both years he was there. Wichita State, after head coach Gregg Marshall recruited him, learned quickly that Early was to be an integral part of their program.

After a quality junior year, Early made a leap in his final college season. Early’s shooting percentage improved across the board. His 3-point percentage, particularly, showed significant improvement from the prior year, rising from 32 percent to 37 percent.

Early averaged 11.5 points and 4.8 rebounds on 46 percent shooting from the field and 50 percent from 3-point territory in four NBA Summer League contests.


***
 

The Knicks starting five in this configuration would be Jose Calderon, J.R. Smith, Early, Anthony and Samuel Dalembert. All of these pieces fit together extraordinarily well.

Furthermore, the Wall Street Journal recently noted that the Knicks edged opponents by 7.8 points per 100 plays over the last two years with Anthony at power forward and Tyson Chandler at center. The reigning NBA champion San Antonio Spurs had a 8.1 points differential  per 100 plays last year.

Contrarily, the Knicks only outscored the opposition by 1.2 points per 100 plays when Anthony played small forward next to either Stoudemire or Bargnani at power forward, per the Wall Street Journal.

Although Chandler was traded to Dallas by Knicks’ president Phil Jackson, the aforementioned stat demonstrates that the Knicks are at their best with Anthony at power forward. Early’s emergence allows him to play there.

Dalembert has made a living on rebounding and being a defensive anchor. Obviously, however, he’s not the same caliber of player that Chandler is.

Even so, it is the second unit that makes this a no-brainer.

Shane Larkin, Tim Hardaway, Iman Shumpert, Stoudemire and Jason Smith is a lineup filled with speed and athleticism. Veteran Pablo Prigioni can add invaluable intangibles without being taxed by heavy minutes as he has been forced to play in recent years.

Those who watched the Knicks closely last year realize that Shumpert and Hardaway played their best when they were on the floor together. Both are young, athletic and high energy players that excel in transition.

Though Shumpert struggled to finish at the rim last year, some of that could be attributable to his knee problems. One more season removed from his catastrophic ACL and MCL tear in the playoffs against Miami should help him gain more of that bounce back that he had when he first entered the league. He remains the Knicks’ premiere perimeter defender.

Hardaway was eye-opening in his introduction to New York and should only ameliorate his game with time. He is a pure shooter, runs the floor with anyone and can finish. Defensively, he was a nightmare and desperately needs to improve. He could also use more prudence in his shot selection.
 
 

Noticeably bigger during his stint in this year’s Summer League, Hardaway hit the weight room in the offseason and should be able to make progress on the defensive end.

Shane Larkin, MLB Hall-of-Fame shortstop Barry Larkin’s son, was a much ballyhooed prospect in the 2013 Draft from Miami. Although he broke his ankle and didn’t make an impact in 2013-14, he still has promise as a speedy point guard in the league.

Recently signed big man Jason Smith can potentially enter a timeshare at center with Dalembert and vie for crunch time minutes. On a one-year contract, Smith will look to prove he has recovered from his own knee injury that truncated his 2013-14 season.

Brother of “The Greek Freak,” Thanasis Antetokounmpo was born to play with this bench. He is a clone of Giannis with his body type and attributes. While, Thannasis may not possess the offensive upside of his older brother, he is a dynamo in the open floor and could catch plenty of lobs from the likes of Larkin, Hardaway and Shumpert. He also has the potential to be a lockdown defender, which are in short supply.

According to a New York Post report, the Knicks intend to stash Antetokounmpo in Europe for a year. Antetokounmpo’s raw Summer League showing (he averaged 3 points per game and 4.8 fouls) probably didn’t do much to alter those plans.

Amar’e Stoudemire has many critics. Yes, we know he’s making a fortune. When you look at him on the court though, he can still contribute. While it may not be an All-NBA team contribution, Stoudemire can still score and can help if his minutes are closely monitored. That will be new head coach Derek Fisher’s responsibility.

Despite all logic and statistical evidence, the Knicks' preference will likely be to showcase Bargnani and his expiring contract. As a result, he will probably start at power forward with Anthony at the "3".

Phil Jackson may want to deal Bargnani out of town now, but it will cost him a prized young asset to do so. Since Bargnani's contract only has a year left, stunting Early's growth for a failed acquisition is irresponsible.
 
