Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Championship Preview, Part 1: When Oklahoma Has The Ball

When Oklahoma's offense faces Florida's defense, both teams will be facing units of a quality they haven't seen this season. No one on UF's schedule features the kind of high-octane, fast-paced, record-setting offense of which Oklahoma can brag. But it works both ways: the Sooners haven't seen a defense with the speed, ferocity and overall talent of the Gators. TCU ranks higher, but it's probably fair to discount those statistics a little based on quality of competition.

This match-up takes on great importance, even beyond the obvious reasons. I think Florida's offense has a decided advantage over Oklahoma's defense (for reasons I'll explain in a later post), so Oklahoma needs to rack up the points. The Sooners won't be able to win this game without a top-flight performance from their offensive unit.

There's plenty of reason to believe they'll get it. What's frightening about Oklahoma aren't so much the statistics, though they are impressive: 562 yards per game, 54 points per game, 60+ points in each of the last 194 games, 356 passing yards per game, 205 rushing yards per game.

OK, so the stats are a little frightening.

But even beyond those numbers, Oklahoma's scary because of the sheer number of playmakers the Sooners will throw at the Gators. Heisman Trophy winner Sam Bradford is only the tip of the spear. He'll be handing off to Chris Brown, who's carried for more than 1,100 yards and 20 TDs. He'll be throwing to a quartet of prolific receivers: any one of Juaquin Iglesias, Jermaine Gresham, Manny Johnson or Ryan Broyles could start for Florida. And beyond those four there's Quentin Chaney, who's caught 27 passes for 467 yards.

To be sure, the Gators are in this position because their defense has taken a massive step forward from where they were during the 2008 Capital One Bowl. UF is ninth in the country in total defense, 15th in rushing defense, 19th in passing defense. Florida has talent liberally sprinkled throughout the field.

But for all those numbers, there are still some weak points. Joe Haden has improved significantly in his second year with UF and as a cornerback, but some teams have exploited him. LSU's Brandon LaFell abused Haden throughout the game, as did true freshman Julio Jones for Alabama.

Florida weathered Haden's struggles in those games because LSU didn't have the quarterback to take advantage of the situation and because Alabama didn't have a receiving weapon besides Jones. Neither of those things are true for Oklahoma. Bradford will read the holes in Florida's defense, and he has half a dozen targets to choose from. The Gators can't cheat to help Haden. He'll need to play top-flight football, because he'll be playing it without a net.

Gresham, Oklahoma's outstanding tight end, presents a particular match-up problem for the Gators. UF does have the advantage of two corners with above-average physical strength; Haden and Janoris Jenkins are big hitters. But Gresham's 6-6 and 261 pounds; neither Haden nor Jenkins are six feet tall. And throwing a linebacker on him is problematic as well. Brandon Spikes doesn't really have the speed or overall athleticism to cover Gresham, and besides, you don't want Spikes running down the field in pass coverage. You want him in the box, blowing up Brown or whoever else Oklahoma uses to run the football. Dustin Doe is fast enough for the job, but he's not big enough to physically handle Gresham.

UF's best option might be true freshman Will Hill, which is kind of scary. He's more than fast enough to cover Gresham, and his size (6'2, more than 210 pounds) means Gresham won't be able to physically intimidate him. That's not a great option, but it's the best I can come up with right now.

But the Gators' biggest problem is along the defensive line. Oklahoma's offensive line is massive. The Sooners have allowed just 11 sacks all season, the 3rd-best figure in the country. Florida, meanwhile, is just 32nd in the country in sacks; they've picked up 32 all season long. That's not a bad figure, but it's not a good one either, and when combined with Oklahoma's skill in pass protection, it's hard to see UF knocking Bradford down with much frequency.

A pass rush is the great equalizer: a bad QB, throwing to bad receivers, is still going to have success if he can stand untouched in the pocket and wait for someone to come open. Conversely, a great QB, throwing to great receivers, is rendered impotent if he has to run for his life on every play. The worst thing a defense can do is give a great quarterback all the time in the world to throw to great receivers.

Florida knows that better than most. The Gators turned 2006 Heisman Trophy winner Troy Smith into a shattered shell of himself because Jarvis Moss and Derrick Harvey eviscerated Ohio State's offensive line. If they can't put at least a little pressure on Bradford, the Gators are going to have to score more than 50 points to win.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Because It's Never Too Early to be Wrong

We're about a month away from Barack Obama's inauguration. We're also separated by about a week from my last post, which is an entirely ridiculous length of time. With that in mind, as well as the relative lack of news in these pre-Christmas days, I figured it would be the perfect time to write about the 2012 presidential campaign.

Specifically the Republican field. (Let us assume Obama will win the Democratic nomination. That's the kind of insightful analysis you come to this blog to read) It is, at this absurdly, ridiculously early date, a wide-open competition. That's not to say it's a particularly impressive field, but it is intriguing, insofar as there are no clear-cut favorites, no incumbents or titans to suck up all the oxygen. Let's start with the man I'm most confident will enter the race.

Mitt Romney
A number of outlets have reported that Romney is already laying the groundwork for a 2012 run. Obviously there's a lot that can change between now and then, but a Romney candidacy seems like a foregone conclusion at this point.

Romney's second-biggest problem is that voters universally (and justifiably) consider him a snake. He doesn't seem to have any foundation, any bedrock principles define his life and political career. People look at him and wonder, "Is there anything he won't compromise to win an election?" His performance in the Michigan primary was notably tacky, as he excoriated John McCain making the self-evidently correct point that a lot of the manufacturing jobs that had left Detroit weren't coming back. It worked in a tactical sense, as he won Michigan, but it was a low moment, and it didn't help Romney in the longer view.

I don't think that's a mortal wound, however. Romney exudes sleaze, yes. But he also exudes a bare minimum of competence and intelligence, and he has a legitimately impressive business background. That would serve him well in a hypothetical general election showdown with Obama.

