Behind the Mic: Bryce Harper – Enough Already!

Easter Sunday was a really nice day.  The whole family was present with everyone making it to the house.  Once again, my wife put together an extensive dinner, maintaining the traditions of a Ukrainian Easter; paska (Ukrainian bread); one egg shared by all to start the dinner; and a Ukrainian hymn signifying that Christ had risen.  It was sunny and warm outside and inside.  Even sports took a respite for the day.

And then at 11:00pm, I watched the news which has become the most dramatic program on TV these days.  And I always check out the Phillies results.  The Phillies lost.  Bryce Harper hit his second home run of the day on a 3-2 count with the Phils leading 4-3 in the bottom of the ninth with two outs and two on to Washington.    Do the math – a 6-4 loss.  It was Harper’s 18th home run against the Phillies in his five years with the Nationals.

If you root for any team other than the Nationals, Bryce Harper is not your favorite player.  He just seems to have a way of ruining one’s day.

But, let’s face it – Bryce Harper is REALLY, REALLY good.  He is a baseball superstar who truly lives up to the description every day he steps on the field.  I knew a bit about his journey to the major leagues, but I decided to investigate a bit further.  Wikipedia is always a good place to start.

  • He received his GED after his sophomore year in high school so he could begin his path to professional baseball career at the age of 17.
  • He played one season for the College of Southern Nevada as a catcher with his older brother pitching on the team. Harper was the Player of the Year in the conference.  He topped that honor by being named the best amateur player in the country.  And he played only one collegiate season.
  • He was drafted #1 by the Nationals in 2010; signed a 5-year, $9.9 million contract with 26 seconds left before the signing deadline. His signing bonus was $6.25 million.
  • He struggled early in his minor league career because as an optometrist told him, “You have some of the worst eyes I’ve ever seen.” Once he received contact lenses, he hit an amazing .480.
  • His major league debut occurred on April 28, 2012; he was an All-Star that year; and he was named the National League’s Rookie of the Year.
  • Including this season, he has hit a home run on opening day every year in the majors.
  • His longest career home run (461-feet) is, naturally, against the Phillies.
  • He is a Seventh Day Adventist and drinks no alcohol.

A 4-3 Phillies win at the end of a nice Easter Sunday would have been a perfect way to end the day, but now that I know more about Bryce Harper and his road to the majors, it’s very hard not to respect his talents and his work ethic.  I wish he just wouldn’t be so hard on the Phillies.

ABOVE THE EARS (SOME MUSINGS) 

  1. The Eagles might want to consider hiring the “Easter Bunny” as a linebacker. Take a look.

https://twitter.com/Nationals/status/853686707555840000/photo/1

And it was a legal hit – the bunny did not lead with his EARS!!

  1. Image, either good or bad, is so important for professional athletes. It often determines their future once they decide to leave the game they play.  Giants’ quarterback Eli Manning always appeared to be one of those squeaky clean guys, much like his brother Peyton.  Now we hear he may be involved in a memorabilia scam to sell items advertised as game-used when they were not and is being sued.  I have never been enamored with sports mementos, but this should be an interesting story.
  2. Last week, I spoke of some potential rule changes to shorten baseball games. The first report is out for this season and the games are averaging over five minutes longer than last year.
  3. The Chicago Cubs passed out their championship rings this past week. 108 white diamonds, 33 custom-cut red rubies and 46 blue sapphires make up the face.  The inner band features the infamous goat.

Cubs Rings        5.  Our first look at Lafayette’s new head coach, John Garrett, will take place on Saturday, April 29, when we televise the Lafayette Maroon-White game. The action is LIVE at 1:00pm.

The SportsTalk Shop: Phillies & Nationals Prospect Updates

Both the Phillies and Nationals have built strong minor league foundations and MLB fans of these two organizations will start to see the fruits of their respective front-offices’ labors over the coming weeks and months.

Here are some notes and video interviews with a few of the top Triple-A performers in each of the franchises.

Nationals’ Austin Voth
This right-handed starting pitcher has not just posted incredible numbers this spring, but he seems to be on a fast track to the Major Leagues.  Voth has cruised through Washington’s farm system.

He mixes his pitches extremely well and has great command of them.  He’s always been a pitcher who’s right around the plate, but he’s been even more accurate so far this season (just six walks in almost 40-innings pitched and seven starts).  Once more, in his worst start of the season against Lehigh Valley, when he didn’t have his best stuff, he’s a competitor and battles giving his team a chance to win.  While he’s not a dominating pitcher, he’s averaging over one strikeout per inning.

With Max Scherzer and Steve Strasberg anchoring the front of the rotation for years to come, Voth should be a nice middle-of-the-rotation hurler for many future summers—and his composure and ability to throw strikes should make him the first viable option should one of the Nats’ current starting pitchers fall to injury this year, even during a pennant drive.

Phillies’ Nick Williams

Many Philadelphia sports fans are calling for his call-up, but it’s a little premature at this point.  After raking it in the Eastern League last year in the postseason for Reading, he’s taking more time getting used to Triple-A pitching (he had just one home run up until two weeks ago).  However, as the weather has warmed up, so has Williams’ bat.  He’s also been playing more center field of late and has looked “OK” (he probably does not have the arm to be a regular right fielder).

What you don’t want to have happen is that the Phillies get involved in a pennant race and are forced to bring up Williams early (see previous outfield sensation Dominic Brown—no longer with the team).  Williams is, at best, a September call-up for a cup of tea this year, and perhaps, some time in winter ball.

He’s a great talent who could fill a couple different spots in the Phillies near-future batting order, but hold off on the screaming pleas for the Phillies to call Williams up for now.

Nationals’ Trea Turner
We featured the Nationals’ number-one rated position prospect a few weeks ago both here at “The Shop” and on our “RCN SportsTalk” program.  This is a guy who Washington fans will love.

He’s a great leadoff hitter with more power than Nationals’ current lead-off man, Ben Revere.  He has an awesome slash line (.320/.384/.471) with three home runs, is third on the team with 17 RBIs and a team leading 15 steals (all as of 5/20/16).  He’s aggressive at the plate but will still try to bunt every once in a while if a third basemen is playing back or to try to reach base in a key spot.

