Corey Mueller

2014 NBA Awards Predictions (Sunday Sports Column)

 

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BY COREY MUELLER

Now that the NBA regular season has come to a close, it’s time for the experts to vote for the many awards given out to the best players of the year.  I’m no expert, so ranking the NBA 1st, 2nd, and 3rd team is not for me, but I can give my thoughts on the other categories.  Although the official ballots are not available to the public, Grantland’s Zack Lowe had access to a ballot through Bill Simmons, and that article can be found here .  I’ll be basing my predictions off of said ballot, as well as my personal opinion and limited knowledge through my fantasy basketball experience.

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Most Valuable Player:

1. Kevin Durant

2. LeBron James

3. Stephen Curry

4. John Wall

5. Paul George

The debate between KD and LBJ has raged on all year, but I have to give it up to Kevin Durant.  Only 25-years-old, KD won his 4th scoring title in 5 years, the first since one Michael Jordan did it in the late ‘80s, early ‘90s.  Durant also becomes only the 5th player to win 4 or more scoring titles, joining MJ, Wilt Chamberlain, Allen Iverson and George Gervin.  There’s no taking away from the stellar year LeBron had, though, as he shot 56.7% from the field and scored his most 3s since joining the Heat in 2010.  Lebron, however, saw a decline in most of his stats.  The 29-year-old superstar averaged a rebound (from 8.0 to 6.9) and an assist (from 7.3 to 6.4) less this year than last, as well as going from .9 blocks per game to .3.  There’s no questioning LeBron’s defensive presence on the court, but his stat sheet has shown a slow decline from previous years.

Kevin Durant has shown similar stats, like a decline from 1.3 blocks to .7, but his 4-point average jump is nothing to brush off.  KD also averaged an assist more per game, most likely due to Russell Westbrook’s absence.  Durant was able to lead the Thunder to a 59-23 record this season with Westbrook out for 36 games, while LeBron and the Heat posted a 54-28 record in the East.  Durant missed 1 game all season; LeBron sat out 5, in which the Heat went 2-3 (including losses to the Celtics and Sixers).  The discussion of the team surrounding both players always arises in the Durant VS. LeBron debate, but this year is shaky for both teams.  Westbrook only played 46 games, and Dwyane Wade played 54 of the 82 regular season games. That discussion can be saved for another day, but in short, Durant seemed to carry more of the responsibility on the Thunder than LeBron had to on the Heat.

The stats are strikingly close, but I have to give the edge to Kevin Durant this year.  Both had outstanding years this season, but KD did just a little more.  As for the other candidates, Curry led the Golden State Warriors this year with his highest points-per-game totals, as well as career high assists and most 3-pointers made in a season.  John Wall was able to swing the Wizards from a 29-win team in 2013 to a 44-win, playoff contending team in 2014. He had career high points, assists, and steals this season, but it may be premature to give him MVP this early in his career.  Finally, Paul George, last year’s Most Improved Player, had his best scoring season yet and was able to lead the Pacers to the 1st seed in the East, despite the huge slump Indiana has been in the last 2 months.  Had this slump not occurred, George would be right up in the debate with LeBron and KD, but unfortunately his stats dropped significantly since February.

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Defensive Player of the Year

1. Joakim Noah

2. Roy Hibbert

3. DeAndre Jordan

This was a tough decision as well, as Hibbert was so good until he and the rest of the Pacers seemingly stopped playing for the last quarter of the season.  Hibbert is one of the largest threats, literally, to have protecting the basket.  At 7’2”, he gets in the way of any attempt to get to the hoop, and he causes opposing teams to miss nearly 60% of their shots when he’s near the rim or shooter.  Noah, however, is a much quicker defender and never messes up a pick-and-roll defense.  When I picked Joakim Noah up on January 15th, a week after Luol Deng was traded, Noah was averaging 1.1 blocks per game, but finished the season with 1.5 blocks to his name.  Noah was on an upward curve while Hibbert sloped downwards, and Noah’s 1.2 steals per game heavily outweighs Hiibert’s .4.  Noah also posted 4 triple-doubles this year, an impressive stat for any player, but even more so from a center.  Hibbert also only grabbed a meager 6.6 rebounds to Noah’s 11.3.  The scale tips more heavily in favor of Noah, especially with the overall performance Noah put up this year.

DeAndre Jordan was my last candidate because of his shear dominance on defense and third-most blocks on average per game this year.  Jordan is terrifying to go up against, and he grabs more than 13 boards per game, but Noah does it without a team of elite stars around him.  I couldn’t include Anthony Davis in this category for the fact that he missed 15 games this year.  Davis’ impressive 2.8 blocks and 1.3 steals would have gotten him this award had he stayed healthy; unfortunately, his sputtered injuries make it difficult to give him it when Noah and Hibbert missed 3 games combined this year.

