Tuesday, January 31, 2006

The King has declined

You wouldn't ask Bill Gates to personally defrag your hard drive.
You wouldn't ask Queen Elizabeth II to change a flat tire in the royal motorcade.
You wouldn't ask the President to tie on a "Texans do it better" apron and grill up some bratwursts at your Labor Day picnic (OK, maybe this President you would).
So why would you be offended when LeBron James says "thanks but no thanks" yet again to the most overblown event of the NBA all-star weekend?
For the third straight year, LeBron has declined to participate in the slam dunk contest. And for the third straight year, I say "bravo."
Why should a tremendous all-around talent like LeBron, who performs one or two poster dunks in just about every game, need to cheapen himself and risk injury to display a talent we already know he has?
In previous years, the national media chided LeBron by saying he could save the dunk contest, and was willfully letting the contest wither on the vine by declining to participate.
My answer to that is, the contest isn't worth saving.
Twenty years ago, the dunk contest was uncharted waters. Michael Jordan taking off from the free-throw line was a mind-blowing feat. The victory of 5'-7" Spud Webb in the 1986 contest was a true David-versus-Goliath moment.
Since then, the limits of the contest have been reached ad nauseum. Superstars like Jordan and Dominuque Wilkins have given way to the likes of Harold Miner, Cedric Ceballos and Brent Barry.
We've seen the high-bounce dunk 1,000 times. We've seen the 360 mid-air pirouette 1,000 times. We've seen the free-throw line takeoff 10,000 times.
Through the legs. Off the backboard. The two-ball dunk. It's all been done before.
Unless someone is going to vault a donkey this year, I fail to see where originality is going to play a part.
The slam-dunk contest is beneath LeBron. It's beneath Kobe Bryant. It's beneath Vince Carter, Tracy McGrady, Dwyane Wade or anybody else you'd pay to see.
The dunk contest has gone from a spectacular show of athleticism to a circus sideshow of tired, overplayed maneuvers. If the NBA finally decides to bury it, I won't shed any tears.
I don't think LeBron will, either. He has signed up to participate in the skills competition during all-star weekend, which is indicative of the type of player he is.
If you've got the whole package, might as well display it all.

Monday, January 30, 2006

It begins

Watch out. The East Coast media machine will get its grimy claws into Coco Crisp in short order now.
Already, he's being compared to Johnny Damon to the point that on-again, off-again Red Sox GM Theo Epstein is telling fans and media to cool their jets.
After sitting through two weeks of watching ESPN and other national outlets analyze this trade purely from the Red Sox standpoint, focusing only on what Crisp brings to Boston and treating what the Indians received as mere collateral damage, we will soon be subjected to a tidal wave of Coco-mania.

Hope you're ready, Covelli. In Cleveland, you didn't exist. Now, you have been born.

Once David Letterman and Jay Leno realize there's this ballplayer named Coco Crisp, make room for a slew of cereal jokes that will make you want to set all your boxes of Cocoa Puffs on fire.

Look for all the Boston and New York newspaper headlines, to be aired on said late-night talk shows: "Hot Coco" when Crisp hits for the cycle. "Choko Crisp" when he strikes out three times in a game. "Coco Loco" when he flips out and throws his postgame potato salad at a Boston Globe reporter because he's sick of reading lame newspaper headlines about himself.

At least once a week, we will have to hear the same question from someone, somewhere: "Is Coco Crisp your real name?" At which point, we will have to hear the story about how his nickname, Coco, was derived from his given name, Covelli.

Due to the mass-crush thousands upon thousands of New England girls will now develop on Coco, we will learn things about his personal life we never wanted to know:
Does he have a girlfriend?
Does he prefer boxers or briefs?
Does he have a girlfriend?
Does he have a piercing in a naughty place?
Does he have a tattoo in a naughty place?
Do any of his teammates have a piercing or tattoo in a naughty place?
Does he have a girlfriend?

Boston sportswriters will be scrambling to find Coco's place in the pantheon of Red Sox centerfielders by June. It's already happening with comparisons to Damon. Soon, we will find out how he ranks in comparison to Carl Yaztremski, Dominic DiMaggio, and Tris Speaker. If Peter Gammons doesn't write an article on it, you'd damn well better be sure Bob Costas will write a book and produce a TV special on it.

In 2007, Doris Kerns Goodwin hits the lecture circuit with a program titled "Coco, My Father and Me: A Retrospective." Ken Burns will produce a 15-part series on the tour.

In 2008, MIT graduate students concoct a theory called "The Coco Factor," irrefutably showing how the Curse of the Bambino could have been erased in half the time had six metric tons of chocolate been planted at the base of Babe Ruth's grave upon his death in 1948. It actually has nothing to do with Coco Crisp, but thanks to his newfound fame, the "a" has officially been dropped from "cocoa" in most American dictionaries, which, not coincidentally, are edited by Red Sox fans.

In 2010, Stephen King writes "The Coco Man," a novel about a Coco Crisp-worshipping Red Sox fan who is thrown in jail for a murder he didn't commit, is beguiled by a psychotic car, tries to kill his family at a remote mountain hotel, and gets held prisoner by a fat, crazy lady who breaks his legs. It becomes a national bestseller.

In 2022, Crisp is voted into the Hall of Fame with a career .281 average. Omar Vizquel is still waiting.

Shapiro's poker face

As Shapiro defended the Coco Crisp trade this weekend, pleading with fans to be patient (what other choice do we have?), he added that he was having "zero discussions" right now about any other trades.
But this fly keeps buzzing around the Cleveland media, saying the Indians continue to dangle Jake Westbrook in front of the Reds for outfielder Austin Kearns.
It's hard to believe the Indians would want to stand pat with a corner outfield corps of Todd Hollandsworth, Jason Michaels and the incomparable Casey Blake. But as we all know, Shapiro holds his cards close to his vest and never rushes into anything. In a small-market setting, it is a great attribute to have as a general manager.
But something has to be done. I cringe at the idea of having the Indians' left fielders and right fielder combine for 30 home runs and 70 RBI. The whole purpose of this off-season was to upgrade the bottom third of the batting order so the rest of the lineup wasn't lugging it around like a ball and chain. Instead, the bottom third of the lineup might be worse than at the end of last season.
I commented on Zach's blog last week that I had no desire to trade Westbrook right now. In the aftermath of the Crisp trade, however, I have changed my mind. If Westbrook can get the Indians Kearns, that is.
Rumor has it that if the Indians trade Westbrook, Shapiro might be able to swing a one-year deal for free agent pitcher Jeff Weaver, a one-time prized prospect of the Tigers who is in limbo as the off-season winds down.
Even if that doesn't happen, there are plenty of young pitchers already in the Indians' farm system. Let Jason Davis, Fausto Carmona and Jeremy Sowers compete for the open spot in spring training. If none of them win the job, there's always a stopgap on the waiver wire somewhere.
I'd much rather hold onto Westbrook, but the situation at the bottom of the batting order just makes me really uncomfortable. Having Kearns would allay my discomfort. Having Andy Marte and Ryan Garko assert themselves as rising major-league stars would make me feel a lot better a year from now.

LeBron's answer

So, you want to nitpick LeBron James' game, huh?
You want to ride him for missing a game-winning shot against the Lakers, and needle him for passing on a game-tying shot in Portland?
You want to go so far as to question his greatness, B.J. Armstrong?
If so, LeBron gave you 44 reasons to shut up Sunday.
LeBron didn't hit a single game-winning shot in the Cavaliers' 113-106 win over the Suns at The Q. He hit about three of them.
He took the game over midway through the fourth quarter, coming out of nowhere to block a would-be layup by Leandro Barbosa, take the outlet pass and swoop to the other end for a poster dunk. He hit another jumper, followed by a three-pointer.
He let Phoenix know, in no uncertain terms, that this was his game, his house, and they weren't going to stop him.
You think LeBron isn't a clutch player? The Suns would probably beg to differ today.
Phoenix is an extremely talented offensive juggernaut. To boot, they are ninth in the league in opponents' field-goal percentage, meaning they aren't defensive slouches.
But nobody the Suns had, not Steve Nash, not Shawn Marion, not Boris Diaw, could solve LeBron.
Want to use the absence of Amare Stoudemire as an excuse? The Cavs were missing Larry Hughes. Touche.
This was a game that could easily have gotten away from the Cavs, who were trailing by as many as 16 in the first half. They made the mistake of trying to run with the Suns. Then they got smart, began taking advantage of their size inside, and Donyell Marshall, Damon Jones and Sasha Pavlovic began knocking down perimeter shots.
They prepared the buffet, and come crunch time, LeBron loaded up his plate.
Sure, LeBron has yet to make a game-winning shot as a pro. But with more fourth quarters like he had on Sunday, it might not come down to a final possession that often.
There are many ways to take over a game if you are a superstar. There is the Michael Jordan way, having the ball in your hands with the clock about to hit zero. And there is the LeBron way, taking over every phase of the game in the fourth quarter.
Both result in wins. Jordan's way just seems better because it gives ESPN a nice, neat three-second highlight to show over and over again.

Saturday, January 28, 2006

Coco to Bosox

The trade that outlasted the lifespan of some insects finally was consummated Friday, as Coco Crisp became a member of the Red Sox.
As with any trade, it was a give-and-take. The Indians gave up a proven .300 hitter in the big leagues to land, above all else, one of the most coveted prospects in baseball.
I remember writing in by Bowling Green days about how this was going to be the wave of the future for the Indians, like it or not. Every few years, we'd likely watch the Tribe pawn off an established player to add prospects. I wouldn't be shocked if we were watching C.C. Sabathia get shipped to a big-market team in a few years.
Having said that, the Red Sox were the impetus behind this deal. Even though Crisp was arbitration-eligible, the Indians were under no real pressure to make a trade. It was the Red Sox who were missing a center fielder and leadoff hitter, and needed to make this deal happen.
The good news is, that means the Indians were acting from a position of strength, getting Boston to pay a hefty price for a good-but-not-great player. The bad news is, the Indians just took a large piece out of the top of their order to add another piece for the future.
For the Indians, it's always going to be a balancing act between present and future. It's a difficult task, one frought with calculated risks.

Below is my breakdown, positive and negative, of arguably the biggest trade Mark Shapiro has pulled off since dealing Bartolo Colon to the Expos in 2002.


Andy Marte
One scout reportedly said Marte had the potential to be Manny Ramirez without the oddball personality. Judging from his .275 average last year in Class AAA, I doubt he'll routinely hit for average the way Ramirez does. But the 40-homer and 120-RBI potential are there. To boot, he is a third baseman with a good glove. Third basemen like this don't grow on trees. Ask the Seattle Mariners, who overpaid for Adrian Beltre last off-season. If Marte matures into the type of player many scouts say he can be, the Indians will by far get the better end of this deal long-term.

