Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Defensive Descent of the Ravens

Much has been made about the Baltimore Ravens sudden falling off as a defense. Is the sun setting on the Ravens once proud defense? Is it now an offensive team? The answers to those questions are yes; and this has been brewing for some time now. The Ravens defense is not close to the unit it used to be. There are many reasons for this change, too. Rex Ryan, now the enigmatic head coach of the New York Jets, is no longer the defensive coordinator. The Ravens knew they needed a better offense in today’s pass oriented NFL to succeed and get to the next level. They finally drafted a quarterback who can win games for them with his arm. With all that said, there is another reason why the Ravens defense just isn’t as good as it used to be: the players in 2010 aren’t as good as they were from 2000-2008.

Building an Identity

When Art Modell moved the franchise from Cleveland to Baltimore in the fall of 1995, he came with a great offense and a terrible defense. The offense consisted of such players as quarterback Vinny Testaverde, wide receivers Michael Jackson and Derrick Alexander. General manager Ozzie Newsome realized that the team could put up big numbers on offense but couldn’t stop anybody on defense. In those days, the quarterback play in the league wasn’t quite as good as it is today, and the rules weren’t as much directed towards the offense as they are today. Newsome knew that if he could build an elite defense he could maybe win a championship or two.

The Ravens had two first-round picks in the 1996 NFL Draft. They selected offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden with the no. 4 overall selection, and a linebacker from the University of Miami with the 26th pick who was thought to be too small to play inside. His name? Ray Lewis. Lewis was named defensive player of the week after his first professional game and would just keep getting better. Lewis instantly became the leader and helped set the tone for the defense. Building the defense wouldn’t stop there.

Stacking the Defense

For the next three drafts, the Ravens had top-10 picks in the first round of each. They proceeded to take three defensive players. In 1997 the Ravens took Peter Boulware (Florida State), arguably the best defensive player and best pass rusher in the draft, with the 4th overall pick. In 1998, the Ravens took another Hurricane in cornerback Duane Starks with the 10th overall pick. In 1999, the team took another cornerback 10th overall in Arizona star Chris McAlister. They added a few free agents in defensive end Michael McCrary and defensive tackle Tony Siragusa. Suddenly, by 1999, the Ravens had the makings of an elite defense. In 1999, they also signed former All-Pro Rod Woodson to be the free safety and to provide leadership in the secondary. All of the pieces fit together, and in the year 2000 the Ravens won a Super Bowl largely because of their defense.

The offense continued to struggle in the early to mid 2000’s. Their first round quarterback pick of Kyle Boller in 2003 failed miserably, and only one of their two first round offensive picks in 2000, Jamal Lewis, had longevity with the team. In 2001, the Ravens took Arizona State tight end Todd Heap in the first round. However, the long-term goal was always to have an elite defense.

Rebuilding the Defense

In 2002, the Ravens were ready to undergo a rebuilding project because they couldn’t keep some of their best players due to the NFL salary cap restrictions. They took another Miami Hurricane, safety Ed Reed, with the 24th overall selection. Reed, like Lewis, is likely headed for the hall of fame when his career is all said and done, as he is arguably the best safety of his generation. The Ravens used other high-round selections (1-4 rounds) on defensive players around this time, too. Cornerback Gary Baxter and linebacker Jamie Sharper come to mind right away. Both players were too expensive to keep in the end because their play garnered too much money for the Ravens. Once again, the salary cap stripped the team of a few good players. Another terrific linebacker picked in the high rounds named Edgerton Hartwell also had to go because he couldn’t get the money he felt he deserved from the Ravens.

The Ravens always kept their core players on defense. McAlister, Boulware, Reed, and Lewis were able to stick around. The Ravens figured they’d just fill in players around them. The Ravens were also able to draft pro bowl performer Terrell Suggs in 2003 in the first round. Suggs is a core player, too. However, it became obvious in the mid-2000’s that the Ravens needed a much better offense if they wanted to become an elite team. Around 2005, they started drafting more offensive players with their high round picks.

Beginning the Offensive Transition

In 2005, the Ravens selected wide receiver Mark Clayton with their first round selection. In the 4th round, they selected offensive lineman Jason Brown, who has since gone on to sign the biggest contract for a center in history with the St. Louis Rams. Both of these players are no longer with the team, but they signaled a change in philosophy within the organization. They also signed veteran receiver Derrick Mason, who is statistically the best wide receiver the team has had. In 2006, the Ravens took offensive lineman Chris Chester in the 2nd round and Demetrius Williams in the 4th round. Both players failed to live up to expectations, but Chester has come on strong the last few years and is currently starting with the team. Williams was a huge disappointment and was cut in training camp in 2010.

In 2007, the Ravens took guard Ben Grubbs in the first round. They were trying to go for a new look offensive line that would feature quicker, more athletic lineman. Third round pick Marshal Yanda is now the starting right tackle, and is another smaller lineman with excellent feet. The Ravens were able to find two-time Pro Bowl fullback Le’Ron McClain in the 4th round. They only took two defensive players in this draft, both after the 4th round.

Finding a Franchise Quarterback

Now that the Ravens had their line, they could pick a franchise quarterback. Boller was clearly never going to lead them to where they wanted to go, and they needed to find a new quarterback to lead them. They picked a little known University of Delaware product named Joe Flacco in the first round, and a well-known running back considered by many to be too small to be a first round pick named Ray Rice. Flacco and Rice have had excellent starts to their careers. Later in the draft, the Ravens took safeties Tom Zbikowski and Haruki Nakamura, but neither of these players was picked in the higher rounds.

Flacco has been everything and more that the team could have hoped for. In his first two years, he started every game and won three playoff games on the road. Through nine games in 2010, he has thrown 15 touchdowns to 7 interceptions and has the team 6-3 with a good chance to win the AFC North division.

The Beginning of the End

With the defense starting to lose key members like McAlister and linebacker Bart Scott, it became obvious the Ravens needed help on this unit. Lewis was still playing at a high level, but he was approaching his mid-30’s by now. Suddenly, the cornerbacks weren’t as good as they once were. They lost some players who could rush the passer, as well. While the offense was starting to get better, it was clear the defense wasn’t as good. Many thought the team would choose a cornerback in the first round of the 2009 draft, but they selected offensive tackle Michael Oher instead. While this was a tremendous pick, it also meant the defense couldn’t get any high impact players. They picked defensive end Paul Kruger in the 2nd round, but he has yet to make a true impact. Many observers feel that he is too small to be a defensive end and not quick enough to be a linebacker. He is still a work in progress. The Ravens signed cornerback Domonique Foxworth via free agency. While he did very well in 2009, he tore his ACL in training camp in 2010 and was lost for the year. The Ravens now had to turn to players in the secondary who are not nearly as good as the players before them. Corners Frank Walker and Fabian Washington are not nearly as good as McAlister, Starks, or Baxter. Reed developed a nerve impingement in his neck and virtually had to change his game. What used to be a sure tackling, take all chances safety, turned into a tackling liability, but still a tremendous ball hawk. Because he played differently, he ended up hurting his hip in late 2009. He is back, but he isn’t nearly the same player he once was.

The Ravens defense has slipped. Other than 2006 first round pick Haloti Ngata, who is a pro bowl caliber player, the team has not used a first round pick on a defensive player since 2003. This has contributed greatly to not having playmakers anymore on defense. They once used first round picks on defense four years in a row (1996-1999) and each of those players except Starks made multiple pro bowls. Because of the salary cap in the NFL, there had to be a tradeoff. While the offense got better, the defense had to get a little worse. It’s a reality of the NFL today. My guess is now that the offense is better; they will probably use a first round pick on a defensive player in 2011. Getting Foxworth back next year will also help them out greatly in the secondary.

What does the Future Hold?

The Ravens are in good shape going forward. They have a franchise quarterback, a tremendous running back, a number one receiver in Anquan Boldin (acquired from the Arizona Cardinals), and a young offensive line. Their offense will only continue to get better. The transition from defensive team to offensive team was bound to happen. The defense had been becoming less dominant over the past couple of years, and 2010 seems to be the real boiling point. Nobody should be surprised by what has happened to the defense based on the number of great players they’ve lost and the lack of high picks they’ve used on that side of the ball. It will just have to take Baltimore fans time to let it soak in: the defense isn’t the same defense it used to be.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The Ravens Will Take Flight

If the Baltimore Ravens are going to reach their goal this season of making the Super Bowl in Dallas, they know their passing attack will have to be better than the past. Third-year quarterback Joe Flacco will have to continue to grow under offensive coordinator Cam Cameron’s offense, and the proverbial “next-step” must be taken.