As you can see, starting Early at small forward could be the key to a captivating 2014-15 season for the Knicks.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

2014 MLB Predictions

April 1, 2014
By Anthony Tripicchio

Division Winners

American League

East: Tampa Bay

Tampa Bay has become a model organization. Imagine if it actually had fan support and a reasonably modern ballpark. Tropicana Field, despite renovations completed for this season, remains among the worst eyesores in the league.

With David Price returning despite his inevitable defection due to the limited finances of the revenue-challenged Rays, Tampa Bay has an ace to anchor its plethora of pitching.

Top to bottom, only Detroit, St. Louis and the L.A. Dodgers rival the Rays’ pitching depth. This is still the case even with Jeremy Hellickson on the shelf until late May. According to the Tampa Bay Times, the Rays have allowed 3,911 runs in the last six seasons, the fewest by an American League team over such a span since 1975-1980 when Baltimore and New York allowed less.

While Price is a goner prior to 2016, Alex Cobb, Matt Moore, Chris Archer, and Jake Odorizzi are under team control for the foreseeable future.

The lineup isn’t a juggernaut, though stalwart Evan Longoria and neophyte outfielder Wil Myers lay a solid foundation. Switch-hitting Ben Zobrist is valuable because of his versatility and dependability (he’s played 150 games in five straight years). Desmond Jennings and Matt Joyce are entering their primes and have room for growth. James Loney and Yunel Escobar are capable of duplicating their steady 2013 numbers.

Though the Rays reside in the ruthless AL East, they are the class of the division.

David Price is an integral piece to the Rays' puzzle.
 

 
Central: Detroit

Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer and Anibal Sanchez are a formidable trio. Mix in Miguel Cabrera, the world’s best hitter, and the Tigers are here to stay. They may rename the Motor City for Cabrera, in fact, after the slugger just signed a massive eight-year extension for $248 million that runs through 2023.

The blockbuster offseason trade of Prince Fielder for Ian Kinsler raised eyebrows, but it did create an opening for Cabrera to slide across the diamond to a less demanding first base and cleared future salary to enable extension talks with both Cabrera and Scherzer.

General manager Dave Dombrowski also ameliorated his bullpen over the winter with the acquisition of veteran closer Joe Nathan. Former Yankee Joba Chamberlain will setup.

The Tigers are not devoid of holes, most notably at shortstop. Jose Iglesias may miss the season entirely, which has sparked rumors of free agent Stephen Drew donning the “Olde English D” in short order. In the meantime, the ancient Alex Gonzalez is manning the position. Highly-regarded prospect Nick Castellanos takes over for Cabrera at third and is unproven. Torii Hunter and Victor Martinez aren’t getting any younger.

Division foes Cleveland and Kansas City are getting better. Still, Detroit is the leader here.

 
West: Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim

2013 was a season of despair for the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. Maybe it was reparation for the pretentious name of the team.

Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton were exorbitantly priced offseason prizes for the Angels a year ago, now they look like albatrosses to many. Pujols was especially disappointing last year in his truncated, injury-plagued season. Looking to rebound, Pujols lost seven pounds and insists he’s destined to have a comeback year.

I’m banking on it. Pujols won’t quite recapture his past dominance, but he will play a lot more than 99 games as he has in 12 of 13 seasons.

Hamilton is much better than the career-worst .306 OBP he posted in 2013. After Texas went to such great lengths to shelter the troubled star during his tenure there, Hamilton might have experienced some culture shock in the bright lights of his new locale. Coupled with the assimilation issue, Hamilton also dropped 20 pounds last year and possibly some power as well. Now that he’s gained the weight back and is more comfortable in his surroundings, he should acclimate.

Mike Trout is the preeminent all-around player in baseball and, at 22, it’s frightening to ponder the heights of his ceiling. If Pujols and Hamilton recover to perform more in line with their career averages, you won’t find many weaknesses in the Angels’ attack.

Howie Kendrick and David Freese are consistent. Kole Calhoun, an unheralded rookie outfielder who was a plus after his promotion from Triple-A in 2013, will have the privilege of leading off in a potentially explosive lineup. The ageless one, Raul Ibanez, is the primary designated hitter and still has pop.

