Get Ready for Super Upton Bros. in Atlanta

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The two Upton brothers seen here on their previous teams. Photo credit: Chris O’Meara, Associated Press

Earlier today, the Atlanta Braves and Arizona Diamondbacks garnered some headlines when Arizona, after years of speculation, agreed to trade outfielder Justin Upton and third baseman Chris Johnson to Atlanta in exchange third baseman/ left field Martin Prado and others.

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Justin Upton, then a member of the Arizona Diamondbacks. Credit: Associated Press

Finishing fourth in MVP voting in 2011 with a .289/.359/.529 line with 31 homers, 88 RBI and 20 stolen bases and leading the Diamondbacks to the NL West title, the perception of the 25-year-old Upton in the Diamondbacks’ front office seemed to dissipate since.  For D’backs fans, this has been a confusing off-season in which the snakes have sent top prospect Trevor Bauer to Cleveland and outfielder Chris Young to Oakland.  Also sent to Atlanta to fill their third base void was Chris Johnson, whom the Diamondbacks acquired from the Houston Astros last summer, and hit an underrated .281/.326./.451 with 15 home runs and 76 RBI.  For perspective, he is projected to bat eighth in Atlanta’s opening day lineup.

The 29-year-old Martin Prado’s versatility is a pretty big loss between the low strikeout rate over a season (averages 73 a season) and value; in 2010 he was worth 4.9 WAR while last year he was worth 5.4 WAR, according to baseballreference.com.   Prado, a perfect no.2 hole hitter, was also about to get pretty expensive; he is a free agent following the 2013 season in a class that houses names like Kevin Youkilis, Wilson Betemit, Eric Chavez and Michael Young.  For Braves General Manager Frank Wren, the decision was obvious: trade a 10-15 home run performer in Prado who is at the peak of his career along with Randall Delgado (76 Ks in 92.2 IP with a 4.37 ERA), and middle-of-the-pack prospects Nick Ahmed, a shortstop who has no position thanks to Andrelton Simmons; infielder Brandon Drury who posted mediocre numbers in A-ball and Zeke Spruill who went 9-11 with a 3.67 ERA in Double A last year for a 25-year-old Justin Upton, who has the best days of his career in front of him, and at one point, according to Peter Gammons “the best 20-year-old I’ve ever seen.”  Consider the Braves managed to acquire Upton without giving up any of their top five prospects.

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BJ Upton at his introductory Atlanta Braves press conference. Photo credit: Daniel Shirey, US Presswire

To Justin’s left will be his older brother, B.J, manning center field after Atlanta signed him to a 5-year $75.25mm deal back in late November.  For “Bossman Junior,” it’s all about living up to potential  as the former no. 2 overall pick has the power–hitting 28 last year  and a combined 69 since 2010–and speed, averaging 39 steals a season.  However, his OBP has gone from a career high .383 in 2007 to a meager .298 last year.  For his career, Upton’s OPS has remained pretty consistent, at .758 in the course of a typical season. To B.J’s left lies perhaps the outfielder with the most potential, 23-year-old Jason Heyward.

Breaking into the majors at 20 years old (just like both Uptons) and hitting a home run on the third pitch he saw in major league action against Carlos Zambrano, Heyward would go unto finish second in MVP voting in 2010 (behind Buster Posey) and following an injury-riddled 2011 with a barking shoulder and underwhelming .227/.319/.389 line, the now 23-year-old Heyward rebounded in 2012 for 27 home runs, 82 RBI and a .269/.335/.479 line with an .814 OPS.  Take a look as to what MLB.com had to say about Heyward’s potential back in 2010, the year in which he was their no. 1 prospect:

There’s little Heyward can’t do. He’s got great bat speed, with the ability to hit for average and power. He has an excellent knowledge of the strike zone. He’s got a plus arm from the outfield, runs well and is an excellent base-runner. His makeup is off the charts. Oh, and he’s only 20. The only small knock has been a little bit of an injury history.