Also, he has great range defensively and is a nice spark on the field for his current Syracuse Chiefs’ team.  I wouldn’t be surprised if Washington fans see Turner sooner rather than later—especially if the team’s offensive struggles continue into the summer.

Nationals’ Brian Goodwin & Pedro Severino

Because of Turner’s and Voth’s successes, the better-than-normal batting averages of Goodwin and Severino have gone unnoticed by many Nats fans.  Goodwin gives Washington versatility in that he can play all three outfield positions well, has great speed (might be used as a pinch runner by the Big Club) and could be a fourth outfielder on this year’s team.  Goodwin has been hitting over .300 consistently and is tied for the team lead in homers (his Grand Slam gave his Chiefs last Thursday a 7-4 win over Toledo).

Severino has always been an outstanding defensive catcher and calls a great game.  He’s seen as the Nationals catcher of the future because of what he does behind the plate, but his near-.300 batting average this year—if he can sustain it at the Major League level—would be a nice plus.

More importantly, he understands how important it is to know his pitching staff, inside and out, and constantly monitors the Nats staff and the scouting reports so that when (not if) he gets called back up to the parent club, he’s up-to-speed on what every pitcher needs to do to have success.

Every Phillies Triple-A Starting Pitcher
Ben Lively is pitching “lights out” at Double-A Reading, but up until recently (and only then because of injury) there actually hasn’t been room on the Triple-A roster for even a chance for a promotion for Lively.

Adam Morgan was already called up to the Majors a few weeks back, but the current starting fives’ ERA (as of 5/21/16) looks like:
Mark Appel                        3.58
Jake Thompson                3.32
David Buchanan               3.92
Zach Eflin                           2.36
Alec Asher                          1.53 (just placed on the DL)

The Phillies front office made a clear decision to improve pitching this offseason, and the team is seeing the rewards of this initiative both in terms of individual and, so far, team success for both the Phillies and their upper-level affiliates.

There are a few more players within both the Phillies’ and Nationals’ farm systems who deserve some attention.  Keep watching “SportsTalk” and checking back here at “The Shop” as we continue to have more interviews and insights on players within both franchises.

Also, be sure to come out and watch “RCN SportsTalk” broadcasting  live from Buffalo Wild Wings in Whitehall, PA this Thursday and help out a great cause.  This week’s remote show will benefit the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, with 10% of your total bill going to support this great organization.  Our guests will be legendary (and Pennsylvania’s all-time winningest) Head Coach Sue Butz-Stavin and members of her State Champion Field Hockey team.

Behind the Mic: SportsTalk

I appeared on Sports Talk this past Thursday with Chris Michael and Joe Craig.  I always enjoy the repartee between Chris and Joe, and Chris and the guests.  The second guest was Brian Ludrof, Lafayette’s Assistant Sports Information Director, who just happens to be my grandson.

It was the 500th Sports Talk and that deserves special mention.  Chris and Joe have continuously made this show better.  The guests have gone from just being very local to today, with the advent of Skype, where guests can be from pretty much anywhere.  The show continues to look and sound better and that’s a tribute to the “behind the scenes” group that deals with graphics, audio, and directing.  We all look forward to the next 500!

Chris always has a segment on the show called the “Roundtable Discussion”.  It is a rapid-fire reaction to some of the current sports stories of the day.  The five topics this past week were all intriguing so I thought I would elaborate on my thoughts:

  • Is Bryce Harper worth $400 million?
    • The Washington Nationals’ may have the best player in baseball in Harper, but $400 million? Right now, Giancarlo Stanton of the Marlins is signed to a $325 million contract.  I have reservations about saying anyone is worth that much, but I also have no doubt $400 million is going to happen soon.  Harper is the most likely candidate to get it.
  • Is the Oakland Raiders’ move to Las Vegas a good idea?
    • Not if you ask the NFL. The League would like to maintain the façade that they are not part of the sports gambling that is associated with the NFL.  Putting a team in the gambling Mecca of the U.S., I’m sure, does not sit well with the front office.  Secondly, Vegas is very small market compared to the rest of the NFL cities.  I do think the Raiders really want to stay in California, so it may very well have more to do with what the San Diego Chargers decide (stay in San Diego or move to LA).
  • Should or will Carson Wentz play three or more games with the Eagles?
    • The RavensJoe Flacco started right out of Delaware, but the Ravens were desperate. The Eagles are not.  Barring injuries to both Sam Bradford and Chase Daniel or a complete collapse of the team indicated by the win/loss record, I do not think Carson Wentz will play.  The Eagles would be best served to follow the Aaron Rodgers plan of learning behind a veteran (Brett Favre) for a few years and then making him the franchise QB.
  • Name a rule change you would like to see in football at any level.
    • I have a few – (1) Make the NFL extra-point rule permanent; (2) Since there seems to be more cheap shots these days, immediate ejection after the second personal foul in one game; (3) Make “half-the-distance to the goal-line” penalties the full distance in order to attain a first down.  In other words, a holding penalty on first down at the offensive teams’ ten-yard line should put the ball on the five, but move the chains to make it 20 yards for the first down (that would still make it a true 10-yard penalty).
  • Name a current athlete who captures your attention.
    • Right now, at this time of the year, it’s Jordan Spieth. He has become my Tiger Woods in the sense that I will watch the tournaments he plays in.  He is not dominating right now, but will most probably be ready for the next major at Oakmont.  I know I will watch.