The rotation of Jered Weaver, C.J. Wilson, Garrett Richards, Hector Santiago and Tyler Skaggs should keep them in games if the offense hits as expected. In the bullpen, Ernesto Frieri is a prototypical closer with overpowering stuff.

After a rough start to his Angels' career, Josh Hamilton will rebound.
 
 

Wild Cards: 1. Texas

Injuries have ravaged Texas early. Ian Kinsler’s replacement, a ballyhooed 21-year-old switch-hitting middle infielder named Jurickson Profar, is sidelined for months with a muscle tear in his shoulder. Pitching is far from immune as Yu Darvish, Derek Holland and Matt Harrison, Texas’ top three starters, are all currently on the DL. Granted, Darvish should be back shortly.

As long as manager Ron Washington can keep his team afloat until reinforcements rescue the rotation, this is a playoff caliber squad. The lineup can be thunderous with Shin-Soo Choo, an on-base machine, setting the table for the meat of the order in Adrian Beltre, Prince Fielder and Alex Rios. Leonys Martin and Michael Choice, given the opportunity, are breakout candidates.

Joakim Soria has wrestled the closing duties from Neftali Feliz, who experienced diminished velocity in spring training and has been relegated to the minors until it is rediscovered. Soria, while a serviceable closer in the past, hasn’t been in the role in three years.

Obstacles exist for the Rangers. On dark days, just remember, they play Houston 19 times this year.

 
2. New York Yankees

Hal Steinbrenner restocked the Yankees’ vault with some shimmering jewels for Derek Jeter’s swan song. Brian McCann, Jacoby Ellsbury and Carlos Beltran replenish a lineup that lost Robinson Cano to the Emerald City.

In the wake of the spending spree, there are still an abundance of question marks. The entire infield is shaky, the rotation leaves much to be desired and the bullpen is minus Mr. Sandman.

Let’s start at first base and go around the horn.

Mark Teixeira was on a precipitous decline even before he suffered a wrist injury in the World Baseball Classic and eventually underwent season-ending surgery to repair it.

Now, Teixeira says he’s been unconsciously restricting himself from letting it fly on his swing because he doesn’t trust that his wrist has healed. If Teixeira can amass Justin Smoak type numbers (in the neighborhood of .240, 25 HRs, 85 RBI), the Yankees should consider it a victory. Of course, that’s not what the Yankees are paying for with three years, $67.5 million remaining on the eight-year contract he signed prior to the 2009 season. Somehow, I don’t see anyone taking up a collection for the Bombers anytime soon.

The middle infield duo of Derek Jeter and Brian Roberts is decrepit by positional standards. Roberts hasn’t been a reliable regular since 2009 and is a long-shot to finish the season as the second baseman. Don’t be surprised if the opening day third baseman, Kelly Johnson, is moved there permanently by September.

Johnson, himself, is inexperienced at third. While the Yankee Stadium short porch in right field will be inviting for the lefty-hitting Johnson, he may be a defensive liability at the hot corner.

The Capitan won’t be vintage Jeter and Yankee fans will have to accept that. The devastating ankle injury, along with Father Time, sapped Jeter of his speed. His range, defensively, has also been compromised (many contend it was never expansive to begin with). As great a baserunner as Jeter was, possessing unmatched instincts, he won’t glide around the bases anymore. His head will tell him to do what his body can’t.

At the plate, Jeter rarely lifts the ball these days. If he escapes this season healthy and Joe Girardi isn’t tempted to remove him from the second spot in the order, his Hall-of-Fame career ends with dignity.

Andy Pettitte and Mariano Rivera are history and, unless the Yankees get adequate production from their replacements, New York won’t make more of it in 2014.

The big ticket item, Masahiro Tanaka, must be an immediate impact arm despite general manager Brian Cashman attempting to temper expectations. Former ace CC Sabathia had a dreadful 2013 and can no longer overwhelm hitters with hard stuff. For him to be successful, he’ll need to figure out how to be effective without all the familiar tools he’s applied throughout his career a la Mike Mussina circa 2008.