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Most Improved Player

1. Goran Dragic

2. DeMarcus Cousins

3. Anthony Davis

Goran Dragic shot 50.5% from the field and 40.8% from beyond the arc, 6% and 9% higher in each respective category from last season.  He’s scoring 20.3 points, nearly 6 points more than last year, because of his high efficiency from the field.  Dragic fits in Phoenix’s fast-paced offence, and thrives off the pick-and-roll.  Eric Bledsoe and Dragic pair up extremely well in Phoenix, and they led the Suns to a 48-34 record, missing the playoffs by 1 game.

DeMarcus Cousins of the Kings is my #2, even though it’s only his 4th year in the league.  He averaged 5 more points this year and nearly doubled his blocks per game, and shot almost 50% from the field this year.  Unfortunately, he’s still immature on the court, complaining and getting unnecessary technical fouls.  This poor attitude, as well as the terrible 28-54 record that the Kings held this year, hinders him from receiving this award.

Based purely on stats, Anthony Davis should be the Most Improved Player this year.  He went from 13.5 points to 20.8, as well as added 2 rebounds and half an assist per game to his stat sheet, but I also have to take into consideration his injuries.  Just like the Defensive Player of the Year, he missed too many games to be eligible for this award, and his limited affect on the Pelican’s 34-48 record also hurts his chances at this award.

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Sixth Man of the Year

1. Taj Gibson

2. Jamal Crawford

3. Manu Ginobili

Taj Gibson stepped his game up this season with the Bulls.  Boozer had an average, if not below average, season, and this called for great help from Gibson.  Gibson didn’t shy away, and made the Bulls frontcourt one of the most intimidating both offensively and defensively in the entire NBA.  Gibson averaged a career best 13.1 points per game and played every game, even starting a few with an injured Boozer.  His presence down low drew a few double-teams and this opened the floor for the Bulls, but he also provided immense help on defense.  He averaged 1.4 blocks and .5 steals off the bench, which is impressive even if he were a starter.  He aided his team more than any other bench player in the league.

Jamal Crawford seems to be a candidate for this award every year, especially because of his 18.6 points per game and .9 steals.  He is, however, on the star-studded Clippers where JJ Reddick can score 15 points off the bench because of the supporting cast.  It’s not fair to say the team around Crawford is too good, but they sure do make it a lot easier for him to get open on the perimeter when 3 of the other players potentially could pull a double-team on any given play. Unfortunately, Crawford missed 13 games and the Clippers didn’t suffer at all from it: they went 11-2 without him.

Finally, Manu Ginobili rounds out this category for my predictions.  Ginobili put on a strong showing, as usual. Unfortunately, he played 800 minutes less than Gibson and 500 minutes less than Crawford this year. He has the highest Player Efficiency Rating out of the three, but he is, again, on the bench too much.  He’s only averaging 22.8 minutes per night, and his assists, rebounds, and steals have all seen a decline.  Gibson, due to minutes and higher stats overall, gets this award in my book.

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Rookie of the Year

1. Michael Carter-Williams

2. Victor Oladipo

3. Trey Burke

The rookie class this year was weak. There’s no other way to put it, but this year’s rooks heavily underperformed.  We saw flashes of greatness from Michael Carter-Williams, especially in the season when he nearly posted a triple double with points, assists and steals (22-12-9).  MCW only played 70 games this year, but he’s more deserving than any other rookie this year.  Yes, Oladipo played in 80 games, but he came off the bench in nearly half of them.  MCW started all 70 games he played, and had significantly better points, assists and rebounds. The only thing Oladipo bested MCW in was shooting percentage, and that was 41.9% to MCW’s 40.5%.  Both horrid, but it only gets worse behind them.  Trey Burke is one of the few other honorable freshmen this year, playing 70 games in Utah.  He shot 90% from the free throw line and dished out almost 6 assists per game, so keep an eye on him as he matures in the league.  Unfortunately, no one compares to Michael Carter-Williams from this year’s rookie class, so the award, in my opinion, is his.

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Coach of the Year

1. Tom Thibodeau

2. Gregg Popovich

3. Jeff Hornacek

This was probably the most difficult category to rank, solely due to the fact that Popovich is consistently the best and the success of both the Bulls and Suns were incredibly impressive this year.  Thibodeau deserves this award, though, after losing Rose to injury and Deng in a trade that should have sunk the team.  Thibodeau came out in a press conference after the trade and said the team wasn’t going to tank, and they did far from that.  A lot of the credit goes to my Defensive Player and Sixth Man of the Year, but the team went 34-15 after letting Deng go.  Thibodeau still ran his staunch defense and utilized players like DJ Augustin in his offensive scheme, ultimately putting the Bulls in the 4th seed in the East.