Let's be blunt here: Obama's a better candidate and politician than anyone in this field. The only chance the GOP has to beat him in 2012 is if the economy remains in a torpor or if Obama's repeatedly bungled a series of foreign crises. (And the latter might not even be enough. Bush won re-election in 2004 despite 9/11 and the disaster in Iraq) If that's the case, it's eminetly possible that voters will swallow their personal distaste for Romney and vote for the guy who knows what a derivative is.

If Romney's impressive chameleon impression is his second-biggest flaw, his biggest is that he's a better general election candidate than a primary candidate. The conservative base embraced Romney late in the process, once it became clear that McCain had the nomination within his reach, but it was an awkward, resentful hug. Romney's still going to be a Mormon in 2012, and there's little reason to think that will become more acceptable to the religious base in four years time.

Oh, and Romney kind of sucks as a politician. I'm not sure how a guy who gets elected twice to be governor of Massachusetts is so comically tone deaf, but Romney pulls it off.

Sarah Palin
I've made it abundantly clear that Governor Palin is way up there on my list of least favorite people. But strictly within the context of a Republican primary, she's a force to be reckoned with. She would electrify the base like no one else, and if she's smart enough to hire the right advisers, she might be able to turn that energy into a fund-raising and organizational machine modeled on the 2008 Obama operation. In places like Iowa, where organization and energy are key, she could be a dynamo.

The Republican intelligentsia hates her, considers her a toxin in the party's veins and would undoubtedly devote all their efforts to keep her from becoming the new standard-bearer. The party's corporate underwriters aren't going to embrace her until they absolutely have to. She wouldn't have an easy road. But it's easy to imagine her blowing out the field in Iowa, ignoring New Hampshire, rolling to victory in conservative South Carolina and positioning herself as the early frontrunner. And if there's one thing the Republican Party hates, it's a brutal, drawn-out internecine struggle for the nomination. If she pulls off what I just described, there's going to be a lot of pressure to jump on the Palin bandwagon.

If Romney's a better general election candidate than a primary candidate, Palin's facing the opposite problem. She might seem genuine, but she doesn't exude competence or intelligence. And if the conditions in 2012 are difficult enough to make the public reconsider Obama, the American people aren't going to be in any mood to trust a crisis to someone like Palin. And I don't think there's anything she can do in four years to transform her image into that of a pragmatic, competent problem solver.

Mike Huckabee
Palin and Huckabee are the only two Republicans to come out of the 2008 campaign at a higher level than the one at which they began it. For Palin, that comes with certain caveats. More people like her than did before McCain chose her and she has far more influence than she used to, but she's also built up a healthy unfavorability rating with everyone outside the Republican base.

Huckabee, by contrast, is relatively well-liked by everyone and loathed by no one. He has that unique gift for packaging fairly immoderate positions (revoking the income tax, among others) in a pleasing package. Huckabee's a comforting politician: he speaks softly, with genuine wit and humor. He talks eloquently about sensitivity and decency and reforming the Republican Party so that it centers on those concepts.

For those reasons, as well as for concerns about his fiscal discipline, he was never embraced by the religious base to which he was supposed to appeal. The big money pillars of the party didn't like him very much. Really, his biggest fans were in the travelling press corps, and that's another easy way of guaranteeing distrust from conservatives.

Still, he seems more acceptable to primary voters than Romney and more attractive to general election voters than Palin, though he'll be hurt by the long, intense media scrutiny of his positions that comes after winning the party's nomination. My favorite Republican, though that means nothing.

Bobby Jindal
Jindal's greatest appeal is that he played no part in the 2008 debacle. He's not tarred by any of the 500 hundreds little defeats the party suffered this cycle. If the party needs a fresh face, there are fewer visages fresher or more appealing than Jindal's.

Jindal's very conservative: the National Right to Life Committee gives him a 100 percent pro-life voting record for his time in Congress, and Governor Jindal does not support any exceptions to the pro-life position. All of that, as well as his deep religious faith, will appeal to the Republican base.

It might give him trouble in the general election: the country is deeply divided on the abortion question, but most Americans support some exceptions to a ban on abortions. Obama's team would undoubtedly have a bevvy of ads attacking Jindal's position, as well as an army of female surrogates who would hit the morning shows and speak at rallies.

But I go back to what I wrote earlier: if the circumstances are such in 2012 that the Republicans actually have a chance to beat Obama, ideology might be less of a concern for voters than competence. And Jindal has a number of those bullet points on his resume: an efficient evacution before Hurricane Gustav, balancing the budget of the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals when he was its head, etc.

If nothing else, nominating Jindal would be a nice way for the party to prove that it's not a collection of old white guys stuck in Nixon's culture wars. (Put your hand down, Governor Palin) It would take at least a little of the moral highground from the Democrats on the diversity issue, though I suspect the Dems aren't going to let anyone forget that they nominated and elected the first African-American president in American history.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Furcalled From Atlanta

Well, that'll teach me to jump the gun.

Rafael Furcal is not returning to Atlanta. Once again, this isn't official just yet, and we saw what happened the last time I jumped on an unofficial Furcal story, but it seems safe to say that this one is a done deal.

The Braves' agreement with Furcal quite obviously was not. There's been a lot of talk about the "term sheet" Frank Wren sent to Paul Kinzer, Furcal's agent, early Tuesday morning. According to Dave O'Brien of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, these sheets are considered "gold" in the baseball community. Agents don't request them unless they consider a deal struck. Kinzer isn't explicitly denying that Wren sent him the term sheet, but he emphasized that he didn't have a "signed contract" with the Braves.

There's going to be an annoying back-and-forth over the next few days between Kinzer and the Braves, but right now the most logical interpretation is that Kinzer used the Braves to extract more money and more years out of the Dodgers. (LA was unwilling to guarantee a third year before these last couple of days) This is a high-powered game Kinzer and Wren are playing, so it's probably naive to express shock when an agent pulls something like this kind of thing for a client. Furcal quite clearly didn't want to leave Los Angeles, which I guess is understandable. Some people find sitting in traffic very calming.

But this has been an infuriating off-season, with Wren unable to close the deal on a few big-time transactions. First it was withdrawing from the Jake Peavy talks. Then it was getting out-bid by the Yankees for AJ Burnett. And now the mess with Furcal.