The unenviable task of following Rivera goes to David Robertson. Although Robertson has excelled in the setup role, his makeup to be a closer is in dispute. Shawn Kelley will work the eighth inning, Matt Thornton is the lefty specialist and David Phelps, Adam Warren and Vidal Nuno will vie for the middle innings and long relief roles. Failed starter Dellin Betances will be a factor and may usurp the setup role from Kelley before year’s end.

With the infusion of new blood, the Yankees should score enough to overcome their shortcomings. There is, however, a chance of a pitching implosion, which is ominous.




CC Sabathia must reinvent himself to be effective.


National League

East: Washington

Washington was a popular pick for prognosticators in 2013 and there’s no reason for that to change. The easiest justification for that is its superb rotation.

Led by Stephen Strasburg, Washington trots out a staff that includes Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmermann, Doug Fister (when healthy, that is. Incidently, the Tigers received a curiously miniscule return for Fister and his presence on the DL already is reason for trepidation) and Taylor Jordan.

Bryce Harper, Ryan Zimmerman, Jayson Werth and Ian Desmond supply plenty of firepower to a gifted lineup. You wish Harper wouldn’t be so unbridled in his approach to the game because he’s a constant injury concern as it is. The 21-year-old prodigy won’t realize his full capabilities until he’s able to play more under control.

At second base, Anthony Rendon garners his first opportunity to start the year as an everyday major-leaguer. Transitioning from his natural third base spot to accommodate Zimmerman, Rendon rose through the minor league ranks quickly and could elevate himself into Washington’s nucleus.

Though hampered by nagging injuries throughout his career, Wilson Ramos is a unique power source when active. Yesterday was not a good beginning for Ramos in that regard. The Washington Post reports that he needs surgery on his left hand and will miss four to eight weeks.

The bullpen looks strong again, highlighted by closer Rafael Soriano and the established Tyler Clippard.

Only long-term injuries to Harper and Strasburg can befell the Nationals. Given their histories, at least one of them is a good bet to go down.


Central: St. Louis

Like Tampa Bay, the Cardinals’ farm system develops a wealth of talent that constantly keeps the organization above the curve. The entire Cardinal rotation is homegrown (the only one of its kind, albeit the Reds will join them once Mat Latos returns) as is the core of the team, with the notable exceptions of Matt Holliday and Jhonny Peralta.

The main difference between St. Louis and Tampa Bay is payroll. St. Louis’ 2014 payroll is $34 million more than that of Tampa Bay’s, which shows you the advantages of a devoted fanbase and a new ballpark even when you’re outside of a major market.

When the Cardinals want to keep a player, they normally have the resources to do it if it’s within reason as they proved with Holliday. Albert Pujols and his astronomical Angels’ contract clearly don’t meet that criterion.

St. Louis reached into its coffers to ink Peralta, an offensive shortstop, to a four-year, $53 million contract. The Cardinals were not deterred by Peralta’s 50-game suspension for PED use in 2013 and it’s hard to quibble with them based on the culture they’ve fostered in their clubhouse. Mike Matheny seamlessly took the reins from the legendary Tony La Russa and he knows how to manage their embarrassment of riches.

The lineup figures to be plentiful with Holliday, Peralta, Yadier Molina, Allen Craig, and Matt Carpenter in tow. Two more farm products, Matt Adams and Kolten Wong, are projected to add significant punch to the equation. A blue-chip outfielder, Oscar Taveras, awaits the call in Triple-A.

All of Major League Baseball envies the Cards’ pitching staff, both in the starting rotation and bullpen. Superstar Adam Wainwright is the elder statesman and spearheads the group with Michael Wacha, Shelby Miller, Lance Lynn and Joe Kelly rounding out the five. Wacha and Miller, particularly, are expected to be frontline starters and if that holds true, St. Louis will be hosting more World Series games in the near future.

Flamethrower Trevor Rosenthal climbed the minor-league ladder as a starter, but finds himself finishing games for the Cardinals based on their specific needs. Ditto for Carlos Martinez in middle relief.

As deep as the organization is, the Cardinals are impervious to most injuries. Only Wainwright and Molina are indispensable.





Yadier Molina is an invaluable battery mate for Cardinals' pitchers.



West: Los Angeles Dodgers

The Dodgers, not shy about flexing their financial might, feel like the Yankees of George Steinbrenner’s heyday. With Don Mattingly at the helm, the comparison is more apropos.