ABOVE THE EARS (SOME MUSINGS)
 

  1. Joe Maddon, former Lafayette student, has the Chicago Cubs playing the best baseball in the majors by far. His team is already eight games ahead of the second-place Pirates in the National League Central.  The Cubs are winning 75% of their games!
  2. Speaking of winning, how about those Phils? They are six games over .500, own the second best record in the National League, and are only one game out of first place.  Just amazing!!
  3. RCN and The Lafayette Sports Network will be celebrating their 20th year together bringing Lafayette College athletics this coming fall football season. It sure does not seem that long since I sat in the Lafayette Athletic office and cemented the relationship.  That was 1996 and it was a long time ago.
  4. The Blue Mountain League baseball schedule started this past Thursday and RCN will once again have the BML Game of the Week starting Tuesday, June 21.
  5. The US Open is at Oakmont this year which is in Pittsburgh. I played the course a few years back and found it to be the hardest course I have ever played.  I spent more time in the sand than I normally do at the beach.  My caddy put a sand rake in my bag so he would not have to walk for one every time.  On one hole, I avoided the sand, but caught him raking a trap anyway.  I asked what he was doing and he replied, “Just staying in practice”.  I tipped him anyway!

The SportsTalk Shop: Thinking Warm Thoughts…

In the fallout of record amounts of snowfall, coinciding with the cold and blustery conditions we suffered through this past weekend, I’d like to pass along the following public service announcement…

“We’re under a month away from the start of Major League Baseball’s opening of spring training!”

I said in an earlier post that I’m more confident in the Nationals’ chances of making the playoffs this year and it should be a great summer/fall for fans in the Washington, DC region.

While many baseball fans will write off 2016 year as a lost year for the Phillies—with most of the organization’s top prospects at least a few months away from being on the major league roster—I think there are many intriguing storylines for the upcoming season.

The “SportsTalk” cameras recently had a chance recently to speak with some of the key members of the organization going forward, new General Manager Matt Klentak, Manager Pete Mackanin, who’ll begin his first full year as the team’s skipper, and young right-handed pitcher Aaron Nola.  Despite the fact that Nola enters the season with just a few months of Major League experience under his belt, he holds the distinction of being one of the “oldest” members of the pitching staff, and could very well be the “eldest” pitcher on the team’s Opening Day starting rotation.

Here is Mackanin’s thoughts on a number of issues, including:

  • his approach of how Ryan Howard will be used this season
  • a critical season for third baseman/outfielder Cody Asche
  • a peek at what his Opening Day outfield alignment could look like
  • who has the edge to round out the starting rotation
  • the competition for the team’s closer position
  • why fans should be enthusiastic about the 2016 Phillies ball club

New GM Matt Klentak answered questions on:

  • what are this year’s team goals
  • why the team is headed in the right directin
  • young, highly touted prospect Vincent Velasquez, who was acquired in the Ken Giles’ trade
  • an off-season conversation he had with Ryan Howard, regarding his future with the Phillies

Nola also talked about his expectations for the new season, how he and his teammates will approach a “rebuilding season,” and his insights on how he’s learned to have success, even on days in which he doesn’t have command of all his pitches.

There could very well be a number of additional storylines that develop and players to watch over the next several months for the “Phightins,” as they continue to turn over the roster and look to rebuild after a period that will go down as the greatest era in team history.  With young prospects like Nick Williams, Jorge Alfaro, J.P. Crawford, Roman Quinn, Andrew Knapp and a host of good, young pitching prospects, it may not be too long before the Phillies return to the upper half of the division and resume stringing together playoff appearances.

Check back to the “SportsTalk Shop” as we get closer to Opening Day for more insights on the Phillies, the Nationals and topics of interested for baseball fans in the RCN viewing area.  Also, email us your baseball comments and opinions to RCNSportsTalk@rcn.com and we’ll read and respond on an upcoming edition of “RCN SportsTalk.”

The SportsTalk Shop: Biggest Philly/DC Disappointments

Many national pundits had the Eagles going to the Super Bowl this year, and the Nationals were odds-on favorites to win the pennant.

The Birds were flirting with what could have been a catastrophic 1-4 start to their season (it was looking that way following Sam Bradford‘s second red-zone interception in the first half against the Saints on Sunday).  That combined with the fact that the Nats had already crash-landed well before the MLB playoffs got underway last week, got me thinking about some of the major sports disappointments that both Philadelphia and Washington, DC residents have had to endure.

Without question, there have been some horrendous teams in both of these cities.  But I’m talking about having even the most stoic fans getting caught up in a frenzy, ready to ride a sea of momentum to glorious new heights, only to have one’s hopes dashed to smithereens, leaving you feeling emotionally drained when your team failed to live up to the extraordinary expectations.

Just how does this year’s Nationals season and the Eagles slow start compare with the other major sports catastrophes in the region?  For argument’s sake—and to avoid using up too much of the internet’s bandwidth–I thought I better limit my Philly/DC-based disappointments to not more than the last 15 years.

Here are my thoughts on what have been the “other” biggest pro sports disappointments for fans in the RCN viewing area.

The Phillies 2011 Playoffs
From December, 2010 until the final week of the regular season, it seemed like it was a magic carpet ride for Phillies fans.  Launched into a frenzy over the signing of Cliff Lee, the regular season and preliminary playoff rounds were a mere formality, and everyone wanted to see the “Aces” baffling hitters right and left en route to another World Series appearance…and presumed victory.

For reasons I’ll never completely understand, nor agree with, Phillies Manager Charlie Manuel decided to play all of his regulars the final weekend of the season, instead of giving a couple blows to his everyday players, who had started advancing in years (by athletes’ standards, that is).  By playing their top players, and ultimately sweeping the series, the final three of those meaningless games (the Phillies had long since clinched the division title), the team missed an opportunity to rest its players, and knocked its opponents, the struggling Braves, out of the playoff race.  While the last three Phillies wins set a new club record for regular season victories for Manuel, it also gave rise to the hard-charging St. Louis Cardinals, a team the Phils did not match up against well, and positioned the Redbirds into the opposing slot to face the Phillies in the wild card playoffs.

Philadelphia’s tired hitters struggled to gain any traction against the Redbirds after the first game, and the team that everyone assumed would become the greatest Phillies team of all-time, went out with a game-five whimper—a 1-0 loss to St. Louis.  That team might have been the most talented club in the organization’s history on paper, but they failed to bring home a single playoff series win, and started what has become an incredibly long, drawn-out, rebuilding cycle.

