Saturday, February 20, 2010

Almost Close to Being Halfway There

Hi there. Been awhile. And it'll be a little longer before anything new appears on this blog.

But in the near future I intend to revive Distressed Reporter, albeit in a different form. More details as they develop.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Don't Ask, DOMA Tell

I intended to start this post by saying that the Obama administration's approach to gay rights was "rather pathetic." Maybe "pretty pathetic." After careful consideration, I realized neither was correct. There's no need for the modifier.

It was bad enough when apathy was the order of the day of the White House. After promising to repeal the odious Defense of Marriage Act and Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy, Obama took no steps toward fulfilling those pledges during his first months in the Oval Office. There were a few symbolic measures. But the administration did nothing to indicate that its devotion to gay rights extended beyond the kind of vague philosophical inclinations expressed by a reluctant college freshman in his first public speaking course.

If apathy was bad, outright hostility was even worse. When a gay California couple, married during the brief period after the legalization of gay marriage in that state but before the passage of Proposition 8, challenged the Defense of Marriage Act in federal court, the Obama Department of Justice filed a brief in support of DOMA. That was troublesome, but, arguably, necessary; several legal theorists have said that the administration is obligated to defend existing federal law, even while working to change it. What was not necessary were invocations of old cases arguing that states didn't need to recognize marriages between blood relatives. It goes without saying that many found those arguments and the implicated comparisons offensive.

Finally and fortunately the administration's attitude has come back to bite it. Several wealthy gay donors have withdrawn from an upcoming DNC fundraiser in protest. When you're trying to send a message to a political party, there's no better weapon than the checkbook.

Look, I'm an idealist, but I'm not that stupid. Obama doesn't support gay marriage, and I know that. I knew it during the last days of the campaign when I was slinging door knockers in Independence, Missouri. So it's impossible to be disappointed about that stance; disapppointment requires a measure of surprise.

And while it offends me that DOMA still befouls the Federal Register, again, I'm not disappointed. I fully expected Obama to slow walk any attempt to repeal DOMA. The bill was passed with substantial Democratic support and signed by a Democratic president. Repealing it would be a brutal, bruising fight, and it seems like Obama doesn't have the chin for many of those.

But there will never be a better time to move on Don't Ask, Don't Tell. The President remains deeply popular with the American people. I'd like to think that can last another eight years, but those poll numbers are going to take a hit once the administration dives into the trenches on worthy issues like health care and the budget. The White House has to take advantage of the President's popularity while it remains robust. And don't talk to me about "political capital," because that's not actually a thing. Regardless of what you've read on the standard lefty websites, the US Senate is not the Mafia. It doesn't work on a one-to-one favor swapping system.

A Gallup poll indicates that nearly 70 percent of Americans support repealing the ban on openly gay soldiers. 58 percent of conservatives agree with that. It would take some skill to frame the debate as a national security issue instead of a pure gay rights issue, but we're talking about a President who made a 28-minute speech on race into a YouTube sensation. Communication is kind of the guy's thing. The White House should show faith in his ability to convince Americans that we do not make our country safer by discharging linguists who speak Arabic.

I have faith that the President is personally a tolerant and empathetic man who treats homosexuals with the respect they deserve as human beings. But that's not enough. At some point you have to do something.

If the President is backtracking on DOMA and Don't Ask, Don't Tell because he realizes his campaign pledges were wrong and he now believes DOMA is a good bill and DADT a good policy, then I respect that. But if you're doing it 'cause you think it's gonna be too hard or you think you're gonna lose...well, God, Barack, I don't even want to know you.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Running Silent

You've probably noticed that posting has been light here recently. It's been a week since my last post, but beyond that, I've been pretty lax through this new year.

I wish I had an explanation for that beyond "I don't feel like writing anything," but I really don't. I launched DR in the middle of the presidential campaign, and there was usually enough news to inspire a lengthy post every day. Hell, Sarah Palin alone could have formed the foundation of an entire blog.

Now that the campaign is over and governance is all that's in the news, I'm somewhat out of my depth. The economy is dominating the headlines, and I'm one of Joe Sheehan's infamous economically illiterate bitches. I'm similarly ill-qualified to write about international affairs, with one or two exceptions, and I've decided to forgo discussing those exceptions on this blog. And I don't want to turn this into a sports blog.

All that aside, the simple fact is, for whatever reason, I don't have fun writing to this blog any more. I had fun during the campaign. I had fun writing up Florida football games. I had fun writing about Burn Notice and the Kansas City Shakespeare Festival. But the last several times I've signed on to this "Create Post" screen, it's been work. And while God knows I have the free time to do this, what I lack right now is the inclination and desire.

I am not shutting down Distressed Reporter. I don't think I'm done with this. But, put bluntly, I just don't feel like writing anything for this site. So don't expect updates for a while. I don't know how long a while will be; I could come across a story tomorrow that pisses me off enough to drive me to blogging. It could (and likely will) be much longer than that.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Duh-Duh-Duh-Duh-Duh-Duh, Gator Bait!

There have been two changes to the sidebar in recent days. The first, moving George Washington to the "Rejected By" column, was made possible in part by a marvel of the Internet Age. I was up late about a week ago, bored, surfing the internet. And I clicked over to GW's website, thinking I'd get some background on the campus.

Eventually, idle curiosity inspired me to check the online application I had filed several months ago. And, what do you know, there was a decision link on the front page of the application. A few clicks later, I moved George Washington to the rejected column.

To GW's credit, they were nice enough to go through with the old-fashioned niceties and send me a paper rejection the very next day. On lovely paper, too, I might add.

But all is not lost. I received an acceptance from the Beloved Alma Mater this afternoon. The letter indicated they would let the admitted students know later about financial aid, so I can't pick favorites yet. Still, it's going to be hard to turn down UF. Not impossible, mind you. Money talks. Gotta bling out the Lancer, you know.

This leaves just one languid institution, that being the University of Colorado. They're moving with all the celerity of an obese...well, buffalo, I suppose. I've got two different April 15 deadlines, so I'm hoping CU decides to weigh in before that date.

Center field: safe for, Jordan

The Braves today traded Josh Anderson to Detroit for side-arming Double-A reliever Rudy Darrow, an intriguing 24-year-old with an impressive strikeout rate in 103 2/3 minor league innings. He'll be a useful minor league insurance policy for a bullpen filled with pitchers of questionable quality and/or questionable health.

But Darrow scarcely matters. No, what's important is that wunderkind Jordan Schafer is almost certainly guaranteed to start the season as Atlanta's everyday center fielder. And might I say: woo.

It's easy to say that the Braves have taken a big risk with this decision, but that's not really true. A risk would have been trading a productive veteran center fielder with one year left on a reasonable contract in order to open the position for Schafer. What the Braves did was trade a projected fourth outfielder (Josh Anderson) and pass over an amusing yet severely limited player (Gregor Blanco) so that one of their best prospects could play.

The Braves won't be able to suppress Schafer's service time clock by keeping him at Triple-A for a month. It's possible Schafer's confidence could take a blow if he hits .220 with no power and plenty of strikeouts for a month and the Braves have to demote him. And you always risk something when you skip a player straight from Double-A.

