Monday, March 30, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

Center field: safe for, Jordan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, March 20, 2009

Recruiting Update

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

On Sports

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blink and you miss it.

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

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

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

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

Sunday, March 15, 2009

2009 Atlanta Braves Preview, Part 2: The Outfield

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Florida 60, Kentucky 53

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Tossed Up, Shot Down

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

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