Heyward saw his base-running improve this year, swiping 21 bags and was also a defensive wizard, winning a Gold Glove last year.  If B.J. Upton could improve his OBP just a bit, it’s conceivable to believe all outfielders could post an OPS over .800, combining for anywhere between 90-100 home runs and 250-300 RBI.  Again, the key here is potential, which is exactly what drove Frank Wren to complete this deal.  It’s safe to say the Atlanta Braves have one of the best outfield in all of baseball, and in a game where run differential is key, defense will be a huge factor in what is likely to shape up to be another dogfight with the Washington Nationals in the National League East.

For the Upton brothers, it’s a dream come true, who already experienced theater in 2012, both hitting their 100th career home run on the same day.  Next step is the World Series.

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Chip Kelly Chooses Eagles: Faces Vick Conflict

On Wednesday afternoon, sources told Chris Mortenson of ESPN that the Eagles have hired former Oregon head coach Chip Kelly to lead the Eagles next season. Earlier this month, Kelly said he was not comfortable leaving Oregon for the NFL. Make no mistake: this outcome was the best for both sides. Kelly, who leaves Oregon with a 46-7 overall record as a head coach, could not be a more cohesive fit for the Philadelphia offense. If it’s one thing Kelly knows how to use, it’s speed – and the Eagles have plenty of that. Kelly must be drooling over the weapons in his new offense. After all, his arsenal includes one of the most feared vertical (and horizontal, for that matter) threats in DeSean “action” Jackson, the has-everything workhorse in Shady McCoy, the go-to possession receiver in Jeremy Maclin, and a tight end duo that offers speed, play making ability, blocking, and reliable hands.

Of course, there is two very large, but very different concerns that Kelly must address on offense: his quarterback, and his offensive line. No one really knows how Chip will deal with these issues. Should he keep Vick? Is Foles really the future of this franchise? Should he blow up the offensive line? None of these are simple questions, and he surely doesn’t know the answers yet. So what does he know exactly? He knows that it would be a lot easier if money wasn’t an issue.

Michael Vick will make 15.5 million dollars next season, unless he’s cut. That’s a lot of money. The conflict here isn’t whether or not Michael Vick is a productive player, but it does have to do with the value he holds in this specific offense. Sure, on paper a speed demon, laser armed quarterback that’s cut from the same elastic cloth as Randall Cunningham fits a no huddle fast paced offense perfectly. For Kelly and his read-option offense, that may not be the case. In his 4 years as acting general of the Ducks,  Kelly ran the ball nearly 2500 times. Among all those carries, the starting quarterback only accounted for 15% of the entire workload. Of course, passing is fairly important to the value of a quarterback, as well. For Kelly, though, the run game is far more essential than that of the pass: Kelly threw the ball just over 37% of the time during his tenure. Although his offenses leaned very heavily on the running backs,  the quarterback run did account for 10% of the overall offense.

Now, no one in their right mind would argue that Nick Foles is, at least currently, more dangerous than Vick. But at 15.5 million dollars, would Vick really be worth accounting for less than half of the offense? It is true that Kelly hasn’t ever possessed a player like Vick at quarterback, so his utilization could very well skyrocket over Kelly’s college starters he put under center. Still, with Vick’s well being always in question, is it possible to be worth that much money? If Kelly decides the he isn’t, he’ll be cut by February 6th to avoid paying him any of his remaining salary. If that’s the path Kelly chooses, he must decide if Vick’s replacement is Foles, a free agent (the only starter currently slated to be available is Joe Flacco, but it’s looking like his late season success will net him some fulsome Baltimore dollars), or in the draft (with the 4th pick in the 2nd round, nearly every quarterback is slated to be available). Regardless of the route you speculate, the conflict Kelly faces, the fifteen and a half  million dollar conflict Kelly faces, will be viewed as the decision that made or broke this team following next season.