With the additions of Anquan Boldin and Donte Stallworth, it appears Flacco is ready to take that step.

“Anquan is a guy that can just…You can put the ball anywhere around him, and he’s going to come to it strong and go get it for you,” Flacco said. “[Boldin] knows football. So, when he goes out there and takes the field, he understands what we’re trying to accomplish each play, and he’s really helped out the rest of our guys.”

Head coach John Harbaugh also likes what he sees from Boldin.

“Well, so far in camp he’s brought us a lot of first downs, so we like that,” Harbaugh said. “But, the intangibles…[Boldin]’s a hard worker, he’s a positive guy, he’s really pushing the envelope with our guys so far as teaching them the game along with our coaches. I think that’s been a big help. So, it’s good to have that veteran presence along with Derrick [Mason], so he’s done a great job.”

Asked if Boldin has position flexibility on the field, Harbaugh joked about Boldin’s high school exploits in Florida.

“Oh yeah, he can play anywhere. He can play quarterback-high school, right? So, he can do it all. But yeah, he’ll play all the positions at wide receiver.”

Boldin will join Derrick Mason as the two starters, while Stallworth and fifth-year receiver Mark Clayton will fight for the slot position.

The Ravens have been lining up in more and more three and four receiver sets this camp, and having the new receivers and running back Ray Rice as a receiver out of the backfield only makes the attack more potent. The wide sets will also allow more running room for Ray Rice between the tackles.

The Ravens have also added new tight ends to the mix through the draft. They will still rely on veteran Todd Heap, but his workload will be made easier by the presences of Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta. Flacco already likes the smooth, athletic abilities of the tight ends in camp.

“We’ve got some athletic guys out there,” says Flacco. “Todd [Heap], Dennis [Pitta], Ed [Dickson]. They’re all doing a great job. They bring a lot to the table. They’re good athletes that can really catch the ball and run routes. So, they’re going to open up a lot of things for us this year, and it should be exciting to see their progression and them getting better each game.”

The Ravens will undoubtedly look to continue their offensive resurgence this season. With their defense missing key cornerbacks for an extended period of time, their offense will need to put up more points per game.

Does Flacco think he’s ready to take the next step in year three?

“It’s me and Ray [Rice]’s---it’s both of our third years-and we’re just more and more confident. We know each other better, and I’m more confident with everybody in the huddle and just understand all of our players better. So it’s easy to get in the huddle and get out there, and you know which guys are going to have questions on certain plays, and it’s just easy to answer them right away. But I think everybody is just getting more and more used to playing with each other, and it’ll show out on the field.”

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

2010 Baltimore Ravens Wide Receivers

The 2010 Baltimore Ravens wide receiving corps has to be the most complete receiving corps the team has ever had. With the likes of former Arizona Cardinal Anquan Boldin teaming with Derrick Mason and newcomer Donte Stallworth, these receivers make one forget the days of Travis Taylor and Kevin Johnson quickly. Remember those days? They are well in the past. That can only be a good thing.

The Ravens have been trying to assemble a solid receiving corps for the last few years starting with the drafting of Mark Clayton in the 1st round of the 2005 NFL draft. Clayton has not been a bust, but he hasn’t been the number one receiver the Ravens thought they were taking with their first pick either. Instead, Clayton has been a solid third or fourth receiver to go along with other good players like Derrick Mason and tight end Todd Heap. Clayton will battle Donte Stallworth and Demetrious Williams for time in the slot, while Boldin and Mason will be the starters on the outside as each player has proved they are more than capable of producing at a high level in the NFL.

Boldin was a player coming out of Florida State in 2003 with a reputation for being a bit of a “tweener.” He was injury prone and didn’t run a very fast 40-yard dash. However, as general manager Ozzie Newsome said at Boldin’s introductory news conference in March, "I think I made a mistake in that draft, to worry more about measurables than about the football player. And Anquan is a football player."

Boldin is the physical receiver that can make tough catches over the middle and break tackles that result in a lot of yards after the catch. The Ravens haven’t had a player with Boldin’s combination of size and strength at receiver in a very, very long time.

Mason has been one of the best receivers in franchise history. He continually puts up 1,000 yard receiving seasons and has developed a terrific rapport with quarterback Joe Flacco. Mason is terrific in intermediate routes and has perfected the 10-yard out route. He’s also tough as nails as he played the last half of the 2008 season with a torn labrum. Mason has hinted that 2010 could be his last season.

Battling for the last two spots on the depth chart will be Williams, Clayton, and rookie David Reed. Reed is a 4th round pick in this years draft and is said to be like a little Mason. He has terrific hands and is a solid return man, and he will make the roster because of his abilities on special teams. This means that Clayton and Williams will be fighting for the final spot on the chart. It should make for a terrific camp storyline. If I had to make a prediction, I would be that Williams makes it over Clayton because Clayton makes more money and is in the same mold as Mason. Williams brings a little more playmaking ability to the table.

The 2010 receiving corps should bring a great amount of excitement to Baltimore this season. They haven’t had much depth at receiver in the last 10 years, and this year if somebody gets hurt or isn’t playing well there isn’t as much pressure to produce as there was before. Boldin and Mason by themselves could carry this team for a while. Throw in Stallworth and his 4.3 speed going down the field to open things up and you have an aerial attack not seen since the days of Johnny Unitas and Raymond Berry in the 1950’s and 60’s.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Ravens 2010 Running Backs

The 2010 Baltimore Ravens could have the best running backs group in the NFL this season---at least on paper. They return 2,000 all-purpose yards halfback Ray Rice, former pro bowler Willis McGahee, and fullback/short-yardage back LeRon McClain.

Rice is quickly becoming one of the most dangerous offensive players in the league. He ran for 1,339 yards and compiled over 70 receptions out of the backfield. Rice should be able to run for even more yards this season with the additions of wide receivers Anquan Boldin and Donte Stallworth. These new wide-outs should command the presence from the defense that will not allow the opposition to just stack the box and stop the run. Rice, 23, should be able to hit the ground running from the opening game against the New York Jets.

McGahee is in his 4th season with the Ravens, and third as the backup after the Ravens drafted Rice in 2008. He went to the pro bowl in his first season with the team, but management and the new coaching staff didn’t care for his work ethic. The rest is history. McGahee, however, has handled his demotion with class and has taken it in stride. He continues to be one of the best backup backs in the league, and he continues to be a touchdown machine. He had 12 touchdowns and averaged 5.0 yards per carry in only 109 carries. With McGahee on board as the backup, the running game will not suffer one bit if something happens to Rice.

McClain has made the pro bowl as the fullback the last two seasons. He is a tremendous short yardage back and has accumulated 12 rushing touchdowns in 2008 and 2009. He has developed into a terrific lead blocker, as well. He figures to keep getting some short yard opportunities, and he has publicly pleaded to get more carries. That probably won’t happen, but McClain is all about winning and will do what it takes.

The running back situation in Baltimore is one that probably 30 teams would like to have. They have two backs capable of over 1,000 yards and a fullback that can knock people’s heads off. Look for big production out of this group.

Next post: Wide Receivers

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Flacco Ready To Take The Next Step

Today marks the first day of my look at the Baltimore Ravens roster. Since it’s the most important position on the field, I’m going to look at the quarterbacks. What do the Ravens have at qb? What did they do this offseason at quarterback? Did they need to do anything?

The quarterback of the present and future is Joe Flacco. Flacco has taken this team to the playoffs in each of his first two seasons, and a third trip to the playoffs in consecutive seasons would be a remarkable achievement. Flacco has improved each of the past two seasons, and is the first Raven quarterback to throw 20 or more touchdowns since Vinny Testaverde did it in 1996. Flacco also set a Ravens record for quarterback rating at 88.9.

Flacco, a 2nd round pick in the 2008 draft, has been a terrific pickup. He came from the University of Delaware, a Division I-AA school, and has not disappointed. He is much further along in his career than anybody could have imagined to this point, and he only figures to get better. Flacco has one of the strongest arms in the game, is very intelligent, and is much more mobile and athletic than people give him credit for. He will benefit from having newly acquired wideout Anquan Boldin and newly signed receiver Donte Stallworth. These two targets give Flacco a tandem, along with Derrick Mason, that Baltimore hasn’t seen in a very long time.