Sporting a loaded roster, one concern for Los Angeles is Matt Kemp. In limited duty last year, Kemp wasn’t the force the Dodgers have grown accustomed to. Actually, the last two years have been riddled with shoulder, hamstring and ankle ailments for the center fielder. With six years and $128 million still owed to Kemp, the Dodgers are heavily invested.

Kemp’s issues with staying on the field have been a foreign concept to Clayton Kershaw…up until now. The top pitcher in the big leagues, Kershaw has been a horse in logging 200 innings in four straight seasons. Today, Kershaw finds himself in the unfamiliar territory of the trainer’s room. The Dodgers will take every precaution necessary to ensure the southpaw doesn’t reaggravate his “upper-back inflammation” (it sounds like semantics from the Dodgers as this is really related to Kershaw’s left shoulder) by returning too soon.

The Dodger stars hardly stop there.

Yasiel Puig is not boring. The imported Cuban outfielder is as reckless on the field as he is off of it. Playing with that type of abandon is certain to take a toll on his body as Bryce Harper is all too aware. It's stands to reason that Harper recently called Puig his favorite player to watch in the league. He resembles an NFL linebacker at times in right field at Chavez Ravine. Regardless, he’s a supreme talent.

That shortstop, Hanley Ramirez, isn’t bad either. A myriad of issues prevented Ramirez from completing his MVP pace throughout a full season. When he was in the lineup, however, he was lethal. While Adrian Gonzalez might not be the monster he used to be, the first baseman is a threat that opposing pitchers can’t ignore.

Los Angeles has the pitching to match its decorated position players. The aforementioned Kershaw, Zack Grienke, Hyun-Jin Ryu, Dan Haren and Josh Beckett constitute a rotation that costs just over $76 million this season alone. That’s more than Miami and Houston’s entire payrolls and is barely shy of eclipsing Pittsburgh ($78,111,667) and Tampa Bay ($77,062,891) also.

Good luck mounting rallies in the ninth inning against Kenley Jansen, the man closest to emulating Mariano Rivera’s trademark cutter. The vulnerability in the Dodgers’ bullpen lies in former closers Brian Wilson and Chris Perez, now tasked with middle relief, who aim to resurrect their careers. Brandon League has been a colossal disappointment and was a misguided signing from the beginning.



Hanley Ramirez can win the NL MVP...if he stays healthy.
 
 

Wild Cards: 1. San Francisco

The bottom line with San Francisco is it retains the frontline pitching you look for in contenders.

Madison Bumgarner, a 24-year-old lefty, is a rare find. He earns more national recognition with each passing day and it’s well deserved. Three straight years he’s surpassed the 200 inning plateau and 2013 was a career-year (13-9, 2.78 ERA, 1.03 WHIP). His ERA may creep above 3.00 and the WHIP could see a modest uptick, but he’s a gem.

Matt Cain stumbled last year and some point to the abundance of innings he’s accumulated. It was the first time in six years he slipped under 200 innings and his ERA soared beyond 4.00.

When you examine his numbers under the microscope, Cain’s peripherals were rather normal for him. His walks weren’t exceedingly high and he wasn’t victimized by an outrageous amount of homeruns even though the rate did see a bump. More perplexing, his BABIP was right around his career average. Cain’s velocity did not dip.

His lackluster spring training will feed the skepticism. I, for one, expect the 29-year-old Cain to comeback as the one of old.

Tim Hudson had a gruesome ankle injury last year that prematurely terminated his season for Atlanta. Despite his advanced age, 38, Hudson’s competitiveness alone will benefit San Francisco where the ballpark should treat him well.

Although Buster Posey wasn’t quite as outstanding as his MVP season, he’s perennially among the best catchers in the league. Hunter Pence and Pablo Sandoval are known quantities and Brandon Belt is progressing nicely.  


2. Milwaukee

This pick may surprise you. The reality is there’s a lot more in Milwaukee than breweries and Summerfest (if you've never been, do yourself a favor and get out to see the biggest music festival in the world).

First of all, Ryan Braun returns from his infamous PED suspension. Braun, a polarizing figure, will hit like he always has and he’ll have help. No, that help won’t come in the way of juice.