Not much can be said for Gregg Popovich because we have come to expect the Spurs to be dominant.  Popovich should win the Coach of the Last Two Decades award, but unfortunately that doesn’t exist (yet….).  The unageing Spurs run Popovich’s system nearly flawlessly, putting themselves in first in the West with the best record in the entire NBA.  Given the circumstances, though, Thibodeau’s season was much more difficult and deserving of this award.

I know I gave three awards to Bulls members, but they were all incredibly deserving of their respective awards.  We’ll soon see how accurate I am when the awards are given out!

 

 

 

 

 

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I Think I’ll Go To Boston (Sunday Sports Column)

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BY COREY MUELLER

“Please come to Boston for the spring time.
I’m stayin’ here with some friends
And they’ve got lots of room.”

Apparently, Dave Loggins’ message works, especially for former members of the Cleveland Indians.  Many Tribe members have left for Boston in the spring and seen great success in Beantown.  The inspiration for this article comes from the Red Sox’s newest addition, Grady Sizemore.  Thinking about it, my hometown Indians have seen quite a few players leave for Boston in the last decade and a half.

The first came back in 2000, when Manny Ramirez packed up to go to Boston after being offered a $119 million dollar contract, which would’ve made him the highest paid player at the time.  Manny being Manny, though, pursued an even higher contract, and was offered $160 million over 8 years to play in Boston.  Manny was good in Cleveland, but he was arguably one of the greats in Boston.  He played 8 seasons in both Cleveland and Boston, but won 2 World Series with the Sox and 0 with the Indians.  Manny was an All-Star every single year, from 2001 to 2008, while he was a member of the Red Sox.  He was the AL batting champ in ’02 and the AL homerun champ in’04 when Boston won its first World Series since 1918, where he was also named World Series MVP.  Ramirez was surrounded by superstars in Cleveland, but he became a legend in Boston with Big Papi and the rest of the 2004 comeback Red Sox.

The next was in 2009 when Victor Martinez left in a trade for SP Justin Masterson and continued to be a presence behind the plate in Boston.  Martinez was on pace for his best season yet in 2010, batting .302 with 20 HRs and 79 RBI before breaking his thumb.  He was unable to finish the season, only playing in 127 of the 162 games that year.  He was on pace for 26 HRs, 101 RBI and 82 runs, which would’ve been arguably his career best season.  He also hit .336 with 41 RBI and 8 HR in just 56 games with the Sox in the 2009, which is significantly better than any other stretch of games he had in the rest of his career.  He was an All-Star in his one-year stint with the Sox, and a 3 time All-Star in Cleveland.  Martinez saw success in Cleveland and Boston, but the Indians saw reason to get rid of one of the best hitting catchers of the 2000s.  Despite his injuries, Martinez should be considered one of the best overall players of the past decade, especially for the Indians and the Red Sox.

This next one may be a slight stretch, but the Boston Red Sox Manager, John Farrell, made his major league debut in 1987 with the Cleveland Indians.  Then, from November 2001 through the end of the 2006 season, Farrell was the director of player development for the Cleveland Indians.  After that, he became a pitching coach for Terry Francona and the Red Sox.  He then became manager of the Blue Jays before returning to the Sox in 2013.  In just one year, Farrell turned the Red Sox around from the worst in the league to the World Series champions.  This former Indian saw success in Boston when he placed second in voting for the 2013 AL Manager of the Year (behind Cleveland’s Terry Francona), finishing the year with 97 wins.  The upcoming year should be interesting for Farrell, and we’ll see if he continues his success in 2014.

Now, if Grady Sizemore follows the curve of these other players, he’s in for one of his best years yet.  Sizemore hadn’t played since 2011, and was a disappointment for his last three years in Cleveland.  Sizemore won the job for center field back right before the season started, and did not disappoint in his first game back.  He went 2-4 with a homerun, his first since July 15th, 2011.  Since then, Sizemore has been named the leadoff batter for the Sox, where he is currently batting .300 over 4 games.  Watching Opening Day, Sizemore still looked like his old self, hitting and running the bases well.  Usually, it’s difficult for guys like Sizemore to make a comeback after nearly 3 years off, but Grady has the potential to have a huge year in Boston.  If he follows in the footsteps of the other former Indians that followed the path to Titletown, he should have a career year this season.  ESPN only projected Sizemore to have 6 HRs, 28 RBI and 28 runs, but he’ll have to cool down significantly to have that bad of a year.  Grady’s Ladies have moved to Boston, and Sizemore’s friends have made plenty of room for him in Fenway.  I’m no expert, but from Sizemore’s start to the year, it’s shaping up to be one of his best.  Keep an eye on Sizemore and watch for a big year from him in Boston.

