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.

Stimulating Thoughts

Being President is hard. George Bush made darn sure you knew that during the 2004 election, but on the off chance you've either forgotten that election or made the conscious decision to wipe it from your mind, the debate over Barack Obama's $800+ billion stimulus package is a nice reminder.

On the one side, Obama's got a Nobel Prize winning economist repeatedly taking a piece of rebar to his kneecaps on the op-ed page of The New York Times because the package isn't big enough. (Hehehehe) On the other side, he's got an increasingly conservative Republican Party raising hell about every red cent of government spending in the bill. And he's not getting help from the media, which has given the anti-stimulus crowd ample time to air their grievances.

All of which is annoying enough for a standard-issue President, but it's doubly vexing for a man who ran on the idea of bi-partisan cooperation. He quite sincerely wants Republican votes for this bill. That might be for strictly political reasons, or it might be because he legitimately values the opposition's input, but regardless, he has assiduously courted their support.

Here's the thing: it hasn't worked. Obama and his partisans in the House made a number of concessions in an effort to win some GOP support. They threw in more than $300 billion in tax cuts, both as a sop to the Republicans and in order to fulfill some of Obama's campaign promises. They excised some of the "wasteful" spending in the bill, such as $200 million to repair the unimportant National Mall. They cut out the odious, burdensome $200 million that would have helped poor women purchase icky contraceptives.

And for all that, not a single Republican Congressman voted for the stimulus package. This is the reality Obama's facing. The newly elected head of the Republican National Committee praised his colleagues in the House for the "goose egg" they "laid on the President's desk." He has said that "no government in the history of mankind has ever created a job." The Republicans remaining in Washington are simply not inclined to get behind anything Obama proposes.

You could argue that the GOP's non-support in the House was pure obstructionism, a political middle finger raised in defiance at the new guy in the White House. But I'm inclined to be generous, and I think what we saw in the House was simply a dramatic manifestation of the philosophy that reigns in the party. These are deeply conservative men in deeply conservative districts, and they don't believe the federal government should spend money on anything beyond national defense and a big wall along the Mexican border to keep out illegals.

The Senate's a slightly different animal, in that there remains a core of moderate Republicans (Susan Collins, Olympia Snowe, Arlen Specter, etc) who can be won over by the right stimulus bill. And theoretically Obama needs a couple of those names to reach a filibuster proof super-majority.

I get that Obama wants to be bi-partisan, and the Democrats absolutely should be prepared to compromise on some issues. But at some point you have to dig in your heels. If you don't, and you start selling for scrap the infrastructure spending and environmental friendly changes that form the very foundation of the bill, then you have to wonder what the point of being a Democrat is if you're not willing to act like one.

The Democrats have 58 votes. (Counting Joe Lieberman and Bernie Sanders, and if Lieberman's not on board with this, someone really needs to stick Harry Reid in cryogenic stasis until future doctors come up with a way to surgically implant spines) You should be able to induce two Republicans to support a stimulus package containing large amounts of infrastructure spending and green improvements.

If you can't, if the GOP threatens a filibuster, then the answer should be simple: go ahead. Dare the Republicans to bottle up the "national recovery package" because they don't want to repair bridges and fill potholes. That will require some measure of message savvy, but not that much. Certainly not anything more than Obama's people have already displayed.

Reid needs to dare the GOP to actually filibuster the stimulus. Force them to make that decision. See if two of their number will crumble and vote for cloture and let the bill come up for debate. If they don't, then let Jim DeMint and Mitch McConnell stand on the floor of the United States Senate and expound on their anti-government philosophy.

You just won an election. The President recently pointed that out in one of his more eloquent moments: "I won." Act like it.