Still, the Braves have shown they don't much care about or for Triple-A seasoning when it comes to their top position player prospects. Jeff Francoeur and Brian McCann were both promoted straight from Double-A in the middle of the 2005 season, meaning those two didn't even get full Double-A experience. Schafer was solid if not extraordinary in just 84 games at Mississippi last season, so Frank Wren and Co. obviously have a lot of faith in him.

And beyond all that, this is the fun move, the exciting move. You can't base your roster off that criteria, of course, but as a fan it's nice to have something new and shiny to watch every game. The Braves are losing 12-4 in the eighth inning? I could leave, but Schafer's due up third. I want to see him hit. That's the effect young players can have.

As I finish this, I see in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that Wren still won't rule out sending Schafer to Triple-A to start the season. That, of course, would make Blanco the center fielder. David O'Brien seems to think Schafer has the inside track. Suffice it to say it would be disappointing to Schafer at Triple-A Gwinnett. And I say that as a Gregor Blanco fan.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Recruiting Update

I know most of you are religious readers of Distressed Reporter, and you probably have a whiteboard or something where you keep track of my grad school developments. For you, I don't need to write a post detailing said developments, since you have Blogger email and text you a notification when I edit the sidebar. But please, all visitors are as technologically advanced. And they demand details.

There has been one rejection since last we talked. Michigan evidently didn't even think enough of me to send a written rejection; I got a form email from the admissions department. This was unsurprising for a couple reasons: first, because Michigan's political science department is one of the best in the country and I wasn't exactly one of the best undergrads in this great nation. Second, because I accidentally applied to the public policy school instead. That sort of hurt my chances.

The most significant development comes out of lovely Columbia, Missouri, where the University of Missouri has invited me to come play pick-up grad school. This also wasn't terribly surprising, but their offer of an assistantship that carried with it a tuition waiver and an acceptable stipend is quite welcome.

There are some problems with Missouri, mainly that they have a small department with no professors who are primarily interested in what I want to study. But money is always good and Columbia's just a two hour drive from home.

That leaves just three schools who are yet undecided. Colorado should let me know any day now. I should be optimistic, since I am so Buff, but they're slightly better ranked than the Kansas school that accepted me, so I'm slightly pessimistic. The best part of an acceptance letter from Colorado might be that I'd have an excellent excuse to visit their lovely campus in Boulder.

George Washington should be close behind CU, but I have them down as an almost certain "no" at this point. And besides, I'm somewhat reluctant to attend a staggeringly expensive school located in a staggeringly expensive town.

Last but never least in my heart is Florida, the sentimental favorite. UF's application deadline came and went just last week, so their decision probably remains a in the somewhat distant future. Not so distant, I hope, since the deadline to accept Missouri's offer is April 15.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

On Sports

I was lying in bed last night, unable to fall asleep, and I thought about a woman to whom my sister had introduced me. (Don't worry, DR isn't that kind of blog.) I've met the woman, who's a med school classmate of my sister's, once or twice, and while we hit it off fairly well, it's become obvious recently that nothing's going to happen.

My sister told me once that the friend knew nothing about sports. They were at a bar with some classmates one night and the group started talking about the Chiefs' recent victory over the Raiders. After a while, the friend said, "The Raiders...wait, wait, shut up, don't tell me. I know this. The Raiders...New Jersey, right?"

Now, I don't know this woman very well, but she came off as an informed, intelligent individual in our brief interactions. And as I was lying in bed last night, I started wondering how I'd answer if this woman, or any other similarly ignorant person, asked me why I enjoyed sports so much.

There's a certain intellectual satisfaction in giving the academic answer, the "Sport reflects humanity's drive for greatness and the unattainable pursuit of perfection" response that echoes Classical Greece. But, well, The Academic Answer is also The Douchebag Answer, and I don't think I could say that with a straight face.

It would be more honest, less pretentious to shrug and say, "I don't know. I enjoy them, and the why never really comes up." But that's more a capitulation than a response, and it wouldn't satisfy our hypothetical interrogator. Beyond all that, it's not really accurate. Because thinking about it, there are specific, concrete reasons. Those reasons are just different for each sport.

There's a lot to love about baseball, of course. Strange as it sounds, though, I think what appeals to me the most is how unapologetically languid the game is. Baseball is the cool, low-maintenance girlfriend every guy dreams of having.

"You need to check your email? Don't worry about it, man. I'll be on in the background. Get back to me when you're ready."

"Need to pick up a pizza? S'all good. Go ahead, miss an inning. I've got nine of the things. Besides, statistically the odds are against them scoring. You probably won't miss much. Pujols is due up in two innings though. Be back in time for that. Oh, don't worry. I'll DVR it for you."

Baseball is also America's proudly intellectual game. Oh, sure, the scouts and the "baseball men" don't like it, but there's a rich, nerdy vein running straight through the middle of the game. And I'm not just using Bud Selig as proof. The fundamental mechanic of baseball is a combination of the mental and the physical; it's pitcher and hitter trying to out-muscle each other, sure, but they're also thinking along with each other, playing a game.

If baseball's the openly intellectual game, football's an affair that obscures its nerdiness behind a wall of blood. Huge men, impossibly huge men, running impossibly fast, collide in ways that would break a normal human being in half. They scratch and claw and desperately strive to open the space where, for brief moments, skill and athleticism can explode.

Football shocks and awes the viewer into forgetting the game's complexities. It's a smart game, but you have to work to see the dynamics. Peel back the cacophony and the Xs and Os leap into motion, like those scenes from A Beautiful Mind, only without the schizophrenia the lead actor pretends to have or the psychosis the lead actor actually has. There are blocking schemes, running schemes, passing schemes, zany schemes. Coaches devise a thousand different variations on the same rushing play. Intelligence is football's secret shame.

It goes without saying that high-level football is rife with athleticism, but we tend to see that athleticism in quick bursts. When Percy Harvin broke this play, it was like a bolt of lightning:

Blink and you miss it.

Basketball, on the other hand, is an orgy of athleticism. It's a wide open, relatively uncluttered playing area. Contact is discouraged, even penalized if you don't play for Duke. So the full range of human potential is possible on the basketball court. You can see those great moments developing. You can watch LeBron James circle the perimeter, slice through the defense and haul in an alley oop from Mo Williams. With the normal camera shot offered in most telecasts, every step of the play, every player involved, comes into view. When it's run well, basketball is a muscular ballet.

And I love the flow of a basketball game. Team A hosts Team B, and for a while they trade baskets, go back-and-forth. Then Team A slams down a dunk and stops Team B on the defensive end. Then they run down the court and drain a three. Team A's fans are getting riled up. All of a sudden, Team B can't get the ball over the half court line, and Team A is shooting like they've made three buckets in a row on NBA Jam.

This goes on for five minutes before, out of nowhere, Team B hits a three. Team A takes the ball down the court, but their shot rims out. As Team B runs its offense, the fans are still raucous, but a little less so than they were a minute ago. The aura of invincibility has been pierced. They stomp and shout, but less out of confidence and more to scare away the impending comeback.