The Redskins 2000 season
In 1999, the Skins were coming off a 10-6 season and had won the NFC East.  Mix in a renewed belief that the front office was “all in,” and that a promise of spending money in the offseason fueled the fervor that Washington was beginning to build another dynasty in DC.

They did, in fact, spend money and added some great players, including LaVar Arrington, Bruce Smith, Jeff George, Mark Carrier, Chris Samuels and–last and certainly not least flamboyant–Deion Sanders.  This complemented the return of the core of a talented offensive unit and a number of their defensive players.  Many expected another division title was a no-brainer with many people banking on Washington to at least get to the Super Bowl.  The Redskins won six of its first eight games, before the injuries set in to some of its key offensive players and…of all people, their kicker (sound familiar, Eagles fans?).   Then, Head Coach Norv Turner was let go (perhaps foreshadowing, Philadelphians, especially if the Birds don’t at least get back to 8-8?).

Instead of building on the ’99 team’s success and establishing a string of winning campaigns, Washington ended up losing six of its final eight games and failed to cash in on all the revitalized excitement that the ’99 team brought.

Marty Shottenheimer would then take over the head coaching reins for one fateful season the following year, going 8-8 that fall.  But the failure of 2000 started a seemingly endless cycle of revolving coaches over the last 15 years, with none of the seven subsequent head coaches to follow Turner owning a winning record while at the helm of the Redskins.

The Wizards’ “Michael Jordan Era”
After failing to win a playoff game for over 12 years, it seemed like the Wizards were finally headed back in the right direction when, in January 2000, Michael Jordan became the part owner and President of Basketball Operations.   Aside from his baseball experiment, everything that “MJ” had touched during his career had turned to gold.  His basketball playing career, his merchandising and advertisement campaigns…heck, I even liked “Space Jam.”  With his playing days finally behind him, he could focus completely on revamping the franchise using his acute basketball knowledge and business savvy.  Surely, Jordan would have the Midas touch to turn this franchise around and at least get Washington back into the NBA playoffs—whose eight-team format allows for even the most mediocre teams to have a shot at reaching the post-season.

In a short time, he made some positive moves by shedding payroll and unloading some of the dead weight that existed on the team and it looked like he was moving the franchise in the right direction.  Then came the 2001 NBA Draft and the selection of Kwame Brown (who ended up being traded to the Lakers after four inconsistent seasons).  Jordan brought in his former head coach in Chicago, Doug Collins, as the head coach, followed by his announcement that he, himself, would return as a player.

In his first year back (which followed his second retirement, for those keeping score at home), he battled injuries and the team he assembled was just not good enough to compete.  To his credit, he was active from a personnel standpoint prior to the 2002 season and tried to bring in headline names to improve the team.  While he continued to add talent and even agreed to take a reserve role for the betterment of the team (although he ended the year as the team’s top scorer), the chemistry never worked, and the team failed to finish at or above the 500-mark during his tenure, much less had a chance to make the playoffs.

Jordan was then unceremoniously fired as the team President and left the organization in disgust, pushing back the organization’s rebuild efforts for years.

The team finally has made great strides over the last few seasons, a trend I am fully expecting to continue this winter.  But the failures of Michael Jordan left Washington fans, along with MJ supporters around the world, with an empty feeling, and tainted the final on-court chapter of one of the greatest basketball players of all-time.

The 76ers 2001 Playoff Run
I know.   Philly sports fans could just as easily identify this team as one of its brightest moments over the last 15 years.

To be honest, I don’t remember glorious preseason expectations for the 76ers.  However, the way that the team played in the fall of 2000, led by the gutsy, and largely, very focused efforts of Allen Iverson that year, the 76ers quickly captured the attention of the entire Delaware Valley.  Iverson was living up to all his glorious potential, and the team won 41 of its first 55 games.  Even when starting center Theo Ratliff came down with an injury (he was initially supposed to miss 16-20 games per ESPN), it still seemed like the old-time Philly basketball mojo was flowing strong.  The Lakers were heavily favored to win the championship, but if Ratliff could get healthy, he could combine with Todd MacCulloch, Matt Geiger and Nazr Mohammed to form a formidable “hack-a-Shaq” tandem that could neutralize Shaquille O’Neil, and the Sixers speed could push the tempo and have an advantage against most teams in the post-season.

Until….

February 23, 2001, when the Sixers traded Ratliff, Toni Kukoc (one of just two players with NBA Championship experience) and others to Atlanta for Dikembe Mutombo.

Don’t get me wrong.  Mutombo is not only a wonderful person (he was incredibly gracious the few times I had the opportunity to interview him), a great humanitarian, and one of the best centers—when he was at his peak—of that era.  He was still one of the better centers in the game, but his slow, plodding-style kept the 76ers from utilizing its speed against Los Angeles in the championship round.  Furthermore, while that trade might have looked good on paper, the team never quite recaptured the swagger that it had before the Mutombo trade (the Sixers were 15-12 the rest of the regular season).

Iverson’s late game-one jumper and subsequent iconic stomp over Tyronn Lue became a sports moment few Philadelphians will ever forget.  But I remembered thinking when it happened, something along the lines of “yea, we weren’t suppose to be here, and we’re winning tonight’s game, and all things considered, we’re going to be proud of that moment.”  But the adrenaline rush soon subsided, and the O’Neil/Bryant pairing led Los Angeles to four consecutive victories, in which they outscored the slow-footed Sixers by 40 points in the final four games.

In retrospect, the Sixers certainly exceeded what most people had expected out of that team before the season started.  Much like the 1993 Phillies team, the entire Delaware Valley had gotten swept up in the blue-collar efforts and good vibes through that entire fall and winter season, but the feeling was never quite the same as the 76ers finished out their spring playoff run.  Did they overachieve?  Certainly.  It featured a tremendous team effort and the gritty performances of Iverson, Eric Snow, George Lynch and company.  But the team has never really been the same since, and what could have been still lingers among those long-time fans patiently waiting for the “Hinkie Plan” to develop.