I look for Flacco to have a big season. I can see him throwing more than 25 touchdown passes with close to or over 4,000 yards passing.

In the unfortunate case that Flacco gets injured this season for any period of time, the Ravens signed former pro bowler Marc Bulger to be the backup. Bulger has been a starter in the NFL since 2002, but injuries and a bad team caught up with him. He’s a very capable insurance policy, and is somebody the team can rely on to play well if called upon. It was a great depth move by Ozzie Newsome and his people to bring Bulger aboard.

Tomorrow I will preview the running backs

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Two Weeks until Launch

We are coming up on the MLB All-Star break, which usually means two things: the pennant race is about heat up and training camp is roughly two weeks away.

The Baltimore Ravens will fly into training camp in Westminster, MD, with lofty expectations and visions of grandeur. They have made the playoffs the past two years with head coach John Harbaugh and rocket-armed quarterback Joe Flacco, and now they will look to make the big game in Dallas in their third year. Flacco became the first quarterback in Baltimore since Vinny Testaverde in 1996 to throw more than 20 touchdown passes.

Flacco will be surrounded with the best wide receiving corps---at least on paper---that the Ravens have had in their 15-year history. The additions of Anquan Boldin, Donte Stallworth, and the resigning of Derrick Mason make this squad deep at the position. Add in Mark Clayton, Demetrious Williams, and rookie David Reed, and there is a serious competition for the last two spots in this group. Flacco will have the ability to hit Boldin over the middle, Stallworth deep, and Mason all over the field. Time will tell, but this group is easy to get excited about on paper.

The Ravens will also feature star running back Ray Rice and former pro bowler Willis McGahee in the backfield.

Did I mention the defense? That unit will be rock solid again, and with the rededication of Terrell Suggs, the drafting of Sergio Kindle, and the presence in the middle of Terrence Cody, the Ravens pass rush should make their ball-hawking secondary even better.

Over the coming weeks, I will do a preview of each position on the team heading into the season. It looks to be a very, very deep squad this season.

It’s time to get excited. We are two weeks away from football season.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Wizards 2000's Draft Recap

The 2000’s were a rollercoaster-like decade for the Washington Wizards. They started in January 2000 with the stunning announcement that Michael Jordan would become general manager of the team, and ended with longtime owner Abe Pollin passing away Thanksgiving eve 2009. In between these two massive events, the Wizards saw the team go from mediocre to electrifying to heartbreaking to a doormat resulting in a number one overall pick in 2010. Like they did 10 years before, the Wizards will have a new man in charge with this pick in new majority owner and owner of Monumental Sports and Entertainment Ted Leonsis. The Wizards can only hope this new beginning will signal a steady rise to prominence in the 2010’s.

Here is a recap of the last drafts the Wizards have had since they last had the number one overall pick in 2001. It was Jordan’s first draft with the team, and one where the team and fans believed would begin turning the team around.

2001: Kwame Brown, Glynn Academy, Brunswick, Georgia (1, 1)

Brown was the first high school player selected number one overall in the history of the NBA Draft. He spent four disappointing seasons in the District and only averaged more than eight points per game once in 2003-2004 when he averaged 10.9 PPG. Brown’s tenure ended tumultuously in 2005 after he got into disagreement with then head coach Eddie Jordan. Although he has had a decent NBA career, Brown never lived up to the hype of the number one overall selection, and some believe his selection set the team back a few years. He was traded to the Los Angeles Lakers for Caron Butler in 2005. Brown has averaged 6.7 PPG in his career.

2002: Jared Jeffries, Indiana University, (1, 11)

Jeffries was coming off of leading the underdog Indiana Hoosiers to the NCAA Tournament final when he was selected as a lottery pick by the Wizards. Jeffries was to be the power forward the Wizards could pair with Brown for years to come. He never lived up to the 11th overall selection as he averaged 5.73 PPG over four seasons in Washington. Jeffries left the Wizards after the 2005-2006 season for the New York Knicks, where he continued to underachieve. Jeffries is still in the league with the Houston Rockets. He has averaged 5.3 PPG in his career.

Juan Dixon, University of Maryland, (1, 17)

After leading the Terrapins to their only NCAA Championship, Dixon became the Wizards second first round pick of 2002. Dixon, who holds the career points record at Maryland, was seen by many as a hometown selection for a Wizards team in need of a spark. He spent three seasons in Washington before bolting for Portland. He averaged 7.93 PPG, but had his best years with the Trailblazers. Dixon came back to the Wizards for the 2008-2009 season, but his best days were left back in Portland. Dixon signed with a European team in 2009, but tested positive for steroids in 2010 and has been suspended by FIBA indefinitely. Dixon averaged 8.4 PPG in his NBA career.

2003: Jarvis Hayes, University of Georgia, (1, 10)

Jarvis Hayes came out of Georgia with the reputation as a sweet-shooting perimeter guard. He rarely displayed that range with the Wizards, however, spending four disappointing seasons with the club where he mostly served as a backup. His best season was in 2004-2005 when he averaged 10.2 PPG. Hayes was not tendered a contract after the 2007 season, and went to the Detroit Pistons where he was a valuable member off the bench. He spent the last two seasons with the New Jersey Nets, and has averaged 8.3 PPG for his career.

2004: Devin Harris, University of Wisconsin (1, 5)

Harris was drafted with the intention of dealing him immediately to the Dallas Mavericks for Antawn Jamison. Harris’ statistics increased each year in Dallas before he was traded to the Nets for Jason Kidd in 2008. The Nets are building their team around him, and he has averaged 16.67 PPG. Jamison went on to become one of the Wizards top players of the 2000’s. He became their captain and led them to the playoffs for four straight seasons. He averaged 20.7 PPG as a member of the Wizards before being traded to the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2010 as part of the Wizards rebuilding effort.

2005: Andray Blatche, South Kent Prep, (2, 49)

Blatche was the Wizards only selection in this draft, and has had an up and down career in DC. Picked out of high school, many knew Blatche would be a project, but he has upset many fans with his play and attitude. In 2010, Blatche seemed to get it right when he averaged 14.1 PPG. His scoring average has increased in each of his five seasons in the league, and he is a part of the Wizards rebuilding effort heading into the 2010’s.

2006: Oleksiy Pecherov, Ukraine, (1, 18)

Pecherov spent two seasons in DC, where he averaged 3.6 PPG before being traded to the Minnesota Timberwolves in 2009. He did not play his first season in DC, and he never seemed to get on track. He only averaged 8.9 minutes per game here, and has averaged only 3.9 PPG in his career. He was one of their biggest disappointments as a first round selection.

2007: Nick Young, University of Southern California, (1, 16)

Young was an elite scorer during his time in college, and he has flashed his offensive talents during his three seasons in the NBA. His defense, however, has left little to be desired for. He has averaged 9.1 PPG in three seasons, but has come off the bench in 30 of his 231 career games. The Wizards will continue to hope he develops into an all-around player, but with the emergence of other guards, it’s put up or shut-up time for Young.

2008: Javale McGee, University of Nevada, (1, 18)

McGee was a very surprising pick to many when he was selected 18th overall by the Wizards in 2008. He’s tall, lanky, and extremely athletic. He still lacks post moves and gets overpowered by other centers in the league, but the Wizards are hoping he can develop into a center-type for them in the future. He has averaged 6.5 PPG in his two seasons in Washington, but he will need to step up in that department next season.

2009: Traded Selection

The Wizards decided to trade the 5th overall selection in this draft to the Minnesota Timberwolves for veterans Randy Foye and Mike Miller. Foye and Miller were looked at as solid contributors to a team that already had Gilbert Arenas, Jamison, and Butler. Things declined soon into the 2009-2010 season for the Wizards, however, and there’s no guarantee either player will be around next season. The Wizards passed on drafting the rights to Stephen Curry in this draft.

2010: John Wall, University of Kentucky, (1,1)

Freshman phenomenon John Wall will bring his dance, swagger, and most importantly his immensely talented game to the Wizards in 2010. He will be the point guard the Wizards can build around, and he can be the marketing dream the Wizards have been waiting for since Arenas’ star faded after his issues last season. Wall is seen by many as one of the top point guard prospects of the last ten years, and he brings a pass first mentality to the position. He is also regarded as one of the top defensive guards coming out of college. This is a no brainer selection, and one that has had DC in a frenzy ever since the Wizards won the lottery in May.