Those are the big ones, but not the only ones. High-level volleyball plays on the human mind's capacity for pattern recognition: bump, set, spike. Bump, set, spike. So the viewer gets lulled into this sense of security, and it's pleasantly shocking when someone subverts the pattern by hitting the ball over the net in two shots instead of three. Or when a player passes up the spike for a subtle loft shot over the extended arms of a defender.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

2009 Atlanta Braves Preview, Part 2: The Outfield

The world community is a little pre-occupied right now. But I hope that when things settle down, when the economy is on solid footing, that the International Criminal Court gives serious consideration to hauling Frank Wren and Bobby Cox to The Hague and bringing them to account for Atlanta's 2008 outfield.

The Braves produced only 27 home runs from their outfielders last year. They had no players who could be reasonably described as "good." Only two could be reasonably described as decent. One of those, Mark Kotsay, was traded mid-season, and the other, Josh Anderson, played only 40 games. Jeff Francoeur cratered, Matt Diaz scuffled and got hurt and Gregor Blanco played like he was trying to see how well one can hit if one refuses to swing until the count is 3-2. It's hard to see how the Braves could fail to improve in 2009.

And it's in that ambitious spirit that we turn first to Frank Wren's prize outfield acquisition, Garret Anderson. The 36-year-old had a fine career with the Angels, and the Braves desperately hope he has one more goo...sol...dece...acceptable season left in his bat. Anderson's coming off a year that saw him hit .293/.325/.433. On the plus side, that would have made him the second-best full-time outfielder on the 2008 Braves. On the downside, he was roughly as good as Omar Infante, so I'm not filled with warm tinglies.

There remains some mystery as to Anderson's role. A platoon with Matt Diaz would make the most sense; if you squint really hard you can almost see an Anderson/Diaz platoon working. But Cox and Wren made some noise after the signing that Anderson wasn't a platoon player, and if forced to guess, I'd bet that Cox uses Anderson against lefties more than is wise.

The Garret Anderson of 2008, while hardly bursting with dynamism, would be an acceptable addition. But 36-year-old corner outfielders coming off sub-100 OPS+ seasons don't have bright futures. The Braves are desperately hoping that they get Anderson's last "good" season. If, instead, they missed it by a year, they'll be fighting a war with the same set of rusted knives that so spectacularly failed them in 2008.

Matt Diaz, who will back-up and/or platoon with Anderson, has at least shown in the past that his blade has some bite. After consecutive solid seasons in 2006 and 2007, Diaz's production cratered in 2008. He played two months at a .250/.270/.311 level before injuring his knee in Milwaukee. He came back for the last game of the season, but 2008 was a lost year.

Analysts have always considered Diaz a candidate for the kind of season he put up last year. This is a man who makes Francoeur look patient and disciplined. His power comes from the occasional double and the even-more-occasional home run. He's a player who relies almost exclusively on his ability to slap bad pitches through the holes in the infield.

That sounds unsustainable. Thing is, he seems to have a real knack for it, last year notwithstanding. He hit at every level in the minors. He hit for two years in Atlanta. He's a career .328/.361/.508 hitter against lefties. You can never consider Diaz a "safe" bet, but there's every reason to believe he can be a useful part of a winning team.

This brings us to Atlanta's golden child, The Wonder Boy, Delta pitch man, Jeff Francoeur. I've always said that Francoeur's the kind of player to whom you give every reasonable chance to succeed. And once he exhausts those, you give him one more. He's that talented.

Well, Francoeur's exhausted the reasonable chances. 2009 is the "one more." When you put up a 72 OPS+ as a corner outfielder, play crummy defense and contribute nothing on the base paths, you place yourself in danger of falling out of the big leagues, regardless of past success. Francoeur's 2008 was so abysmal that, by itself, it calls into question his ability to play Major League Baseball.

It wasn't surprising that Francoeur had a sub-par season; after all, he posted an 87 OPS+ in 2006. But the ubiquity of his suck was staggering. He at least managed to slug better than the league average in '06. He did nothing well in 2009 besides look handsome. He didn't even handle his too-brief demotion to the minors particularly well.

What to expect in 2009? If you'll excuse the cop-out, I like him to roughly achieve his career line of .268/.312/.434. That's crummy for a corner outfielder, but I can't summon the optimism to predict an actually productive season. Francoeur is and always has been unforgivably undisciplined. There are too many holes in his game, even as a 25-year-old. He has enough power in his bat to save him from total uselessness, but that's about all I can say for him.

Those are the three players who are guaranteed spots in the Braves' outfield. Josh Anderson is slightly below that line, but only to the extent that he's just practically guaranteed the center field job. He's had a nice run of 203 Major League at-bats, but his career minor league numbers don't sing a peppy tune. It's more than a little distressing that Atlanta's best center field option is a guy with a career minor league line of .294/.340/.378.

But Anderson has some skills. He stole 42 bases for Richmond in 2008, 40 for Round Rock in 2007, 43 for Corpus Christi in 2006, 50 at the same stop the previous year. And he's swiped bases at an 80 percent success rate. He's been a good contact hitter at just about every stop. He has, in short, all the skills needed in a hyper-competent fourth outfielder. What he does not have is the skillset to be a starting center fielder on a championship-caliber team.

But that's going to be his job, because the second-best option is more of a curiosity than a real option. I like Gregor Blanco. I think he's a cool player. It takes an awful lot of pluck to draw 74 walks in 430 at-bats and post a .366 OBP while slugging only .309. It's really kind of an affirmation of the human spirit, for a given definition of "affirmation" and "of." I think he can be a useful bench player.

The problem is that he doesn't have the profile you'd expect and want from a player with his utter lack of power. If you're going to hit one home run in 430 at-bats, you need to hit more than .251. You can't strike out 99 times. You have to play defense better than Blanco does. In short, if you're as powerless as Gregor Blanco, you need to do everything else well. And he doesn't.

Jordan Schafer was Atlanta's Great White Hope this time last spring. After a huge 2007, the 21-year-old center fielder was the talk of the Braves' training camp. But Schafer tested positive for HGH and was suspended for 50 games by the commissioner's office. He came back to post solid numbers in 84 Double-A games (.269/.378/.471), but that line wasn't overwhelming enough to offset the bad press from his HGH suspension.

Schafer, now 22, should start the year at Triple-A Richmond, is one of Atlanta's best prospects but the team's best hope for an actually productive center fielder. The Braves are going to be reluctant to rush him, especially if it doesn't seem like they have a real chance at the division. He'll need to post a full, healthy, completely legal season to assuage any remaining doubts.

I should write up Brandon Jones, but the Braves don't like him, and he's not good enough for that to anger me. Screw Brandon Jones.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Florida 60, Kentucky 53

It wasn't pretty, and it's not going to be enough to single-handedly salvage Florida's NCAA Tournament hopes. But the Gators pulled off an ugly victory over an arch-rival on Senior Day, and in doing so left themselves with at least a shred of credible tournament aspirations.