Final Eagles game at the Veteran’s Stadium
If there ever was a time in my life when I thought I could bet the house—literally—on a game, it had to be the Eagles/Buccaneers game in January, 2003.  As someone who grew up—both as a fan and a reporter—at what had become an old, rundown ball field, I thought the “Vet” would work some magic one last time for its final professional football game.  And what a game it was.  The Birds were 12-3 coming in.  Donavan McNabb, the franchise quarterback, was living up to what Head Coach Andy Reid had envisioned when he drafted him.  The Birds had the defense, the offensive playmakers, and special team stars.  Even Mother Nature seemed to be helping out—and Tampa Bay had struggled mightily in cold conditions in previous games, and a wind chill in the teens seemed to be the final signal that the Eagles were finally going to advance to the Super Bowl.

Instead, Philadelphia looked flat, was manhandled physically and truly sent Eagles fans home dejected and with lumps in their throats—and not just because of the sorry way the team closed out its tenure at a worn-out stadium.

That game may be lost in an era of missed opportunities and “what could have beens.”  While optimists can say it was the golden era for Eagles football, one can also point examples of post-season futility.  During a ten-year span where the Birds won six division titles and finished second two more seasons, they lost two Wild Card games, two divisional round playoff games, three conference final losses and a pitiful end to the 2004 Super Bowl.

What are your thoughts on this list?  Should other pro sports teams be included, and where would you rank these, along with the 2015 Eagles and Nationals seasons?  Email your opinions to RCNSportsTalk@rcn.com and we might just read your comments on an upcoming “SportsTalk” program.

The SportsTalk Shop: Mid-Year Predictions – Part 2

Recently here at the “Shop,” we took a look at some of the predictions I made last winter to see how I did.  Today, I look ahead to the next several months and guarantee* they come true!

1)  PREDICTION:  This fall’s HS football season will be more competitive than last year’s.
Last year, it was virtually Parkland and Easton as the favorites in District XI’s EPC league and Northwestern and Southern Lehigh, with Saucon Valley rising to prominence in the Colonial League.  There seemed to be a “next level” of several teams right below the top squads, and then another grouping of teams below them.  This made for a rather predictable season, with hardly any upsets or teams beating other squads not quite at the same talent-level.  While the Trojans and Red Rovers are the early favorites once again in the EPC, I see several teams stepping up and providing tougher competition, making for a more balanced schedule this fall.  Also, among the Colonial teams, Saucon Valley is the only one of the top three that didn’t suffer a huge number of graduate losses and many of the league’s teams that struggled in 2014 will be improved.  After the Panthers?  I could see Northern Lehigh, Northwestern, Southern Lehigh, Pen Argyl, Palmerton and maybe even Salisbury, Wilson or another team all playing competitive football.

I think it will be much more difficult for the football prognosticators to accurately figure out which teams will have the most success, and make for many more “even” games to watch this fall.  For more on the upcoming high school football season, make sure you tune into our “SportsTalk: HS Football Preview” show on RCN-TV on Thursday, August 27, at 7pm—complete with coach and player interviews, insights, analysis, and predictions on many of the teams in the RCN coverage area.

2)   PREDICTION:  Emotions will be running at an all-time high for Eagles fans this season.
We’ll be talking more about the Birds on this Thursday’s “SportsTalk” show with legendary play-by-play broadcaster Merrill Reese, complete with his thoughts on the team’s offseason moves and updates from Eagles training camp.  But regardless of how Philadelphia does this fall, when you tear apart a team—personnel-wise—and move some of the region’s most popular players for ‘high-risk’ returns (see Kiko Alonso’s concussion injury this weekend), fans have been stirred-up for this team well before training camp even started this summer.  The overly passionate fan base has been building emotional steam for months and it won’t take much for people to start boiling over and voicing their excitement/anger (based on a win or loss) with Chip Kelly early and often this fall.

3)  “Stone-Cold Lock” PREDICTION:  The next 12 months will be a banner year for DC sports fans.
I think the Nationals will persevere through an incredible amount of injuries.  The Mets did make some nice moves at the non-waiver deadline, but I still believe that quality pitching—and Washington has a ton—must get the edge.  The impressive return of Stephen Strasburg this weekend can only help, and I think the Nats will soon gain momentum and retake the NL East League.  Even if they don’t and have to settle for a Wild Card berth, with the arms the Nationals have, I think they can challenge any potential National League opponent, perhaps with the exception of the Dodgers, the team that scares me the most.

But the Nats’ potential deep run in the playoffs won’t be the only reason for optimism for Washington sports fans in the near future.  The Redskins will have six wins and improved play (and boast closer margins in their losses than last year).  I also think Georgetown—in both football and basketball—will have solid campaigns.  If you haven’t noticed, Mike Lonergan has transformed the George Washington men’s basketball program and shows no signs of slowing down, and American will again be a major force in what’s shaping up to be another competitive Patriot League season.

I also think the Wizards and Capitals will also continue to improve on the court and ice, respectively, all making for what I feel could be the best stretch of professional and collegiate sports action the DC area has seen in decades.

And even if the Nats don’t get to the World Series—which, granted, will be a major disappointment, they still have a boat-load of talent that will return.  The Nats will still have work to do in the off-season picking and choosing which of their free agents they will bring back, but I think with Max Scherzer in tow, anchoring the staff, there won’t be a major drop-off in 2016.

There you have it.  Mark it down…and we’ll check back to see in a few months how these predictions fared.

*NOTE: ”guaranteed” is used in the most relative-term possible.

The SportsTalk Shop: Nationals/Phillies Post-Deadline Analysis

With a flurry of activity for both the Nationals and Phillies prior to the non-waiver MLB trade deadline, here’s a rundown on what happened, why it transpired, and what to watch for going forward.

(Because of all the MLB news affecting teams in the RCN coverage area, my “2nd half predictions” blog entry teased last week, will be posted next week).