Guillermo Mota can fill Bob Howry's void
No more rolling the dice on Danny Graves or Steve Karsay to fill the all-important eighth-inning set-up role. The Indians will now roll the dice on the fragile pitching arm of Mota, who was among the best set-up men in baseball in 2003 and '04. Shapiro and his crew seem to think that, with a limited workload, a good 2006 season can be coaxed out of Mota. But manager Eric Wedge used the daylights out of Howry last year, so what are the odds of Mota being used sparingly?
Mota, 32, is a free agent after this coming season, and will likely not be back in 2007.

Kelly Shoppach adds a catcher to the fray
Shoppach will compete with aging Tim Laker and never-was Einar Diaz to back up Victor Martinez. But that might only be the beginning for the 25-year-old who has hit 48 home runs in two seasons at Class AAA.
If Shoppach can transfer his seemingly-competent bat to the majors, his presence might allow the Indians to move the valuable bat of Martinez to a position with fewer physical demands in the next few years. In the meantime, he should be an upgrade over Josh Bard as a backup catcher, should he win the job.


That huge hole in left field
Deciding whether Todd Hollandsworth or Jason Michaels -- also acquired Friday from Philadelphia for Arthur Rhodes -- will fill Crisp's void in left field is akin to throwing darts at a board.
Either could win the job. Or neither could win the job, and the Indians could be left with an undesireable platoon of scrubs. Pair that with the continued presence of Casey Blake in right field, and the Tribe's corner outfield situation has the potential to be very shaky this year.

That huge hole in the second spot of the batting order
Even worse than left field, Crisp's departure takes a .300 hitter out of the second spot in the batting order. Hollandsworth or Michaels could fill it, but open auditions are likely in spring training. Other candidates include Blake, Aaron Boone, Jhonny Peralta and Ronnie Belliard. Regardless, Crisp's departure takes a proven, capable bat out of the lineup, shoving the productive hitters one spot higher. Once you get past the quintet of Peralta, Grady Sizemore, Travis Hafner, Belliard and Martinez, it's a crap shoot. Possibly in more ways than one, I fear.

The bullpen now resembles a tossed salad
So long to last year's bullpen, the best in the American League. Gone now are Rhodes, Howry and David Riske. In their places are Mota, Graves and Karsay.
Only one lefty remains in the bullpen with Scott Sauerbeck.
It's not to say the 2006 bullpen won't be good, but Friday's trades sent it into full-scale upheaval. It will take a while for things to settle down. The Indians will be relying heavily on Mota and closer Bob Wickman to stay healthy, or they might end up with a 2004 situation where everyone is pitching out of their roles.

Friday, January 27, 2006

Super Bowl virgins

Somewhere along the line, the Browns ran off to join a convent. It's their fans, however, that have taken the vows of poverty and chastity.
With the NFC championship of the Seahawks, yet another Super Bowl virgin has been deflowered. That leaves six NFL franchises awaiting their first trip onto football's biggest stage.
Two of them -- the Jaguars and Texans -- are young enough to have an excuse. Even the Jaguars have made it to two AFC championship games in 10 seasons of play.
The remaining four -- the Browns, Lions, Cardinals and Saints -- are pro football's spinsters. Seldom good, almost never great, they are the barren old maids of the NFL. Youth, fertility, libido, all seem to have dried up.
The Browns would appear to be the most eligible of the four. They have been on the cusp of a Super Bowl appearance five times and fell short. But you wouldn't know that the way the replacement franchise has been run up to this point.
The Browns appear to be trying really hard to emulate the truly sorry franchises in the league. The Lions, Cardinals and Saints have been, by far, the sickest, saddest teams in the league for the past half-century. The Lions have advanced to just once NFC championship game since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970, getting blown out by the Redskins in 1991.
The Cardinals have one playoff victory since World War II, and the Saints have one playoff win in their 38-year history.
I can't help it. I have to rank them. Which one of these Super Bowl virgins gets taken to bed first? Rankings go from most likely to least likely.

1. Jacksonville Jaguars
The Jags have some old parts, but they also have some young, talented parts. It remains to be seen if Byron Leftwich will be as good a QB as Mark Brunell in his prime, but he is the only thing close to a franchise quarterback among our cast of six lily-white teams. The Jags also made the playoffs this year, which the remaining five can't say.

2. Detroit Lions
Sure, they suck, and have sucked for quite some time. What other team could take a talent like Barry Sanders and win only one playoff game with him?
Having said that, it's Detroit, and sooner or later, things are bound to fall into place. Sooner or later, they will stop hiring guys like Matt Millen as their GM, and will bring in real talent evaluators. It's happened before. The Lions were a league power in the 1950s.
While the Lions have been busy roaming the desert, the Tigers won a pair of World Series, the Pistons a trio of NBA titles, and the Red Wins a trio of Stanley Cups. It's Detroit, where good things eventually happen, like casinos.

3. Houston Texans
They have good talent in some key positions, like running back Domanick Davis and wide receiver Andre Johnson. Teams like the Texans could be terrible one year and swing around with a vengeance the next year. However, it remains to be seen whether new coach Gary Kubiak will be a good fit. For years, he's turned down head coaching overtures and appeared to shun the spotlight. Now that he's finally emerged from Mike Shanahan's shadow, how will he react?

4. Cleveland Browns
With the departure of John Collins, the greasy hands of Carmen Policy have now been completely removed from the organization. With GM Phil Savage and head coach Romeo Crennel settled in, some stability might finally be present. Now, all we have to do is prevent Savage from going insane like Butch Davis, and prevent Crennel from developing a career-threatening heart murmur. And then we can worry about players getting stabbed in the back by enraged girlfriends, and other players doing gymnastics stunts over the handlebars of crotch rockets in nearly-empty parking lots.
Then, everything will be OK.

5. New Orleans Saints
Armed with some solid talent like Aaron Brooks and Joe Horn, the Saints possessed the capability of leapfrogging the Browns and Texans on this list. But, as we all know, Hurricane Katrina turned this into a vagabond franchise searching for a home and identity. Until they find a new or rebuilt foundation in New Orleans or another city, this team will be in a state of flux, and contention will be nearly impossible.

6. Arizona Cardinals
The scary part: sooner or later, Bill Bidwill will die, and this franchise could be put in far more competent -- and less tightwaddish -- hands. If Jerry Colangelo and his canyonesque pockets every get ahold of the Cardinals, look out. But that's probably a ways off. Until then, they are an annual contender for the worst franchise in pro sports.

Ricky Ricky

If you remember back to the summer of 2002, Ricky Davis signed an offer sheet with the Minnesota Timberwolves. After much discussion, the Cavaliers decided to match the offer sheet and keep Davis for the next six years ... or so they thought.
This was pre-LeBron James, after all, and Davis was the closest thing to a great player the Cavs had.
Well, we kind of know the rest of the story. LeBron arrived, Davis had a hard time relinqushing his centerpiece status to the rookie, and was traded to the Celtics in December 2003.
In Boston, Davis, one of the league's great immature knuckleheads (wrong rim), developed into a solid sixth man and now brings just about everything current LeBron sidekick Larry Hughes does, save maybe for passing skills.
Now Davis has come full circle from the summer of '02. He is a member of the Timberwolves, traded in a seven-player swap yesterday.
Part of Davis' problem in Cleveland might have been being given too much leash by a franchise desperate for anything positive. He saw himself as a rising star in the league, and honestly felt he was as good as LeBron.
In Boston, he was hip-checked by Paul Pierce into his proper place: a capable supporting cast member. Once he accepted that role, he flourished.
One still has to wonder, however, why Boston thought acquiring injruy-plagued and overpaid Wally Szczerbiak was better than keeping Davis. There might still be some personailty issues there.
But Davis will head to another team with another all-encompassing superstar to keep him in check. What Pierce started in Boston, Kevin Garnett will be able to continue in Minnesota. There is every reason to believe Garnett will keep Davis' knucklehead tendencies in check and keep making him a productive supporting cast player.
It's in the job description of a superstar and team leader: keep your knuckleheads in line. LeBron couldn't have done it with Davis since no one takes an assertive rookie seriously. But LeBron has a new puppy to housebreak in Damon Jones.
Jones, like Davis, hasn't been properly disciplined in Cleveland. The more I watch him, the more I think Shaq had a great deal to do with the excellent season Jones produced last year in Miami, making Jones afraid to let the big guy down. Left to his own devices, Jones has no idea how to play within a team. Shaq got him to play within a team last year, and LeBron needs to do that this year.
LeBron is friends with Jones, who reportedly hasn't made a lot of friends in Cleveland due to his self-promoting and outspoken nature. But maybe LeBron needs to be Jones' teammate first and his friend second.
If LeBron doesn't fill the Shaq role in Jones' life, we might have another Ricky Davis situation on our hands. And if Jones goes to another team with another superstar and becomes a solid player again, it won't be a great reflection on LeBron's leadership in the Cavs' locker room.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Sacramento fire sale

It appears this particular championship window for the Sacramento Kings has closed.
In the past two years, they have lost Vlade Divac (free agency and subsequent retirement), Chris Webber (traded to Philadelphia) and now Peja Stojakovic (traded to Indiana).
Even with Ron Artest, finally received in exchange for Stojakovic Wednesday, it looks like the Kings aren't going to sniff contention for at least a few seasons. Right now, they are glued to the bottom of the Pacific Division with a 17-24 record.
So let's get while the gettin' is good.
If you're Cavaliers GM Danny Ferry, you have to know that an elite point guard could cure a lot of the backcourt impotence since Larry Hughes went down with hand surgery at the start of the month.
If the Kings are in a dealing mood, let's talk Mike Bibby. He's averaging 20 points per game as one of the few remaining offensive options for the Kings. He is among the league leaders in three-point field goal percentage. He can quarterback an offense with the best of them.
And, man, would he look good in a Cavs uniform, starting right in bewteen Hughes and LeBron James.
Of course, to get something, you have to give up something in return. Contrary to what a Plain Delaer reader wrote to Cavs beat reporter Branson Wright last weekend, Alan Henderson, Sasha Pavlovic and Damon Jones would not be enough to get Bibby. If it was, it would rain Guiness Draught in Cleveland every St. Patrick's Day.
Any deal to get Bibby or any other meaningful player would likely force the Cavs to part with Drew Gooden, who in addition to rebounding and double-digit points, also brings the added salary-cap attraction of being a restricted free agent this offseason.
Of course, that would leave a pretty large hole to plug in the frontcourt. And before you blurt out "Anderson Varejao," remember he has been back for two weeks after missing two and a half months recovering from shoulder surgery. He brings energy, but little in the way of skill. He hasn't been able to work on his game since July.
There's Alan Henderson and Donyell Marshall, but both have shortcomings. Henderson is a decent bench player, but if he was a starter being relied on for 10 points and 10 rebounds a night, it might be a different story.
Marshall is 32 years old with deteriorating legs. His perimeter shooting is so important to the Cavs, I'd be afraid to start him for fear he'd break down physically and get injured.
So, if Gooden is too hard to replace, who is trade bait then?
The good news is the Kings are probably interested in low-cost, younger players. The Cavs have first-round draft picks Pavlovic and Luke Jackson to market. Pavlovic's tradeability is in an upswing since he has been starting and producing.
Other than that, the Cavs' tradeables are limited too the too costly (Eric Snow, Damon Jones) and bit players (Ira Newble).
The end result might be aiming for a talent like Bibby, but having to compromise for something less.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