30 Days for 30 Teams: Detroit Tigers

BY COREY MUELLER

2013 Record: 93-69 (1st Place AL Central, – GB)

The Tigers have undergone drastic changes since losing the ALCS to the Boston Red Sox.  Detroit won their third straight AL Central title last season, but failed to make it to the World Series once again.  The Tigers haven’t won the World Series since 1984 and haven’t made an appearance since 2006, so these changes are necessary if they hope to win one soon.

Key Acquisitions

Ian Kinsler  (5yrs/$75 mil)

Joe Nathan  (2yrs/$20 mil)

Rajai Davis  (2yrs/$10 mil)

Ian Kinsler is a great pick-up in regards to both contract and hitting.  The Tigers dumped Prince Fielder’s massive contract  for Kinsler, freeing up a ton of space for Detroit to make moves.  Kinsler is also consistent behind the plate; batting in 72 runs in each of the last two seasons.  Although he isn’t the offensive powerhouse Fielder is, Kinsler should still contribute greatly to the batting order.

Joe Nathan may be 39-years-old, but that didn’t stop the former Rangers closer from saving 43 games last season.  The Tigers lost closer Joaquin Benoit in the offseason, but Benoit only had 24 saves last season.  Nathan is a great improvement from Benoit with his sub-1 WHIP and 1.39 ERA.  Nathan will round out the Detroit bullpen and should help them maintain consistent performances to close the game.

Outfielder Rajai Davis signed with Detroit in December of 2013, which may have been one of the quietest moves of the offseason.  Davis is a great base runner, tacking up 40+ steals in 4 of the last 5 seasons.  Detroit will definitely enjoy Davis’s ability to run the bases, giving them many more opportunities to score.

Key Losses

1B Prince Fielder is the biggest lost to the Tigers this season.  He provided security behind Miguel Cabrera in the batting order, and was a huge threat to all pitchers.  Fielder has had only 1 season with less than 100 RBI since 2007 and has more than 30 HRs in all but 1 season during that same span.  Detroit will most definitely miss the offensive potential Fielder brings to the plate in the upcoming season.

Manager Jim Leyland retired at the end of last season, and this is a big loss for Detroit.  Leyland led the Tigers to two pennants in eight seasons, so a new coach will definitely change the Tigers’ game this season.  Rookie manager Brad Ausmus will head the new-look Tigers with high expectations.

PLAYER TO WATCH

Miguel Cabrera is always a player to keep an eye out for, especially coming off of a near repeat triple-crown season.  The less obvious answer, however, is 22-year-old Nick Castellanos.  He will be taking Cabrera’s spot at third as Cabrera moves back to first this year.  Castellanos is a patient power hitter standing at 6’4” 210 pounds, and this rookie has incredible potential in Detroit.  He leads the league in doubles and is tied for RBI in spring training this year, and is making great contact with the ball. We’ll see what he can do under the guidance of Cabrera and the rest of the Tigers’ batting staff in the upcoming season.

Projected Opening Day Lineup

tigers opening day

The rest of the rotation includes Max Scherzer, Anibal Sanchez, Rick Porcello and Drew Smyly.  They lost Doug Fister in the offseason, but still somehow manage to have arguably the best top three in the league.  Porcello and Smyly are still developing pitchers, but have consistently improved over the last few years.  Look for Detroit to still have a successful year this year, most likely on top of the AL Central for the fourth year in a row.  As an Indians fan, it pains me to say this, but Detroit, as they have been recently, will be tough to stop.  Their season hinges on a few things: a successful new manager, a breakout rookie 3rd baseman, and high quality pitching at the end of the rotation.  The Tigers still have a few minor tweaks to work out before becoming World Series champions once again, but they will most definitely be in the hunt.

30 Days for 30 Teams: Cleveland Indians

BY COREY MUELLER

2013 Record: 92-70 (2nd Place AL Central, 1 GB)

Last season, the Cleveland Indians made the playoffs for the first time since 2007, playing only one game against the Tampa Bay Rays in the Wild Card Game.  I’ll try to keep my Cleveland bias to a minimum, but the one game play-in doesn’t do the wild card teams the justice a play-in series would.  Playoffs aside, the 2013 Cleveland Indians saw huge improvements on the mound and in the dugout.  The pitching duo of Justin Masterson and Ubaldo Jimenez combined for 27 wins, and every member of the rotation posted a winning record last season.  Terry Francona was named AL Manager of the Year, which greatly enhanced the Indians over their previous manager Manny Acta.  Interestingly enough, Acta also took Francona’s previous position on ESPN, so the two basically switched jobs.