  • Papelbon to the Nationals

There may never have been a more successful Phillies pitcher whose departure stirred less emotion than Jonathan Papelbon.   Even as he takes a couple shots at the Phillies after the trade (his latest rant on 106.7 “The Fan” in DC includes being labeled “the scapegoat” for Philly’s failings), Philadelphia’s all-time saves leader never caught on with the fan base and always seemed to say the wrong things at the wrong times.  His ill-fated comments included openly championing for his trade for the last year (or more), which obviously killed the Phillies’ chances of an equal value exchange.  Given all these obstacles in trying to get anything for the highest-paid reliever in baseball history, the Phillies got a nice piece (Nick Pivetta) in return.

Despite Papelbon’s off-field antics, adding a reliever was a move the Nationals HAD to do.  In a year in which so much is riding on the team’s success, and so many free agents-to-be looming this offseason, Washington has to go all-in.  The friction Pap will cause (or perhaps has already caused with former closer Drew Storen), is an unfortunate side effect the team will have to deal with.  The team gave up very little—prospect-wise–and got salary relief on a first-rate closer while avoiding drastically overpaying in any trade involving other available top relievers (Aroldis Chapman, Craig Kimbrel).  In fact, the only thing Washington could have done was to try to get a diamond-in-the-rough/middle-relief option (like Jeanmar Gomez?) to help out their bridge to the later innings.  Baggage included, and with regret to Storen, (who unjustly gets bumped from his closer role for the third time in his career), this was a solid move for Washington.

Look for the Nats to continue searching for hidden gems over the next few weeks (prior to the waiver deadline on Aug. 31st) as they try to add talent, especially with the Mets making a huge splash of their own.

  • Cole Hamels to the Rangers

This was a far more emotionally draining move for the Philadelphia fan base, and the initial impressions were that the Phillies didn’t get enough for Cole (this spring on “SportsTalk,” I suggested a Hamels-for-Joey Gallo and another prospect swap, or maybe Hamels for Nomar Mazara and Chi Chi Gonzalez).

When breaking down this deal, one must remember the landscape for making trades has changed.  There is a greater emphasis on teams keeping young, blue-chip talent.  A “controllable” position player is a premium, and if the Phillies demanded one of the Rangers top prospects (Gallo, Mazara, Gonzalez), they ran the risk of not getting an adequate haul for their ace.  Who could forget the Cliff Lee-to-Seattle trade?  Imagine the outcry if the return for Hamels would result in another three players who did squat for the franchise.  Learning from their mistake in that deal (and also the ones dispatching Hunter Pence and Shane Victorino), the Phillies settled for lesser prospects (according to Baseball America) in exchange for more bodies.  The hedge is that, the more young players available in the organization, the greater the chance that some will help the parent club one day, thereby substantiating the return for Cole Hamels was worth the move.

The final analysis of this trade will take at least two to three years to properly evaluate.  But on the surface, it looks like the deal was a solid decision for Philadelphia.  They clearly weren’t winning with him, through no fault of Hamels, and as I said on this blog this past spring, their prime need in a few years may be to acquire a Hamels-like ace, and they might have to overpay to get him.   However, the Phillies have clearly shown that money will not be a hindrance to moving forward with the organization’s on-field success (as evidence by their taking on cash in all recent moves).  When the Phillies do feel ready to make a run at the playoffs, they can add a big money guy through free agency.

  • Ben Revere to the Blue Jays

While you usually have to wait to rate a prospect-filled trade as a success or failure, I feel comfortable in saying this was another “win” for Philadelphia, given the following:

  • They already have a centerfielder with a similar skill set in Odubel Herrera. Revere is more established, a better base stealer and contact hitter, but Herrera has more upside potential, a better arm, more power and is cheaper.   On a winning team, it’s doubtful both players could play at the same time on a regular basis, so Revere’s exodus opens up a spot for a more “tool-sy” player.
  • Revere is arbitration-eligible and probably would have gotten a nice raise based on his statistics for next season.  Now, that money can go to fill in one of the other short-term goals the Phillies will need to address.
  • Revere is a complementary piece on a team that is close to a playoff race. By the time the Phillies are heavy contenders again, Revere will probably be a free agent.
  • While neither pitcher they got in return is a blue chipper, the one (Jimmy Cordero) is a high risk-high reward guy, who has potential, to be a Major League closer some day. But even if neither Codero nor Alberto Tirado reaches the Big Leagues, they add much needed pitching depth to the organization.

What are your thoughts on the Nationals and Phillies deadline deals?  Should Storen have been bumped from the closer role?  Should the Phillies have held on to Hamels until at least the offseason and try to get a greater return?  Email your comments to RCNSportsTalk@rcn.com and we might read your comments on the Thursday, August 13th edition of “RCN SportsTalk,” live at 7pm.  Our guests will include Philly.com Sports Writer Jeff Moeller and WGPA host Jack Logic to analyze these deals further and look ahead to the playoff race.  You can also catch the podcast of the show at rcn.com/rcntv/sports-talk .

The SportsTalk Shop: NFL & MLB News & Trade Rumors

First of all, I hope everyone had a wonderful Independence Day weekend.  I’m not sure if it was just that this year’s “Fourth” fell on a Saturday, but it seemed like I encountered more energy, patriotism and general feelings of goodwill throughout my travels…and I hope the same was true for you!

Now, the post-July 4th season kicks in…which is usually an interesting time, pro sports-wise, in our DC/Philadelphia coverage area.  There was the trade…or, more appropriately, the ‘diamond-mine heist,’ that 76ers GM Sam Hinkie pulled off.  In case you were on vacation, Philadelphia secured a promising shooting guard, two solid role-playing forwards, an additional first-round selection and a unique, but brilliant, draft-swap option from the Kings.  They gave up two lower-level 2015 draft picks who probably would not have even been on the team’s Opening Day roster.  The Wizards made a great pick-up themselves in adding sharpshooter Gary Neal with various rumors swirling about Paul Pierce, Kevin Seraphin and others.  The Flyers were not outdone as they made some tremendous moves clearing cap space while adding young talent, which has revitalized their fan base after a disappointing season.

And that’s just the pro sports in the RCN region that WON’T be playing this month!