Taken individually, none of those are disastrous and all are understandable. Kevin Towers was asking for a pound of flesh in exchange for Peavy, and Wren made the logical decision to keep his skin intact. Lots of teams have been out-bid by the Yankees, and I can't say it fills me with sadness to know the Braves won't be paying Burnett $16 million a year for the next five seasons. And Wren certainly seems to have done everything right in trying to sign Furcal; if he doesn't want to leave LA, he doesn't want to leave LA, and nothing short of an absurd contract would entice him to do so. Besides all that, as I wrote yesterday, I'm not even sure Furcal is better than incumbent shortstop Yunel Escobar.

But when you come into the off-season with set goals, money to spend and a solid minor league system to draw upon, it's at once perplexing and distressing when no one seems willing to take your cash. Wren's throwing money at players, but no one's biting.

There's a bigger problem here, namely, Atlanta's repeated issues with agents. It was no secret that John Schuerholz loathed Scott Boras in the last several years of his tenure, and Boras made no secret of the fact that the feeling was mutual. Considering that Boras represents some of the best players in the game and that Schuerholz, despite his feelings, kept trading for his clients, that was inconvenient.

Still, everyone hates Boras and certain teams refuse to deal with him at all. But now it seems like there's yet another agent the Braves have on their verboten list. This is growing tiresome.

Again, all of these incidents have reasonable explanations. Boras held a grudge against Schuerholz for going behind his back and signing Andruw Jones to an extension back in 2001 by dealing with Andruw's father. And now Kinzer pulls this stint.

Ultimately, however, the agent works for the player. If Furcal wanted to be a Brave, he'd be a Brave. Atlanta wanted him and had the money to give him a reasonable offer. No, Rafael Furcal just did not want to be a Brave. And that raises troublesome questions about the state of the franchise and the way in which the rest of baseball regards it.

Where do the Braves go from here? Damned if I know. They're still looking for that second pitcher, and Wren keeps saying he wants a power bat in the outfield. Derrick Lowe and Ben Sheets are possibilities for that first criteria, but no realistic names have been raised to fill the second. (The Braves aren't signing Pat Burrell.)

It wouldn't be a disaster if the Braves whiffed on all those names and went into spring training intent on a full rebuilding effort. They could draw final conclusions on the futures of young pitchers Jo Jo Reyes and Charlie Morton and perhaps break in top prospects Jordan Schafer and Tommy Hanson. That might be a recipe for 100 losses, a tough pill to swallow for this organization, but sometimes you suffer today in the hope your future will be bright.

Of course, if the Braves end up doing that, the Javier Vazquez trade is going to look utterly pointless. Much like the entire off-season.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Furcalled Back to Atlanta

The deal isn't officially official yet, but all indications are that Rafael Furcal is returning to Atlanta on a three-year deal. Details are obviously sketchy right now, but various reports say that the contract costs about $30 million and includes a vesting option for the fourth year. Furcal's still in the Dominican Republic, his agent says there's no agreement yet and Furcal would still have to pass a physical, no small thing for a player who missed most of 2008 with a back injury.

It's an interesting move, those caveats notwithstanding. I don't know if Furcal's actually better than Yunel Escobar at this point. Furcal's a better baserunner, and he was having a great season (.357/.439/.573) before the back injury struck him down. But Escobar hit .288/.366/.401 as a 25 year old, and according to The Fielding Bible, he was the second-best defensive shortstop in the game, making 21 plays more than the average shortstop. Furcal's at an age where he's likely to decline, and Escobar's not in danger of falling off the cliff any time soon.

So the question then becomes what happens in the middle infield. Furcal's agent says that the Braves have talked to his client about moving to second base, which would leave Escobar entrenched at short and shift Kelly Johnson back to left field. It seems like a rather crummy thing to do to Johnson, who battled the outfield to a draw in 2005, moved to second base in 2007 and adapted to a difficult position with relative alacrity and adroitness.

Mark Bowman, who covers the Braves for MLB.com and usually serves as a shill for the organization, says that's the plan. It's an appealing idea, because it allows the Braves to keep Escobar and Johnson, bring Furcal into the fold and move a competent bat to the outfield. Johnson had a 108 OPS+ last year, which isn't particularly good for a corner outfielder, but he'll be just 27 next year and can look forward to some improvement. And when you've watched Gregor Blanco, Jeff Francoeur and Matt Diaz flail around at the plate, the idea of getting some production from the outfield is appealing.

Notwithstanding all that, however, an Escobar trade seems to be a distinct possibility. He was the centerpiece of the Jake Peavy talks. While all reports say that the Braves and Padres have not re-ignited those conversations, doing so is as simple as pressing a few buttons on a cell phone. In this scenario, the "Furcal to second, Johnson to left" chatter is a clever little headfake designed to give Frank Wren some plausible deniability in those trade talks.

"Escobar? Yeah, I might be willing to trade him. Don't need to. We'll just move Furcal to second, Johnson to left and keep Yunel at short. You know, now that I say it aloud, that sounds like a really good idea. I'll talk to you later Opposing General Manager, I have to go draw up a 36-year contract extention for Escobar."

Wren is still looking for that second starting pitcher, and Escobar's his best asset in that quest. If the Braves sign Frank Wolf or some other random shlub, it's probably an indicator that Escobar and Johnson are sticking around for awhile. (One of them could still go in a deal for a slugging outfielder)

Sunday, December 14, 2008

The Politics of "Terror."

Interesting column today from The New York Times' public editor, Clark Hoyt. Hoyt writes about an issue that's been a sore spot for me for a long time, so I gobbled this up eagerly.

When should journalists describe purveyors of violence as "terrorists" and when should they use the less polarizing "militants?" What attacks on civilians are "terrorism?" What are "terrorist groups" and what are "militant groups" or "extremist groups?"