The Wizards will head into the 2010’s with two certainties:

Ted Leonsis is the new owner, and John Wall is whom they’re building their team around. Leonsis emphasizes scouting and development, so the draft will be where his scouts and general manager Ernie Grunfeld will make their living for the foreseeable future. Leonsis has preached patience from the fans, but would like more than anything to see a winning basketball team in the District.

"[We want to] build for a new relevant, and bright future,” Leonsis said at his introductory presser. “[I want to] know what Washington, DC will be like when we win a championship, and that’s my hope and dream and aspiration to bring this city closer together and create those lifelong memories for families.”

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Young Guns Shine By The Bay

In what has to be considered the Orioles best overall pitching performance of the season, starter Jake Arrieta (2-0) held the San Francisco Giants to one run on three hits in seven plus innings, and David Hernandez notched his second save in two chances as the Orioles beat the Giants 4-1.

Arrieta, making his 2nd career start, was dominating from the start. He flashed his mid-90’s fastball with ease, and mixed in a terrific slider to go along with it. He simply overpowered the Giants hitters and hit his spots very well. He looks like he belongs in the big league rotation, and with a sub-3.00 ERA, it looks like the Orioles have found a guy who throws hard, commands his stuff, and can go deep into games. That’s a combination the Orioles haven’t had in quite a while.

Hernandez looked impressive, too. Since his move to the bullpen, he has flashed an upper-90’s fastball to go along with a slider that he rarely goes to. The difference between starter and reliever has made a tremendous difference for him. Instead of pacing himself to go six innings, Hernandez just lets the ball go and he goes from a mid-90’s fastball to an upper-90’s heater. The difference in speed is major. If Hernandez continues to command his fastball and pick his spots, he can be a successful closer at this level. Closing is all about command and speed. Hernandez looks to be able to have that for a one or two inning stretch. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.

Adam Jones also seems to have gotten back on track after his latest hot streak, which culminated with a long home run yesterday. After hitting .223 in the month of April, Jones is now hitting .260 with 8 home runs and 24 RBI’s. He seems much more relaxed at the plate having been moved down in the order, and he has been able to lay off the slider down and away for the most part. Jones still needs to work on plate discipline as he only has eight walks all season, but he should steadily improve on that as he gets more experience.

People forget that this is only his third full season in the major leagues, and he doesn’t turn 25 until August. Jones is continuing to improve in the outfield, too, although I’d like to see him be a little more accurate with his throws. He has the arm; the accuracy needs to come next. He can still go get ‘em with the best of them.

The Orioles are still the worst team in the league, but they certainly have shown fire under new manager Juan Samuel and nobody has given up. There is a difference between showing no life and simply not being too good. The Orioles steal more, hit and run more, and run absolutely everything out of the box hard. Think the manager doesn’t make a difference? It does. The players are clearly responding to what Samuel preaches, and that’s a no-nonsense attitude. Play the game hard and force the issue. You can’t sit back and wait for a home run that will not come. Big power lineups can do that---not the Orioles.

There is still much work to be done, but the Orioles are on the right track with their young players. They just need to be given time to develop and some veterans around them. You can’t put the weight of the world on 21-26 year olds in the major leagues. It just doesn’t work like that, and guys begin to crack. Hopefully the Orioles will get some veteran help for 2011 or they could be in serious trouble again.

Monday, June 14, 2010

A New Era in Washington

On his first day as majority owner of the Washington Wizards, Ted Leonsis laid out his hopes for the future pretty soundly.

"I want to know what Washington, DC, will be like when we win a championship, and that's my hope, and dream, and aspiration to bring this city closer together, and to create those life-long memories for families."

Leonsis has been majority owner of the NHL's Washington Capitals and WNBA's Washington Mystics, and now he has created "Monumental Sports and Entertainment" which encompasses the Capitals, Mystics, and now the Wizards.

Comcast SportsNet's Chris Miller interviewed Wizards general manager Ernie Grunfeld after the press conference, and Grunfeld emphasized that Leonsis is fully committed to his new team.

"[Leonsis] has a real passion for [basketball]. He's a big fan, and he's a real intelligent guy," Grunfeld said.

Leonsis has been known as one of the most fan-friendly owners in sports ever since he bought the Capitals in the late 1990's. He knows the importance of reaching out to everyone to come together for the common cause of great sports in the city of DC, and he appears to be completely committed to making this community come together through professional athletics.

"We need to be much more family oritented and female-centric in the way we approach our presentation," Leonsis said at his press conference Thursday. "...reaching out to the (local) colleges...I want bloggers, people on facebook."

Leonsis then told the crowd how he still glady accepts anybody as friends on facebook, and encouraged people to add him. He would also like to reach out to the communities of Virginia, Maryland, and DC even more.

Leonsis has emphasized scouting and developing his own talent since he overhauled the Capitals roster in 2004. His rebuilding efforts with the Capitals bore fruit the past three seasons as they have steadily improved their record and made the playoffs each year. In 2010, the Capitals won the President's Trophy as the best NHL team over the regular season. Would Leonsis continue to build a team from scratch in the NBA, too?

Leonsis spoke with Miller of Comcast SportsNet and reiterated that his way of building a team will not change.

"Focus on the signals and not the noise...drafting, scouting, and team development," Leonsis said. "When you have good people a lot of confidence in them, things turn out the right way."

Leonsis' goal is to "Build for a new, relevant and bright future" in Washington, DC sports and entertainment. The next step?

Leonsis' first duty as owner of the Washington Wizards will be to draft number one overall in the NBA draft two weeks from now. He will not have to make a difficult decision because as he said, "I won't make the pick, our General Manager Ernie Grunfeld, will make the pick." When asked if Kentucky point guard and freshman sensation John Wall will be the pick, Leonsis can only smile and say, ""It's good theater for the NBA to have people wondering what we're going to do,"

When Chris Miller asked about what Wizard's fans have to look forward to next season, Grunfeld said, "I think it's going to be exciting next year with the number one pick coming...there's a buzz about that."

Grunfeld would not reveal who the pick will be, but the Washington Post is reporting that the Wizards will not even work out any of the drafts other top players at Verizon Center before the draft.

All signs point to Wall being the number one overall pick. And all signs point to Ted Leonsis knowing what to do when he has a slam dunk pick with the first overall selection. In 2004, the Capitals selected NHL All-Star Alexander Ovechkin, built their team around him, and have never looked back. Leonsis is hoping he can do the same with the Wizards, and build this community into one tremendous, exciting sports town.

Monumental Sports and Entertainment's tenure in office has begun.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

2010 MLB Mock Draft

The NFL Draft is the most watched professional draft in the United States. Why? Because everyone is interested in seeing where their favorite college players are going or who their favorite teams will select with their picks. The same can be said about the NBA draft because college basketball has such a high profile that most people know the players and what they can contribute to their squads.

Another reason these two drafts are so popular are because of the mock drafts that are made months before the night of the draft. Everybody loves to speculate and analyze who will go where and at what pick they will be taken. You must admit you read several mock drafts weekly, if not daily before the NFL draft.

So in going with the mock draft theme, I have built a short version mock draft the day before the Major League baseball draft. This draft is not nearly as popular as the other drafts for a few reasons:

1) The players selected may not make an impact with their professional teams for several years---and sometimes never at all.
2) The players come from high school or college, neither is very high profile on the baseball level
3) The draft, until 2007, was held as a league-wide press conference, and never could get hyped because of that

Those are just some of the reasons the draft has not built as much hype, but around here in DC the past two seasons, the draft has been the main baseball event (until Stephen Strasburg debuts for the Nationals on Tuesday night)

Here is my mock draft of the top five selections for 2010

1) Washington Nationals: Bryce Harper, C, College of Southern Nevada

This is the most obvious pick since, well, 2009 when the Nats selected Strasburg. Harper has been hyped as the number one pick in 2010 or 2011 since he was a freshman in high school. He has unbelievable power and a cannon for an arm (registered at 96 mph in one showcase). I can only describe his swing as max-effort with beautiful fluidity. It’s kind of like Tiger Woods’ swing but with a baseball bat. Harper will take a few years to develop, but when he comes to DC he should put on a power display.

2) Pittsburgh Pirates: Jameson Tallion, P, Woodlands, Texas (HS)

The Pirates could go three ways here with Tallion, shortstop Manny Machado (HS) or college southpaw pitcher Drew Pomeranz. It could go down to the wire, but I believe the Pirates will take Tallion because of his huge upside and superb mental make up. Scouts love Tallion’s upper-90’s heater and plus breaking pitch, although he will certainly take two or three years to develop. This selection will serve as the domino effect in the draft.