The Major League Baseball season of course is in full swing with the non-waiver trade deadline looming, and within a few weeks, the pads will be colliding across the country as all NFL training camps will be open.  We had the good fortune of speaking with sports writer extraordinaire, Associated Press’ Rob Maaddi, to get his insights on the latest developments with the Phillies, the Nationals’ hunt for a championship, and his thoughts on the storylines to watch for the Eagles, Redskins and the teams in the NFC East.  Here’s a portion of our interview (the entire show is available to watch on RCN On-Demand).

The Phillies were also active in the international market.  Philadelphia already selected highly-prized power hitter Jhailyn Ortiz, along with catcher Rafael Marchan, pitcher Manuel Silva and middle-infield prospect Keudi Bocio.  They also shipped two lower-level minor leagues and their number-nine international slots to the Diamondbacks to acquire the number-one international position, which allows the team to spend a greater allotment of money on signing free agents without being subject to drafting penalties.  Expect more Phillies moves over the next couple of weeks.

Whether your team has a mountain of expectations (Nationals, Eagles), or they’re building for the future (Redskins, Phillies), the next several weeks will be interesting for local sports fans and something to monitor in-between enjoying your summer activities!

 

The SportsTalk Shop: Three Phillies Issues

Last week we took a look at the Nationals’ first 30 games of the season, analyzing their first six weeks and previewing the road ahead.  Clearly, the Phillies have a different set of priorities and goals for this season.  There has  been some positive news…and the next few months still could be very interesting as we watch the franchise’s “future” unfold.

Here are three observations about the Phillies season:

  • Despite the record, there is reason for optimism, among both young and older players!  First, the play of Freddy Galvis, Cesar Hernandez and Odubel Herrera has given fans hope that examples of a future winning ball club is not years off in the distance in the prospects currently in the lower-to-middle minor league levels.  Galvis, Hernadez and Herrera all found themselves entering spring training in various “play-well-or-go-home” modes.  Galvis struggled mightily offensively last year—even struggling at the plate when he was sent down to Triple-A.  Yet he has not only proved he can hit at the Big League level (currently leading the team by far with a .816 OPS), he’s become one of the most productive shortstops in the league (his batting average and on-base percentage currently lead all National League shortstops).  Hernandez was out of options and was one of the last players assured a spot on the Opening Day roster.  So far, I’m been impressed with his working counts (his .390 OBP is second on the team) and he’s hitting a very respectable .270 despite not getting regular at-bats.  Herrera was a Rule 5 pick who had never played above Double-A and has to remain on the roster all season or be returned.  Even though he’s learning to play a new position at the toughest level, he has a great looking swing and has been able to handle Major League pitching so far.  All three players have made the most of their opportunities and should warrant more playing time for at least the rest of this season.

There’s also been quality performances on the mound by young Ken Giles, Luis Garcia, Justin DeFratus and Elvis Araujo.  All four look to be key pieces of the bullpen going forward and the first three have weathered pitching in higher-pressure situations.  While a slow start by southpaw Jake Diekman has been disappointing, the Phillies feel he can bounce back and strengthen an already strong—and young—core of relievers.

  • The fireworks may not be far off.  The play of veterans Cole Hamels, Aaron Harang, Jonathan Papelbon, Ben Revere and even Ryan Howard have not only helped the Phillies win games this season, but more importantly has enhanced each player’s trade value, which potentially could fetch more young prospects as we move closer to the trade deadline.  We’ve already seen the Phillies make some minor moves, optioning Dom Brown, David Buchanan and Cody Asche (although Cody was sent down to learn a new position) to shake things up a bit.  If Asche transitions successfully to left field—as I believe he will—it will make for an ultra-crowded outfield, and the Phillies will have to start making some more significant decisions.

Their potential outfield would then consist of Asche, Revere, Herrera, Brown, Grady Sizemore, Jeff Francoeur and Darin Ruf.  Clearly, not all of these players will be on the roster throughout the summer, and I’m not sure if more than two or three of these names have a future in the organization.  With one of the few outfield prospects doing well in Double-A (Roman Quinn) and a promotion to Triple-A probably looming before too long, it’s obvious that the team will look to move one of their outfielders before season’s endif not sooner.  Revere is the most likely candidate to go, as he’ll command the most in return.  Between Revere, Hamels, Harang, Papelbon and perhaps one or two others, there could be some trades made over the coming weeks—and a chance for the team to pick up another young piece (or pieces, if you deal Hamels) of the puzzle for future seasons.

  • The “Chase” may be coming to an end.  I truly am not saying this just in passing or to be in vogue with what others are now saying.  In fact, in all my years as a sports journalist, I probably got more angry messages over a minor criticism I made about Chase Utley several years ago, and I’m sure I’ll take a hit again this time.  But unless he starts swinging the bat with more success—and soon—it does NO ONE good to see him continue to play every day…and that includes Utley himself. 

The biggest issue for the current team is that he is blocking the road of young talent.  Is Hernandez the Phillies second basemen of the future? Probably not, but we have no way of knowing until he gets a chance to play at least 75% of the time, something they can’t do with Utley playing five nights a week.  The questions remain about Brown, Ruf and a few other players that right now look like role players but do you really want to give up an extended look at these players, and possibly lose them at season’s end, to have them go somewhere else and have success (and haven’t we seen too much of that over the last several years?).  Furthermore, continuing to play Utley every day with his batting average light-years below the Mendoza line is a disservice to Chase himself.  There is no way he’s going to take himself out of the lineup—he has too much pride.  Heck, he’d probably fight to stay on the roster even with a torn ACL.  But someone – Ryne Sandberg, Ruben Amaro Jr., Pat Gillick – anyone in charge of this franchise, is seriously going to have to take time very soon and have a chat with this greatest second baseman to ever wear a Phillies uniform.  Right now, his legacy is taking a beating, and if things don’t improve over the next few series, his mighty image might be weathered for a longer period than it should be.

Here’s a look at the upcoming schedule for Philadelphia, with a few additional important dates that are really more significant to the team’s future than who their opponents will be.