Key Acquisitions

OF David Murphy  (2yr/$12 mil)

CL John Axford  (1yr/$4.5 mil)

SP Shaun Marcum  (Minor League Contract)

David Murphy didn’t have his greatest season in Texas last year, presumably why he was traded, but looking just 2 years ago, Murphy was highly efficient on offense.  In 2012, he hit .304 with 15 HRs in 147 games, with a .384 on-base percentage.  Murphy is a great addition to the lineup, and should give the Indians consistent contact behind the plate.

John Axford is a huge improvement over Chris Perez in the bullpen, who had 25 saves and the entire Cleveland fanbase trembling every time he came out to close a game.  Axford is a high strikeout, low ERA pitcher, and shouldn’t blow the 5 saves that Perez did last season.

Shaun Marcum is a low-risk/high-reward pick-up for the Indians.  He had a shaky season last year with the Mets, winning only 1 game with them.  If he can get back into his 2011 form, when he won 13 games and had a WHIP of 1.156, the Indians would benefit greatly from signing him.

Key Losses

SP Ubaldo Jimenez left Cleveland for Baltimore after last season, after posting his best season since leaving Colorado in 2011.  He had 194 strikeouts, only 1 less than Masterson, in 182.2 innings, with the best ERA on the team of 3.30 and a 1.33 WHIP.  Jimenez stepped up when Masterson went down in September, and the Indians have yet to find a replacement to fill the 2 spot in the rotation.

2013 AL Wild Card Game: The Indians out-hit the Rays with 9 hits to Tampa Bay’s 8, yet got shut out 4-0.  The Indians’ best hitters, Bourn, Cabrera, Swisher and Kipnis, came out of the game with a grand total of 0 hits in 16 plate appearances.  This alarming stat should make Cleveland fans fairly nervous, seeing that the best players were unable to step up in October.  The Indians need a trustworthy hitter to rectify the situation.

PLAYERS TO WATCH

2B Jason Kipnis is on the rise in Cleveland.  The young second basemen had 84 RBI and 17 HRs last season, batting .284 in 149 games.  Kipnis has improved every year since coming into the league, and last year’s All Star status was well deserved.  Kipnis could emerge as a new superstar in the league, which would greatly help the Indians in their chase for a title.

Carlos Santana will be an interesting player next year, as the Indians will move him all over the lineup.  He can play first, third, or catcher, or simply be the DH if needed.  He will be utilized all over the field, and should continue to be a power hitter for the Indians.  The Indians could use his 27 HRs from 2011 again, and he could do this, as long as he stays healthy.

Projected Opening Day Lineup

indians opening day

The rest of the rotation includes Corey Kluber, Zach McAllister, Danny Salazar and Carlos Carrasco. They have some work to do with the losses of Ubaldo and Scott Kasmir, but the young rotation should be interesting this year.  24-year-old Danny Salazar had 65 strikeouts in 52 innings last year and posted a 1.13 WHIP, so he should contribute as he matures as a player and his role grows in the rotation.  The Indians are still missing one key component to a championship level team: a big bat.  The team had only 2 players with 20 or more HRs last year, the highest being Nick Swisher with 22.  They also only had 1 player with more than 80 RBI last year, namely Jason Kipnis.  The Indians need a 30+ HR, 100+ RBI player to make it far in the playoffs.  Until then, Cleveland should remain #2 in the AL Central behind Detroit.

30 Days for 30 Teams: Kansas City Royals

BY COREY MUELLER

2013 Record: 86-76 (3rd Place AL Central, 7 GB)

Last year’s Royals were the best Kansas City has seen in a decade, racking up their first winning season since 2003.  The 86 games they won were their highest win total since 1985, when the Royals won their first and only World Series.  The team hasn’t seen playoffs since ’85, but hope to be back there soon.

The Royals are young and growing, but have a few things to fix before they can contend in the playoffs.  They lack power behind the plate, and need more home run production.  Their leading home run hitter last year was Alex Gordon, who hit a meager 20 homeruns all season.

Key Acquisitions

RF Norichika Aoki  (1yr/$1.95 mil)

IF Omar Infante  (4 yrs/$30.25 mil)

The Royals didn’t make too many moves in the offseason, but the veterans they picked up should help the lineup quite a bit.  The average age on the team is currently 27.3-years-old, so the team could use some seasoned vets to guide the young players.

The first veteran is 32-year-old Norichika Aoki, who hit .296 with a .367 on-base percentage in the leadoff spot last year for the Brewers, and he gets walked more than he strikes out.  Aoki only hit 8 homeruns last year, but he’s a contact hitter.  He should be able to spark some offense simply by getting on base.