Walter Hodge, the winningest player in Florida history, played big in his final game at The O'Dome. Hodge scored 18 points on seven of 12 shooting, drained three three-pointers, recorded three steals and played a huge role in the full court press that bedeviled Kentucky throughout the game. These UF-UK matchups are interesting: Kentucky has the size to exploit Florida inside, but the Wildcats are a horrible ball-handling team, and the Gators have had a lot of success pressing and hectoring them over the last two or three years. Florida forced Kentucky into 23 turnovers, against only seven assists and 23 field goals.

The Gators held Kentucky to two of 11 from behind the arc and led wire-to-wire. UK never got closer than six points in the second half, despite out-rebounding the Gators by 10 and grabbing 11 offensive rebounds. Kentucky big man Patrick Patterson, who spurned the Gators two years ago, scored 16 points and recorded 13 rebounds. UK was actually reasonably competent in their halfcourt offense, but simply gave away too many possessions with silly passes and poor ball handling.

But Jodie Meeks, the other half of Kentucky's two-headed monster, shot six of 18 and just two of nine from three point land. The Wildcats have nothing behind Meeks and Patterson; they need both to play at their best to win games against legit teams.

Florida won without a Herculean effort from sophomore point guard Nick Calathes, who continues to struggle with fatigue and the flu. Calathes scored just five points on two of nine shooting and committed seven turnovers to go against the same number of assists. He did have three steals.

The win gives Florida a final regular season record of 22-9, 9-7 in the SEC. Both are fairly gaudy figures, but with the weakness in both UF's out of conference and conference schedules, it's not enough to win a spot in the NCAA Tournament. Fortunately, the Gators have a chance to pile up some victories in the SEC Tournament. They'll open against Arkansas, the conference's worst team. A rejuvenated Auburn team earned a first-round bye and awaits the winner of that game in the quarterfinals. If things go as they should, Tennessee will beat the winner of the opening round Ole Miss-Vanderbilt game and advance to the semis.

I think Florida needs three tournament wins. Two probably makes UF the last team out of the tournament; Arkansas is downright crummy, and Auburn, while improved from early in the year, doesn't provide the credibility UF needs.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Tossed Up, Shot Down

You can see on the sidebar that Iowa has been added to the "Rejected By" column. I had previously listed it as a toss-up school, so this is the first real disappointment of the process, especially considering that the school had a lot of professors studying the same sort of things that interest me.

So, that's three down, and five to go. Further developments as they...develop.

Saturday, February 28, 2009

2009 Atlanta Braves Preview, Part 1: The Infield

2008 In Review

Let's keep this section brief. I saw Coraline last week and I don't need to recap another horror movie in great detail.

Things went awry for the Braves last year, as a season that began with postseason aspirations ended with Atlanta posting its worst record since 1990. The 72-90 mark was fueled by an abysmal outfield and a resonance cascade that tore through the pitching staff and left few untouched. Tim Hudson went down with an elbow injury in the middle of an excellent season. John Smoltz contributed just 28 (excellent) innings before his arm finally exploded. Peter Moylan went down early and Rafael Soriano spent all year battling mysterious arm ailments that limited him to just 14 innings. Tom Glavine was awful, then he was injured, then he was awful and then he was injured once more, this time for good.

Of the healthy pitchers, the only bright spots were young Jair Jurrjens, fun journeyman Jorge Campillo and the since-departed Will Ohman. The offense had more going for it, and we'll start the 2009 preview by looking at the strength of the Braves.

The Infield

Atlanta's infield, and, in fact, the entire team, is anchored by two players at the opposite ends of their respective careers. Brian McCann enters the 2009 season as one of the most desirable commodoties in Major League Baseball.

McCann hit .301/.373/.523 as a 24-year-old catcher, earning him his second Silver Slugger award and third-straight All Star Game appearance. A career .297/.358/.501 hitter, McCann has few weaknesses as a hitter. He hits for average and power, draws a respectable number of walks, makes consistent contact and hits the ball to all fields with authority. He is, in short, a fantastic player, and if you'll excuse the cliche, the sky's the limit for Brian McCann. I doubt he'll ever consistently hit .333, as he did in 2006, but he absolutely has the swing and discpline to hit .310+ on a year-in, year-out basis. Considering both the number of doubles he hits (36 in 2006, 28 in 2007 and 42 in 2008) and his youth, it's not irrational to hope for an uptick in his power numbers. Should the Braves make a miracle run to the playoffs, McCann could easily find himself in the MVP discussion.

Cons? His defense is in the Javy Lopez mold: unimpressive, at times lackadaisacal, but not a serious deficiency. He throws out a respectable number of runners, but doesn't block the plate well. McCann's also painfully, glacially slow, and that's more of a concern. Ever since he hurt his ankle in 2006, McCann's lost a small chunk of his value because of his inability to run the bases. Stole five bases last year without being caught, which leads me to question the wisdom of the five different "Catch Leukemia, Catch In The Big Leagues!" promotions Braves' opponents held last year.

When your starting catcher is Brian McCann, the back-up backstop isn't very important. Still, Frank Wren did a nice job upgrading the position this winter. It probably wasn't a great idea to give Dave Ross a two-year contract, but he's about as competent as you can expect from the back-up catcher spot. Ross is a Gator, which means he contributes five or six wins worth of pure awesome every year. Beyond that, he's got excellent power and the ability to luck into home runs not infrequently. He's drawn 135 walks in 1124 career at-bats. So he has some skills. He also has trouble making contact and can't hit for average at all, which is why he's grateful for a two-year contract and the opportunity to back up one of the best catchers in the game and not starting somewhere.

Clint Sammons is the back-up catcher of the future, which is sort of like of being the dauphin in 1789. When he posts an OPS higher than .610 at AAA, he'll get a longer write-up.

First Base

Of the many humiliating aspects of 2008, the worst was probably trading Mark Teixeira for two unimpressive players a year after acquiring him in exchange for five prospects. (One of them, Neftali Feliz, was named by Baseball America as one of the game's ten best prospects) The important unimpressive player was Casey Kotchman, who went from mediocre in Anaheim to abysmal in Atlanta. (As an aside, "Abysmal in Atlanta" would make a great title for a hip-hop album)

It's a bad sign when you're praying for your first baseman to hit up to his career averages of .269/.336/.412, but then, it's a worse sign when your first baseman hits .237/.331/.316, as Kotchman did for Atlanta. Kotchman's only 26, and by all accounts he's a fairly slick defensive player. And shortly after he came to Atlanta, his mother suffered a brain hemorrhage, so a compassionate observer has to cut him some slack for his struggles with the Braves. Still, it's hard to imagine him truly being an asset at first base.

That won't matter much, because the Braves don't have a lot of options behind him. His primary back-up is Greg Norton, a personal favorite of mine who's 35 and pretty much a professional pinch-hitter at this point. He actually does that pretty well, all things considered. After the Braves acquired him in May, Norton was one of the few...well, let's not say "bright spots," since a 108 OPS+ from an old corner player isn't notably luminescent. But he was a useful bat off the bench, and he might have one more solid campaign left .

Second Base

Kelly Johnson's another of my personal favorites. Unlike Norton, this one still seems to have upside and the potential for greatness ahead of him. After all, you have to be pretty sanguine about an athletic second baseman coming off consecutive seasons with OPS+s of 117 and 108. He's got a nice swing, a good eye and a discplined approach.