3) Baltimore Orioles: Manny Machado, SS, Miami Brito (HS)

The Orioles will most likely take Machado if the Pirates take Tallion or Tallion if the Pirates take Machado. Machado is a scouts dream. He’s 6’3” with a lanky 180- pound frame and beautiful athleticism. Being from Miami and carrying a power bat, Machado has received comparisons to a young Alex Rodriguez. That comparison can be hard for anybody to live up to. Machado projects to stay at shortstop in the big leagues because of his above-average arm and slick fielding ability. His bat will be able to translate at the next level, too. If he is there, this is a no-brainer selection for Baltimore.

4) Kansas City Royals: Chris Sale, P, Florida Gulf Coast University

Sale has been linked to the Royals because of his ability throw a hard sinker with a plus breaking pitch. According to MLB Draft Reports, his fastball sits in the 90-92 range an occasionally hits 94. Some wonder if Sale will be most effective in the bullpen, but I think he will stay as a starter because of his ability to get the groundball. The Royals are in desperate need of finding quality starting pitching, especially from the left side, and Sale would be a good start for them.

5) Cleveland Indians: Drew Pomeranz, P, Ole Miss

Pomeranz is a big, strong left-handed pitcher who dominated the SEC in 2010. The Indians are in need of starting pitching and this stud from Mississippi should give them an anchor for years to come. Scouts love his poise and demeanor on the mound, and Pomeranz should make it to the show within two years. If he’s available at five, Pomeranz is the easy selection.

So there you have it. A short, five player mock draft for major league baseball. The number one selection is fairly obvious, but it will get interesting 2-5. What do you think? Do you think the draft will play out differently on Monday?

Friday, June 4, 2010

A Dream to Come True on Monday

Before the arrival of Stephen Strasburg to Nats Park on Tuesday night, the Washington Nationals will most likely select super-prospect Bryce Harper, 17, from Las Vegas, Nevada. Harper received his G.E.D last year so he could enter Junior College and be eligible for the 2010 draft. Harper hit 29 home runs in JUCO this season, and if the production matches the hype, Harper and Strasburg will make DC baseball crazy for years to come. It all starts next week.

Harper will most likely command a record signing bonus given to a high school player, but the Nationals must sign him. He plays one of the most important positions (catcher), and his power is described as "light-tower power." There are some scouts who believe Harper will have to move off catcher because they don't feel his footwork behind the plate is anywhere near ready for professional baseball, but the Nats should try him there for a few years before moving him to third base or right field. Harper has a cannon for an arm (registering on some radar guns at 96 MPH) and his power bat can play anywhere on the diamond.

Harper's quick rise to the top of the prospect world came when he went to a high school showcase in St. Petersburg, Florida, and put on a show during batting practice. He hit balls more than 500 feet at Tropicana Field (home of the Tampa Bay Rays) and was then put on the cover of Sports Illustrated touted as "Baseball's Chosen One: Bryce Harper is the Most Exciting Prodigy Since Lebron James"

Harper's star has elevated considerably since that cover came out on June 8, 2009, and he will most likely start his dream on Monday when the Nationals are on the clock. Many say he will take three or four years to get to the big leagues because he will have to adjust to the professional lifestyle, pitching, and overall nuances of the game, and I wouldn't expect to see him for awhile either. The pressure on him will be enormous, and the last thing the Nationals need are two young stars who feel the weight of the world on their shoulders. The Mets had that situation in the 1980's with slugging outfielder Darryl Strawberry and teenage pitching prodigy Dwight Gooden. Even though the Mets would win a World Series title in 1986, they quickly fizzled.

It's important for fans and media-alike to give Harper time to develop. After all---The Chosen One is only 17 years old.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

The End of an Era: Here's to the "kid"

There are millions of old men who grew up in New York in the 1950’s, 60’s, and 70’s who will tell you that a part of them died in 1995 when New York Yankees icon Mickey Mantle passed away from cancer. They will tell you that the “Mick” was the greatest natural baseball player they had ever seen, and that their childhood was now officially complete---even 40 years after they were out of high school.

That day has now arrived for me with the announcement that Ken Griffey, Jr. has decided to retire after 22 years in the Major Leagues.

Griffey was not only the most gifted baseball player I’ve ever seen in my lifetime; he was the guy every kid growing up wanted to be. He was fast, strong, and as exciting a person as he was a player. Go outside right now and see guys wearing their hats backwards. You were seen as trying to be too cool before Griffey made it the norm in the 1990’s.

I was born in 1988, just a year before Griffey made his debut with the Seattle Mariners. Griffey, the son of ex-major league all-star Ken Griffey, Sr. was a heralded prospect who reached the big leagues at age 19. He would never disappoint. Although he was already a rising star in the game, Griffey came into his prime during the 1994 strike season when many felt he would challenge Roger Maris’ single-season home run record of 61. The next season, Griffey would pick up right where he left off.

1995 was a transition year in my life. I was seven years old when my parents decided to move to another neighborhood in part because there were no other young people my age that I could hang out with. In September of that year, 1995, I started a new school. Almost immediately, on September 6, 1995, Orioles shortstop Cal Ripken, Jr. broke the record for consecutive games played with 2,131. Although I really had no bearing for what Ripken was accomplishing, it was still a highlight that I remember watching on television to this day.

However, there was another guy I would see on Sportscenter almost daily during this time. Griffey, Jr. was shown almost daily hitting a home run, making an otherworldly catch, or making running from first to home look like a fox running the bases. He also had a persona that would light up the television. I knew I wanted to be exactly like him.

Around this time of 1995, basketball was my primary sport. I shot around everyday in our backyard, and though I had played baseball in the yard it was not a major focus for me. In early October of 1995, I began to have a change of heart. Griffey had just led the Mariners to the division series against the New York Yankees. They went down in the best of five series 2-0, but rallied to force a game five. Trailing by one in the bottom of the ninth, Griffey singled up the middle to tie the game. In a moment that I can still clearly picture and hear, I’m still awed by how it came to change my life. Edgar Martinez ropes a liner into the left field corner, broadcaster Brent Musberger: “Griffey, is coming around, in the corners Bernie [Williams], he's gonna try to score, here's the division championship, Mariners win it! Mariners win it!" It’s said that Griffey’s feet didn’t even touch the ground as he ran, although that’s just a rumor. Everybody who saw that moment will never forget it. It was Griffey at his most elegant, and graceful self just flowing around the bases without a hitch. I still have the Sports Illustrated cover of him scoring the winning run in my room.

My sports life would never be the same.

When we moved on November 6, 1995, two things happened: the Cleveland Browns announced they were moving to Baltimore and Ken Griffey, Jr. was the biggest sports star---other than Michael Jordan---in America. When I was younger, I was a tad big and was not all that fast. The new kids my age in the neighborhood, though, all liked to play baseball so I played with them everyday. I would try to be Junior, either making running catches, stealing bases, or hitting left-handed. I would run sprints everyday so I could get faster to play centerfield. It was my main goal to someday play centerfield on whatever team I played on, bat third, and wear number 24. I saw Griffey play numerous times in Baltimore in the late-90’s, and every time I saw him I gushed over his persona and ability on the field.

Five years later in 2000, Griffey would leave the Mariners to join his hometown Cincinnati Reds. He was never really the same player as age and injuries would catch up with him, but I still continued to try and emulate him. I was able to play centerfield on my team and would bat third. I became just as fast as anybody else I played against. In high school, I was able to be the centerfielder for three years, and although I never hit third, I still tried to emulate Griffey out in center just like usual.

Griffey was a megastar when I was growing up. He had a Nike shoe just like Jordan, his hat was worn backwards, and he was simply the coolest guy playing baseball. I played his video game in the summers of '97 and '98 with my neighbor that lasted well into the night. No baseball player had his own game like that before, and really no other has since quite like Junior.

His star faded as the generation grew up, as injuries and age would really wear him down before his final tour back in Seattle, where he is charged with saving the Mariner franchise and getting the city to build Safeco Field, but he is still revered by my peers and me. Griffey will finish with over 600 home runs, which is an amazing feat. He is also one of the only big sluggers of the era who is not seen as a performance enhancer, which makes his star shine brighter in some eyes. He was still one of the greatest athletes I’ve ever seen. If he decided he wanted to be a football player, he could have played in the NFL.

