Saturday, July 14, 2007

Some more tips for signing players

Signing the Magic's ticket to being almost good enough.

Now that Rashard Lewis has been introduced by the Orlando Magic and the dust has settled, the second guessing game is in full force. Inspired by the exorbitant contract Lewis received, ESPN's Chad Ford wrote a fantastic article advising teams on how to manage the salary cap.

His five suggestions are great and hit at the heart of many NBA team's mistakes when signing players. There are a few I would like to add to this list.

Don't be fooled by statistics, they can be deceiving
Lewis puts up great stats. But, Ford astutely points out that Lewis was the second-best player on his old team, his old team was bad and he isn't even the best player on his new team. But, because he averaged 22 points, 6.6 rebounds and hit 151 three pointers last year, the Magic felt he automatically made them a championship contender (why else would you give someone a max contract?). Sure, Lewis makes them better, but at what price? As Ford also points out, they have no flexibility now. Because the Magic were fooled by stats, they now have someone who is a reasonably soft second-tier scorer who plays little defense under contract for the next six years.

Stay away from long-term deals for players over 30 years old
GMs inevitably hand over long contracts to players on the other side of the hill of their careers. Sure, the first three years of that contract might be rosy, but the last two or three years always, always, always end up being an albatross. Let it be known that I acknowledge the need to sometimes offer more contract years to a player for the purpose of luring him away from the competition, but a certain amount of discretion is still required in offering contracts. Many times offering more money with less years under contract is a smarter play. Players are usually in their primes from 26-30 years old. Use some responsibility and recognize that players usually start a sharp decline around 31-33, so why offer a player a long, cumbersome contract that will end up paying for a player's move into retirement when they are 35 or 36? Lewis is about to turn 28, so the Magic are bumping the nose of acceptability on this one.

The amount that a player helps your team should be proportional to his pay
If your team's cornerstones are rebounding and scoring around the rim, a player who compliments those things very well may be worth more to your team than to another. Sometimes paying a player over market value is fine, as long as it makes sense with team needs. For example, the Suns gave Steve Nash an accurate amount of money for what he was worth...just under the max contract level. But they were criticized for giving him such a long contract. While it may be true that they will rue the final year or two of that contract, it was worth it for them to overpay for the one cog that makes their machine work properly. Now? The only ones criticized for the Nash situation are the Mavericks, who refused to match that contract and instead signed Erick Dampier to an even longer contract. So, Nash is paid quite a bit of money, but he constitutes such a high percentage of that team's success that he will never be paid enough. That is what makes it a good deal.

Find a number and stick to it
A smart team finds the maximum price they are willing to pay a free agent and sticks to it. Once you start making concessions about contract length and salary, you will always end up overpaying. Players are only worth what you think they are worth. Let someone else overpay for them if they want.

Ultimately, as I always point out, it comes down to owner responsibility. Every owner should have the right to pay a player what they wish, but that doesn't mean you have to have an overzealous means to an idiotic end.

Reasonably yours,

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Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Some suggestions to juice up All-Star Monday

Why not stick Carlos in a home run derby?

As the Home Run Derby concluded Monday night, I couldn't help feeling like there was something opportunity that was sorely missed. The Home Run Derby has a certain Herculean draw to it that people love, and there is definitely skill involved in succeeding in it. But power is only one part of the very complex game that is baseball. If Major League Baseball would like to add some more competitions to build fan interest, I think they could and fans would be very receptive to it. Why have All Star Monday consist solely of crap like the celebrity softball game and cap it with one decent event like the Home Run Derby. What if we expanded the Monday lineup a bit?

The NBA does it. They saw the slam-dunk competition's popularity and expanded to include pre-All-Star Game events. Of course, now it has become a bunch of laughable competitions that no one cares about (including the dunk contest), but their hearts were in the right place. These are the events that Major League Baseball could employ for a glorious Monday night of festivities:

Precision Outfield Toss
Tom Emanski's Back-to-Back-to-Back AAU National Champions wouldn't have crap on these guys. Set the players up in center field and put a small bucket at home plate and dare them to throw as many balls out of 10 that they can. The last ball could be a "money ball," a la the three-point competition in the NBA. Come on Andruw Jones, even you and your .211 batting average could go to the All-Star Game this year if you wanted to.

This year's entrants:
Jeff Francoeur, Delmon Young, Willy Taveras, Michael Cuddyer, Josh Hamilton
Winner: Jeff Francoeur
Has a cannon and has 10 assists, second among outfielders. Cuddyer is the obvious choice with 15 assists, but I like to live dangerously on my fake predictions.