Rory McIlroy Signs Contract with Nike

Rory McIlroy is joining some of the best athletes in the world at Nike. The world’s number one golfer signed a five-year endorsement contract with the popular manufacturer Monday, reportedly worth $125 million. McIlroy joins elite athletes like Roger Federer, LeBron James, and fellow golfer Tiger Woods at Nike.

McIlroy is poised to become golf’s next poster child. At just 23 years old, the Northern Irishman has triumphed on golf’s biggest stages, winning ten tournaments professionally. His 16-under par performance at the 2011 US Open smashed tournament scoring records and earned McIlroy the first of his two major championships. He also won the 2012 PGA Championship in August by a record eight strokes, and was a member of Europe’s victorious Ryder Cup teams in 2010 and 2012.

And if that wasn’t enough, McIlroy won virtually every major award for golfers in 2012, including PGA and European Tour Player of the Year honors. His four victories netted him more than $8 million in the United States, and McIlroy also won the DP World Tour Championship in Dubai worth another $1.4 million. McIlroy has held the World #1 Ranking since his PGA Championship victory in August.

Nike is already taking advantage of their sponsorship of Rory McIlroy. Starting Wednesday, Nike will air commercials featuring McIlroy and the Number 2 ranked golfer in the world, Tiger Woods. Woods famously signed an endorsement contract with Nike in 1996, when he famously said “Hello World”. The rest of Tiger’s career is history, with 14 major championships and more than $1 billion in earnings.

Much like Federer and Woods, McIlroy has all the tools to become an international superstar. He is young, energetic, popular among fans, and displays incredible athleticism. At only 23, McIlroy has done what only a handful of golfers have ever done. And his career is only getting started: McIlroy announced he would join the PGA Tour as an official member in 2013. With more potential than any golfer in the world, the future looks bright for McIlroy. And if Rory can be as successful as Tiger woods, Nike will succeed as well.

Play Ball, Havana Style

Remember those annoying vuvuzelas at the World Cup in South Africa that sounded like an angry swarm of killer bees in your ear? Well, add in three hours of drumming, trumpets blaring, and thirty thousand screaming fans, and you get a Cuban baseball game. It’s an experience that rivals European soccer matches, and it’s an essential part of Cuban culture.

Baseball is one of the national symbols of Cuba, and is the most popular Cuban sport.

Baseball is one of the national symbols of Cuba, and is the most popular Cuban sport.

I had the unique privilege of attending a game in Havana, Cuba last week between the Havana Industriales and the neighboring Pinar del Rio while studying in Cuba. The energy and excitement of the game reflected the same enthusiasm of the Cuban people themselves. Fans blew plastic horns, and the away team’s supporter section began drumming as soon as the national anthem was finished. Sure enough, as soon as the top of the first ended, the home team’s fans began drumming and cheering for their team in the bottom of the inning.

Baseball is a symbol of Cuba, athletically and culturally. Children find old wooden bats and patches of grass to play pickup games from an early age. Those children who are found to have considerable skill (like the group of Havana kids that gave our group of Elon University students a 4-0 drubbing) are then sent to special schools to perfect their skills on the field.

The Cuban National Series is the ultimate dream of Cuban baseball players. Made up of 17 teams, the league is formatted similarly to Major League Baseball, with one team representing each Cuban province. Players are not paid, but rather serve the Cuban government by playing baseball professionally. Perhaps the lack of money is why many Cuban players have defected to the United States. Players like Orlando “El Duke” Hernandez, Aroldis Chapman, and Yoenis Cespedes have risen through the Cuban National Series and have gone on to successful careers in Major League Baseball.

The fans at Cuban baseball games play are energetic, playing horns and drums each inning.

The fans at Cuban baseball games play are energetic, playing horns and drums each inning.

Cuban baseball isn’t exactly like going to Yankee Stadium. We sat in cramped wooden seats in an old, large stadium with cluttered concourses and concrete bleachers. But the most important aspects of baseball are displayed in Cuba: enthusiasm, competition, and sportsmanship. Each batter fist bumped the opposing catcher and the umpire before each at bat. Whenever a team scored, every player on the team came out of the dugout to congratulate him. And the fans didn’t hesitate to cheer loudly for their teams.