More Coco news

What started out as a trade rumor is turning into a novella with subplots.
The rumored trade that would send Coco Crisp to Boston ground to a halt Tuesday when Guillermo Mota failed his Indians physical.
The questions lay in Mota's pitching shoulder. An injury to the shoulder caused him to be used sparingly by the Marlins late last year.
Mota has also had elbow problems in the past few years.
The Indians haven't totally quashed the trade, The Plain Delaer said today, but they apparently want more in return for Crisp because of the risk they'd be assuming in taking on Mota's $3 million salary this year.
As it stands, the Indians would likely part with Crisp, David Riske and Josh Bard for Mota, third-base prospect Andy Marte and possibly catcher Kelly Shoppach.
The Plain Dealer reported that Major League Baseball has signed off on a subsequent trade that would send Arthur Rhodes to the Phillies for outfielder Jason Michaels. But that trade is contingent on the Indians and Red Sox consummating their deal.
Stay tuned.

Joel's new job

Toot your horn for Joel Hammond, the newest member of the staff at Crain's Cleveland Business. As Joel will soon find out, it is one of the best publications in Northeast Ohio.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Cavaliers 96, Pacers 66

Now that's what I'm talking about. A much-needed cruise for a team that has had to fight just to stay in games for the past two weeks.
And some more good news: Larry Hughes started hitting the practice floor a bit during the Western Conference swing, taking shots with his left hand. He's still probably three weeks to a month away from playing, but it is an encouraging sign.
The Pacers, meanwhile, had a really bad day. Hours after after news hit that Ron Artest had been traded for long-coveted Peja Stojakovic, the deal fell through. The Pacers then walked out on the floor and proceeded to score 15 points fewer than Kobe Bryant scored by himself Sunday night.
It was Indiana's fourth straight loss, and suddenly, without Artest or someone to replace him, the Pacers are no longer an Eastern Conference juggernaut. They're just another team.
(Of course, when the Pistons are on pace for more than 70 wins, "juggernaut" is a relative term.)

More trade winds

The potential deal to send Coco Crisp to Boston took a more definite shape Monday, The Plain Dealer reported.
It appears the Indians are prepared to part with a lot more that originally thought.
Whatever happens, the Phillies appear to be involved.
The Plain Dealer said the Indians and Red Sox have hammered out the parameters of a six-played trade that would send Crisp, David Riske and Josh Bard to Boston for Guillermo Mota, Andy Marte and possibly catcher Kelly Shoppach.
The Indians would then turn around and trade Arthur Rhodes to Philadelphia for Jason Michaels.
As with anything involving the Indians, money is a main factor.
Crisp, who made about $390,000 last year, is arbitration eligible. After hitting .300 last season, he is looking for a significant bump in pay, which he can probably get. Media reports have placed Crisp's worth at around $3 million next year.
Riske was recently signed to a one-year deal to avoid arbitration, but the longer he stays in the majors, the more he can demand to be paid.
Crisp and Riske are becoming the dreaded "v-word," as in "veteran." Veteran experience equals veteran salary equals too rich for the Tribe's blood, at least among players the Indians might not consider "core players."
Rhodes is 37 and due about $4 million next year, so it should come as no surprise that the Indians would like to jettison his salary. The Plain Dealer reported, however, that the Indians first offered Riske for Michaels, but the Phillies balked. They reportedly asked for Rafael Betancourt, which the Indians, in turn, balked at.
The Indians apparently would like to keep Mota over Rhodes, given the choice, since Mota is 32 and still in his prime baseball years. Even as a lefty, Rhodes might be staring retirement in the face in a couple of years.
If I were manager Eric Wedge, I'd be a bit concerned about losing an important, left-handed piece of my bullpen. But judging by the infrequent use of Scott Sauerbeck down the stretch last year, I am beginning to think Wedge doesn't think much of the lefty-righty matchup philosophy.
(Lefties hit well over .300 against Rhodes last year anyway.)
A healthy Mota would end the hand-wringing about Bob Howry's replacement as well.
So there you have it, at least for today. If everything goes down as scripted, Michaels would platoon in left field with lefty-hitting Todd Hollandsworth, Casey Blake would still man right field, Mota would be Bob Wickman's main set-up man, and Marte would likely open the season as the starting third baseman at Buffalo.
Offensively, the lineup from the sixth spot down would be a question mark next year, and the Indians would be relying heavily on Marte and Ryan Garko to arrive as the cavalry by 2007, meaning another year of "making do" and having no major moves at the July trade deadline. Marte and Garko do have the potential to be tremendous big league hitters, however.

Monday, January 23, 2006

A scorer's scorer

With Shaquille O'Neal, Kobe Bryant is Michael Jordan. A fearless competitor who truly believes the ring is the only thing, and is willing to do whatever it takes to get it.
Without Shaq, he's Tracy McGrady. A superlative scorer who brings little to the team game.
There are definite reasons to be impressed with Bryant's 81-point outburst against the Raptors Sunday night. There are also reasons to stop short of erecting a statue of Bryant in New York Harbor.

Reasons to be impressed:

It is the second-highest single game total in NBA history
Prior to last night, the late Wilt Chamberlain had the market cornered on single-game scoring efforts, with the top four single-game performances in NBA history. Now, Bryant has cut a swath through the record books that only Chamberlain's historic 100-point effort in 1962 avoided.

Bryant is a 6'-6" guard
Chamberlain was a 7-foot center in the days when 7-foot centers just weren't that common. Chamberlain was a heck of a basketball talent, but his height gave him a great physical advantage. He was Shaq in his time.
Bryant, by contrast, is a 6'-6" guard who relies on athleticism and outside shooting instead of physical girth. It is far less likely that a player the size of Bryant can dominate the way he did, as opposed to Chamberlain.

Bryant did his damage in less than a regulation game
For all his dominance, Michael Jordan needed overtime to drop a career-high 69 on Cleveland. Chamberlain needed three overtimes to score the previous second-best mark of 78.
Bryant did his damage in 42 minutes, six less than a regulation game. That's almost two points per minute.

Reasons to be less impressed:

The rest of the Lakers roster
Kobe scored 81 on 28-of-46 shooting. The next-highest Laker was Smush Parker, who scored 13 on 5-of-11 shooting. Chris Mihm was the only other Laker in double figures with 12, which means the likes of Devean George and Lamar Odom were all but silent. Granted, when a guy is on fire like Bryant was, who can be blamed for getting him the ball and getting out of the way? But this game was artificially tilted toward Bryant, who didn't have a backup band. Heck, he didn't even have a tinny speaker creaking out old Neil Sedaka records.

C'mon, it's the Raptors
Mike James (not to be confused with LeBron James, or Henry James for that matter), scored 26 points Sunday. No other Toronto player managed 20.
The Raptors are 14-27, in a virtual tie with the Knicks for last place in the Atlantic, the NBA's weakest division.
If Kobe drops 90 on the Spurs, then he can apply for the "Michael Jordan Greatest Player Ever Club."

Seven three-pointers
Chamberlain scored all his points in an era without a three-point shot. Sunday, 21 of Bryant's 81 came from beyond the arc. It doesn't mean it's easier to score 81 points, but having that arc back there is a great way to stack up points more quickly for a great shooter like Bryant.

"It's all about the W"
Or so Kobe said after the game, stating that he didn't really know how many points he'd scored until after the game because he was so focused on winning.
Excuse me, but when you score 81 points, you have to at some point consciously think "man, I'm really pouring it on tonight."
If you score 81 and are only thinking about the win, it means one of two things: you are trying to singlehandedly win the game because you are monumentally selfish, or you are trying to singlehandedly win the game because your supporting cast offers the support of balsa wood. Either way, it's not a good reflection on your team.

Coco beans

Ask and ye shall receive, apparently.
The Red Sox have been pestering the Indians for Coco Crisp pretty much since Johnny Damon bolted for the Yankees last month. Sunday, it was revealed that the Indians might have finally cracked. Cleveland and Boston have reportedly hammered out a tentative deal to send Crisp to Boston.
Taken in the context of who they are reportedly to receive in exchange, the deal makes some sense. But that might not be the whole story if the Phillies get involved, as The Plain Dealer reported today.
The deal, as it purportedly stands, would send Crisp to Boston for reliver Guillermo Mota and third-base prospect Andy Marte. Mota is regarded as one of the better right-handed setup men in baseball, with a 3.61 career ERA in stints with the Expos, Dodgers and Marlins.
The Red Sox acquired him as part of the Josh Beckett trade earlier in the offseason. Last year with the Marlins, he set up closer Todd Jones, going 2-2 with two saves. His ERA, 4.70, was a bit high, but he held opposing hitters to a .254 batting average.
In 2003, Mota had a tremendous season for the Dodgers, going 6-3 with a 1.97 ERA in 76 appearances.
Mota would be a very capable replacement for Bob Howry. Paired with Arthur Rhodes, the two would give the Indians one of the top set up corps in the majors.
Marte has piqued the Indians' interest for a while. Coming up through the Braves system, he was highly coveted by many teams, considered a top third base prospect. The Red Sox landed him in the Edgar Renteria trade.
In a handful of games, he hit .227 for Atlanta last year. Marte would likely be groomed as Aaron Boone's replacement, possibly by 2007.
All of it would make sense if not for the sizeable hole Crisp's absence would leave in left field. That's where the Phillies might come in, and that's where things get a bit hairy.
The Plain Dealer also reported that the Indians might turn around and ship Mota to Philadelphia this week for outfielder Jason Michaels.
Michaels, a right-handed hitter, platooned with Kenny Lofton in center field last year for the Phillies. His batting average was good (.304) but the Indians are craving some right-handed power hitting, and Michaels provides little of that. In 105 games last year, he managed only four homers and 31 RBI.
If the Indians acquire Mota, then turn around and deal him for Michaels, I fail to see how they come out ahead in 2006, when everybody will be expecting a playoff run.
The difference between Crisp, a career .287 hitter, and Michaels, a career .291 hitter, is negligible. Michaels might provide a better arm in the outfield, but he likely has less plate discipline than Crisp. Michaels struck out 80 times in 2004 and 45 times last year.
Marte adds a top prospect to the upper tiers of the farm system, but the likelyhood he'll be able to contribute anything meaningful before 2007 is small.
And, without Mota, you'd still be rolling the dice on the rebounding Danny Graves or washed-up Steve Karsay to replace Howry.
If the Indians are satisfied with Mota's physical, they might keep him and send either Rhodes or David Riske to the Phillies for Michaels. Here's hoping that's the case, preferably with Riske.