Home Run Rob
Everyone's favorite highlight play can come to life over and over again in this competition of skill and style. A coach or teammate of the participant lobs a ball that goes just over the wall or at the wall, and the player must make the catch in the most entertaining way possible. Be it a back flip, a running up the wall a la Bo Jackson or just an old-fashioned cookie jar grab over the fence, this one would look mighty cool. You wouldn't have to limit it to outfielder either as there are plenty of athletic fellows in infields around the Majors who could pull this off with gusto. Judged by a panel including Ken Griffey Jr., Bo Jackson, Ichiro, and Kevin Mitchell (why not?), this would be judged on style and the successful grab.

This year's entrants
Torii Hunter, Jose Reyes, Curtis Granderson, Chone Figgens, Joe Crede
Winner: Curtis Granderson
Nimble, athletic and has an awesome name. Has the right amount of flash to pull this off like it should.

Inside-the-park home run
This one is basically a test of foot speed and not much else. To start, you have to hit a ball out of the infield in the air, then make it as fast as possible around the bases. It could be a great showcase for the league's young speedsters and it would interesting to see if anyone would fall flat on their face.

This year's entrants
Jose Reyes, Carl Crawford, Reggie Willits, Curtis Granderson, Hanley Ramirez
Winner: Hanley Ramirez
He's incredibly fast and seems like he would try more than everyone else. Probably has some kind of inferiority complex to Reyes.

Fungo Precision Swat
As much as the Precision Outfield Toss judges throwing accuracy, the Fungo Precision Swat is about hitting a ball at a specific point. You could pit coaches against players, or, even better, have a team of a player from one team and the coach who hits fungo for that respective team.

This year's entrants
Rangers, Art Howe and Kenny Lofton; Red Sox, Dave Magadan and Kevin Youkilis; Astros, Jose Cruz and Mark Loretta
Winner: Astros, Jose Cruz and Mark Loretta
Homer pick puts Cheo and Loretta in the winner's circle because I want them to be there.

Non-Pitcher Strikeout Challenge
This one pits position players who think they can pitch against high school baseball players. It's simple, you pitch an inning, and whoever puts up the best stats (or least worst) wins. The only requirement to enter is that you can't have pitched a single pitch in the Majors. So, guys who did it up in the minors or high school, feel free to jump right in.

This year's entrants
Richie Sexson, Aaron Rowand, Vladimir Guerrero, Shane Victorino
Winner: Vlad Guerrero
High school hitters are so terrified that Vlad will hit them that they whiff while falling out of the batters box.

Pitcher's Home Run Derby
This one is pretty self-explanatory. You scoot the fence in about 15-20 feet and let the pitchers go to town. The only requirement would be to have pitched the minimum amount of innings to qualify for the statistical leaders list at the All-Star Break. The comedy of this one would be unrelentingly hilarious.

This year's entrants
Carlos Zambrano, Bronson Arroyo, Mike Hampton, Kerry Wood, Dontrelle Willis
Winner: Carlos Zambrano in a landslide.
Things Carlos Zambrano does well: hit home runs with excellent frequency for a pitcher, emphatically pump him fist after striking someone out, punching Michael Barrett.

Understandably, some of these competitions might push away some players for fear of injury risk, but just as happens with the NBA dunk contest, there will always be youngsters out there looking to make a name for themselves any way they can.

Reasonably yours,

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Tuesday, July 10, 2007

ESPN goes the way of MTV, who cares?

They really aren't all that different.

And just like that, the last shred of ESPN's previous glory days is completely gone from the picture.

Don't get me wrong, ESPN has grown into a hackneyed, tiresome elephant that isn't getting any better. I watch the sporting events they carry, and I occasionally watch an Outside the Lines piece. But, the ESPN as I and many others knew it is gone.

But my feelings are different than most who hate what ESPN has become. You know why? Because there are a million other places to get what I need sports-wise. When it was born, ESPN was the sole national sports news provider. There was little choice about where to get your sports information outside of the local newscast's three-minute sports bit or tomorrow's newspaper. The innovation they provided will always be felt. But, because of that innovation, everyone else eventually figured out that it would be a good idea to jump on and start mass broadcasting sports.

Now that ESPN has become fat and happy, they have ceased to possess the edge that once made them great. But, I'll end my criticism there. ESPN can do what they wish, and getting angry about it is absolutely pointless. For every angry blogger that makes a list of all the reasons why ESPN sucks, there are ten fat, happy television watchers who don't mind hearing Stuart Scott or Chris Berman speak nonsense. For every overESPNed sports fan out there that is appalled by the asinine segment currently running called "Who's Now?", there is a viewer who is just fine with consuming it.