The other addition is another 32-year-old, infielder Omar Infante.  Infante is also not a huge homerun hitter, hitting 12 and 10 homeruns in the last two respective seasons.  Infante did, however, hit .318 in Detroit last year with a .345 OBP, and only struck out 44 times in 476 plate appearances.  Although not a power hitter, Infante, much like Aoki, will get on base and create opportunities for the Royals to score.  Both Aoki and Infante add value to the lineup as contact hitters, in turn creating more offensive production for Kansas City.

Key Losses

SP Ervin Santana  was second on the team only to James Shields in strikeouts last year, getting 161 batters to take a seat in 211 innings.  Although Santana only brought home 9 wins last year, his 3.24 ERA and team-leading 1.14 WHIP will definitely be missed.  The Royals didn’t bring in any new starters, so the young rotation will have to make up for the loss of Santana.

RP Luke Hochevar  blew out his elbow and will have Tommy John surgery on Tuesday, March 18th.  Hochevar was a great set up man, posting an ERA of 1.93 and a .83 WHIP in just over 70 innings last season.  The Royals will surely miss Hochevar this season, but the rest of the bullpen is still the best in the AL.  The Royals bullpen had an ERA of 2.55, and the Rangers, the second best bullpen, had a 2.91 ERA, so it’ll be interesting to see if Kansas City can maintain such a low ERA without Hochevar.

PLAYERS TO WATCH

1B Eric Hosmer provided some offense last year, hitting .302 with 17 HRs and 79 RBI.  He needs to step up further in order for the Royals to take their team to the next level.  Luckily for the Royals, he’s only 24-years-old this year, so there’s plenty of time for him to develop as a player.  He’s been putting in a lot of time in his indoor batting cage with his brother Mike and Major Leaguer Mike Napoli.  Hosmer should be more confident in the box, and hopefully his work in his Florida-home batting cage translates to his production behind the plate.

Closer Greg Holland has been one of the best closers in all of baseball over the last 3 years.  He had 47 saves in 61 innings last year with a 1.21 ERA and 103 strikeouts.  Holland should still be as dominant as he has been, and should round out the best pitching staff in the AL.  Striking out nearly 2 out of every 3 batters he sees, Holland should continue to win games for the Royals, helping them out on the defensive side of the plate.

Projected Opening Day Lineup

 

royals opening day

Behind Shields, the Royals’ rotation should be as follows: LHP Jason Vargas, LHP Bruce Chen, RHP Jeremy Guthrie and RHP Yordano Ventura.  LHP Danny Duff may step in to the 5 spot depending on how the rest of the pitchers throw, and the Royals could use another quality starter.  Kansas City was 5th in the AL for ERA, which is great, but they still need a replacement for Santana.

The team is still young all around, and has players with potential to break out and become stars.  Although that may not happen this year, the Royals still have something to look forward in the future.  For this season, the Royals should remain in 3rd in the AL Central unless they acquire a big bat to throw in the lineup.

The Worst Lakers of All Time (Sunday Sports Column)

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BY COREY MUELLER

The Lakers are currently 22-44, which puts them in last place in both the Pacific Division and the Western Conference, and already eliminates them from playoff contention.  Only three teams, namely the Sixers, Magic and Bucks, have worse records this year.  Let that sink in.  This will be only the third season since 1994 that the Lakers haven’t made a playoff appearance. The Lakers have never won less than 30 games since moving to Los Angeles in 1960, and with just 16 games left and a losing streak on their hands, they may not get out of the 20s in the win column. But just why are the Lakers so bad this year? Let’s take a look at the main problems.

1. Mike D’Antoni’s system.  Mike D’Antoni and Stan Van Gundy were pioneers back in the day, changing the focus to 3-pointers, which is a much higher percentage shot.  Effectively, shooting 40% from 3-point range is like shooting 60% from 2-point range, which is an unheard of 2-point percentage, save big guys like DeAndre Jordan and Andre Drummond.  I’ll take about this later, but D’Antoni’s system calls for three main components: a true point guard, 3-point shooters, and a power forward/center capable of running pick-and-rolls.

For the first key factor in his system, D’Antoni inherited Steve Nash after taking over for Mike Brown in 2012.  This would have been a great fit had it been 2004 and Phoenix, but unfortunately it was 38-year-old Nash. D’Antoni’s system calls for a point guard that takes the ball up every time down the court and facilitates, but there are almost no true point guards anymore.  Besides Chris Paul and Rajon Rondo, most guards in the league are combo guards that are better scorers than passers.  There are guard-dominated teams, like Golden State, Washington and Cleveland, but there are few true point guard-driven teams anymore.  D’Antoni would have to find a true passer to run the offense, but he doesn’t have that.  Going back to Nash, we have to consider his assists over the last four years.  In his last two years with Phoenix, Nash had 11.4 assists and 10.4 assists per game in each of the respective seasons.  Since coming to LA, however, Nash has dropped off significantly.  Yes, he has battled injuries, but that doesn’t discount his lack of production.