Those questions have bedeviled reporters for years, specifically as it regards the Israeli-Palestinian conflicts. Hoyt spends the first half of his column on the Mumbai attacks, but it becomes clear pretty quickly that most reporters had no problems affixing the terrorism label there. The real controversy in the piece is in Hoyt's description of The Times' attitude toward the Middle East.

"Terrorism" is a tricky word for journalists because there's a moral judgment inherent in its use, and reporters aren't comfortable making moral judgments in complex situations. It puts the writer on a ledge, clearly labeling one side as wrong and the other as right. That cuts against the grain of years of training.

Some organizations have solved that dilemma by deciding that they will not use any form of the word "terror" to describe Palestinian attacks on Israeli civilians. The BBC is the biggest offender here, but Reuters acts similarly. This isn't objectivity; it's gutless, spineless, soulless "journalism" of the worst kind, sapping the humanity out of reporters and draining the outrage from stories that frankly demand a little righteous indignation.

Yes, "terrorist" has strong implications, but blowing yourself up on a school bus or shooting rockets into a major city is a strong act. It seems inconceivable to use the polite word choice in describing those who would commit such crimes.

The Times' approach is more nuanced than the BBC's; they (accurately) described Samir Kuntar as a terrorist. The usage is not universal: Hoyt quotes a memo on the subject written by James Bennet, the editor of The Atlantic and formerly The Times' Jerusalem bureau chief. Bennet wrote that he initially refused to use the word "terrorism," instead relying on a vivid description of the act in question to get the point across. Bennet eventually changed his mind, saying that "felt so morally neutral as to be a little sickening."

So far so good. But Bennet's memo goes off the rails when he settles on the following rough rule:

He would use the words, when they fit, to describe attacks within Israel’s 1948 borders but not in the occupied West Bank or Gaza, which Israel and the Palestinians have been contending over since Israel took them in 1967. When a gunman infiltrated a settlement and killed a 5-year-old girl in her bed, Bennet did not call it terrorism. “All I could do was default to my first approach and describe the attack and the victims as vividly as I could.”
Hoyt disagrees, and I'm with him. However, I'll go even further than Hoyt: Bennet's attitude here is, frankly, disgusting and more than a little horrific.

Every reporter, every writer, knows that his words have deep implications. I talked about that already; many journalists refuse to use the word "terrorism" because the implication is that the so-described act is morally unjustifiable and that those hurt by the attack are innocents undeserving of the violence.

Describing an attacker as a "militant" or...well, as an "attacker" and refusing to use the word "terrorism" sends a different kind of message. No one would be so harsh as to claim that Bennet thinks the five-year-old girl deserved her fate.

But in some small, perhaps even miniscule, way, Bennet, by refusing to describe brutal acts of terrorism in the West Bank as terrorism, is saying that little girl was less a victim than an individual in Tel Aviv or a Manhattan office worker on September 11. In that small, perhaps miniscule way, he's saying that acts of violence directed at civilians in the West Bank are more justifiable than the attacks in Mumbai.

It might be small or even miniscule, but linguistic wars are usually fought over inches, not miles. Language is the only weapon a reporter has, and those small distinctions between words make all the difference in the moral tone of a piece.

I'm not ignorant of the complexities in this conflict. I don't think every Israeli wears a white hat and every Palestinian a black hat. But for all the gray in the region, there has to be at least a little good and a little evil. And it seems that everyone in a civilized world should look with disgust at the murder of a five-year-old girl in her bed, no matter if she lives in a West Bank settlement. If we can't condemn that, if we can't unequivocally call that unjustifiable slaughter "terrorism," then we've fallen so far into soulless moral relativism as to eviscerate any moral fabric that still remains in this world.

I don't agree with everything Hoyt says in the column. The Times refuses to call Hamas a terrorist organization, and Hoyt agrees with that decision. It's worth noting that Israel and the US aren't the only countries to call Hamas a terrorist organization. The European Union, frequently hostile to Israel, uses that label, as does Canada. So Hamas as a terrorist group is not a fringe view held by a paranoid Likud government and a US State Department in the thrall of the Elders of Zion.

To the consternation of many, the Times does not call Hamas a terrorist organization, though it does sponsor acts of terror against Israel. Hamas was elected to govern Gaza. It provides social services and operates charities, hospitals and clinics. Corbett said: "You get to the question: Somebody works in a Hamas clinic - is that person a terrorist? We don't want to go there." I think that is right.
("Corbett" is Phil Corbett, the deputy to news editor Paul Winfield.)

This argument is staggeringly unpersuasive. Hamas is an organization that repeatedly and unapologetically launched suicide attacks aimed at innocent Israeli civilians. (James Bennet will be satisfied to hear that many of those civilians live in Israel proper, so they truly are innocent civilians, instead of slightly-less-innocent five-year-old girls in the West Bank.) It's an organization that has killed women and children and bragged about it. By Hoyt's admission, it sponsors terrorism. It is a terrorist organization.

Yes, it runs the Gaza government and administers various hospitals and charities. That does not change the fact that Hamas is a terrorist organization, any more than Al Capone's mob protecting downtrodden Italian families in Chicago and handing out Christmas geese made it less of a mob engaged in organized crime.

Corbett's logic doesn't follow. Is the doctor working at a Hamas-run clinic a terrorist? No, because he doesn't engage in terroristic acts. He doesn't try to kill Israeli civilians and terrorize the government into enacting policies he wants. You can construct an argument where everyone who helps Hamas gain the approval of the Gaza citizenry is a terrorist, but no one makes that claim, and to use that extreme distortion of logic to justify a morally neutral label for Hamas is, again, spineless.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Burnett? More like BurNOT a Brave!

Braves lose AJ Burnett to Yankees.

I have two reactions to this news:

1. God, I hate those freaking Yankees.

2. God, I love those freaking Yankees.

The Braves came into the off-season intent on adding two relatively top-flight starters. If you stretch the definition of "relatively top-flight starter" to its breaking point, Javier Vazquez probably qualifies as the first. That second starter, it seems, is going to be harder to find.

Frank Wren first struck out on Jake Peavy, understandable considering how intransigent Padres GM Kevin Towers has been in those negotiations. Burnett was at the top of Wren's free agent shopping list and was probably Plan A before Towers decided to shop Peavy.