Friday, January 20, 2006

Montville Township series

For anyone interested in reading some of my non-sports work at my day job, I have a five-part series examining growth in Medina County's Montville Township beginning on Tuesday and running through next Saturday.
I'm a little nervous about the outcome. It is by far the biggest project I've undertaken as a writer. I've been working on it since May, doing interviews when time permitted. I wrote the stories in November, and it was after the first of the year before all the copy, photos and graphics were amassed and edited.

You can read my stories at the Web site for the Medina County Gazette. That is, if it's fully updated and in working order. I've heard more bad things than good about our site.

Steel-gray clouds

I might as well just get this off my chest now.
The Pittsburgh Steelers are going to win the Super Bowl.
No, I haven't been won over to the dark side. It's just a premonition. But it's the same one I had when the Baltimore Ravens made their Super Bowl run in the 2000 playoffs.
The premonition works like this: I'd be cool with any other team winning the Super Bowl. Carolina, Seattle, even Denver. The one image that would really grate me is Bill "The Chin" Cowher glowing as he holds the Vince Lombardi Trophy over his head with black and gold confetti fluttering around him.
The one soundbite I wouldn't be able to stand is Ohio turncoat and budding Browns killer Ben Roethlisberger thanking everyone from God to the water boys for making his Super Bowl MVP possible.
That's how I know. If I don't like it, and it involves the NFL, it's probably going to happen.
Back in my Bowling Green days, I wrote a column about how the Super Bowl seems to have it in for Cleveland. Since I wrote that column prior to New England's victory over St. Louis in February 2002, nothing has changed. Seven of the last eight Super Bowl champions have anti-Cleveland overtones.
John Elway, Lord of the Browns Killers, won Super Bowls off the 1997 and 1998 seasons. Then came back-to-back wins by former Cleveland teams: the St. Louis Rams after the 1999 season and the Ravens after the 2000 season.
After that, the Reign of Bill started. In Cleveland, Bill Belichick was closer to Fred Sanford as a football coach and person. In New England, he is Napoleon, Genghis Khan and George S. Patton rolled into one.
Now Belichick is the coach of a generation, with three Super Bowl titles in four years.
The only solace I have gotten since 1997 was watching the Buccaneers win the Super Bowl after the 2002 season. Even that soured, though, as I tried to wrack my brain to figure how a stalwart NFL franchise like the Browns can fail to make the Super Bowl in 37 years, but the Bucs, who sucked eggs for 90 percent of their existence, could suddenly rise up and win a championship.
So, you see, I know Pittsburgh will win the Super Bowl next month. If it will turn the perpetually-placed knife in Cleveland's back a bit more, the NFL gods will gladly do it.
Next year, when the Steelers pay the Browns their annual visit and subsequent butt-whupping, Browns fans had better wear flak jackets to the lakefront. Prideful, arrogant Pitsburgh fans will be out in full force, wearing their world championship merchandise.
At least we'll have a warm-up, when White Sox fans/frontrunners show up in force at Jacobs Field this summer, tooting their own horns.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Song lyric

(With apologies to Zach, who has made this a regular feature of his blog. I'll probably only do this when I'm really "feeling" a song, meaning I probably just bought the CD.)

Everyone knows I'm in
Over my head, over my head
With eight seconds left in overtime
She's on your mind, she's on your mind

--The Fray, "Over My Head (Cable Car)," How to Save a Life, 2005

Losing at the line

The free-throw line is an underrated place on the basketball court.
Calvin Murphy, Rick Barry and Mark Price excelled there. Only Barry is probably considered an all-time great.
The free-throw line is the only place a player can take a shot guaranteed to be uncontested. Yet to find an NBA player who can consistently make eight of 10 free throws is bucking the odds, to find one who can make nine of 10 is downright scarce.
Free throws seldom get the credit they deserve for deciding the outcome of games. Yet the Cavaliers are giving all of us a case study in how missed free throws can directly translate into losses.
In last night's 90-89 loss to the Nuggets, the Cavs missed 15 of 35 free throws, including a miss by LeBron James with 0.6 seconds left that would likely have forced overtime.
Last night's performance comes on the heels of bad nights at the line against the Lakers (14-for-23) and Blazers (17-for-24). LeBron also missed a late free throw to tie against Los Angeles.
The Cavs lost all three games, by a grand total of four points.
Statistically, the Cavs are a middle-of-the-pack team at the line, but it hasn't been due to steady mediocrity. Like their wins and losses, Cleveland's free-throw shooting has been streaky this year.
Currently, they rank 11th in the league. In November, they were a top-three team at the line.
Zydrunas Ilgauskas is far and away Cleveland's best performer at the line, shooting at 85.2 percent among players who average at least one free-throw attempt per game. After Z, it drops off to the injured Larry Hughes (76.9), LeBron (74.2), Eric Snow (73.8), Damon Jones (73.1) and Donyell Marshall (72.4).
Any player who can't convert at least 75 percent of their free-throw attempts could (and should) be considered a below-average performer at the line. The league average, by team, is 74.67 percent.
By that formula, the Cavs have one good free-throw shooter, one decent free-throw shooter, and the rest need improvement.
(Sparingly-used Luke Jackson is shooting free throws at an 80 percent clip, but is averaging less than one attempt per game).
This is what I mean when I say coach Mike Brown has to emphasize offense with the same gusto he hammers home defense. Last night, through all the abysmal shooting, free throws and otherwise, the Cavs held the best fast-break scoring team to five fast-break points.
These guys will listen to what their coach has to say. And while defense might win championships, the object of the game is still to put the ball in the basket.
Even great teams that possess lockdown defenses like San Antonio and Detroit are still skilled offensive clubs. Having the whole package is how they are title contenders.
Brown can't throw offensive caution to the wind in favor of harping on defense. That's only coaching half of the game.
Just like when the Cavs were struggling on defense each night, if they can't bring it at the free-throw line, and from the rest of the offensive floor, they are going to continue to have a fatal flaw that is going to cost them games.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

LeBron's instincts

ESPN.com contributor Bomani Jones offers an interesting take on the recent national bellyaching about LeBron James and his inability to singlehandedly lift the Cavaliers to wins over the Lakers and Blazers.
It's the age-old question: when the chips are down, and you are the leader, is it better to enable those around you, or damn the torpedos and take the whole load on yourself?

Witness to history

Late last week, I found out I have a connection to the new movie "Glory Road," albeit in a strained, convoluted "six degrees of Kevin Bacon" sort of way.
I have met Lutheran West boys basketball coach Phil Argento, who was there when Texas Western's all-black starting lineup bested Adolph Rupp's all-white Kentucky powerhouse in the 1966 NCAA title game. The victory by Texas Western (now Texas-El Paso) was not just a Villanova-over-Georgetown type upset; it went a long way toward erasing racial stereotypes in college basketball.
As The Plain Dealer's Eddie Dwyer wrote today, Argento was an inactive freshman member of Rupp's team in 1966. He spent the game holding equipment for a sideline cameraman.
Odds are, he isn't portrayed in the movie, which was released last weekend, and if he is, the actor playing him probably has no lines. But Argento was there.
I probably should explain how I met Argento. I was the manager for the boys basketball team at Lutheran West for three years. Back then, about 10 years ago, Argento was simply an involved parent who just happened to be a high-school hardwood legend.
In the early 1960s, Argento was one of the top high school basketball players in the state for the now-defunct West High School in Cleveland. His son, Phil Jr., was a sharpshooting guard for Lutheran West.
Phil Sr. and I seldom exchanged words. He probably couldn't pick me out of a police lineup now. But on a few occasions, we had camera duty in common. Argento would tape his son's junior varsity games while I handled the coach's tape for the varsity games.
I don't think I appreciated that I was sharing space with a rather famous basketball player until my senior year, when Argento appeared on "More Sports and Les Levine," a local cable sports talk show (it sticks out in my mind because the show aired in March 1997, the same day Kenny Lofton was traded to the Braves. More callers wanted to talk about the trade than to Argento).
Both Argento and his son went on to bigger and better things after I graduated in 1997. Phil Sr. has been the head coach at Lutheran West for, I believe, five years and has the Longhorns at 11-0 this season. He coaches Richard Semrau, one of the top high school basketball players in the region, perhaps the country.
Phil Jr. went onto to Mount Vernon Nazarene College, where he became Ohio's all-time collegiate leader in three-point shooting.
It's a newspaper story to a lot of people, but my time with the Lutheran West basketball team became more special to me in the past week. Ten years ago, I met someone who was a witness to history, now captured on celluloid.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006


After a long, long time (too long if you ask me), "Bubbie" is back.
Today, the Indians dealt left handed pitcher Brian Tallet to the Blue Jays for right-hander Edward "Bubbie" Buzachero.
Move over, Bubby Brister. There's a new Bubbie in town. With a cooler last name that makes him sound like a mafia goon, or a professional boxer from about 1940.
And this Bubbie will be playing for the good guys (or at least at the Class AA affiliate thereof). Although I do long for the days of Bubby under center for the Steelers. Those Pittsburgh teams were quite beatable back when the Browns were winning the AFC Central every year.
Since the Indians are in the habit of signing old acquaintances this winter, I wonder what Dave Burba is up to. Also former Tiger and Yankee Bubba Trammell.
Think about it. Bubbie, Bubba and Burba. Beautifully bashing down and boring through the opposition, beating and besting the whole bunch, brandishing bats and balls to buoy us up on summer nights.
If only Boone, Blake and Broussard would do the same.