For me, Griffey came along at the right time. His star shined the brightest in the mid to late 90’s when I was trying to find somebody to emulate in baseball. I often watch Griffey highlights to this day and continue to marvel at what he accomplished and how he was able to do everything so gracefully on the field.

Watching him at the end of his career was not pretty, but in years to come nobody will remember 2007-2010; they’ll remember the guy who was the modern-day Willie Mays. The guy who shattered his arm making an incredible catch against the wall, and the guy who wowed us all at the home run derby’s. Griffey will go into the hall of fame in five years, and there isn’t anyone who deserves to be enshrined there from this era more.

Monday, May 31, 2010

The Waiting Game

Another weekend sweep has brought on another uncomfortable Monday off day for Baltimore Orioles manager Dave Trembley. Speculation has been swirling for weeks regarding Trembley’s job status, and with three runs total this past weekend in Toronto, Trembley can’t be feeling too great about his survival chances. I’d put them at about 10% that he is still with the team after the all-star break in July.

What has happened to the Orioles these past two months is not all Trembley’s fault. There are many factors that have contributed to this horrid start. Injuries, underperformance, and simple bad luck have all contributed to the 15-36 start. Say it again: 15-36. 21 games under .500 before June. That is simply unbelievable.

Somebody is going to have to take the fall. The Birds play with no fire or confidence that they will win on any given day. Trembley has officially brought a losing attitude and it will never wear off. That much has become obvious over the past two months. Many people say that Trembley doesn’t do much wrong, that he’s been given a bad hand. That’s true to some extent; but it is totally ridiculous in many respects.

Trembley has overused the bullpen the past three seasons before June. The bullpen, which has had to overcome injuries to three of their best arms all season, has imploded mostly because they are overused and put in spots to fail. Trembley goes “by the book” every night. Wouldn't he think that maybe the so-called "book" is flawed? The matchups with lefty-lefty and righty-righty have backfired completely on him all season, yet he continues to employ the strategy.

For a team that cannot score runs or get many extra base hits, you’d think Trembley would steal, hit and run, or bunt guys over just to create runs and put more pressure on the defense. Nope. Trembley doesn’t even do that.

Another Trembley-ism is mixing up the lineup EVERY SINGLE DAY. Not just after losses---after wins, too. Trembley is always putting guys in different spots in the lineup. Nick Markakis has fabulous numbers in the number two spot, yet Trembley keeps running him out to the three-hole. Adam Jones hit .188 in the leadoff spot. In fact, it was fairly obvious after three games that Jones wasn’t comfortable hitting there and that he was hurting himself and trying too hard to succeed. It ruined Jones’ season, and it really didn’t have to be that way. Why Trembley continued to put one of his most talented young players in a position to fail is beyond me.

The Orioles have put themselves in a position to fail. They needed to either trade for a big bat or sign one, and they did neither. You cannot send young players out there without any protection or any other veteran production. It just doesn’t work because then they feel too much pressure to succeed. The Orioles with this horrid start now must pick up the pieces and trade some of their arms for a big bat (Prince Fielder) because there is no way a prime player is coming to Baltimore through free agency. It’s the sad reality for the Orioles right now, but it is what it is. They have dug themselves this hole with their reluctance to wisely spend money outside of the organization and in the draft. Matt Hobgood? Are you kidding me? I hate to get down on the kid because he didn’t draft himself, but to draft a guy who clearly was a signability pick when you preach spending through the draft to acquire players is ludicrous.

The draft is coming up next week, and the Orioles better hope they pick one of the best players available at the three spot or they will have a very, very long summer with their fans. If I'm the Orioles and I do not pick pitcher Jameson Tallion from Texas or shortstop Manny Machado from Miami, I have a ton of explaining to do.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Delaying the Stras

The Nationals have done it again. Lose? Actually, no. The Nats have put together a very solid team in 2010 to go along with quality pitching and timely hitting. Then what have the Nats done again?

Public relations blunders like it’s 2006-2009.

For months, speculation has centered on all-world prospect Stephen Strasburg making his major league debut during the June 4-6 Cincinnati Reds series at Nats Park. I had a few friends tell me in April that they had already bought tickets for all three games in this series just to make sure they saw him. Dave Sheinin, a fantastic baseball writer for the Washington Post, has been following Strasburg around the minor leagues, and has long speculated that June 4th would be the date of the messiah’s rising.

Then came a report last night that Strasburg would make his debut sometime during the Pittsburgh Pirates series on June 8-10 at Nats Park. Meanwhile, the June 4th game is already sold out except for the single game tickets only sold on game day. Would the Nats really do this to their fans and then start Strasburg on a Tuesday, Wednesday, or Thursday?

The Nats have known for a while now that fans were clamoring to see Srasburg on June 4th. They have not denied or for their part admitted that Strasburg was going to start on that Friday night. However, I have a real problem with them just letting people think what they wanted, and this June 4th date has been blowing up. They’ve had many advertisements for June 4th on MASN and at Nats Park games, and they’ve given reason to believe that June 4th is the day. A Friday night in early June would be a perfect night to showcase their superstar prospect.

How could they screw this up?

The Nats have had many PR blunders in the past including a scandal with a Dominican prospect, and numerous times when they’ve screwed with the uniform or fans. Remember Stan Kasten inviting people down from Philly for the Phillies game?

The Nats have come a long way from that and have begun to act like a professional baseball team in all ways. On the field and off; but I can’t believe they would do this to their fans and start him on another day other than the 4th of June when the anticipation has been this high for months. The difference in hype between starting him on a Friday and starting him on a weekday is monumental Friday brings the whole weekend of excitement, while the weekday game doesn’t bring as many fans any way you look at it.

We’ll just have to see what the Nats decide to do, but I can imagine there are a lot of unhappy people who bought expensive tickets for a Friday night when John Lannan is going to be pitching, and not Strasburg.

Monday, May 24, 2010

National Debt

The Orioles lost two of three this weekend against the Nationals in Washington, DC. Other than that, how was the play, Mrs. Lincoln?

I know---sorry attempt at humor; but after that debacle this weekend it’s hard to find anything too positive heading into the summer months.

The Orioles team on Friday night didn’t have Brian Roberts, Matt Wieters, or Adam Jones after he homered and walked in his first two at-bats, respectively; yet they still beat the Nats. Let’s not forget that Jim Johnson, Koji Uehara, and Mike Gonzalez are all out., and all three of those players were the most integral pieces of the bullpen entering the season.

On Saturday night, the Orioles blew a 6-3 lead in the later innings. I was unable to see most of the game because of a prior engagement, but from what I read and heard from reliable sources, they completely gave the game away.

Enter Sunday afternoon.

The Orioles blew another game. With the bases loaded and two outs, Nats right fielder Roger Bernadina hit a fly ball to right-center field where Jones got to the ball easily, and either miss-timed his leap or didn’t know he wasn’t so close to the wall, and he missed the ball. It allowed the only three runs of the regulation nine innings to score.

In the sixth inning, Cory Patterson led off with a single and stole second. With no outs, Nick Markakis hit a fly ball to the warning track in right field. One out and man on third with Miguel Tejada---wait---no. Patterson, for whatever reason, didn’t tag up. Tejada grounded out with what should have been an RBI to make the score 3-2, but instead Patterson was stranged on third to end the inning.

The Orioles would battle back in the ninth inning against Nats closer Matt Capps to tie the game and send it to extras, but it didn’t matter. The Orioles newest closer Alfredo Simon came in and got four easy outs, except on the fourth out he strained his hamstring. Unbelievable.

Predictably, Cla Meredith came in and surrendered a walk-off home run to Josh Willingham.

The Orioles completely gave this series away. Their mental breakdowns have cost them so many runs this season, and they just look like they know how to lose more than they know how to win. That mentality will not get it done. It’s just a killer, and everything that could have gone wrong this year has. I’m not saying Dave Trembley needs to go---but he needs to go. This team needs an attitude makeover in the worst way. If you don’t think the manager makes a difference, then you just don’t know sports or baseball. The manager sets the tone. He is the one who determines where guys hit, where guys can most succeed---and most importantly, he batted Jones in the leadoff sport where he hit .188 for a month even though it was obvious after two games that that was not a spot that suited him. I could go on for days about the gaffes Trembley has made, but this is a blog.