I hate those freaking Yankees because, while I've never been a salary cap proponent, it's infuriating to watch them swoop in and sign without a second thought a player who would be a massive expenditure for Atlanta. And after signing the best starting pitcher on the market (CC Sabathia), inking the second-best pitcher just seems overkill and...well, unfair. It'll be even more galling if New York signs Derek Lowe, the third-best pitcher available and possibly Plan C for Wren. (I'm hoping for Ben Sheets, though if you think Burnett's a health risk...) If Sheets and Lowe don't work out, Wren will probably turn to Randy Wolf, and no matter how far you stretch the definition of "top-flight starter," Randy Wolf sure as hell doesn't fit.

On the other hand, I love those freaking Yankees because I don't know that a team in the Braves' situation needs to throw $80 million and five years (Atlanta's reported best offer) at a 32-year-old pitcher who's thrown 200 innings just three times in his career. (Two of those coming in free agent walk years) $80 million is no big thing for the Yankees; should Burnett tank in New York, it will annoy the various Steinbrenners, but it'll be just that: an annoyance. With overflowing revenue streams pouring into the Bronx from the YES Network and a new Yankee Stadium, the Yankees can throw money around with only perfunctory thoughts given to the possible consequences. Ultimately, that's the difference between the Yankees and a team like the Braves: an AJ Burnett-sized mistake would cripple Atlanta for half a decade. It wouldn't faze the Yankees.

In that respect, the Braves got lucky here. Burnett's fragility is somewhat overstated, but there's no denying that he's a risk. It might be a risk worth taking if the Braves were one pitcher away from contention, but to repeat something I've written before, Atlanta is not Javier Vazquez and AJ Burnett away from competing with the Phillies and Mets. And I don't know that the Braves can count on Burnett being a big part of their next championship team.

According to Braves.com, Atlanta's rotation right now is Vasquez-Jair Jurrjens-Jorge Campillo-Jo Jo Reyes-Charlie Morton, with James Parr hoping to break in to that gang. Considering how bad Reyes and Morton were last year, it's probably not a good idea to rely on both of them. Slotting one veteran pitcher into the rotation behind Vazquez and Jurrjens would move Campillo to the fourth position and let the Parr/Morton/Reyes threesome battle it out in spring training. Wolf's not a particularly good pitcher, but on a one-year contract, there's no real harm bringing him into the fold.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Starkville: The Mogadishu of the United States

No official announcement yet, but by every indication UF offensive coordinator Dan Mullen will be the new head coach at Mississippi State.

I'll get into the ramifications of that in a minute, but I do want to write a few lines about Mullen's evolution. He's incredibly young by football standards, only 36, and when he came over with Urban Meyer from Utah in 2005 he was just 33. The Gators' offense in that 2005 season was pathetic, and not just in comparison to the high-flying Spurrier days. UF was 61st in the country in total offense, 56th in rushing. Poor Chris Leak tried to adapt to a foreign offense while running for his life behind a porous line that allowed 35 sacks on the year. It all culminated in a mid-season loss to LSU that featured what had to have been one of the worst offensive performances in Florida history. Mullen was not a popular guy in Gator Nation after that season.

He wasn't substantially more popular in 2006 despite the national championship. UF's offense, while statistically superior and notably more explosive than the 2005 unit, was inconsistent, as was the quality of Mullen's play-calling. He'd call a great game (the first half of the loss to Auburn) only to degenerate into predictability and ineffectiveness. (The second half of the loss to Auburn, the third quarter of the SEC Championship Game against Arkansas)

The talk died down slightly in 2007 as the Tim Tebow-led offense racked up huge numbers. Tebow won the Heisman and gave much of the credit to Mullen, who also acts as Florida's QB coach. Some still grumbled, as UF's offense sputtered in the fourth quarter of every one of the team's four losses, but it was hard to criticize him.

That criticism exploded to the fore this year after the Mississippi loss and actually intensified further after UF's relatively unimpressive victory over Arkansas. It was no longer possible to rationalize the offense's failings; the 2005 team had an awful line and precious few wide receivers of any value. The 2008 squad had all the talent needed to be a behemoth and Mullen was in the SEC long enough to know how to call plays in the conference. Mullen was dangerously close to falling off the cliff.

Then came the flawless win over LSU, a win that was followed by an extraordinary stretch of dominating football. And all of a sudden, the offensive coordinator of that juggernaut became a highly valued commodity.

It will be a struggle for Mullen at Mississippi State. Ole Miss is a much more prestigious university, has a much more prestigious football team and is, in innumerable ways, a more desirable place than MSU. He's not taking over a talent laden team, and the Bulldogs don't have the playmakers to successfully run a spread offense.

The more immediate concern is how this announcement will affect Florida in the National Championship Game. (Wooo!) As The Gainesville Sun story I linked indicated, there's as yet no word on whether Mullen will stick around for the game. I suspect he will. The pundits are already drawing comparisons to Mark Richt in 2000, when he took the Georgia job while preparing Florida State's gameplan for the national championship game against... Oklahoma. (Seriously, this is some Twilight Zone stuff) FSU's previously explosive offense sputtered, scoring zero points in FSU's 13-2 loss.

On the other hand, Bo Pellini took the Nebraska job while preparing LSU's defense for last year's championship game and the Tigers dominated Ohio State. And Urban Meyer himself served two masters in late 2004, preparing his Utah team for the Fiesta Bowl while recruiting for Florida. Utah eviscerated Pittsburgh, though that Panthers squad was probably the worst team to ever play in a BCS bowl. So there are certainly some positive precedents here.

It's hard to say until the details are clear, but if you figure that Mullen's departure was essentially inevitable, than this is as good a time as any for it to happen. It's early in the process, and you can hope (pray?) that the media will exhaust its distraction questions relatively soon. Better to deal with questions about whether this will distract the team than to answer "will he or won't he" questions with non-denial denials for the next month.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Officially Official, Part 2

Greg Maddux retired today, making official what agent Scot Boras announced a few days ago. This is the second time in five years I’ve had to write a sad, sad Maddux-related song.