Monday, January 16, 2006


It's the AFC championship game no Browns fan wanted to see.
The team by which John Elway used to torture Cleveland, revamped with Browns retreads on the defensive line, versus the arch-rival Steelers, in the AFC title game for the seventh time since Bill Cowher became head coach in 1991.
Either way, one of the Browns' old foes is going to get richer while Cleveland remains huddled in the football poorhouse.
Last spring, when Phil Savage unloaded Courtney Brown, Gerard Warren, Ebenezer Ekuban and Mike Myers to Denver, we knew we were finally going to see whether the Browns' defensive problems lay with a lack of talent, or ineptitude in the front office and coaching staff.
Guess what? The bad apples weren't foisted off on Denver, as we had hoped. The rot is embedded in Cleveland.
Denver coach Mike Shanahan took the Browns' garage-sale merchandise, refurbished it, and could now probably sell it on eBay for a tidy profit. The Broncos had the third-best defense in the NFL this year.
Warren was right when he said the Browns would be sorry for letting he and the others go. Not that any magnificent change would have happened in Cleveland, as it has in Denver. Shanahan runs a tight ship focused on winning, and the Cleveland castoffs have benefitted from the heathier environment.
The Browns, too often, get team leaders focused on themselves more than anything else (Carmen Policy, Butch Davis, Jeff Garcia, John Collins).
The same stable environment exists in Pittsburgh. One of the most astounding statistics in football is the ratio of head coaches to home stadiums the Steelers have had since 1969. Since Chuck Noll was hired as Pittsburgh's coach in 1969, the Steelers have had one coaching change, hiring Cowher when Noll retired.
In that span, the Steelers have called Forbes Field, Three Rivers Stadium and Heinz Field home.
Three home stadiums to two head coaches. That, my friends, is stability.
The stability has lent itself to a great team environment, free of John Collins-esque fiascos. Great draft picks are nurtured and cultivated into productive players. As a result, the Steelers won four Super Bowl titles under Noll, had a fifth Super Bowl appearance under Cowher, and score almost-yearly playoff appearances.
With the Colts and Patriots knocked out of the playoffs this year, the Vince Lombardi Trophy appears up for grabs. Nobody should be surprised if the Steelers are hoisiting it in three weeks.
Cowher has developed a reputation of a coach who can get his team to the doorstep of a championship but never to the summit. But if your team is banging on the door almost every January, sooner or later, you're probably going to get in.
The sustained success of the Steelers, and to a lesser extent the Broncos, is probably as painful to watch as anything if you are a Cleveland fan. It is for me.
Shots, drives and fumbles I can get over. What really gets under my skin is watching a rival win a championship. More than anything, it rubs salt in the wound of wanting, reminding me what my teams don't have.

Tough stuff

This is the cruel-hand-of-fate stuff you'd expect to be dealt a Cleveland team.
The Cavaliers have lost Larry Hughes at the most inopportune time, and they are feeling the pain now. After tonight's 89-87 loss to the Blazers, they have lost a season-high four in a row, all by less than 10 points. They are now 0-3 halfway through their Western Conference jaunt.
The diagnosis of this losing streak is both comforting and discouraging.
The Cavs have been in the thick of every game they have lost since the start of the calendar year. All have been winnable. But the loss of Hughes is proving to be enough of a dent to make the difference between winning and losing.
That's why the Cavs will wake up today with a 20-15 record instead of a 23-12 record.
I am becoming more and more concerned that GM Danny Ferry will have his hand forced into making a trade for another scorer before next month's trading deadline. The signing of Damon Jones is proving to be more questionable with each missed three-pointer. As we all know, he can't defend all that well, doesn't possess extensive point guard skills, and has a tendency to abandon all other options in the name of getting his three-ball off. In a nutshelll, he's not a very good starter, at least in his Cleveland situation.
The net result is that the Cavs might have to sacrifice a young player with a manageable salary to take on a higher-priced veteran to plug the hole left by Hughes, so the Cavs aren't left sinking into oblivion like last spring.
In order to fill a short-term need, the price might be watching Luke Jackson mature into a star in another uniform.
It's a tough call for Ferry. Jeopardize this season and the all-important need to finally get LeBron James to the playoffs by standing pat and hoping for a swift recovery from Hughes, or deal off a potential-laden bench player for an expensive, short-term need.
Less than halfway through his first season as a GM, and Ferry already has a pivotal decision to make. The season -- and future -- might hang in the balance.

Papa Cass Poll: should the Cavs make a trade before the February trading deadline, or stand pat? If you were in Ferry's shoes, what moves would you make?

Friday, January 13, 2006

Prime-time players

If you went to bed early last night, you missed a close-shave Cavaliers loss to the Lakers. You also missed one of the most entertaining fourth quarters the Cavs have played this season.
LeBron James and Kobe Bryant went head-to-head in crunch time as you'd expect a pair of opposing superstars to do. The trouble for Cleveland is, Bryant has three rings' worth of experience on his side, and that was the difference in the 99-98 Lakers win.
Much has been made of Bryant being a selfish, egotistical player. He is. But having a selfish, egotistical player on your side isn't always a bad thing.
As a matter of ego, Bryant refused to let LeBron beat him last night. LeBron led all scorers with 29 points, Kobe struggled through an off night (for him, anyway) with 27, but Bryant has a Michael Jordan streak in him that LeBron has yet to develop. When the time came to decide a winner, Bryant stuck the dagger in Cleveland's throat.
The late fourth quarter was Bryant at his best. He took over the game, making three straight contested 20-foot jumpers, drawing nothing but net. Bryant made the final jumper, inside of 20 seconds to play, with LeBron and 7'-3" Zydrunas Ilgauskas in his face. It didn't matter who was guarding him.
TNT color announcer Steve Kerr (for my money, one of the best in the business) hit the nail on the head, saying Bryant has "supreme confidence" in his shot with the game on the line. He wants the ball, knows what he's going to do with the ball, and believes he's going to win.
Bryant might need Shaquille O'Neal to be a champion, but he doesn't need Shaq to be a great player.
LeBron had a chance to answer, but showed that he still has a ways to go to reach the clutch ability of Bryant.
With Cleveland trailing 99-97 and inside of 10 seconds to play, LeBron did what he does best: penetrated, drew a foul and got to the free-throw line. But while Bryant was locked in on the hoop like a laser, LeBron drew considerably more iron. He made the first free-throw and missed the second, finishing the night 4-for-9 from the line.
Luckily for the Cavs, Drew Gooden snagged the rebound and called a timeout with just more than four seconds left.
Off the timeout, LeBron took the ball, stutter-stepped, dribbled toward the lane, pulled up for a 15-foot winner at the buzzer and missed wide left.
In the battle of superstars, Bryant took over when it counted. LeBron showed that while his talent is superlative, his experience is not.
LeBron might be the king, but Kobe is still the ring bearer. And he didn't let LeBron forget that Thursday night.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Signed and sealed

With the official signing of Eduardo Perez today, Indians GM Mark Shapiro said the Indians are likely done making moves until spring training, effectively ending their offseason.
So now that we can more or less put a stamp on this winter and mail it, allow me to give you some of my preliminary acquisition grades for Shapiro and his boys.
(Note: Since we are talking a very early reaction here, I'll be using the check-plus, check, check-minus system, like that non-credit gym class you took in college.)

Paul Byrd, starting pitcher
Signed to a two-year, $14.5 million contract in December
Grade: check-plus
Byrd's acquisition pales only because of who he replaces in ERA champ Kevin Millwood. In reality, he is a solid starter who finished last year 12-11 with a 3.90 ERA. He has playoff experience with the Braves and Angels, and is the only offseason acqusition signed to a deal longer than one year.
The only question (and it is the same question we had of Millwood a year ago) is will he stay healthy?

Bob Wickman, closer
Signed to a one-year, $6 million contract in December
Grade: check
Wickman is taking his career in the same manner the Indians are taking their relationship with him: one year at a time.
Wickman proved the old dog still has new tricks when he ducked and dodged his way to 45 saves last year. That alone is worth another look this year. But there is no question his body and pitching arm aren't what they used to be. Wicky is nearing the end of his career. How much more can he squeeze out of the flattened toothpaste tube?

Danny Graves, relief pitcher
Signed to a minor-league contract in December
Grade: check-plus
Graves has had recurring back problems, but he is still only 32 and has never had major surgery on his arm. His freefall last year can be chalked up to a bad season unless future events prove otherwise. For the low risk of a minor league deal, Graves is most definitely worth a look. This was the route through which the Indians nabbed Bob Howry two years ago, and look at him now.... playing somewhere else .... for lots of money.... OK, nevermind.

Steve Karsay, relief pitcher
Signed to a minor-league contract in December
Grade: check-minus
This ship has sailed. Karsay sold off his career when he accepted $28 million to be a setup man for the Yankees four years ago. The ensuing years have brought a battery of back and arm problems for the one-time Tribe bullpen anchor. He is certifyably injury-prone, and isn't so much trying to reclaim his career as simply trying to latch on somewhere and stay in baseball.
There is a coaching job waiting for you somewhere, Steve. Hang 'em up before you ruin your arm.

Scott Sauerbeck, relief pitcher
Re-signed to a one-year contract in November
Grade: check
This signing surprised me. Manager Eric Wedge all but abandoned Sauerbeck down the stretch, even with the unscheduled hiatus of Arthur Rhodes to attend to family issues. I figured Wedge was in the class of managers that believed lefty-righty matchup scenarios were overrated.
But Sauerbeck is back, returning a valuable veteran lefty to the bullpen, hopefully with the blessing of Wedge, who might need Sauerbeck more than he realizes if the efforts to find a Howry replacement fall flat.

Jason Johnson, starting pitcher
Signed to a one-year, $1.25 million contract in January
Grade: check
This grade teeters on the brink of a check-minus because I am not convinced an in-house fifth-starter option like Jason Davis would be that much worse than Johnson.
When the pitching-poor Tigers decide they've seen enough of a pitcher, that is a red flag. The two saving graces for Johnson are his durability and the fact that he is a veteran, but he is likely a downgrade from Scott Elarton as a fifth starter.

Lou Merloni, infielder
Signed to a minor-league contract in December
Grade: check
A definite upgrade from Alex Cora and Ramon Vazquez as a utility infielder. But if the Indians lose Ronnie Belliard, Jhonny Peralta or Aaron Boone to injury, it is a stretch to the think the aging Merloni can be an everyday fill-in. He gets bonus points for making games more interesting simply by letting the fans call out his name, as they did in 2004 : "Louuuuuuu!"

Todd Hollandsworth, outfielder
Signed to a minor-league contract in January
Grade: check
My fearless prediction, as I have written previously: no matter how much Wedge wants Hollandsworth to fill in as the fourth outfielder, he will supplant Casey Blake as the right fielder. Hollandsworth is far from an ideal right fielder, but at least he's an outfielder by trade. Blake is a transplanted third baseman.

