Saturday, May 30, 2009

Pittsburgh and Detroit - Stanley Cup Rematch

So, this doesn't happen too often. The last time was 1984. A rematch in the Stanley Cup finals. The best team for over a decade vs. the young upstarts who have two of the best players in the game today. I'm so excited for this series, I can't even describe it. I love the way both teams play (as much as I hate Detroit, they are very talented), I love the skill level, I love the toughness involved. This is going to be great. Here are three keys to the series:
1. Marc-Andre Fleury. Probably the most important part of this years' playoff success for Pittsburgh has been the play of Fleury. He has had some softies, but always has rebounded with a mental toughness he didn't seem to possess last year. He will have to fight through Detroit's screens, and they are good at them, in order to survive.
2. Detroit's health. Datsyuk, Lidstrom, Ericsson have missed time, and while Lidstrom is going to be back (Ericsson too?), Datsyuk is a game time decision. The Red Wings were able to get past the Blackhawks without those players, but the Penguins are in a different class. They are much deeper and talented than anyone the Red Wings have played so far.
3. Coaching. Specifically Bylsma. He is a rookie coach, but brought this team out of a mid-season slump which had them out of the playoffs to the Conference Finals. He's the real deal, but Babcock and his team won the year before. Should be interesting.

Honorable Mentions: Detroit's "Going to the net", Pittsburgh's added toughness, Malkin's presence, Hossa's defection.

Before these playoffs, I wasn't that impressed with Crosby. I preferred the flash of Ovechkin and Sid the kid seemed almost dull in comparison. I know why now. I never watched him that closely. His drive and determination are so impressive. He and Malkin are the real deal. I've been won over. I'm officially a fan. Despite the fact that Detroit is a powerhouse, and most peoples' pick, I'm picking Pittsburgh in 7. I hope that they can rub it in Marian Hossa's face for picking the wrong team. I hope that the league's new superstars can hoist the Cup. Most of all, I'm hoping for a great series, and I doubt I'll be disappointed.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Thoughts on the Rangers

I know it's been a long time since I posted, but between a baby, school, a new job, and the goal of running a freakin half marathon, I haven't had time. Instead of 110%, I've got about 2%. It'll just have to do right now.

For the last two years, I've given ridiculously optimistic outlooks for the upcoming Ranger season and then watch them come out and play like crap. So this year I don't have the time to really write anything and they come out of the gate playing pretty well. At this point, they are 8 games over .500 and 3 games ahead of the Angels in the AL West (after winning the first game of the double header with the As they are now 9 games over. Good times.) A pretty heady place for this team to be at this point in the season. Unfortunately, the point is still May. It's a long way from October and the dog days of July and August that have killed so many good Ranger teams are still a month away.

It's probably good that I didn't write this review last week right after they swept the Angels and Mariners at home. After getting swept by the Tigers in Detroit and losing 2 of 3 to the Yankees (surrounded by a sweep of the Astros which is really no great shakes), I'm not real giddy about the Rangers right now. In fact, I'm not real sure how to feel about the Rangers right now. I should be feeling good, but I think I've been burned more than a couple of times. Perhaps I'm waiting for the other shoe to drop. Anyway, here are some things I like and dislike about this team as it is presently constructed.

1. Elvis Andrus and the defense. The clearest improvement of the Rangers is the defense. Andrus over Young is an upgrade at short. Young over Blalock/ Davis/ Metcalf/ Vazquez is an upgrade at third. Davis over Blalock/ Shelton/ Catalanotto/ Broussard is an upgrade at first. Kinsler and Saltalamacchia have both improved in their defense. We know the pitching needs an upgrade, but a good way to help a pitching staff is the shore up the defense. How many plays has Andrus made that Young couldn't have caught with a net? Those are outs that the team didn't make last year. And Elvis has been much better than expected. Everyone thought he'd be able to flash the leather, but he has more than held his own at bat, being the rookie leader in on base percentage, slugging and batting average among qualifiers. Remember he's 20. He'd be the 3rd youngest player in AAA. Wow.

2. The arrival of Derek Holland, the Rangers #2 prospect according to Baseball America. In past years, top Rangers prospects (especially pitchers) could be sorta like being called the prettiest ugly girl at the dance. Not anymore. Holland is for real. It feels so good to hear about a top pitching prospect, see him come up (after not being traded), and have him not puke all over himself. His first two starts have been pretty good against the Astros and just ok against the Yankees. But he is apparently for real. It's not too crazy to think that he'll be the #2 starter next year. I mean a real live #2, building up to #1 soon. Not a #4 thrust into a #2 role because they don't have anybody else.

3. The pitching in general has been better, especially the starters going deeper into games. The deeper a starter goes in a game, the less the soft underbelly of the bullpen is exposed. Make no mistake, the worst pitchers on a team are in middle relief. The less they pitch the better. Last year, the main Ranger middle relievers, Josh Rupe and Jamey Wright, pitched so often that their arms almost fell off. Hopefully the trend of working deep into games can continue.

What I don't like.
1. Strikeouts. I am concerned about the Rangers offense. Whenever people talk about the Rangers, it's always, "Oh, you know they'll hit, but what about their pitching?" Well, the Rangers offense has been less than stellar. Ian Kinsler, Josh Hamilton, Hank Blalock, and Chris Davis have each performed under expectations with Davis striking out at a record pace. Over the last couple of weeks or so he has been the consummate all or nothing (mostly nothing), home runs and strikeouts. And the team in general just does not work counts or walk that much. The more you work the count the quicker you get into the sorry parts of the bullpen. I wonder if the Rangers need to look for another hitter who can work counts. Maybe they miss Milton Bradley more than they might have imagined. Don't get me wrong. The Rangers still have a strong offense and they can really beat the living daylights out of bad pitching. But they sure made Dontrelle Willis look like he was back.

2. The Bullpen. I bet every time Jon Daniels hears the song Upgrade U by Beyonce, he thinks, "I really need to upgrade my bullpen." Frankie Francisco has been awesome, but C.J. Wilson is the reincarnation of Mitch Williams, Darren O'Day was a waiver claim this year, Jason Jennings hasn't been good in like 5 years, Eddie Guardado is now a member of the Doug Jones Hall of Fame (Dan Rosendahl knows what I'm talking about- an 80 mph fastball), and if Kris Benson pitches again for the Rangers then someone needs a CAT scan. If the Rangers could add just one thing for the stretch run, I think it should be a real live 8th inning guy. How about Huston Street or Chad Qualls? Just throwing a couple of names out there. Perhaps the solution resides within the organization right now. Maybe Neftali Feliz can be the 09 Rangers version of Francisco Rodriguez.

So, there you go. My expectation is that the Rangers stay in the race the rest of the year. They have a chance to make the playoffs for the first time in 10 years, but they may also collapse in August as happened last year and 2005.