What do you think? What is the first thing this team needs to do to get back on track?

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The Great Wall of China-Town

Well, the Washington Bullets---err, I mean, Wizards---finally got lucky in the NBA draft lottery on Tuesday night.

They came in with a 10.3% chance of winning---and got the first pick.

Everybody knows about the "Curse o le’Bullez," coined famously by longtime Washington Post sports columnist Tony Kornheiser. This is a franchise that has spun its wheels for so long, and had so much negativity come into its walls that even when they got a bright young franchise player getting into his prime, he managed to tear his knee up, and bring weapons into the locker room.

The Bullets and Wizards had gone into their last 13 draft lottery’s moving down or staying in their slotted position 12 times. Does it get any unluckier than that? The one time they moved up? 2001. They got the number one pick in a year that featured no true number one selection and they drafted high school star Kwame Brown. Brown is still playing in the NBA, but he was not even close to being worthy of the number one selection. In their defense, most teams wanted Brown and would have taken him with the number one selection in the 2001 draft.

In 1992, the Bullets missed out on getting Shaquille O’Neal.

In 1993, the Bullets missed out on drafting Chris Webber (though they would get him via trade the next year, giving up three future number one picks in the process)

In short, the Bullets/Wizards missed out on a lot of guys. In 1995, they drafted Rasheed Wallace only to trade him the following year. Why? Well, that is another rant and tirade on Abe Pollin that I will not go in to. Pollin valued character and loyal yes men by his side at all times, and it cost this franchise dearly for nearly 25 years.

Pollin passed away last November.

Enter new majority owner/Capitals owner/businessman/entrepreneur/media favorite/fan favorite Ted Leonsis. Leonsis has been there and done that in terms of trying to get that one player to win a championship. You can bet the house he won’t make any outrageous signings this summer because he knows this team is in trouble. Their image is porous; their recent draft picks have not lived up to billing, and their local interest is in vast decline.

But not today. Turn on any DC sports radio station today and they are talking Wizards. Why?

With incredible luck, the Wizards just happen to have the number one overall pick in a draft where there is a clear number one.

John Wall out of Kentucky has been the consensus first pick since his junior year of high school in North Carolina. Wall is quick, skilled, and a pass-first point guard in the Derrick Rose/Rajon Rondo mold. I compare him more with Rondo because of his build, but he shoots much better than Rondo did at this stage of his career. Wall also stands out because he is a shutdown perimeter defender, which is something the Wizards have lacked for many, many years. Wall will almost certainly be the Wizards pick, and he will resuscitate a franchise that is in dire need of a young franchise-type point guard.

This pick may not work out, and the Wizards may still be the same old Wizards. But it was a great night for Leonsis, and the Wizards fan base to finally get some luck on NBA draft lottery night.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Productive Weekend at One Winning Drive

The Baltimore Ravens took their first step this weekend towards their ultimate goal of winning a Super Bowl in 2010.

The minicamp got underway on Friday, and immediately a surprise took place: Michael Oher took reps with the first team at left tackle and Jared Gaither was on the right side. Joe Flacco hurled passes to new receivers Donte Stallworth and Anquan Boldin, and the rookies took their place on the field learning the ropes. Sergio Kindle looked like a monster coming off the edge and David Reed....wait, let's not get ahead of ourselves. It's still May. I sounded like a Redskins fan for a second there!

The minicamps are really just organized practices so that the team can get together without pads on or pants, and they can run through plays and get accustomed to football playing shape. Coach John Harbaugh still runs an effective practice where guys are going at it competitively even without tackling. The practices now also help make training camp more effective because they won't spend the better part of July or August learning the whole playbook or getting in football shape.

Jared Gaither was out on Saturday and Sunday with a foot injury that was suffered, well, nobody knows when. Is it a ploy to be traded elsewhere by Gaither? He is presumably not happy with his contract or being moved from left tackle. But let's be honest, Oher is a much better left tackle and deserves to protect Flacco's blindside. Gaither is seen as lazy by the coaches and has all but worn out his welcome.

Trade speculation about him is rampant now and he only has himself to blame. He was given a tremendous opportunity coming out of the supplemental draft to be drafted by a good organization with tremendous people around him. He was also given the opportunity to be the left tackle of the future for a winning organization. Just like at the University of Maryland---Gaither seems to have blown a great opportunity for himself.

Keep checking back for Ravens updates throughout the spring and summer as we head into the 2010 season this September.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Learning to Fly

Forget the Foo Fighter reference or even the Might Ducks reference. This weekend is the first mini-camp of 2010 for the Baltimore Ravens. With what has to be regarded as their best wide receiving core since 1996, the Ravens will start the process of dramatically improving their passing game for the 2010 season.

The Ravens acquired Anquan Boldin, signed Donte Stallworth, and re-signed Derrick Mason. They will help quarterback Joe Flacco take the next step, and will help take the pressure off of running back Ray Rice and former number two wideout Mark Clayton. Clayton may have a tough time making the squad as the fourth receiver because he doesn't play special teams. Your fourth and fifth wide receivers on the depth chart must make an impact in the special teams department if they want to stick.

The Ravens have set up their wide receiving core perfectly. They have Boldin to work the middle of the field, make tough catches, and bully his way up the field after the catch. Mason still works the sidelines better than 95% of the league, and can occasionally get deep when he's matched up one on one. Stallworth is faster than any receiver they've ever had, and will be asked to run down the field most downs. This opens up Mason and Boldin underneath or in the intermediate routes. Clayton or whoever the fourth and fifth receivers are will be asked to play the slot and make only a small contribution.

One must remember that Ray Rice led the team with 78 receptions out of the backfield, which went along with his 1,339 yards rushing. He is a budding superstar in the league, and somebody every defense must account for at all times. Rice's presence alone should help open things up for the other players.

The Ravens hope their playmakers make plays; they also hope their young offensive line continues to get better. Michael Oher and Jared Gaither are solid bookend tackles, and guards Ben Grubbs and Marshal Yanda are a force to be reckon with. They're anchored by solid veteran center Matt Birk. This line is very young and should continue to gel.

The Ravens have the best offense on paper that they've ever had. If all of the parts are clicking, it will be a fun year of offense in Baltimore. This weekend will be fun to watch to see just how the moving parts are coming together this offseason.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

A Lost Opportunity

The Orioles played a terrific game against the New York Yankees last night in the Bronx. They were on par with the Yanks all night, save for one pitch.

Randy Winn came into the game hitting below .100; yet he still managed to hit his first home run in over 400 at-bats against Jeremy Guthrie to give the Yankees a 4-1 lead that they would never lose.

Catcher Matt Wieters got the Orioles on the board in the second with a solo shot to right field off of Yankees ace CC Sabathia. After the homer, Sabathia put the game on cruise control and was only threatened once during the rest of the night. The only other hitters other than Wieters who looked like they had a clue last night were Nick Markakis and Garrett Atkins.

Jeremy Guthrie pitched very well all night. The Yankees 1-4 hitters were a combined 1-17, but when Ty Wigginton booted a sure double play ball in the fourth inning, the floodgates opened. Instead of getting out of the inning without giving up any runs, the Yankees got four. It's something the Orioles have to live with while Brian Roberts is on the DL with a herniated disc.

The Orioles will look to get back on track tonight when their rookie stud Brian Matusz opposes AJ Burnett. Burnett has always been a problem for the Orioles, and tonight shouldn't be an exception. Matusz had one of the best starts of his career last year in his last start at Yankee Stadium. He allowed one run in seven innings.

Check back for some updates, and remember that the Ravens start minicamps this weekend. At least Baltimore has a solid, winning franchise in town.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

How Sweep it is

The Orioles won two games in 2009 against the Boston Red Sox.

They have now won four games against the Red Sox---in six games played in 2010.

Interestingly enough, the Orioles are only 7-18, and coming off one of their worst starts in franchise history.

How is it that this is the year they swept the Sox for the first time at home since the Watergate scandal? Many factors. The Red Sox aren't nearly as formidable as they have been in past seasons, and the Orioles bats have finally awoken. Throw in some gutsy starting pitching performances with clutch, timely hits and you have a sweep.

The Orioles saw the reemergence of Nick Markakis in this series. Markakis had five RBI's on Saturday night, which included a three-run homer. Markakis now has his average above .300 with his OBP above .400. I said last week in a post that Markakis would be around .300 within a month. I'll pat myself on the back for that. The guy is a pure, professional hitter.