Eduardo Perez, first baseman
Signed to a one-year contract in January
Grade: check
Hopefully, he'll be Jose Hernandez with more plate discipline. He won't take over the first baseman's job from the terminally-mediocre Ben Broussard, but his ability to hit left-handed pitching will get him at-bats -- maybe even at-bats against righties, depending on how long and deep Broussard's trademark slumps are.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Jacked up

It's not just Damon Jones now. It's the whole team.
Bad enough when Jones takes a shoot-first-ask-questions-later mentality, but now every shooter the Cavaliers have is becoming a gunslinger, with poor results.
In last night's 92-84 loss to the Knicks, the Cavs shot a dismal 6-for-28 from beyond the three-point arc. Single-digit three-point conversions while attempting nearly 30 for the night has become the norm over the past week or so, during which the Cavs are 2-2.
It might be the product of a lot of pressing with Larry Hughes and his 16 points per game inactive until around the start of March. LeBron and his teammates seem to be quite worried about how to compensate for Hughes' production while he recovers from hand surgery.
But hoisting threes like they are going out of style is out of character for the Cavs, against the grain of their coach, and will lead to more games like last night.
With LeBron James, Drew Gooden and Zydrunas Ilgauskas, the Cavs' main offensive strength is front court size and athleticism. Cleveland generally is at their best when LeBron, Gooden and Z are penetrating and pounding the ball down low, drawing fouls and getting to the free-throw line. The perimeter games of Jones and Donyell Marshall are supposed to serve as a compliment to the inside game, preventing opposing defenses from hunkering down in the lane, as they did so often last year.
But with a struggling Jones obsessed with his long-range shooting, and LeBron and Marshall trying to compensate, maybe even overcompensate, for the loss of Hughes, the Cavs are venturing out of their game, settling for outside jumpers.
In last night's loss, Cleveland coughed up a fourth-quarter lead by allowing the Knicks to go on a 13-1 run. Most of it had to do with the Cavs going nearly 10 minutes without a field goal. By the fourth quarter, even backup point guard Mike Wilks was hoisitng threes. He made one.
Knicks guard Quentin Richardson got a lot of credit this morning for stifling LeBron in the fourth quarter. Heading into the quarter, LeBron had 32 points. He had a mere four points in the fourth quarter, two of them at the tail end of the game when the winner had been decided.
Not to undermine Richardson, who is a fine second-tier player in the NBA, but it is hard to think a 6'-5" shooting guard could shut down a 6'-8", 250-pound superstar forward. I have to think some of Richardson's success had to do with the Cavs playing tense, tight basketball late in the game, and making poor shot selections.
This might be where Mike Brown needs to grow as a coach. We know his coaching philosophy is defense first. That's great. Championship teams are almost always great defensive teams. But it might be time for Brown to start developing his offensive brain a little bit more.
Having a player like LeBron makes coaching the offensive end much easier. LeBron can create so much on his own, the need for intricate paint-by-number offensive sets is diminished. But Brown might need to reel in his players a bit with the loss of Hughes.
Brown right now is coaching his offense the way former Indians manager Charile Manuel used to manage his offense. Manuel almost never took the bat out of hitter's hands, at one point allowing pitcher C.C. Sabathia to swing away during an interleague game in Pittsburgh. C.C. grounded into a double play, and the Indians lost the game, 1-0.
Brown almost never tells a player not to shoot. But, like Manuel letting a pitcher hack during his team's only real scoring opportunity of the game, Brown's offensive mindset might be a bit too lassiez-faire.
If his players are jacking up threes in rapid-fire succession, drawing only rim and backboard, killing possession after possession, maybe it's time to rein in the mad bombers and deliver a bit more law and order to the offense. Even LeBron needs some direction once in a while.
High percentage shots inside are the meat-and-potatoes of Cleveland's offense. Brown needs to drive that home the way he has tried to drive home defensive principles to his players since training camp started.
You saw last night what happens when the Cavs subscribe to the Damon Jones offensive philosophy. It looks ... well ... offensive.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006


The biggest tragedy of Jim Caple's NFL misery index (in which the Browns are deemed the team that has caused its fans the most misery in the past ... oh, let's say 40-odd years) is the fact that I am not offended by the designation. I'm almost relieved somebody is finally shedding some light on our suffering in Cleveland.
The Browns were football's version of the Yankees from 1946 to 1965, winning four AAFC titles, four NFL titles, and another five appearances in the NFL title game.
Since then, they have been some grotesque mutant combination of the Cubs and Red Sox (pre-2004).
The Browns have tormented their fans, going 0-5 in games that could have sent them to the Super Bowl. The losses in the 1968 and 1969 NFL title games were more or less an older team at the end of the road. The three losses to the Broncos in the '80s AFC championships don't get off as easily, not when I have to flick on "ESPN Classic" and every other night see some special commemorating "The Drive" and "The Fumble."
We musn't forget Red Right 88, which prevented the Browns from travelling to San Diego for the 1980 AFC championship.
Their two most recent playoff berths, 1994 and 2002, resulted in losses to the hated Steelers, who completed three-game season sweeps in both cases.
When the Browns haven't caused postseason tears, they have forced their fans to endure long stretches of lousy football. The Browns spent most of the '70s not being worth a damn, went in the tank in the early '80s before the arrival of Bernie Kosar and since 1990 have amassed a 2-14 record once (1999), a 3-13 record twice (1990, 2000), a 4-12 record once (2004), a 5-11 record twice (1995, 2003) and a 6-10 record twice (1991, 2005).
When they haven't been doing either of the above, the Browns have forced Clevelanders to do without football, period. And that is the trump card over any other football fan base that wants to whine about how hard they have had it.
Due in part to Art Modell's stifling debt, in part to foot-dragging from Cleveland's government on the subject of building a new football stadium, and in part to Baltimore's desperation to regain the NFL, Modell pulled his team out of Cleveland in 1995, resurfacing as the Baltimore Ravens in 1996.
From 1996 to 1998, we had no football team. When we finally got a new team, it was an expansion version hastily flung together in a little under a year by people who didn't exactly qualify as personnel gurus.
Since then, little has gone right. The Browns have been through three coaches in seven years, as well as three directors of their football operations wing. It was almost four, as current GM Phil Savage was allegedly almost forced out of his job by now ex-president John Collins at the end of last month.
Front office power struggles generally don't promote a winning environment.
Draft picks misfired. The owner, Al Lerner, died in 2002, paving the way for his son Randy to take over. The new stadium was flung up on the site of the old one with far fewer creature comforts than some of its contemporary structures.
And while all this chaos was happening in Cleveland, Art Modell got to hoist a Super Bowl trophy in January 2001 for the Ravens.
From a purely football standpoint, Modell had been justified in moving the team. Cleveland lost their team, and the war against Modell. The Ravens became a trophy-toting league power while the Browns were an unstable laughing stock.
The worst part is, Browns fans care about their team like few fan bases do. In other cities, football might be a weekend diversion. In Cleveland, fans paint their cars brown and orange. Every success and failure is lived and died with. And like a loyal family member of some ne'er-do-well who can't seem to straighten his life out, the fans stay devoted and keep coming back for more abuse.
The Browns are a team only a mother could love. In this case, pigskin might be thicker than water.

Better than Blake

The Plain Dealer reported today that the Indians are close to signing outfielder Todd Hollandsworth to a minor-league deal. Should Hollandsworth, a former Dodger, Marlin and Rockie, make the team in spring training, he will fill that all-important fourth outfielder role.
Excuse me? The fourth outfielder?
By a very quick process of elimination, he should be the team anchor in right field. Hollandsworth is probably thinking the same thing. He is a career .270 hitter whose main competition in Florida will be Casey Blake, Mr. .230 himself.
You don't think Hollandsworth is lowering himself to the ranks of minor-league contract without the possibility of a huge payoff in terms of playing time, do you?
A career .270 hitter should hit seventh in the Indians lineup, considering he has to beat out Blake, Ben Broussard and Aaron Boone to be the seventh-best hitter on Cleveland's roster.
That's kind of like having to beat out the Moroccan and Libyan bobsled teams to take seventh place at the Olympics. If you can walk on ice and pick your nose at the same time, it shouldn't be too difficult.
With any luck, Hollandsworth and recently-signed first baseman Eduardo Perez will come into spring training and take charge of their positions, eliminating any temptation for Eric Wedge to platoon -- something I detest in baseball lineups, except in very rare circumstances.
If not, the Indians will still have the same problem as last year: a bottom third of the order comprised of a mish-mash of bench players, none of whom are very productive.
We can only hope Ryan Garko arrives with the same bang that Grady Sizemore did last year.

Monday, January 09, 2006

Bengals bungled

The glass-half-full people say the Bengals were thrown for a loop when Carson Palmer's knee got a little too up close and personal with the full weight of Kimo von Oelhoffen's body on the second snap of Sunday's game.
The glass-half-empty people say "Thanks for the memories. See you again in 2020."
It's hard not to believe in bad luck, hexes, curses and all other sorts of voodoo after watching the Bengals crash and burn in their first playoff game in 15 years, losing 31-17 to the Steelers in a game that probably wasn't even that close.
Palmer's torn knee ligament on the back end of a 66-yard completion probably started Cincinnati's slide, as Jon Kitna had to come in off the bench ice cold. But it can't account for a botched field goal snap, an injury to Chris Perry, and the Bengals basically getting run out ot their own stadium.
Cincinnati is learning what Cleveland has known for a long time: reversing a losing culture and the accompanying self-pity of the fans is a difficult process. Even when teams in Cleveland are good, fans hide behind their jacket collars in terror, waiting for the injury, defection or freak play that makes it all fall apart.
Teams feed on that. If you are scared to the tune of 20,000 or 40,000 or 75,000 strong, the players start to play tight.
My unproven hypothesis says that probably happened to some degree in Cincinnati, when the mood of the fans took a palpable turn from celebratory to stricken as soon as Palmer hit the turf.
The fans were certainly justified in feeling that way, but it added fuel to the fire that consumed the Bengals yesterday.
Even in the NFL, it is hard for a team that has been in the doldrums for 15 years to magically turn the corner to Super Bowl contender. The Bengals have trudged through a pair of 8-8 seasons before arriving with a division title and an 11-5 record this year. Not that it matters to most Bengal fans now, who have to wait until late July for next season to start.
We in Cleveland have the Bengals in basketball sneakers.
We have been waiting for LeBron James to deliver the Cavaliers to powerhouse status, but instead have been greeted with two seasons of nearly missing the playoffs, due mostly to LeBron's lack of a supporting cast. Now, much like the Bengals this season, the Cavaliers have a deeper team and appear headed for the playoffs
Rising a dreg from the ashes takes a lot of right decisions by the front office and coaches, and sooner or later, a commitment of large sums of money from the owner. That process can take years of trial and error to play out.
A game like Sunday's for the Bengals isn't necessarily indicative of overall failure, just as last spring's collpase by the Cavs isn't necessarily. Much like the Cavs last spring, the Bengals are a work in progress. They obviously need help on the defensive side of the ball.
Sunday's loss gives the Bengals a measureing stick to see where they are, both talent-wise and in terms of mental toughness. They are advancing in the former, but might need work in the latter. A few years of being in the playoffs should help that, as with the Cavs.
Having said that, I'm hoping the Cavs do a little better in the playoffs than the Bengals just did.