But I can't shake the feeling that KJ is about at his ceiling. His numbers fell off a scosh last season, especially in the plate discpline category, but that doesn't concern me. No, he's simply a guy with obvious holes in his swing that seem difficult to fix. Johnson has serious issues with fastballs on the outside part of the plate. He doesn't make contact very often on those pitches, and when he does he's prone to weak pop-ups on the left side of the infield. Way too many P-5s and P-6s on Kelly's scorecard.

Still, if Johnson is what he is, his "is" is plenty good enough. He had the fourth-highest OPS among NL second baseman last year, third-highest in 2007. He's a competent defender and confident runner. Pitchers can keep the ball away from him, but even Major Leaguers make mistakes. They make enough of them, and Johnson hits them well enough, to make KJ a force for good in this world.

He has an able set of back-ups. Martin Prado is a career .307/.363/.432 hitter, albeit in just 329 carer at-bats. Mac Thomason over at Braves Journal rather spectacularly dinged his defense by describing a misplay that's scored a hit as "A Prado." Still, Prado can quasi-competently play three positions (second, third and first) and can start for a week or two at a time without killing the team.


Yunel Escobar's a funny little player. He consistently hits the ball hard and racks up good averages, but doesn't register a lot of extra base hits. (Just 36 last year) He's slow and grounded into 24 double plays in 2008. According to one of the sophisticated defensive measurements, he was the second-best defensive shortstop in the majors. It's kind of hard to believe a shortstop can be at once slow and slick, but Yunel seems to have pulled it off.

I'm interested to see where his career goes from here. He hit .288/.366/.401 last year, and combined with his sparkling defense, that's an excellent player. He's going to be 26 in 2009, and he's one of those players who seems to have a good command of the strike zone in spite of low walk numbers. There's still some upward mobility ahead of him.

Escobar's back-up is the versatile Omar Infante, who logged significant innings at third, short and second and in left field. He had a nice little season as Atlanta's utility player, but that .293/.338/.416 season seems unsustainable. Infante should remain a useful player, but if he's Atlanta's best left fielder (as he was for large stretches of 2008), the Braves are in serious trouble. Again.

Third Base

And so we come to the second infield anchor, a future Hall of Famer and one of the two remaining links to Atlanta's glory days. Chipper Jones remains one of the game's elite hitters, a potent combination of batting average, power and plate discpline. He has lost the speed of his youth, when he stole 25 bases in 28 attempts in the magical 1999 season. But aside from that, his skills remain undegraded.

Chipper won his first batting title in 2008 with a .364 mark and joined that average to his usual discipline and power. His .364/.470/.574 line was good for a 174 OPS+, actually better than 1999 (168) and 2001. (160) That figure was good for second in the NL, behind only Albert Pujols.

And 2008 was not a dead cat bounce for a declining player. His numbers in 2007 were similarly excellent, and 2006 wasn't much worse. (154 OPS+) All of this is a long way of saying that Chipper retains the talent needed to be an elite player. Any player at Chipper's age (he'll turn 37 on April 24) is in danger of a quick and lethal collapse, but this particular 37-year-old is as safe a bet as any to continue performing at a high level. He even seems to be playing defense better than he did in his young and callow days.

If that was the whole story, 2006, 2007 and 2008 would have been much more enjoyable for the Braves. Chipper was always prone to little injuries; he only once played 160 games. He used to have truly impressive recuperative capabilities; Chipper would get hit on the elbow with a pitch, make noises about going on the DL, then come back the next game and hit two home runs. These days, he tweaks his hamstring, sits out three games, declares himself ready to roll, then re-aggravates the injury in warm-ups and sits on the disabled list for three weeks.

Chipper hasn't played 140 games since 2003, and at this point you simply have to plan on him missing at least 25 games. The problem is not so much that he's suffering from Griffey-esque chronic ailments. He gets hurt in understandable ways (slipping on an atrocious field in San Francisco, getting upended by Jose Bautista while running the bases, etc.) and just can't recover in a timely fashion. There are rarely any lingering effects when he comes back from these injuries; he goes 3-for-5, gets hurt, sits out three weeks, comes back and goes 2-for-4 with a walk.

In its current state, Chipper's career is a battle between fragility and ability. When he plays, he's a Hall of Famer. Unfortunately, that "when" hasn't been happening often enough. Infante and Prado are decent utility players, but they can't replace Chipper Jones.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Well, This is Encouraging

Rocky Mountain News to close shop.

The Rocky Mountain News, Colorado's oldest newspaper and a Denver fixture since 1859, will publish its last edition Friday.

Owner E.W. Scripps Co. said Thursday the newspaper lost $16 million last year and the company was unable to find a buyer.

"Today the Rocky Mountain News, long the leading voice in Denver, becomes a victim of changing times in our industry and huge economic challenges," Scripps CEO Rich Boehne said.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Garret, Son of Ander

Multiple outlets are reporting that the Braves have signed Garret Anderson. I'm holding out for a Furcal-Griffey scenario here, but it's hard to imagine there's someone so desperate to sign him that they'll swoop in with an offer that will blow away Atlanta's $2.5 million contract.

This signing is less bad than it is dispiriting. It's possible to squint really, really hard and see a scenario where this kind of works. Anderson hit .293/.323/.450 against righties last year, and Matt Diaz is .326/.361/.508 for his career against lefties. So maybe, in theory, this could work.

But you have to try awfully hard to reach that "maybe." It's still disappointing, and not just because's Mark Bowman (who's usually a reliable mouthpiece for the organization) says Anderson might not have to be platooned. (Bobby Cox is quoted as saying Anderson can hit righties and lefties)

Signing a 36-year-old (37 in June) Garret Anderson is just the kind of dull, uncreative move that dull, uncreative organizations resort to every season. Is it fair to criticize Frank Wren for making a move like that? Maybe not. After all, Major League Baseball doesn't hand out extra wins for nifty, complicated transactions. The Braves' outfield...well, lets face it: it sucked last year. The best line (.289/.340/.418) belonged to Mark Kotsay, and he's not going to be playing for the Braves in 2009. So Anderson's .293/.325/.433 production is almost close to being nearly respectable.

The problems come when you start asking whether you can expect him to put up even that uninspired line next season. Anderson's not a dynamic defensive player or baserunner any more, so all he's got is his bat. And while I'm always wary of signing 36-year-old corner outfielders, I'm especially concerned when the corner outfielder isn't particularly good. Greatness can fall off the clip at any moment, it's true, but mediocrity is equally celeritous, and the rocks are even sharper at the bottom.

The Braves had legitimate shots at Pat Burrell, Adam Dunn and Bobby Abreu, and were rumored to be in on Xavier Nady or Nick Swisher. So falling back to Garret's bothersome.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Ain't Nothin' But a G Post. Baby.

The Braves signed Tom Glavine Thursday to an incentive-laden one-year deal, effectively guaranteeing him the fifth spot in their starting rotation.