We saw Adam Jones start to figure things out and get back to basics. Jones stayed on balls and peppered them to right field with regularity this weekend. When Jones doesn't get himself out, he is a very solid hitter. The guy is not going to be Willie Mays. But that's okay because nobody is Mays. Jones is a solid major league ballplayer and will be for many years. He just needs to continue to stay within himself and not try to do too much. That's when he gets in trouble.

Miguel Tejada was a dominant force this weekend, too. Tejada has shown the doubters that he is an above-average third basemen, and his work-ethic is showing. He swung the bat extremely well, and he, too, is above .300 for the season. Tejada's game tying home run in the eighth inning on Friday night may have provided the spark the Orioles needed. He then followed that with the walk-off single that scored Adam Jones from second base.

Tejada can flat out hit. He has four home runs and 13 rbi so far this season, and his bat truly makes a difference in the lineup.

Perhaps no Oriole has made more of an impact in 2010 than Ty Wigginton. Wigginton has eight home runs this season already, and has filled in admirably at second base for the injured star Brian Roberts. Without him, the Orioles might have three wins this season. The guy knows his limits, and knows what he needs to do to succeed. He isn't an all-star but he has true grit and determination playing the game. Give him at-bats and he will hit.

The Orioles got solid starting pitching this weekend from David Hernandez and Brad Bergesen. However, Kevin Millwood showed the city what a true number one pitcher is all about on Sunday. With the bullpen depleted, Millwood knew he had to go deep into the game today. What he gave the team was an eight inning, five hit gem. He allowed only two runs (both solo home runs) and gutted it out on a steamy day in Baltimore. Millwood has shown himself to be a true competitor with a winning attitude. It's important to have a guy like him around to show other players what winning is all about. Millwood would not be denied today.

The Orioles are not too great of a team. They're much better than their record right now, but their record is reality. The best part? They still have five months left to make up for such a terrible start. Let's be honest: everything that could have gone wrong for this club did go wrong the first month. They blew saves, late leads, and their closer Mike Gonzalez and arguably their best player Roberts have been on the DL most of the season. I knew it would take time for the team to adjust, and maybe they have adjusted. It will be interesting to see how the team plays once their schedule softens up a bit and they don't have to play as many divisional games. The Yankees and Twins are up next.

On a side note, many of you are possibly wondering why the Red Sox are struggling so much. If you'd like me to post thoughts on that topic let me know. I have many.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Worst Case Scenario

Well, the Washington Capitals worst fear came true. They became the first team in the NHL's modern playoff format to blow a 3-1 series lead as the number one seed.

The Caps could never successfully solve Montreal's goaltender, who turned into the second coming of Patrick Roy. Alex Ovechkin played with incredible energy throughout the game, and anybody who blames him for the loss or says he can't handle pressure really is immune to athletics. Stand up, Tracee Hamilton. I'm talking about you.

The lack of the Caps role players in this series led to their demise. Alexander Semin and Mike Green were non-existent, although, in Semin's defense he was totally snake bit. Semin was on the wrong end of a couple posts, and a goaltender that stopped everything that came his way.

Green's exploits led to all of the goals Montreal scored in game seven. There was his useless crosscheck in the first period that led to a Montreal power play goal, the overskate of the puck to leave it just laying there begging for a Canadien to pick it up and score an easy goal, and the waste of offense he proved to show throughout the series.

Green will certainly be the subject of trade talks this summer. If he isn't, then the Capitals will be fooling themselves. He's an overrated defensemen who may be the best scoring defensemen in the game, but with all of the other firepower on the team they don't truly need him to succeed. The Caps are in need of a defensemen who can shut other players down without any letdowns, and Green is certainly not that guy. However, since Green does possess unique skills, there are certainly teams that would be willing to give up good players for him.

The only thing that may keep Green around is his immense popularity in town---especially with the female crowd. Green is young, cool, and an NHL hockey player. That will keep you in female circles for awhile.

The Caps game seven loss was not a surprise. This town is cursed when it comes to sports, and this was just another case of a massive let down. I wrote yesterday that the game was a massive turning point in Caps history, and they totally blew it. They had a chance to win this town over outright and they let it slip through their fingers. The bandwagon will certainly die down for a little bit now, and if the Redskins get better next year look out. As long as Ovechkin and his other comrades are on the team there will be certain excitement at the Verizon Center. The problem is we are past that point, and DC is a city full of fair weather fans. Winning will be what keeps them interested in a sport like hockey.

The Caps blew it---AND THEY KNOW IT, TOO

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Do or Die for the Caps

Four playoff series' in the Alex Ovechkin era---four game seven's.

The Washington Capitals have been heavily favored in the playoffs the last two years, and each time they have gone to game seven. In 2009, the lowly New York Rangers had a 3-1 lead on the Caps before Ovechkin and his crew stormed back to win game seven at the Verizon Center. In round two, Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins were down 2-0 in the series before winning three of the next four and taking game seven to end the Caps season.

What will the end game be in 2010?

Unfortunately, professional sports builds up heroes and brings down goats. That's the way it is. Dan Marino? Couldn't get back to the Super Bowl. Charles Barkley? Couldn't win a title. Stockton and Malone? Jordan was just too great. Alex Ovechkin? Sidney Crosby has a title and an Olympic game winner. It's unfair to guys who are great that their teams just don't supply their great player with the same firepower as the winners, but people see it as the star being the failure. Let's not kid ourselves: if the Caps don't win tonight, it won't be on Alex Ovechkin. Mike Green has been so non-existent that I thought I saw him taking classes at American U the other day instead of being in Montreal.

Ovechkin needs to win this game in order to not be perceived as a failure. The Caps have already underachieved the last few years, and a loss as the President's Cup champions in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs to the 8th seeded Montreal Canadiens would be absolutely devastating. Not only would Ovechkin lose in the first round, but he wouldn't make it to at least the conference finals for the third straight year.

In order for the Caps to win tonight, their role players must show up as they did in the regular season. Green, Alexander Semin, and Tomas Fleischmann must make major contributions tonight to avoid a destructive loss at the Verizon Center. If the Caps lose tonight, it's possible they could lose confidence, and certainly a ton of momentum as the premier team in DC for a few years.

One must remember that DC is a bandwagon town. Couple that with the fact that no team here has been very good in the last twenty years since the Redskins last championship in 1991. The Caps have completely capitalized on the woeful Nats, the brain-dead decisions of the Wizards, and the utter dysfunction of the Redskins. A loss tonight would kill their momentum, especially as the Redskins and Nats can only get better from this point forward.

Alex Ovechkin is one of the top ten players to ever wear an NHL jersey. His personal stats now and when he retires will be incredible, but he needs to make the Stanley Cup Finals this year to be taken seriously among the greatest players ever. A loss tonight in the first round would be like Kansas losing in the NCAA round of 32: they wouldn't even have given themselves a chance this year to win.

Monday, April 26, 2010

2010 Redskins Draft recap

The Washington Redskins finally addressed a five year problem when they drafted offensive tackle Trent Williams out of Oklahoma University. Williams is known for his athleticism and ability to get to the second level when blocking. The second level is when a lineman can get to the linebackers and cornerbacks when the team is running the rock.

New Head Coach Mike Shanahan is famous for his zone-blocking schemes, and the Redskins believe Williams is a better fit for the system than now Seattle Seahawks left tackle Russell Okung. Okung was the top rated left tackle in the draft and is known for his dedication to the game, and extremely sound technique. Williams, however, is not known for his dedication to the game. When you have a top five pick in the draft, you better make sure the guy you are taking is the real deal. When you pass up the real deal, you will regret it for years to come. The Redskins better hope Williams doesn't live up to his reputation as a lazy, undedicated player.

The Redskins used a pick on LB Perry Riley. Riley should be a solid player for the team, but he may not make an immediate impact. The other players drafted by the Redskins were taken in the later rounds, which screams special teams or project type players. Let's be honest, with Shanahan and Bruce Allen's draft records, there is reason to be skeptical of anybody the Redskins pick from here on out.

The Redskins did technically get a second round pick when they traded for QB Donovan McNabb. McNabb is a definite upgrade over the now Oakland Raiders QB Jason Campbell, but it remains to be seen how the team does with him at the helm. Teams don't just trade in their own division without knowing something first. If the Redskins win more than seven games this year, they should look at it as a successful season. Taking a left tackle in the first round, even if they did take the wrong guy, is a step in the right direction.