Cuban baseball embodies all the great aspects of the game millions of people around the world love. Kids from neighborhoods all over Cuba play Sandlot-style games to have fun, families come to watch, and the players compete like true professionals. If you ever have the chance to visit Cuba, take some time to visit a true Cuban baseball game. Just be prepared for a sporting experience you’ll never forget!

Bargains Remain in Unsigned Pitchers

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Left-handed pitcher Joe Saunders, a free agent, seen here in pitching for the Baltimore Orioles in the wildcard playoff game against the Texas Rangers. Source: Ronald Martinez/Getty Images North America

With just a little over a month until pitchers and catchers report to their respective Spring Training facilities, plenty of starting pitchers remain unsigned.  This includes Kyle Lohse, the free agent formerly of the St. Louis Cardinals who posted an underrated 2.86 ERA (134 ERA+) with a 16-3 record in 2012 with a WAR of  3.9.  The problem with Lohse, however, is the fact that teams aren’t willing to surrender their first round draft pick and pay top dollar for a pitcher whose career K/9 is 5.65 while his BB/9 is 2.58.  Today, we’ll examine pitchers who remain on the market and could provide a potential bargain for teams looking for depth in their respective rotations, such as both New York teams or the Texas Rangers.

Shaun Marcum, RHP:
With the Brewers declining the soft-tossing Marcum’s option for next year, the market has been pretty quiet for the 31-year old, save for some dialogue with the Indians.  In 2012, Marcum pitched 21 starts, before being shut down with an elbow injury, which was good for 124 innings, as well as a 3.70 ERA, a WHIP of 1.27, which is in line with his career ERA of 3.76 and WHIP of 1.22.  It’s also worth noting his 2009 season was wiped away due to Tommy John surgery.  In his 2011 campaign, in which he made 33 starts, Marcum had a WAR of 2.8.  Given this year’s market in which Joe Blanton got two years and $15 million, it’s safe to say Marcum could receive a two-year deal or perhaps a one-year deal with plenty of incentives.

Joe Saunders, LHP:
A 9-13 record with a 4.07 ERA seems pretty mediocre, but take a look at Saunders’ stats with the Baltimore Orioles this year: In seven starts, Saunders posted a 3.63 ERA (117 ERA+) with a 4.6 K/9 and a 1.6 BB/9, good for a WAR of 0.7.  If those numbers were to remain constant throughout the season, Saunders’ WAR would be around roughly 3.5 going by Baseball Reference’s projections.  In 11 1/3 postseason innings in 2012, Saunders kept two of 2012’s best American League offenses–the Yankees and Rangers in check to a 1.59 ERA.  Fangraphs pegs Saunders at a 2.5 WAR for the 2012 campaign.  For Saunders, it wouldn’t shock me if the 2009 Opening Day starter for the Los Angeles Angels re-signed in Baltimore for around two years and anywhere between $12-$15 million.

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Dallas Braden celebrating his perfect game with catcher Landon Powell. Source: Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images

Dallas Braden, LHP:
The only year in which Braden was a beacon of health–2010–Braden accomplished some pretty extraordinary feats for the Oakland Athletics, pitching the 19th perfect game in MLB history, and co-leading the American League (along with the Twins’ Carl Pavano) in shutouts with two.  For the 2010 campaign, Fangraphs had Braden at a WAR of 3.1.  In his few starts in the 2011 season before undergoing shoulder surgery (which was followed by a torn left rotator cuff surgery in 2012), Braden posted a career high in K/9 at 7.50.

For his career, Braden has a K/BB of 2.16 and a WHIP of 1.32.  Since his debut in 2007, Braden has been worth a WAR of 7.7, and this past fall he elected free agency after refusing an assignment to Triple-A following removal from the 40 man roster.  Braden would certainly come cheap on a minor-league deal looking to rebuild value on a one-year deal.