As for the second component, the Lakers are shooting 38.2% from 3, putting them 3rd in the league for 3 point percentage.  In 2004, the Suns had both Steve Nash and Joe Johnson shooting the lights out from beyond the arc, shooting 43.1% and 47.8% respectively.  Surprisingly, Jordan Farmar and Kendall Marshall are putting up similar numbers, but the surrounding cast isn’t nearly as good from 3-point range.  Another problem with the 3-point game is that now, everyone is doing it.  With the 2004 Suns, they were first in 3-pointers made, attempted, and percentage, but here lies the problem.  The 8th place 3-point percentage of today (37.5% from the Pelicans) would be just .2% off of 3rd place in 2004.  The game has adjusted, and now every team shoots a higher amount and percentage from 3-point land.  Yes, the Lakers shoot a high percentage from 3, but so does the rest of the league.  D’Antoni relied so heavily on 3-pointers because it gave him an advantage back with the Suns, but now that the entire league shoots 3s, the advantage has vanished.

And for the final part, the Lakers haven’t been able to find a big man that can execute the pick-and-roll effectively.  They tried it with Dwight Howard, but that’s simply not his game.  He’s a post-up player that needs to dominate down low, and pass it out if necessary.  Surround him with 3-point shooters and an unselfish backcourt and you have a championship contending team (aka the 2009 Magic or the current Rockets).  The Lakers have Pau Gasol, who isn’t a cutting forward/center.  Being from Spain, he plays a very European style game, opting to shoot before driving to the basket.  Unfortunately, this is a lower percentage shot than getting to the hoop, and D’Antoni’s system calls for the highest possible percentage shots in order to be most effective. The pick-and-pop doesn’t work as well as the pick-and-roll, just another downfall of the D’Antoni system.

2. D’Antoni’s Inability to Adjust.  D’Antoni should be able to recognize that he doesn’t have the players to fit his system, but he is a stickler for his own system.  His stubbornness towards adjusting to the players debilitates the team, which has caused them to lose so many games.  His players aren’t versatile enough to play the roles that his system calls for, so the system plainly does not work.  D’Antoni, however, continues to run his ineffective system in LA.

The Lakers are trying to run the system, ranking 4th in the league in assists per game.  D’Antoni’s system calls for ball movement and high assist numbers, and the Lakers are still doing this.  As we can see, though, this system does not work even when the team executes the plan D’Antoni has for them.

3. Lack of Defense.  The Lakers are 24th in rebounds this year and 29th in points allowed, scoring almost 7 points less per game than their opponents.  When the Clippers obliterated the Lakers 142-94 on March 6th, the Lakers showed no hustle.  The Clippers scored 19 fast break points to the Lakers 0 in the second quarter of that game, and did it with ease.  The Lakers simply do not get back on defense, as their coach doesn’t have any defensive focus whatsoever.  D’Antoni is used to not having to play defense because of his high-paced, high-scoring offense, but hasn’t adjusted to this either.  They’re not outplaying their opponents on offense, yet they still take it easy on defense.

4. Injuries.  Now this one is pretty obvious; without Kobe the Lakers are going to be much worse.  Steve Nash has also been battered this year, sitting out for back injuries and soreness, and Nick Young has had knee problems as well.  Kobe has only played 6 games this year, so that puts a huge hindrance on the Lakers’ playoff hopes.  To be fair, though, LA was 2-4 with Kobe in the lineup, so he wasn’t as dominant as he has been.  His stats also suffered, as his points per game were cut in half since last season.  The Lakers played with 8 active players against Cleveland due to injuries, and finished with just 4 active players thanks to 2 of those players fouling out and Nick Young and Jordan Farmar getting injured.  The Lakers have had a dismal injury report this season, the final reason they have suffered so significantly on the court.

 

There’s no quick and simple fix for the Lakers, but there are a few things they can do to at least improve next year.

1. Fire Mike D’Antoni. We know his system doesn’t work anymore.  It didn’t with the Knicks and it doesn’t with the Lakers.  He will continue to try to run the system even without the necessary parts, and that’ll hurt them for years to come.  Personally, I’d like to see Jeff Van Gundy back on the court, and he’d do much better than D’Antoni.