Mixed feelings here. On the one hand, Glavine really kind of sucked last year; 5.54 ERA, 37/37 K/BB ratio, 11 home runs in 63 1/3 innings. Oh, and he's a 43-year-old coming off serious elbow and shoulder surgery. The Braves have a trio of young starters in Jo Jo Reyes, Charlie Morton and uber-prospect Tommy Hanson who should be competing for that slot in the rotation. Reyes and Morton probably aren't very good, especially Reyes, but there's a non-zero chance they'll figure something out. They're young and talented, and right now you can't say either of those things about Glavine. I'd like to make a final judgement on Morton and Reyes or see if Hanson's ready for the bigs.

That's without mentioning Jorge Campillo, who's almost certainly due for a long fall onto jagged rocks, but who pitched well enough last year to earn a shot at a starting gig. Instead he'll be relegated to long relief work in the Atlanta bullpen.

On the other hand, you can never have enough depth at the back end of the rotation. There's a good chance neither Reyes nor Morton are good pitchers and that Hanson isn't ready yet. And since we don't know much about Kenshin Kawakami yet, you have to consider the possibility that he'll go all Kei Igawa on the league. In that case, you're going to need all the remotely competent pitchers you can find.

And...well, it's Tom Glavine, people. The most he can earn if he achieves all of his incentives is $4.5 million. Even for the Braves that's hardly a significant outlay.

The other news o' the week was Ken Griffey Jr's decision to spurn Atlanta and sign with the Mariners. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution's beat writer, David O'Brien, had reported that Griffey would sign would sign with the Braves. After Griffey called up various media outlets and denied the story, O'Brien said on his blog that the deal was sealed and Griffey would be a Brave. So this is kind of a black eye for both him and the Braves organization.

There's a strange phenomenon where people tend to get fanatical about acquiring something that barely interested them in the first place. According to reports, Braves GM Frank Wren had no interest in signing Griffey until the aging slugger called up Chipper Jones and let him know he would be amenable to the Braves' advances. So Wren made contact, offers were exchanged, and suddenly signing Griffey became a necessity, especially to the fans.

So this is disappointing, if only because it looks like the Braves will go into the season with the same personnel in the outfield that hit just 27 home runs in 2008. You don't win the division relying on Matt Diaz or Josh Anderson in one corner position and Jeff Francoeur in the other, especially when they flank Gregor Blanco in center.

But like Glavine there's a chance Griffey's toast. He's old, fragile, declining in offensive skills and an embarrassment defensively. A Griffey-Diaz platoon is not actually an awful idea, but it has the air of something that works better in Baseball Mogul than in real life.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

The Flip Side

I wrote Sunday that Saturday was a good news/bad news kind of day. I went on at great length about the bad news, but neglected the good. Since I try to be a positive sort of fellow, that's just unacceptable.

I got a letter from the University of Kansas Political Science Department Saturday, informing me that the graduate committee has recommended to the grad school that I be accepted as a student. Since most of you who read DR are friends with me on Facebook, you know this already, but a little self-aggrandizement never hurt anybody.

Now, this isn't official yet. The graduate school still has to review my transcripts and make its determination. But there's no reason to expect those Jayhawk bigwigs will ask me to talk to the hand. So I'm counting this as an acceptance.

As you can see, I've added a little note on the sidebar. There I can keep the breathless masses up-to-date on my decision-making process. And if you see that, you see that Illinois was not so kind as KU. That's disappointing, but hardly surprising. Illinois gets about 130 applicants a year and likes to accept 10-12 students. And since I wasn't a notably good undergrad, the odds were against me.

I'm still waiting on six schools. I'm optimistic about Missouri and Florida, pessimistic about Michigan and George Washington. Colorado and Iowa seem like toss-ups.

In other news, it appears that the Braves are close to signing Ken Griffey Jr. I'll weigh in when that's official.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

The Decline and Fall of the Gator Empire?

Saturday was kind of a good news/bad news sort of day. We'll get to the good news later, but I've always been a believer in diluting the bad with the good and not the other way around. So we'll start with the bad news.

The bad news is that Florida traveled to Athens and lost to Georgia, 88-86. Losing to the Bulldogs in any sport is deeply unfortunate, but falling to a team that was previously winless in SEC play stings. UGA is now 10-15 on the season, so suffice it to say this is not what the bracketologists call a "quality loss."

I couldn't watch yesterday's game, so this isn't another game story. I know Nick Calathes had another outstanding performance, and I know Walter Hodge finally played up to his seniority. I also know that true freshman Erving Walker took the last shot of the game without so much as looking for either of those two players, and that's probably not a good thing.

No, I'm more concerned about the larger issue of Florida's basketball program. (The men's, that is. The women's team is having a hell of a season) UF might well manage to slip into the NCAA tournament; they have two eminently winnable games against Vanderbilt and Alabama, and two home contests against Kentucky and Tennessee. The Gators are on the bubble, but control their own destiny.

The bigger problem is that yesterday's game offers strong evidence that, once again, Florida just isn't very good. And that's troublesome, because it's the second straight year where that's the case.

I said before the season that missing the NCAA Tournament last year wasn't disastrous, but missing it two seasons in a row would be a serious blow to the program. It would be seen as evidence that the 04's and the back-to-back national championships were flukes. UF isn't doing anything to shake that impression.

It would be one thing if the Gators had simply fallen back to their pre-championship levels. Those Matt Walsh-Anthony Roberson-David Lee teams were frustrating in a lot of ways, and they never reached the Sweet 16. But they were solid clubs. They won a lot of SEC games, put up good conference tournament performances and won some challenging non-conference games. Instead, Billy Donovan's team has stumbled even further. The Gators are still competent, still competitive, can still beat a good team on a good day, but they're no real threat to accomplish anything. UF might sneak into the tournament as an eight or nine seed, but it's hard to see what that would really mean.

There are reasons for that, to be sure, but the reasons are starting to sound like rationalizations and excuses. A drop-off was inevitable after losing all five starters from the 2006-2007 championship team. There wasn't much experience behind them, and underclassmen were thrown into the fire last year. And when Marressee Speights left early and wing player Jonathan Mitchell transferred, it guaranteed the same would still be true in 2008-2009. (73 percent of Florida's minutes this year have been logged by underclassmen.)

But the youth argument wears thin when I watch Kansas. The Jayhawks lost every important player from their national championship squad and rely heavily on underclassmen. Junior point guard Sherron Collins played a huge role on the championship team, and he runs this squad, so KU does have more continuity than the Gators did. But beyond him, the Jayhawks' squad is young and inexperienced.

And Kansas is now 20-5, 9-1 in the Big 12. They entered the week ranked 16th in both major polls. UF's record is similarly gaudy (19-6), but the Gators are just 6-4 in the SEC. That's without mentioning that KU's schedule has been more difficult, both in and out of conference. Both teams played Washington and Syracuse in a mid-season tournament. But while the Gators' next-best out of conference opponent was NC State, Kansas went on to play Massachusetts, Arizona, Tennessee, Siena and Michigan State. And the Big 12 is better than the SEC.

What makes this particularly galling is that it's not the first time Bill Self and the Jayhawks have pulled off the trick. The 2005-2006 KU team lost the core of the Aaron Miles-Keith Langford-Wayne Simien team that advanced to the Elite Eight in 2003-2004 but fell to Bucknell in the first round of the 2004-2005 NCAA Tourament. In 2005-2006, KU struggled early, but eventually won a share of the regular season conference championship and won the Big 12 Tournament Championship.