Derek Lowe, RHP:

Traded to the Indians with the Braves picking up $10 million of the remaining $15 million of a 4-year $60 million contract early on in the 2011 offseason, Lowe got off to a hot start in 2012, going 6-1 with a 2.05 ERA but faded as the summer progressed, the final straw a start against Kansas City in which Lowe gave up seven runs on eight hits in 2 1/3 innings in early August.  Signed by the Yankees a few weeks later, Lowe rediscovered himself in the bullpen, pitching to a 3.04 ERA in 23 2/3 innings.  Versatility is not a problem for Lowe, who has made 377 starts and 86 saves in his career.  Lowe, who relies heavily on his sinker, pitched to a high ground ball rate (59.2%) in 2012 and is looking to start in 2013.   Given the market, which has seen the likes of Roberto Hernandez (-0.3 WAR ) sign a 1-year pact at $3.25 million and Jeff Francis of the Rockies (1.1 WAR with a FIP of 4.27 to Lowe’s 4.37) at $1.5 million, Lowe is probably looking at a one-year commitment anywhere between $2-4 million for 2013.

Javier Vazquez, RHP:
This is all dependent on whether or not Vazquez decides to pitch this year, but the former Expo has been clocked at 94 mph pitching in Puerto Rico, and is said to be deciding whether or not he wants to come back to the majors following the World Baseball Classic, in March.  Last in the majors in 2011, Vazquez had a tale of two seasons: the first half composed of a 5.23 ERA with a SO/BB ratio of 1.94 and a WHIP of 1.5 in 96.1 innings (18 starts).  In Vazquez’s next 96.1 innings pitched (14 starts), the former Expo pitched to an ERA of 2.15, a strong SO/BB ratio of 6.00 and a minuscule WHIP of 0.862.  Despite the low ground ball percentage of 34.2%, Vazquez had a K/9 of 7.57, good for a WAR of 3.2.  Certainly, Vazquez would have to come on a minor league deal, but whoever signs him would certainly have a cheap back-end rotation piece for the 2013 season.  With Dan Haren’s health a potential issue, Vazquez to the Nationals almost makes too much sense.  It would behoove Vazquez to stay away from the American League, where his ERA is 4.65 and SO/BB is 2.97.  Compare that to his National League numbers, which are comprised of an ERA of 3.99 and a SO/BB ratio of 3.54.  Vazquez is only the third pitcher to beat all 30 teams, along with Jamie Moyer and Barry Zito.  His 2536 strikeouts rank 29th all time, and in 2009 he came fourth in NL Cy Young award voting, with 238 strikeouts and a mere 44 walks.

Other mentions:
Freddy Garcia
, the veteran who pitched for the New York Yankees the last two years, would also come cheap on a minor league deal following a season in which he pitched to 17 starts in 107.1 innings.  His ground percentage of 40.2% was almost in line with his career of 41.9%, and considering the HR/FB ratio of 15.8%, it’d be in Garcia’s best interest to stay away from a park like Coors Field.  Spacious ballparks like Citi Field or Petco would probably benefit the 13-year veteran, whose fastball now sits in the mid-to-upper 80s.

Jair Jurrjens, formerly of the Atlanta Braves would also come cheap, but he exactly hasn’t been a beacon of health since mid-2011 in which he posted an ERA of 2.96 (ERA+ of 129) and a WAR of 1.6.  Mainly under the guise of deceptive stats– 3.54 K/9 and a 3.35 BB/9– with a FIP of 3.99, incentives would be a must for Jurrjens, who has had groin, knee, and leg injuries ever since being selected to the 2011 All-Star game.  In 48.1 innings pitched, Jurrjens posted an ERA of 6.89 in 2012, good for a -0.3 WAR.

While pitching remains at a premium (as seen in the Greinke, Edwin Jackson and Ryan Dempster contracts), teams always seem to find success in the pitching bargain bin, whether in be Freddy Garcia’s 2.2 WAR in 2011 on a $1.5 million minor-league contract or the $2 million commitment to Bartolo Colon’s eventual 2.4 WAR (in 24 starts) from the Oakland A’s this last year. With teams having to give up a first round draft pick for names like 34-year-old Kyle Lohse, more teams should start employing the bottom-feeding approach, given that there really isn’t much to lose.