The funniest part of this is that it all seems eerily similar. Know why? MTV did the exact same thing.

Once upon a time, MTV was badass. Programming was rife with music videos, music shows, edgy cartoons and the occasional Real World (which at the time was the only reality show, and thus acceptable). Then, something changed. MTV started cutting back on its music-based programming and started to focus more on reality shows, comedy programs and popular culture shows. As MTV was in the process of transitioning out of being a majority music-based network, they added M2, which eventually became MTV2. They transitioned most of their music-based programming to M2, and those that were lucky enough to get M2 on their cable package could still watch shows like 120 Minutes, Yo! MTV Raps and Amp. Eventually MTV2 transitioned into a slightly tweaked version of late-1990s MTV and became full of spare crap like its parent company. Now they are basically the same network with a few different shows. MTV puts more focus on the TV than the M, and that's fine. They found the audience that would make them buckets of money and stuck with it. That's called being a smart business.

The beauty about the time frame of MTV's transition out of being a music-based network was the rise of the Internet. Now, instead of waiting on 120 Minutes to tell me a new Jon Spencer Blues Explosion or Faith No More album was coming out, I could get on the Internet and find out everything I needed to know. In the past few years, with the advent of Youtube, even having a network to broadcast music videos has become obsolete. You can find them all on the Internet already and watch exactly the ones you want to see without wading through the occasional terrible one as you used to have to do when MTV still showed music.

As time progressed, ESPN found their niche also. They have found that following the E, P and N in their name will make them more money than the S. If that's how they find success, then let them go right ahead. Just don't believe them when they purport to put their journalism first, because that is an obvious lie. But the beauty of it all is that we don't have to get our sports news from ESPN anymore. In essence, ESPN's change and MTV's have been the same, and the world's information consumption has transitioned with it.

So, my recommendation to those of you who are fed up with ESPN's mediocre-to-bad programming: start watching ESPNews, a Fox Sports affiliate or the Internet. Lord know there's plenty out there to consume.

Reasonably yours,

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Sunday, July 8, 2007

The greatest solo sporting event on Earth

Let's hope the UCI can start cracking down on doping, then maybe people will start to care again.

In 1903 the Parisian equivalent to Sports Illustrated, L'Auto (now known as L'Equipe), founded the greatest bicycle race on the face of the Earth and named it the Tour de France. The Tour was conjured up to increase newspaper circulation, which it dramatically did, but through the years has grown into what can be seen as the greatest individual sporting event on Earth.

Sure the Olympics can provide some outstanding individual efforts in track and field, swimming, and other such sports. Marathoners and triathletes have all of our respect with their strength, endurance, and willingness to compete in what seems to be more self-torture than sport. The cyclists that compete in the Tour de France have them all beat, hands down.

In a race that spans a little over three weeks, 2,000+ miles, and with a measly two rest days, it is hard to argue that any event can hold a candle to what these guys put themselves through in pursuit of the coveted maillot jaune or, yellow jersey. Just take a look at this and tell me that even completing the race is an easy feat. It isn't. That's right, these guys ride bikes at speeds reaching 60 mph (downhill, of course) across most of France, parts of Belgium, through the French Alps, and through the Pyrenees Mountains. For those who are not familiar with France's mountain ranges, the peaks of the Alps are right up there with the Rockies while the Pyrenees are not far behind. Every year several cyclists who specialize in flat land cycling (sprinting) drop out when the mountain stages begin while during the race the Voiture balai, or broom wagon, collects riders who can not finish or are too far behind.

Everyone who has even overheard a conversation or news piece about cycling will tell you that they don't care because most of the riders, in their opinion, are using performance-enhancing drugs. The types of drugs used in cycling tell you just how rigorous the sport is as most offenders are found to have taken EPO and/or given themselves blood transfusions to increase the amount of oxygen in the blood. Every sport has cheaters and dopers, very few sports have athletes who store up their own oxygen-rich blood with the intent of replacing their oxygen-depleted blood overnight. Hopefully, these practices are coming to an end as the UCI (cycling's governing body) has drafted tough, mandatory contracts for riders to adhere to. This year is already looking ten times better than last year.

Assuming cycling can put its recent sordid past behind it and pedal into greener fields, the Tour de France will remain as one of the top sporting events in the world. It is already the penultimate test of human endurance and the pinnacle of what a solo athlete can achieve in the world of sports today.

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Kenneth is a guest contributor to laissez-faire ball.