Hockey leaving (again)

It was probably inevitable, but the Cleveland Barons will once again be no more after this season.
The Plain Dealer reported today the AHL minor league hockey franchise will end speculation about its future and move to Worcester, Mass. for the 2006-07 season.
There were rumblings this time last year that the Barons would pull up stakes and move to the Quad Cities area of Iowa, but the franchise committed to Cleveland for one more season.
This is the last year of a five-year lease the Barons signed with Quicken Loans Arena upon moving to Cleveland from Kentucky in 2001.
This will be the fifth failed hockey franchise in Cleveland's history, to go along with the Lumberjacks, Crusaders, and two prior incarnations of the Barons, one in the AHL and one in the NHL.
Anyone who has been to a Barons game could easily see how the team could fail in Cleveland. While The Q is brimming with activity and near-sellouts for the Cavaliers, the arena is all but dead for a Barons game, with sparse crowds and very little to keep fans interested during breaks in the action. The result? Barons management elected to curtain off the upper bowl of the arena because they can't adequately fill the lower bowl.
While the Lumberjacks spiced up their minor-league games with zany promotions and giveaways, the most exciting Barons promotion is the chuck-a-puck after each game, during which fans are invited to throw foam rubber pucks onto the ice, aiming for targets that correspond to various prizes.
The results are predictable: the Lumberjacks could draw 15,000 to a Saturday night game. A five-figure Barons crowd is almost unheard of.
With a failing economy slowly bleeding money and jobs from the area, minor-league sports are dying in Cleveland.
The Lumberjacks folded in 2000, along with the Internatioanl Hockey League, due to lack of money and poor management.
The WNBA's Rockers (Yes, they were minor-league in terms of scale of operations. Sorry if that offends anyone.) were the next to go, folded by former Cavs owner Gordon Gund in 2003 because he was losing money on the team.
The Force, a former staple of winter sports in Cleveland back in indoor soccer's 1980s heyday, folded after last season, also due to massive financial losses.
The Lake County Captains, an Indians farm team, have tried to carve their own niche in Cleveland's far eastern suburbs. They are under the Indians' umbrella, so they should be on pretty solid ground for a while, even though their Eastlake stadium reportedly had huge finaicial overruns and is becoming a money pit for the city.
An anonymous AHL source told The Plain Dealer that Cavs owner Dan Gilbert might be in the market for another AHL team. Losing the Barons means losing 40 home dates at The Q each year, and the supplemental revenue provided by ticket and concession sales.
At least three AHL franchises are reportedly up for sale.
However, if a new minor-league hockey team is simply going to be a Barons clone with snoozer games that could very easily have been played at the local rec center, I don't see the point. That franchise, like the Crusaders, Lumberjacks, and each version of the Barons, will be doomed to fail.

Saturday, January 07, 2006

Jacobs turning pro

It's too bad, but what can I or any other Bowling Green alumnus tell Omar Jacobs? Stay?
Jacobs announced Friday he will forego his senior year at BG and declare for the NFL draft. He is already the school's all-time leader in touchdown passes with 71 and has a bowl victory to his credit last season.
It is hard to tell a star MAC quarterback to stay, especially with the success Ben Roethlisberger has enjoyed in his first two seasons, and the fact that Charlie Frye is now the starting QB for the Browns.
Like Jacobs, Roethlisberger came out following his junior year.
I was hoping Jacobs would use next season as an exclamation point on his career at BG after a leg injury put a huge dent in the second half of this season. But it might have had the opposite effect. Jacobs got a firsthand look at how fleeting success can be in a violent sport like football, and decided to cash in as soon as possible.
Again, what can you tell Jacobs? It's worth it to stay in college when you know your career could end the next time you land awkwardly on your ankle?
Sure, Matt Leinart stayed for his senior year at USC, but he is the exception. If a player is in line to make the big bucks, might as well do it now.
I doubt Jacobs will go in the first round, and a certainly don't think he will step in and start almost right away as Roethlisberger did. But with size and strength similar to that of Roethlisberger, Jacobs will be around the NFL for a while with the blessing of good health.
The only question I have is how he will adapt from the Bowling Green spread offense, where Jacobs spent the majority of time working out of the shotgun, to a conventional NFL offense. 49ers QB Alex Smith, like Jacobs the product of an Urban Meyer-placed spread offense at Utah, has shown just how difficult the transition to a drastically different offense can be.
Attention at Bowling Green now turns to backup QB Anthony Turner, who was inconsistent in relief of Jacobs this year. The spring intrasquad game should give a decent indicator of whether Turner can step in and fill Jacobs' shoes adequately.

Friday, January 06, 2006

Start Ira Newble

Please, Mike Brown.
Don't subject us to more of Damon Jones. Sooner or later, you are going to realize that the longer you insist on placing Jones in the starting lineup in lieu of Larry Hughes, the more often you are going to have double-digit deficits in the second quarter.
Jones started last night, the Cavs were down by as many as 18 to Houston, and lost 90-81.
It's not all Jones' fault, but a great deal is his fault.
As the starting shooting guard, he went 1-for-7 from beyond the arc and did not attempt a two-point field goal. He is 4-for-20 in his last four games.
If he was a tried-and-true three-point specialist like Michael Redd, I could chalk it up to a slump. But with Jones, a great deal of his shooting problems has to do with a reckless approach, something I have belabored before.
In addition to a small stature for a shooting guard (6'-3") and poor defense, Jones brings a concept of his shooting game that is almost childish.
His response to a missed three-pointer? Get the ball back as soon as possible and jack up another.
That's not playing in the flow of an offense. That's a game of H-O-R-S-E.
A starter presumably is going to be on the court for 30-plus minutes a game. If a player is going to be on the floor for more than 30 minutes, he needs to do more than be a one-trick pony. In Jones case, that one trick has been lousy of late.
Jones almost singlehandedly let Detroit back into the game during last Saturday's win, when he heaved a pair of three-point misses, allowing the Pistons a couple of easy transition buckets and a 6-0 run. Brown had to call a timeout to stop the bleeding.
As I wrote yesterday, Ira Newble is far from a cure-all in Hughes' absence. But Newble brings size, defense and an ability to play in the flow of a game. In other words, he isn't always looking for his own shot (Damon, are you listening?)
The Cavs did get to 10 games over .500 with Newble starting last year, even though Newble has a limited offensive game and poor shooting touch. A big reason why is Newble did what was asked of him and didn't try to do too much (Damon, are you still listening?)
Newble is not a starting NBA two-guard. We all know that. But last year, he was the best option available on the roster. This year, he is a stopgap until Hughes returns, hopefully within two months.
Newble in the starting lineup would return Jones to the bench and limit his effect on a game. He could go back to spot-up three-point shooting, which is his self-proclaimed area of expertise.
In fact, Brown could tell Jones to do what Wesley Person used to do: park it beyond the arc and wait for the kickout pass. When you get the pass, just shoot. No passing, no dribbling, no thinking. Just shoot. Jones would be in heaven.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

The truth about USC

Thank you, Vince Young.
I finally have some ammo to quantify this feeling I've had for some time that the USC Trojans are overrated.
A great team? Yeah, I guess. One of the all-time best? Ehhh ... I'm going to say no.
I wanted to say no before Young rallied Texas to their first national title in 36 years Wednesday night in the Rose Bowl. But the din of USC supporters (patron saint: Will Ferrell) from Los Angeles made it hard to be heard.
Two straight national titles? Who's kicking Louisiana when they're down now?
Last time I checked, LSU got the crystal football after the 2003 season. USC finished first in both the media and coaches' polls, but not in the BCS. There are problems with the BCS ratings system, yes, but any USC national title from 2003 is strictly inferred and not won. You don't win a national title by bellyaching the loudest. You win it on the football field.
Same goes for Miami fans still moaning about a scrap of yellow cloth on the field against Ohio State. Go polish your 2001 trophy. But I digress.
USC won a title last year. They were going for two straight, no matter what the appeasement-minded ABC broadcast crews said last night.
And last night, one ofthe supposed titans in the history of college football lost because they didn't have the best player on the field. Don't teams like USC usually trump supposed one-trick ponies like Texas?
USC's 39th-ranked defense gave up 41 points in regulation time last night. My suspicions about not really being challenged in the defensively-soft Pac 10 have been confirmed.
Notre Dame was probably the toughest defense USC faced all year. It took a Reggie Bush pile-driver of Matt Leinart into the end zone for the Trojans to escape from South Bend with a win.
Aren't all-time teams like USC supposed to own the fourth quarter and thrive on pressure? USC coughed up a 38-26 fourth quarter lead last night.
Pete Carroll allowed his USC defense to sink into a Marty Schottenheimer-esque marshmallow-soft prevent coverage late in the game, attempting to sit on the 12-point lead. But giving 20 yards to Vince Young was like giving a starving German shepherd a steak. Young took off at will, scrambling underneath for 10 yards at a time. Once Young gets up a head of steam, one defender isn't going to bring him down. USC found that out the hard way.
Bush and Leinart have the Heismans, but Young was the top dog last night. Playing in far-off Austin, Texas, Young had little to combat the bright lights and glamour of the USC program. But I saw a pressure-cooker performance from Young last night that I hadn't seen in quite some time. He might wind up being better than Leinart or Bush in the NFL.
The best part is, we might have to wait to find out. Young reportedly said he is leaning toward coming back for another year at Texas, trying to do what USC only thinks it did: win two straight national titles.