NHL Lockout Ends, with Interesting, New CBA

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Regardless of the team you root for, NHL fans across North America can rejoice: Hockey is back!

In what was perhaps the most unnecessary lockout in the history of organized sports, the NHL and NHL Player’s Association have finally agreed to a new, 10-year CBA allowing for a shortened 2013 season at 48 games, starting Jan. 19.

113 days later, fans–some of whom won’t come back–finally get their NHL back, but not without some changes to the game:

Draft Lottery: The 14 teams that don’t make the NHL playoffs will now be subject to a draft lottery, similarly to the system the NBA employs.  Prior, only the NHL’s bottom four teams could receive the no.1 overall pick.  The Oilers have had the last three picks (Yakupov, Nugent-Hopkins, and Taylor Hall).

Salary Cap:  Originally, the NHL owners wanted a salary cap of $60 million, while the NHLPA desired a cap of $65 million for 2013-2014 seasons.  The thought was that teams would have more financial flexibility to sign players if the players had their cap in place. For the 2013 season, teams will be allowed to spend up to $70.2 million, with a cap of $64.3 million for the next year.  Under the owner’s desired cap of $60 million, teams like Philadelphia and Montreal would only have about $200,000 to spend on players, given the contracts handed out to other players, which brings me to the next point.

Contract Length:  Players are now subject to a seven-year contract, which increases by one more year if said player is signing with his own team.  Max salary variance is 35 percent, and cannot exceed 50 percent in the last year.

Third Party and Suspensions: While Brendan Shanahan made a household name for himself last year following his inaugural year as the NHL’s head disciplinarian, appeals will still now go through Commissioner Gary Bettman, and for suspensions lasting longer than six games, a third party is to be involved (sound familiar?)

Last, revenue sharing will increase to $200 million among teams.  While the NHL desired to delay free agency until July 10, the players kept their date of July 1.  The minimum salary a player can be had for is still $525,000 but by 2022, it will be $750,000.  The 2013 NHL season will start on January 19 provided the Board of Governors and Players agree to the deal, which, by all accounts, they should.

CBA talk aside, I’m left wondering how fans act now.  Does the bitterness of another lockout rapidly subside now that we’re about two weeks away from a puck drop?  On social media sites like Twitter and Facebook, I saw no anger from fans, with a universal reaction of delight.  Regardless, the universal consensus seems to be that the NHL will always be the last of the “Big Four” of sports leagues, and with another season half-lost, this certainly rings true.

Some ways the NHL could appeal to it’s toyed-with-fanbase are the following:

  1. Free Center-Ice and NHL GameCenter for this shortened year, and next year.  Allow the “fringe” fans to see the games at the comfort of their own home, laptop or mobile device, while the die-hard fans (and casual goers) have:Image
  2. Discounted Tickets:  On the right is the New Jersey Devils seating and pricing options for the 202-2013 season.  While secondary markets like Stubhub exist and fans can get their cheaper tickets that way (tickets for Winnipeg @ New Jersey start at $36 despite this schedule being the original one prior to the agreement of a new CBA), it would behoove the NHL to act in good faith and drop all these prices across the league by, lets say, anywhere between 10-20 percent.

Last, I realize a lot of fans will want to see Gary Bettman resign, but as we saw in the suspension portion of the new CBA, it’s apparent he will not step down, and according to former Boston Bruins coach Don “Grapes” Cherry, of Hockey Night in Canada fame, it was Bettman who agreed to this at the last minute, contrary to reports that Bettman was ready to cancel the season.  Also, there is no reason as to why the marathon talks with federal mediator Scot Beckenbaugh could not have happened earlier.  This lockout will be remembered for one thing in the history books: satisfying the egos of Bettman and Fehr up until the very end.

The puck drops January 19!