It was roughly this time five years ago that the Braves declined to offer Maddux salary arbitration, ending his decade-long tenure with Atlanta. At the time, I didn’t know what hurt more: the fact that the Braves waved goodbye to my favorite player, that it was the right thing to do (Maddux’s stats were slipping while his age kept creeping upward) or the fact that so few Braves fans seemed to care all that much. When Tom Glavine left in 2002 there was an uproar, and Maddux was always a better pitcher than Glavine.

I suppose I should have been happy that most fans were looking at this fairly objectively and not succumbing to the emotion of the moment. And yet it’s more than a little discouraging that Greg Maddux could pitch brilliantly in Atlanta for a decade and not inspire any kind of fanatical devotion. In fact, Maddux never seemed to inspire any great degree of loyalty from the masses of fans. I suppose it’s because of the way Maddux pitched; even in his truly dominant days he never LOOKED truly dominant. To ask a fan to remember Maddux’s greatness is to ask them to remember events that never happened: remember the home runs he never gave up because he was so good at keeping the ball down, remember the walks he never issued because he had such exquisite command of everything he threw, remember the pitches he never had to throw because he was so efficient.

In a bizarre kind of way, even his respectable strikeout numbers worked against him. Maddux struck out 6.05 batters per nine innings and pitched long enough to rack up more strikeouts than all but 10 pitchers in the history of Major League Baseball. He certainly would have earned more gasps had he struck out a greater number, but I think he would have been a greater curiosity if he had success without striking anyone out. Extremes are interesting. They grab our attention and our memories and they don’t let go. A fireballing strikeout artist? Fascinating. A soft-tosser who couldn’t strike out a Little Leaguer? Fascinating. But Maddux never pitched to the poles. He occupied his own, dominant center, striking out five or six and inducing a collection of yawn-inducing groundballs.

It’s more than just that, of course. There was the whole Javy Lopez issue, which seems to have angered a large segment of the Braves’ fanbase enough that Maddux has been truly tainted in their eyes. One would think that if the price of watching one of the greatest pitchers of all-time practice his craft for a decade was having to watch Paul Bako try to hit every fifth day, it would be an easy bill to pay. Evidently not. And it’s not like Maddux is the first Hall of Famer to have a personal catcher. Steve Carlton’s insistence on throwing to his own catcher unleashed Tim McCarver on an unsuspecting public. Men have been convicted of crimes against humanity for less than that.

“Experts” will bring up Maddux’s postseason won/loss record. Constantly. And they will use that laughably flawed statistic in a pathetic attempt to prove that somehow Maddux choked in clutch situations or that he simply isn’t cut out to pitch in the postseason, as if it’s Maddux’s fault that the Braves couldn’t touch Mark Prior or Orlando Hernandez.

And so we had this most bizarre of situations: one of the greatest pitcher’s of all-time is about to leave and most fans seem happy about it. Hardly any mourned the loss; just a few dorky kids who thought they saw in Maddux the slightest glimmer of themselves.

For them- ok, for us -Maddux was a great pitcher, yes. But he was more than that. He was the personification of the idea that greatness doesn’t have a preferred aesthetic; it could be short and near-sighted and more than a little overweight. He was a constant reminder that brilliance didn’t need to always roar and shout at the top of its lungs in a perpetual attention grab; it could be quiet and understated and yet still be as fiercely dedicated as any of the screamers.

Maddux was the pitcher for those of us who were cursed to love a game we could not play, the talent deprived multitude who watch with as much passion as anyone else.

That’s ridiculous of course and is brutally unfair to Maddux. He’s more talented than 99% of the human beings on the face of the Earth, and has a stronger arm than any of us could ever dream of.

And yet that feeling is still there when we watch Maddux slice through an inning in 8 pitches and then see Jorge Julio’s 97 MPH fastballs end up in the left field seats. It was terribly inspiring.

I can’t exactly say that Maddux has been overlooked by the national media. He won four Cy Youngs and 18 Gold Gloves and made eight All Star games. He’ll win election to the Hall of Fame with an overwhelming majority. So it’s not like he’s gone under-the-radar.

But the acknowledgments of Maddux’s brilliance always seemed perfunctory, as if the sheer of force of his brilliance forced the pundits’ hands. They’d give their praise, shake their heads at his body of work and then move on to a more explosive personality, a more interesting character; Clemens or Pedro or any of a dozen others.

That makes this day a sad one, but also a satisfying one, because it’s his day and no one else’s. The cameras are on Maddux. He’s the topic of conversation. It’s not what he has ever wanted, but it’s certainly what he deserves.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Officially Official

Florida to face Oklahoma in the National Championship Game. The first time these schools will play each other.

There's obviously a lot of time before January 8 to analyze the match-up, but here's what I've come up with off the top of my head: both teams have such explosive offenses that the team that can make an occasional stop will win. And Florida's got a better defense than Oklahoma. The question is whether the difference between UF's offense and Oklahoma's defense is greater than the difference between Oklahoma's offense and UF's defense.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Florida 31, Alabama 20

I don't know if Tim Tebow is going to win the Heisman this year. I don't know if, strictly speaking, he deserves. Graham Harrell, Sam Bradford and Colt McCoy are extraordinary quarterbacks, and if you want to say that any of them should win the award this year, I won't argue.

But there is no one on Earth I'd rather have quarterbacking my alma mater.

All the hype, all the fawning adulation Gator fans were accused of showering on Tebow, it was justified. All of it. If there was any doubt of that before tonight, if a Heisman Trophy and otherworldly numbers and a laudable personal life were not enough to convince you, Tebow made skepticism untenable with his performance. Florida won the SEC Championship and almost certainly earned another berth in a national championship game because of Tebow.

He had help, of course. Jeff Demps didn't do anything spectacular, but the diminutive true freshman carried the load as Florida's primary running back. Riley Cooper caught two huge passes, including the game clinching touchdown. Aaron Hernandez took a shovel pass and rumbled for a crucial first down and also climbed the ladder to make a wonderful catch. And senior Louis Murphy played brilliantly in his final conference game.