They also went on to lose to Bradley in the first round of the tournament, which was infruriating at the time. But they also had tangible accomplishments and acquitted themselves well.

Why haven't the Gators been able to respond similarly? The problem is not so much youth as it is the talent of that youth. Donovan's 2007 class, the freshmen who had to carry the 07-08 team, had five members. Only one of those players, Nick Calathes, was in a position to make an immediate impact. Jai Lucas started every game, but only out of necessity. Chandler Parsons, Alex Tyus and Adam Allen are all talented players, but they were all developmental prospects, guys who needed to sit for a year and learn the game. None had the luxury.

Tyus has taken a nice leap in his sophomore year, but Parsons still too often looks lost. (Allen is taking a medical redshirt) The 2008 class is more college ready; Erving Walker's been a revalation as a true freshman, and Ray Shipman, Kenny Kadji and Allan Chaney have all made acceptable contributions.

But "acceptable contributions" aren't what the Gators need. Great teams are built in one of two ways: a talented core sticks around for two or three years and gels together into a team. Or the coach recruits a group of players so talented that they overcome their inexperience and make an instant impact.

Donovan hasn't done the latter. And the former strategy was short-circuited when Speights left last off-season. The Gators once again find themselves without an inside presence, relying on young or out-of-position players to man the interior. Tyus is too small to play center, and Dan Werner is out of position at the power forward spot.

But the "let the core gel" strategy was kneecapped years ago. Florida's senior class consists of Hodge. And...Hodge. His fellow signees didn't last long in Gainesville. David Huertas transferred after his freshman year, as did big man Jimmie Sutton. (Who redshirted in his first year) Derwin Kitchen didn't qualify academically.

Florida's junior class consists of Werner and...Werner. Brandon Powell transferred after his freshman year, and Jonathan Mitchell left after his sophomore season. Speights, as mentioned, declared for the draft.

In short, Donovan has signed two largely failed recruiting classes, leaving him to rely on underclassmen. Which, again, wouldn't be a problem if the 07 and 08 classes were filled with instant impact talent. But instead Donovan largely signed complementary players and developmental prospects in a conscious attempt to avoid some of the mistakes he made in the early part of the new century with highly regarded five stars who left early and didn't come at all. (Kwame Brown, for example)

Florida's immediate future falls on Calathes. If he bolts after this season, as some expect, Florida's basketball program will be on a treadmill, trying desperately to catch up with departed talent. The Gators should get some help inside with the addition of two well-regarded freshmen big men and improvement from Kadji and Chaney. But if Hodge and Calathes leave, Florida's guard position will fall to Walker, Shipman and incoming uber-prospect Kenny Boynton.

Boynton is exactly the kind of high-impact, early-impact player the Gators need. But that leads to another troubling question: if Boynton plays well for Florida in 2009-2010, will he be tempted to leave early for the NBA? And again, Donovan's back on the treadmill.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Kentucky 68, Florida 65

One of the blessings of sport is that is a result-driven affair. At the end of the game, all you need to do is look at the final score to know what happened. Conclusions are drawn off those numbers. People are judged off those numbers. And those conclusions, those judgments, can't be questioned. The score is all that matters.

And that is also the great cruelty of sport.

Nick Calathes played the game of life, slashing through Kentucky's defense and draining extraordinary shots against stifling defenders. He scored 33 points, a career high, grabbed seven rebounds and dished three assists. And he ended up standing on the free throw line in Kentucky's Rupp Arena, his team down by three with six tenths of a second left, trying to figure out how he was going to turn one free throw into three points.

He was there because Kentucky's Jodie Meeks (who is one game away from earning a profane middle name) hit an absurd three pointer over his out-stretched hand with six seconds left. Calathes stuck with Meeks, played laudable defense and forced his man, the best scorer in the SEC, to alter his form and heave up an off-balance three as the shot clock expired. And it swished through the net, giving Kentucky the lead.

Calathes streaked down the court and threw up his own desperation three; it fell short and wide, but only because UK's Kevin Galloway fouled him on the shot. Calathes was 11 of 12 from the charity stripe at that point and had made nine in a row. My statistically inclined friends are going to scold me for saying this, but the math didn't augur well. Nick needed to make all three shots, and doing so would have given up a streak of 12 straight converted free throws. I didn't like those odds.

For good reason. Calathes' first shot rimmed out. He missed his second. And so he was left with the enjoyable task of intentionally missing the shot with enough velocity so that it would bounce to the three-point line. There, one of his teammates would pick it up and drain the game-tying three. In six-tenths of a second.

The plan predictably failed; Calathes' line drive missed the rim and Kentucky got the ball back. UF fell to 19-5, 6-3 in the SEC.

Florida was in a position to be heartbroken by Jodie Meeks because at several points in the second half they blew leads and because they consistently allowed Kentucky to gather offensive rebounds and score on second chance shots. The Wildcats out-rebounded the Gators, 39-25, and 11 of those were on the offensive end.

The Gators forced 19 turnovers in the game and held Kentucky to just 30 points in the first half. Granted, Kentucky held Florida to just 30 points in the first half, so the Gators didn't take great advantage of their defensive performance.

Walter Hodge, UF's lone senior, was ejected early in the second half after a bizarre series of events that began with Chandler Parsons being fouled on a three point attempt. It ended with Hodge walking off the court, ejected after the officials huddled around a monitor and determined that Florida's shooting guard deliberately stepped on the arm of UK's Perry Stevenson. I've seen the replays a dozen times and I can't say for sure whether Hodge did that intentionally; I have to wonder at the wisdom of ejecting a player in a close conference game on such a questionable play.

Hodge's loss didn't affect the Gators all that much. They pulled out to a 45-39 lead with 12:32 left in the game, but fell behind 48-47 just two minutes later.

Florida was able to re-gain the lead shortly thereafter and pushed it to six on two separate occasions, but the game basically oscillated between various small Florida advantages. But the Gators gave the Wildcats an opening when Chandler Parsons missed two free throws with 2:40 left and Florida clinging to a three-point lead.

Exactly two minutes later, after Kentucky had gained a slim one-point lead, Dan Werner made a free throw to tie the game. But he missed his second shot, and Kentucky gained control of the ball with 40 seconds left and the game tied at 65. After an exchange of timeouts and some manuevering from Kentucky coach Billy Gillispie, Meeks hit the game-winning shot.

The Gators' next three games are the three easiest left on their schedule. Georgia and Alabama are both crummy and coach-less. Vanderbilt, at least, is just plain crummy. It's imperative UF sweep those three games; if they do, they'll go into the home stretch with a 9-3 conference record. At that point, all they really need to do to put themselves into the NCAA tournament is win one game against LSU, Mississippi State, Tennessee or Kentucky.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Sign Along the Dotted Line, Please

A fairly crummy Signing Day caps off a mildly disappointing recruiting season that still resulted in Florida inking a number of excellent players.