2. Deepen the Roster in Free Agency. Speculation has it that Carmelo may be on his way to LA, and this would help immensely assuming both Nash and Kobe can stay healthy.  Even guys like Danny Granger and Kyle Lowry would add depth and skill to the lackluster Lakers’ roster.

3.  Be Smart in the Draft. The Lakers are going to be in the lottery next year, so they need to pick well.  Kansas center Joel Embiid would help on the defensive end, averaging 2.6 blocks right now and 8.1 rebounds, limiting opponents’ second chance points.

4.  Finally, Get Kobe another German Knee Procedure. After coming back from that procedure in 2013, Kobe scored 27.3 points per game and had his highest assist totals since 2005 and highest rebounds since 2008.  If Kobe needs further treatment for his knee, pray the Lakers send him back to Germany.

The Lakers haven’t been the same since Phil Jackson left, not winning more than 45 games without Phil.  The Clippers are now the dominant team Los Angeles, a rare occurrence in the Lakers-Clippers rivalry.  The Lakers have some serious work to do in order to rebuild and take back the throne both in L.A. and in the NBA.

 

30 Days for 30 Teams: Minnesota Twins

BY COREY MUELLER

2013 Record: 66-96 (4th Place AL Central, 27 GB)

It’s hard to think that the Minnesota Twins won 94 games, along with the AL Central, just 4 years ago.  It feels like they’ve been horrible for much longer than that, because they’ve finished last twice and fourth once in the last 3 years.  The Twins haven’t seen the playoffs since 2010, but that should all change soon.

The Twins main focus in the upcoming season needs to be on offense.  They made great additions to the bullpen, but still need to add a strong bat to their lineup.  The team only scored 614 runs last season, while their opponents scored a total of 788 runs against them.  This may seem like a lot, but in reality that’s a little over one more run per game, which is significant, but not necessarily insuperable.  Manager Ron Gardenhire will still focus on the defensive fundamentals, but needs to look at the plate for more production.

Minnesota made some huge additions at the mound that should add great depth and firepower to the rotation, and also added a few role hitters to the lineup.

Key Acquisitions

RHP Ricky Nolasco (4yr/$49 million)

RHP Phil Hughes  (3yr/$24 million)

OF/DH Jason Kubel (1yr/$2 million)

C Kurt Suzuki  (1yr/$2.75 million)

Pitcher Ricky Nolasco won 13 games last year with 165 strikeouts, and should head the Twins rotation in the upcoming season.  The Twins obviously see something in him, paying him just over $12 million per year for the next 4 years.

Phil Hughes is another great addition to the Minnesota bullpen, despite his struggles last year.  Hughes only won 4 games last year, but in 2012 he went 16-13 with 165 Ks in 191 innings.  Hughes, only 28-years-old, will see added time and hopefully help the Twins get more W’s this year.

Jason Kubel returns to the Twins and should add some offense to the lineup.  Although he only had 5 homers last year, Kubel hit 30 home runs 2 years ago in Arizona.  His homeruns and high RBI should help alleviate some of the run problems in Minnesota.

Finally, the Twins will utilize Kurt Suzuki as the new catcher and move Joe Mauer to first base.  Suzuki only played 97 games last season, but should see a lot more time behind the plate in Minnesota.  His stats have steadily declined due to his decrease in games played, but they should go back up to normal as the 30-year-old catcher becomes a regular in the lineup.

 

Key Losses

Justin Morneau played 127 games for the Twins before being traded to the Pittsburgh Pirates, in which he hit 17 home runs and had 74 RBI.  Even though Morneau has been extremely inconsistent over the last few years, his season with the Twins last year was a promising return.  Although he hasn’t hit more than 20 home runs since 2009, he still hit significantly better last year than what he has been batting.

The Instant Replay-less Era is over. Although this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, the first instant replay call was upheld during the spring training game versus the Blue Jays. The new rule  debuted when RF Chris Rahl was ruled safe at first base. Goodbye to the outdated, stubborn attitude against replays!

 

PLAYER TO WATCH

30-year-old Twin veteran Joe Mauer will see a new role, filling the first base slot after Justin Morneau’s departure.  Although the MLB has enacted a new rule to protect catchers , the Twins moved Mauer to first to further protect him from getting another concussion, which held him to just 113 games last season.  If Mauer stays healthy, he should contribute largely on offense like he has in the past, and this will be just another positive influence in the box score.  Mauer is the All-Star the Twins need to become contenders in the AL.

Projected Opening Day Lineup

twins opening day

The rest of the rotation includes Kevin Correia, Phil Hughes, Mike Pelfrey and Vance Worley.  Twins fans can expect a great improvement in the bullpen due to these additions, and should look forward to more wins next season.  They still need to add a power hitter, though, to be contenders in the AL Central.