But this was Tebow's night. Much was made about the lack of a fourth quarter comeback on Tebow's resume; he had never won a game when Florida trailed at any point in the fourth quarter. Well, the Gators entered the fourth quarter trailing 20-17, thanks to a dominating and demoralizing performance by Alabama in the third quarter. The Tide started the second half down 17-10, but rolled up and down the field on UF's depleted defensive line, keeping Tebow and UF's offense off the field. Alabama running back Glen Coffee rolled through the massive holes his offensive line opened, and the Gators could not cover freshman phenom Julio Jones.

And with his arm and with his legs Tebow hauled Florida to a championship. Percy Harvin didn't set foot on the field, and UF's offense definitely suffered for it. As mentioned, Demps couldn't find much running room. Chris Rainey was surprisingly absent from the game plan, carrying the ball only once. Brandon James was ineffective. Even Louis Murphy carried the ball for the first time all year. It was on Tebow to perform magic; he carried the ball 17 times and completed 14 passes in 22 attempts for 216 yards and three touchdowns.

With 14:42 left in the game, Florida took over at its own 38. 11 plays (nine rushes) and 5:47 later, Tebow pitched to Demps on the option for a short touchdown. The Gators took a 24-20 lead and Alabama would get the ball back with 9:21 to go.

It was then that Florida's defensive line, ravaged by injuries and pushed all game by Alabama's o-line, rose to the challenge and finally grabbed the sputtering torch left by the dominant 2006 defense. On 3rd and 8, Jermaine Cunningham sacked Alabama QB John Parker-Wilson for a loss of 11 yards. The Tide punted.

Alabama's defense, 70,000 people in the Georgia Dome and everyone watching at home waited for Florida to grind out a long drive with just 7:27 left in the game. Instead, after gaining a first down on the ground, offensive coordinator Dan Mullen put the ball in the air. Tebow connected with Murphy on a beautiful 33-yard fade route down the right sideline. On the next play, Tebow rifled a pass high to Hernandez, who made the biggest catch of his life in leaping high in the Georgia sky and reeling in the throw for 15 yards.

Tebow carved his legacy into granite in the plays that followed. He gained five yards on first and goal from the Alabama six, but a sideline infraction pushed Florida back five yards. Demps was stuffed on 2nd and goal.

But on 3rd and goal, Tebow hit his roommate Cooper on a perfectly thrown slant pattern in the endzone. Alabama had some time left, but Joe Haden intercepted Parker-Wilson on a desperation throw on the next drive.

Tim Tebow was the star tonight, but I have to give myself some props as well. Before the Florida basketball team's 2006 National Championship Game against UCLA, I raced do a university convenience store and bought a one pound value bag of Rold Gold pretzels. A year later, I bought the same pretzels at the Macclenny Super Wal-Mart.

I broke out the Gator Good Luck Pretzels again tonight. And again, they came through. You better believe I'm buying a back before the national championship game, assuming the Gators reach that point.

Friday, December 5, 2008

SEC Championship Preview

This Alabama-Florida match-up is catnip for the media because it perfectly fits into the kind of black and white, dichotomous narrative that makes for great (and easy) copy.

Alabama! Old-school! Tradition! Bear Bryant!

Florida! Nouveau riche! Fresh! Rash!

Alabama! Smash mouth! GamesAreWonInTheTrenches! Tough!

Florida! Finessee! Speed! Gimmicky offense! Five wide receivers...five wide receivers!

The stories practically write themselves. It's like a kid's movie. One team pounds the ball behind a massive offensive line, suffocates opposing offenses and grinds them into dust. The other team uses clever formations and pure speed to run by defenses and leave them gasping for air.

But in a shocking development, things are rarely so simple. Alabama is the team committed to the running game and pounding the ball, except Florida has the 10th-best running game in the country while Alabama checks in at 22nd. Alabama's all about defense while Florida's team revolves around a high-powered offense, except the Gators actually have the 7th best defense in the country. (Alabama's better, to be sure) Alabama has the dominant offensive line in this game, anchored by future NFL star Andre Smith, except Florida has allowed one fewer sack than the Crimson Tide. Alabama has the dominant defensive line and Saban's a master at crafting exotic blitz packages that put QBs to the turf, except Florida ranks 23rd in the country in sacks while Bama checks in at 57th. Those exotic blitz packages cause turnovers, but it's Florida that's third in the country in turnovers forced, while Alabama is just 40th.

But the narrative has a force and power all its own, so we get smash mouth v. finesse. (Ask SEC defensive backs if they see any element of finesse with Tim Tebow) We also get a lot of talk about Florida's injuries, but maybe not the most important ones.

Most of the attention has focused on Percy Harvin and his trick ankle, which he sprained against FSU. In another shocking development, Urban Meyer has been relatively tight-lipped about his star. It's a high ankle sprain, but that's about all we know. Meyer won't say whether Harvin will play Saturday; he's one of those infamous "game time decisions." All that said, I can't imagine Percy is going to sit this one out. He was huge in the 2006 SEC Championship Game and the Georgia Dome turf can only make him more dangerous. The question isn't whether he'll play, but rather how effective he'll be, and there's no way to answer that. Without information it's impossible to make an informed guess; Harvin could be anything from a barely mobile decoy to a fully armed and operational battle station.

Harvin's an extraordinary player, but Meyer can come close to replicating his contributions with Jeff Demps and Chris Rainey. More of a concern is the defensive line, where two players (Matt Patchan and Brandon Antwine) are out for the season after suffering serious injuries; Antwine joins Florida's lengthy list of ACL tears. Lawrence Marsh is apparently back at 100 percent after playing through pain against Florida State. Against a team with Alabama's rushing attack, that could prove troublesome.

Offensively, the Gators have established the much ballyhooed "identity." Florida's a running team with the ability to go to the air if needed. As mentioned above, UF has the 10th-best rushing attack in the country, and four of the teams ahead of the Gators feature option attacks and never throw the ball. Considering Saban's vaunted ability to to scheme confusing defenses, I see no reason to expect Florida to start throwing the ball around the field as an homage to Steve Spurrier.