Hughes out

Larry Hughes is the ultimate second-tier NBA player. He scores, penetrates, plays some defense, passes and can co-exist with bigger egos.
He did it last year in Washington with Gilbert Arenas and Antawn Jamison, and he has been doing it this year with LeBron James.
But there is a caveat with Hughes, and it has reared its ugly head again: he can't stay healthy.
This is his eighth NBA season, and only once has he not been relinquished to the injured list.
Prior to last night's win in Milwaukee, Cavaliers GM Danny Ferry announced that Hughes will have surgery on his right hand to repair a broken bone near the knuckle of his middle finger. He is expected to be gone six to eight weeks.
The Cavs' roster is deeper than last year's, but the loss of Hughes still leaves a pretty big hole to spackle for the next two months, during which the Cavs will embark on a two-week gauntlet run through the Western Conference.
Last night, Damon Jones started in place of Hughes, and the Cavs promptly put themselves in a double-digit hole before climbing out thanks mostly to LeBron and Drew Gooden. Jones is 6'-3" with the defensive instincts of a crash-test dummy. If coach Mike Brown repeatedly uses Jones on the opposing team's shooting guard, it will probably result in a repeat of last year's situation at the point, when Jeff McInnis consistently allowed every opposing point guard to burn Cleveland with uncontested penetration and wide-open jumpers.
Brown's other options are Ira Newble and Luke Jackson. Brown's defensive-oriented logic will probably lead him to Newble, last year's starting two-guard who lost his job because he can't shoot. Newble, if nothing else, will bring hustle, aggressive play and a wide body to the floor.
Jackson is struggling through what amounts to a second rookie season after missing two-thirds of last season recovering from back surgery. Brown apparently doesn't have a lot of confidence in Jackson right now, judging by his extreme lack of playing time in recent weeks.
Whatever Brown decides, it's not going to completely cover the hole created by Hughes' injury. But injuries are part of life in professional sports, and all teams sooner or later have to cope. LeBron, Gooden, Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Donyell Marshall will have to step up until Hughes can put on a uniform again.
This is another test the Cavs will need to pass on the road to title contention.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Final grades

Below, I give final grades for the Cleveland Browns 2005 season. As you might expect, they are reflective of a 6-10 season. Right off the bat, I'll tell you nobody received an A.

QB: Charlie Frye, C and Trent Dilfer, C
Inconsistency is the buzz word here. Dilfer appeared to be an adequate presence in the huddle, and led the Browns to an impressive road win in Green Bay, before we realized just how bad the Packers were going to be this year. He also presided over embarrassing losses against Detroit and Houston. When the season became a lost cause, he was rightfully benched in favor of Frye.
Frye looked every bit like a MAC superstar making a leg-straining jump to the NFL. Against Cincinnati, he was quick and resourceful, and nearly pulled out a win. Against Pittsburgh, he was a Luke McCown redux. Having said that, he did manage to pilot a downtrodden team to two wins in their last three games.

RB: Reuben Droughns, B; Lee Suggs, C- and William Green, F
Droughns is about the only calling card I could see this offense leaving right now. He is the most punishing runner the Browns have had since Kevin Mack, and not coincidentally, the first 1,000-yard rusher since Mack and Earnest Byner. His production fell off toward the end of the year due somewhat to fatigue, but more glaringly to the presence of Frye in the pocket. It's defense 101: against a rookie QB, stack the box, stop the running game, and dare the rook to beat you.
Suggs made his annual December cameo, had some moments of production, and will probably be laid up again by August.
Green will be lopped from the roster by summer, or should be.

WR/TE: Dennis Northcutt, C; Braylon Edwards, C; Antonio Bryant, C+; Steve Heiden, B; Kellen Winslow Jr., F---
Everyone except Heiden had points docked for bouts with the dropsies. Northcutt redeemed himself a bit with a rare punt return for a touchdown against Baltimore on Sunday. Edwards could have had a higher grade, but his knee injury stuck his grade in suspended animation for the remainder of the year. Winslow gets the lowest grade in history for obvious reasons.

Offensive line: C
Again, injuries took something of a toll, as center Jeff Faine once again sustained a season-ending injury. The offensive line was the most competent since the playoff season of 2002, and the Browns appeared to have made the right call getting rid of the overinflated ego and price tag of tackle/party animal Ross Verba. L.J. Shelton stepped into Verba's left tackle slot and started 16 games with no major incident. In other words, he was decent --Verba at his best.
Right tackle Ryan Tucker is the closest thing the Browns have to a franchise lineman. Off-season acquistion Joe Andruzzi didn't have the impact he had in New England, but consider the setting. There is time still for Andruzzi and the Browns to grow together.

K: Phil Dawson, B
He missed an extra point, which eliminated any possibility of a B+. All in all, Dawson redeemed himself after a shaky finish to 2004, during which I was questioning if he was losing his touch. Dawson finished this season with a mere two field goal misses, and is the Browns' all-time leader in field goal percentage. He's a keeper.

P: Kyle Richardson, C-
Maybe we were spoiled by five seasons of Chris Gardocki. I think we were. Richardson shanks the ball way too much. It's difficult to play the field-position game when your punter is hitting ankle-shots to the 50-yard-line. He's better than Derrick Frost, but far from an elite NFL punter.

Defensive line: C+
Much of this grade is due to the play of Orpheus Roye, my uncontested defensive MVP of the team. He still managed tackles even though he was playing in a foriegn 3-4 scheme and getting double-teamed. Signing him is a top priority. What the d-line didn't do was consistently get the initial push into the offensive backfield, allowing the linebackers to penetrate for loss-tackles and sacks. Getting some more beef up front should cure some of that. Jerry Ball, where are you?

Linebackers: D
It's a tough grade because I saw them trying out there. Unfortunately, the linebacker corps is manned by Butch Davis holdovers, meaning many are too small and not strong enough to stop lumbering tight ends or running backs like Jerome Bettis. Andra Davis was the tackles leader for the team, but had only four for a loss heading into the season's final week. It might have been asking too much for Kenard Lang to drop 30 pounds and move to linebacker. He isn't mobile enough to play the position well. He needs to go somewhere where he can go back to being a defensive end in a 4-3 scheme.
This is where I put in my A.J. Hawk plug. Unfortunately, if the Browns stay at 14 in April's NFL draft, Hawk might be gone already.

Secondary: C-
This is also a tough grade. Injuries took their toll early on the defensive backfield. Gary Baxter was gone for the season by Week 6. Daylon McCutcheon also missed significant time recovering from some sort of vertigo. The emerrging bright spot late in the season was the play of corner Leigh Bodden, who smothered Cincinnati's Chad Johnson in early December. He did indeed cover No. 85 in 2005. Ask 85 himself.

Coordinators: Maurice Carthon, D and Todd Grantham, B+
With all the head coaching vacancies appearing in the NFL, I am becoming nervous about Grantham's longevity as Browns defensive coordinator. Grantham took what was supposed to be a team weakness and turned it into a team strength, new defensive schemes and all. His defense shut out the Dolphins, and held the high-powered Colts attack to 13 points in Week 3. He looks like a rising star in the NFL coaching ranks.
Carthon could soon be gone for different reasons. The Browns offensive coordinator looked overwhelmed at times in his first year as the sole pilot of his playbook. His play-calling was questionable to the end of the season, though some of that had to do with erring on the side of caution for the sake of Frye.

Head coach: Romeo Crennel, C+
The good: his team kept trying for 16 games, he is realistic in his analysis of his team, he doesn't jump to conclusions or let his emotions get the better of him, his players seem to respect him and want to follow him, he is a big reason why Phil Savage is still the Browns general manager.
The bad: he blatantly waffled on a first-string quarterback for several weeks, his leadership tactics appeared to lack strength at times. He oversaw an embarrassing 41-0 home loss to the Steelers, and met criticism of the game with a shrug, meaning he doesn't yet fully grasp what getting blown out by the Steelers means to Browns fans.

General manager: Phil Savage, B-
Given the choice between keeping Savage or keeping team president John Collins, any sane person should pick Savage. Stability is one of the foundation blocks to building a winner, and losing Savage would have destroyed that. Any other GM would have had a slightly (or much) different philosophy on building a team.
Savage's 2005 draft wasn't a barn-burner. Outside of Edwards and Frye, just about every other player spent the entire season flying under the radar. However, his free agent and trade class looks to be far better than anything Butch Davis ever concocted. Droughns is solid running back, Dilfer added stability to the offense at the outset, and safety Brian Russell finished the season strong with two picks against Baltimore.
A much clearer picture of Savage's work can be painted after next season, when the vast majority of the roster will be his acquisitions.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Setting the record straight

In light of recent events, most specifically the acidic reaction of Dave (Emperor) to my post, "Your Catholic duty," I think some things need to be cleared:

  • I am not an anti-Catholic bigot. I don't care who you root for, so long as you are rooting for the team because you want to, and not because you think you have to.
  • I might have overestimated the "Wrath of God" factor among Catholics. Granted, I do take issue with some of the archaic, ritual-based practices of Catholic masses, but that's my personal belief and not something I usually share on this blog. Most Catholics have very modern sensibilities, and (as in Dave's case), are Notre Dame fans except when playing the local favorite team.
  • A great portion of the post was hyperbole, and might have been equal parts funny or offensive depending upon the reader. Notre Dame, for example, probably couldn't raise enough money to build a new football center in two weeks simply by placing donation boxes in every Catholic church in America. They'd raise money, no doubt, but Notre Dame I'm guessing respects the practice of tithing more than that.
  • I think Notre Dame's standing among Catholics in America has been explained to me. Many Catholic fans identify with Notre Dame because it represents a part of who they are. I'm so city-centric with my allegiences that I guess rooting for a team because they embody your religion is kind of foreign to me.
  • I wasn't trying to stick it to Catholics in my post. However, with the Fiesta Bowl less than a week away, I was trying to stick it to Notre Dame and their fans a bit. But any malice wasn't mean to go beyond the scope of football, even in non-football references. I never intended to attack the institution of Catholicism, or the institution of Notre Dame. I do not have an "axe to grind" with Catholicism. Philisophical differences, maybe, but it hasn't stopped me from attending numerous Catholic masses with my girlfriend (who is Catholic by baptism) in the past year.
  • Lest anybody think I was dragging my feet in posting a response, I need to point out that my Internet access was limited to a virus-stricken laptop and a desk model from 1995 this weekend. In other words, I had no Internet access until I arrived at work today.
  • And, Dave, I have to point something else out. This goes all ways. If I have to be more sensitive to Catholics, you can't take me for a bleeding-heart when I say I can do without Chief Wahoo, the Indians logo. I am not offended personally by the logo, but if the Indians said tomorrow they were eliminating it in favor of another logo, I'd have no problem with it. Change can be good sometimes.
  • Dave, You spent Friday evening trying to tell me that offensive material is in the eye of the beholder. If my blog post is offensive to you, you have to be open to the idea that the people who protest Chief Wahoo are every bit as offended by that logo (which is far more public than my blog) as you were with my post. Blinding outrage to one person is "suck it up and quit whining" to another. It's all a matter of perspective.