May 18-21       at Rockies
May 22-24       at Nationals
May 25-27       at Mets
May 29-31       vs. Rockies
June 2 – 4        vs. Reds
June 5-7           vs. Giants
June 8-10         MLB DRAFT*
July 2               International Free-Agent Signing Period Begins
July 31             Non-waiver Trade Deadline
Aug. 31            Final Trade Deadline

*Programming Note: We’ll have a preview of the MLB Draft on the June 4th edition of “RCN SportsTalk” (Thursdays, live, 7-8 pm), which will include an ESPN analyst breaking down the top draftees, along with insights on what both the Phillies and Nationals will do in this year’s draft.

Which Phillies players have you been impressed with so far?  Which do you feel will be the first ones to be traded?  Email you sports opinions to us at rcnsportstalk@rcn.com at any time.  We’ll continue to provide updates on both the Washington and Philadelphia franchises throughout the summer here at the “SportsTalk Shop” and on our weekly “SportsTalk” program.
********************
A quick reminder, be sure to come out to see “RCN SportsTalk” as we broadcast live from Buffalo Wild Wings on Grape Street in Whitehall, PA, this Thursday from 7-8pm.  This will be the first of several live shows we’ll broadcast from Buffalo Wild Wings this summer.   Keep checking the RCN-TV website for updates on these special programs as SportsTalk “goes wild” this summer!

The SportsTalk Shop: Redskins, Eagles, Nationals & Phillies Off-Season

It certainly has been an interesting few weeks for these four pro teams in the RCN viewing area—all for different reasons.  The Nationals are heading into, what I believe, is a very critical season for them sustaining their long-term success.  The Redskins are trying to figure out how everything went tragically wrong in 2014 and how to rebound as quickly as possible.  The Phillies are starting a rebuilding process that—if it doesn’t gain traction over the next several months—could produce massive changes to their long-time front office personnel.  And the Eagles…well, even the most seasoned beat writers are still trying to figure out just exactly what happened over the last month, and whether the off-season moves they’ve made so far will make the team dramatically better—or worse.

First, here are some thoughts on all four teams as discussed by a panel of media pundits.

Now, a little more now on the Nationals.  I, too, see 2015 as a huge year for Washington.  They clearly are the best team in the National League East and should have no trouble holding off any “surpassing expectations” type of season the Marlins or Mets might have.  Washington is very similar to what the Phillies were as they were entering their 2008 season, with their core reaching the prime of their careers—and several players about to begin their “contract year”.  In my opinion, the Nats MUST get to the World Series this season.  I’ll explain why in a moment, but first, here are three things that have to happen for the Nats to have success this year.

 1) “Go To” Players Must Step Up

It’s time for the big-money guys to do what they get paid for—win.  It’s not enough to put up big individual numbers.  It’s not enough to say the right things in the media. The “go to” guys have to take it to another level and make the players around them better.  Jayson Werth, a player who has experience doing that with the Phillies, will have to make a successful recovery from his arthroscopic shoulder surgery this week.  He won’t be ready by the start of spring training, but needs to be ready to play by mid-April.  The old adage of “you can’t win a pennant in April but you certainly can lose one” applies.  Highly touted prospect Michael Taylor will probably be patrolling Werth’s left field spot (remember, he’s switching positions with Bryce Harper this season) for a good chunk of spring training.  While I’m very high on Taylor and feel he can be an everyday Major League outfielder at some point, it’s extremely risky to rely on a minor leaguer—no matter how high their pedigree—for anything in a season as critical as this one…which brings us to topic #2…

 2)  Stay Aggressive Adding Role Players.

Signing these guys are not flashy moves.  Some of these acquisitions won’t even register on national sports news programs.  But these types of moves are what help win championships.  Sticking with our parallels to the ’08 Phillies, imagine that team without the following moves:  Pat Gillick taking a chance on Werth as a ‘complement’ to Geoff Jenkins in RF; not having J.C. Romero anchoring the 7th/8th innings; not having Matt Stairs available to pinch hit…

Injuries will occur.  Players will go into slumps.  The Nationals have already added some nice pieces over the last year (and a gritty player like Kevin Frandsen last year was a great example).  However, I’m not expecting much out of Dan Uggla, and continuing to search for diamonds-in-the-rough will be even more imperative as 2015 unfolds.  GM Mike Rizzo must continue to look for even the slightest moves that can improve his team.  The organization must continue to add depth and leave nothing to chance this season.

3) Sign Desmond NOW!

Ian Desmond is one of the best shortstops in the game.  The Nats will have many questions heading into the offseason, resigning free agents-to be that are currently on the roster, regardless of how the team does this season.  The last thing this year’s team needs is added distractions.  You clearly must bring him back for next season, and entering spring training with his future in limbo opens the door for speculation and puts doubt into the minds of other players about the future of the team.  I mentioned earlier how important it is to get off to a quality start.  You don’t want one issue snowballing into an avalanche of ambiguity.  There is no question that Desmond should be the one guy you bring back for next year, and to go into March with him NOT signing a long-term deal would be a colossal mistake.

The Phillies were able to build on what they established in 2007 to capture a World Championship.  A failure by Washington to at least get beyond the NLDS would signal a lateral progression…or worse, a regressive atmosphere around the organization.  This isn’t the type of feeling you want to have lingering as you try to re-sign as many of the current, productive Nationals players as you may need after this season.  Hard decisions will have to be made on both sides, and those decisions get tougher for all involved if there are questions about the direction of the franchise.

Philadelphia—now—is in a full-blown rebuilding process, and many more things need to be done.  It will certainly not be easy to accomplish those things (moving Ryan Howard, Jonathan Papelbon, et al).  While I actually think they have made some good moves—so far—this winter, I’ll wait to talk about them more in detail until we see more of their off-season work.  The Phillies now have the luxury of time to let their plan develop…the element of time is exactly what the Nationals could soon be running out of.

What are your thoughts on the four pro sports teams mentions?  Who makes the biggest noise this offseason and what moves do you see happening?  Email your comments to RCNSportsTalk@rcn.com and keep checking back to the RCN-TV website as we’ll continue to follow these teams’ storylines and in the coming weeks will have more programs on these franchises on ‘RCN SportsTalk’ (live, Thursdays at 6pm