While Florida's running game features some traditional option and other plays that get Demps, Rainey and Harvin on the perimeter, the Gators generally run between the tackles, even with the diminutive freshmen. But Alabama can challenge that gameplan like no one else Florida has played. Massive defensive tackle Terrance Cody is almost guaranteed to occupy two of Florida's interior linemen. He's a disruptive force, and if Florida was playing 'Bama at the beginning of the season, when UF had serious issues on the offensive line, he'd probably tear a bloody swath through the Gators. Fortunately Carl Johnson has stepped in at left guard and stabilized the interior line.

I'm predicting a 24-20 win for Florida. This is a dramatic over-simplification, but I think it comes down to this: Alabama has a great defense. Florida has a great defense. Florida has a great offense. Alabama does not.

In other words, Florida can match Alabama's strength. Alabama cannot say the same thing.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

They Have Had Good Luck With Players Named Javier

The Javier Vazquez deal seems pretty much official at this point. Atlanta Journal-Constitution writer David O'Brien says the Braves are giving up minor leaguers Brent Lillibridge, Jon Gilmore, Santos Rodriguez and Tyler Flowers for Vazquez and left-handed reliever Boone Logan. Those names aren't officially official yet, but O'Brien's awfully good at his job, so I'll work under the assumption that he's right here.

The Braves have coveted Vazquez for years, dating back to 2002, when they reportedly refused to trade Horacio Ramirez for him. So the fact that Vasquez is finally a Brave isn't much of a surprise; he was destined to spend time in Atlanta, if only when he turned 42 and started casting about for NRIs.

Fortunately it didn't come to that. Vazquez has never lived up to either his stuff or his peripherals. He had a 4.67 ERA last year despite 200 strikeouts in 208 1/3 innings. His career ERA of 4.32 (just five percent better than league average) is well above what his strikeout rate and K/BB ratio would indicate.

A lot of that is tied up in his home run rate; he's given up more than one home run per 10 innings in every year of his career. Moving away from the American League and New Comiskey Park and setting up shop in Turner Field should help there. What Vasquez does do with consistency is eat innings; since 2000 his lowest innings pitched total is 198, and he's usually well above 210. For a Braves team that's had serious issues keeping pitchers healthy and taking their turn in the rotation, Vazquez's reliability will be helpful.

The biggest loss in the group going to Chicago is Flowers, a powerful catching prospect whose name was thrown around in the aborted Jake Peavy discussions. Flowers hit .288/.427/.494 in the hitter's hell that is Myrtle Beach; he was slightly old for the league, but he backed up that performance by going to the Arizona Fall League and clobbering the pitching there.

Losing Flowers stings. GM Frank Wren can rationalize trading him by pointing out that the Braves have a 24-year-old All Star locked into the catcher's position for the next decade or so. That certainly makes Flowers more expendable. But he was hardly locked into the first base position; Flowers has played 92 games at first base in his minor league career, and playing that position he could conceivably have made it to Atlanta in 2009. It would have required a scorching start in AA and yet more struggles for Casey Kotchman, but it was possible.

Wren's fears on that score were undoubtedly somewhat assuaged by the presence of Freddie Freeman, an 18 year old who put up an .899 OPS in Low-A ball.

The other big loss is shortstop Brent Lillibridge. Lillibridge came over from the Pirates in the January 2007 Adam LaRoche-Mike Gonzalez trade. At that time he was a speedy shortstop with impressive plate discipline and surprising pop. But after two years in the Braves system his best performance came at Richmond in 2007 where he put up an unimpressive .287/.331/.436 line.

His performance cratered last year. He struggled mightily in Atlanta, and that garnered most of the attention from fans, but even in Richmond he only managed to hit .220/.294/.344. Lillibridge struck out 90 times in 355 AAA at-bats, which would be a troublesome rate from a slugging first baseman. For a speedy, diminutive shortstop, it's not going to earn him any friends. It's far too early to shovel dirt on Lillibridge's prospect status, and the White Sox could use a talented young shortstop, but I can't shed too many tears.

I'm not familiar with Gilmore and Rodriguez. Santos struck out scads of hitters in Rookie Ball, but the road to the majors is strewn with the corpses of pitchers who struck out scads of hitters in Rookie Ball. Gilmore became a decent OBP guy in my Baseball Mogul simulations, so he's got that to anticipate.

Strictly as a talent swap I like this deal, and I give it a tentative thumbs up, even with Flowers involved. But I worry about the strategic wisdom of the trade. The whole idea of the "success cycle" has become a tiresome meme (thanks Baseball Prospectus!), but it has some validity. Vazquez is a nice pitcher, but the Braves are not a reliable innings eater away from competing in 2009. Nor are they two good pitchers away from competing. Wren can fill an oil tanker with money and back it up to AJ Burnett's door, but Burnett and Vasquez aren't going to haul Atlanta to Philadelphia's level. Unless Wren adds a slugger at one of the corner outfield positions, the Braves are going to need an otherworldly helping of luck to reach the playoffs in 2009, even with those two pitchers.

If the Braves had passed on Vazquez and held on to Flowers, he might have blown up in AA and pushed his way into Atlanta's lineup. Or they could have dangled an elite catching prospect on the trade market and used him in a deal for a younger asset at a position of need. He could also tank against AA pitching and lose all his value. That's the gamble you take.

Vazquez is signed through 2010 at $11.5 million per year; it appears the Braves will be paying all of that.

Braves Probably Acquire Javier Vasquez

Peter Gammons is reporting that the Braves have struck a tentative deal for White Sox starter Javier Vasquez. (Ignore the headline, which says "Reyes going to Atlanta for Reyes.)

Very few details yet. Gammons thinks young lefty Jo Jo Reyes is involved, but FOX's Ken Rosenthal explicitly says Reyes is not in the trade.

Once we have those details I'll have a longer post. But without those details, and just writing off the top of my head, I give it a tentative thumbs up.