Instead, it’s Carlos Gomez, Aramis Ramirez, Jean Segura and Jonathan Lucroy.

Gomez finally put it all together. An enticing combination of power and speed, Gomez had 24 homers and 40 stolen bases in 2013. Sure, he needs to cut down on those 146 strikeouts so he can utilize his legs even more, but at 28 there’s reason to believe he’s still improving as he enters his prime. The whiffs were actually a mild surprise because he’s never struck out at that rapid rate before: 120 is a more satisfactory expectation.

A similar breakthrough occurred with the shortstop, Segura (.294, 12 HRs, 49 RBI, 44 SBs). 24-year-old middle infielders with those credentials are in short supply. His lack of selectivity at the plate is the main deficiency in his approach.

One of the more underappreciated players of his generation, Ramirez is a rock at third base. Khris Davis turned heads in Braun’s absence and now assumes left field with Braun shifting to right. Throw in a serviceable catcher in Lucroy and the ingredients of a worthwhile platoon at first base (Lyle Overbay and Mark Reynolds), and your offense can get the job done.

On the mound, Yovani Gallardo, Matt Garza and Kyle Loshe represent a respectable front three. Marco Estrada is a sleeper to hold his own with that club. As he’s proven in sporadic opportunities in recent years, Francisco Rodriguez can still close games.



Ryan Braun can let his bat do the talking this year and put the PED controversy to rest.
 

World Series: Tampa Bay over St. Louis in 6

Joe Maddon presses all the right buttons in David Price’s last year as a Ray. Tampa Bay’s window for a championship hinges on Price and the team knows it. St. Louis will be back.
 
 
Over/Under Regular Season Wins
 
Boston Under 87.5: Consider me a skeptic. Grady Sizemore is a great story, but are we really to believe he’s going to play 130 games this year and be remotely close to the player he once was? Falling short of 100 games in each of the last four years, Sizemore hasn’t played in the big leagues at all in the last two.
 
 
The left side of the infield is also a question mark. Although Xander Bogaerts is an exciting prospect, he is only 21. It’s not automatic that his skill set will immediately yield production. Will Middlebrooks and his poor plate discipline don’t engender confidence at third base.
 
 
The rotation contains spots of predictable regression. Expecting John Lackey to repeat his 2013 ERA and WHIP (3.52 and 1.16, respectively) would be foolish after his first three seasons in Boston were nowhere near that level. Jake Peavy’s American League resume is less than stellar and he’s only thrown 175 innings once in the last six years. Clay Buchholz isn’t the picture of durability, himself, as he’s exceeded the 175 inning threshold just once, while never reaching 200.

 
Cleveland Over 80.5: This number felt low based on the Indians’ success last year. Justin Masterson, Corey Kluber and Danny Salazar at the top of the rotation will battle. An improved bullpen features John Axford closing behind the heir apparent Cody Allen, Vinnie Pestano and lefty Mark Rzepczynski. Axford was tipping his pitches last year. That’s been rectified and with his stuff as strong as ever, he’ll be better than Chris Perez ever was.

 
Oakland Under 87.5: “I’m not seeing it here, Lloyd.”
Oakland’s accomplishments last year are truly impressive. Forgive me as I pass on the encore. There isn’t much upper-eschelon talent on this roster and save for trading Seth Smith for Luke Gregerson and replacing Bartolo Colon (who was incredible last season) with Scott Kazmir in what equates to a lateral move, there wasn’t a multitude of offseason activity for general manager Billy Beane.
 
Washington Over 90: Being a resident of the NL East is advantageous. The Mets, Phillies, Marlins are bad and I see the Braves taking a step back this year. This is the worst division in baseball.

 
Atlanta Under 87.5: Mainly, this pick is due to the horror show that was the Braves’ spring. Projected opening day starter Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy both needed Tommy John surgery for a second time. Mike Minor joined them on the DL to start the year and the Braves can ill-afford to lose him for any length of time. I applaud Atlanta for acting quickly to plug in Ervin Santana, but it’s not enough to hit 88 wins.
 
 
Milwaukee Over 79.5: Since you’ve seen I have the Brewers in the playoffs, this is a layup.