That number, unfortunately, is only 16. Urban Meyer didn't have a lot of scholarships to offer this year; his defense returned all 22 players on the two-deep depth chart, and his offense lost just a handful of standouts. So this wasn't going to be a big class.

But Meyer was burned by a handful of ill-timed decommits from players who had verbally pledged themselves to Florida.

One of the problems with following college football recruiting is that you start to take it personally. I went to this school and I loved it. Why isn't Johnny FiveStar over there salivating at the prospect of playing for my beloved alma mater? Is there a deficit in his character? You know what- he's not even Gator material anyway!

This is especially hard to shake when "your" team is exceptionally successful and the player in question has previously committed to the school in question. The Gators, of course, are coming off a national championship and should start the 2009 season as the number one team in the country. They've got a proven, superstar head coach. They've got 24,000 of the hottest female students in the country. They're in the state of Florida. Really, what's not to love?

Quite a lot, evidently. Meyer found out that a national championship means a little less than he might have thought. After clinching a berth in the BCS game, Florida lost the following highly rated recruits:

  • Nick Kasa, DE, Broomfield, Colorado
  • Marsalis Teague, CB, Paris, Tennessee
  • Nu'Keese Richardson, WR, Pahokee, Florida
  • Greg Reid, CB, Valdosta, Georgia
Reid's departure was particularly galling. On National Signing Day '08 he committed to the Gators, the earliest possible date he could do so. A lifelong Florida fan and ESPN's 15th best prospect, Reid spent most of 2008 happily recruiting for his future team. And then the Gators clinched a national championship berth, and Reid realized Florida's depth chart at his position was rather crowded. So he opened his recruitment, dazzled coaches and media at the Under-Armour All America game and found himself a highly valued commodity. He was not swayed when Meyer laid a guilt trip on him and pointed out that Florida had been recruiting him when no one else was on the Greg Reid bandwagon. Reid signed with Florida State today.

At least Kasa and Reid decommitted several weeks ago. Richardson and Teague bolted today, and both to arch-rival Tennessee and new head coach Lane Kiffin. Teague stayed close to home, but Richardson's departure is baffling. Again, fans tend to myopia, but it's hard to see what Tennessee offers a Florida receiver that UF doesn't.

Those losses hurt, because they left the Gators with just one receiver in the class and no cornerbacks. The latter is particularly troublesome.

Meyer and Company also lost out on a number of players who announced their intentions today. Linebackers Frankie Telfort (a Florida boy) and Jarvis Jones (Georgia) both opted to cross the country and play for Pete Carroll and USC. Jones, in particular, was a big loss, as he was targeted to be Brandon Spikes' replacement.

And Meyer again missed out on his white wale running back. After months of drama Trent Richardson, ESPN's top running back, re-affirmed his commitment to Alabama and spurned UF's advances.

But for all the players Florida missed out on, Meyer still managed to bring in a relatively impressive haul of talent. The crown jewel is Andre Debose, an explosive wide receiver (#2 on ESPN's list) whose high school tapes just scream "Percy Harvin." Meyer had to scrap and claw to hold on to him after a last second visit to Florida State, but there's little doubt he'll make an immediate impact.

Florida's lone Signing Day triumph came when Maryland linebacker Jelani Jenkins (ESPN's number nine overall prospect) declared for the Gators. He'll join Jon Bostic (#108) in forming an excellent linebacker class that could have been extraordinary with the addition of Jones and/or Telfort.

The real strength of the class is on of the offensive line, where Meyer dedicated five of the 16 scholarships. That unit is headed by Xavier Nixon, one of the best tackles in the country, and Nick Alajajian, a guard whose name is going to torment Verne Lundquist for the next four to five years.

The complete list is here. Also worthy of mention is Mike Gillislee, rated the 14th best running back in the country by ESPN; he's a good fit for the spread and makes whiffing on Trent Richardson slightly less troublesome. Jordan Reed, another Connecticut export, is the only quarterback in the class.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Florida 97, South Carolina 93

Devan Downey devastates defenders with deafening dramatic displays.

Yes, Florida won this game and moved to 6-2 in the SEC, but it was South Carolina's Death Dwarf who stole the stole. The diminutive Downey scored 33 points on 13 of 24 shooting, drained seven of nine three-pointers and nearly hauled the Gamecocks to a dramatic, come-from-behind victory.

Fortunately, the key word there is "nearly." The Gators held on by the skin of their teeth and drained clutch free throws in the face of Downey's insane string of acrobatic threes.

UF had an 91-82 lead with 57 seconds left after Erving Walker nailed two free throws. Downey hit a three with 48 seconds left. 10 seconds later, senior Walter Hodge gave Downey and USC(E) the slim opening they needed when he missed two free throws. Downey drove the length of the court, blew past Walker and hit an easy lay-up, making the score 91-87.

Hodge, to his everlasting credit, hit two free throws with 31 seconds left, pushing the score to 93-87. Not daunted, Downey four seconds later hit another three-pointer, pulling South Carolina to within three. Nick Calathes, who hit 13 of 16 at the charity stripe after botching several attempts when the Gators played at South Carolina, sunk two shots, giving the Gators a 95-90 lead.

Yawning, Downey drained another three, making the score 95-93. The Gamecocks fouled Walter Hodge with 13 seconds left, and if he missed one shot, Downey was going to have a chance to tie the game with a three. If Hodge missed both, Downey was going to have a chance to win the game with a three. And to be honest, I say "a chance" despite knowing that Downey definitely would have made that shot.

Hodge came through and buried both shots, and even Devan Downey couldn't find a way to hit a four-pointer. He barely missed a desperation three at the other end, and Florida was able to corral the rebound and the victory.

Really a hell of a game all around. ESPN's announcing crew predicted 95-92 halfway through the first half, and they were pretty much on the money. Florida's inability to stop South Carolina was annoying, but those 92 points were far more the result of outstanding execution and unreal shooting than anything the Gators did poorly. The Gamecocks hit 50 percent of their 22 three-point attempt.

Walker deserves to be singled out for some praise. He played 29 minutes, more than anyone but Calathes and Chandler Parsons, scored 18 points on four of eight shooting and hit seven of eight free throws. Billy Donovan asked a lot of him, and the freshman handled his burdens with aplomb. Walker took the ball past halfcourt against SC's full court press, and he was expected to both guard Downey and be guarded by him. The latter task was no small thing; Downey's a steal machine, and Walker turned it over just once. (Against four assists.)

Parsons continued his good work with 14 points, 10 rebounds and three blocks. In fact, all five Florida starters (plus Walker) scored in double figures.

This was a big one for Florida. As I wrote above, it moves the Gators to 6-2 in the conference (19-4 overall) and gives them first place in the SEC East. Far more important is that it clears the road for nine SEC wins: UF need only best Georgia on the road and Vanderbilt and Alabama at home to clinch those nine wins and a better than .500 conference record.

Now, 9-7 in the SEC isn't going to get it done with the selection committee this year, considering how crummy the conference is. But if Florida wins those three games, it just needs to win one of the toss-up games (at LSU, at Mississippi State, either Kentucky game and home against Tennessee) to pull a 10-6 record. And no SEC team has ever gone 10-6 in the conference and missed the NCAA tournament.