Sunday, April 29, 2007

Signature Moves

There is a pulse in Berea after all.

Fans in Oakland or Detroit or wherever may be celebrating the picks of their respective franchises, but Cleveland fans are celebrating so much more, the return of a once proud franchise. And for that, they can thank a previously mild-mannered little heard from general manager out of Mobile, Alabama, Phil Savage.

This is really the reason fans in Cleveland today are celebrating, even if they don’t quite know that yet. The events as they unfolded during yesterday’s NFL draft were remarkable in so many ways that Browns fans heads are still spinning and for once in the right direction. First, Savage resisted the opportunity to take one of the most marquee players to enter the draft in a long time in favor of a guy who spent the day fishing. Even fans clamoring for the Browns to draft Wisconsin tackle Joe Thomas had to be amazed that it really happened, if only because they have become so used to the Browns (and any Cleveland sports team for that matter) doing the exact wrong thing. But just this once the Browns finally decided to address the most consistently worst offensive line in football organically by spending third-pick money on one of the least glamorous but most important jobs in football: left offensive tackle.

Second, presented with another opportunity to draft that marquee player, Savage didn’t flinch, getting Notre Dame quarterback Brady Quinn with the 22nd pick in the draft. The events that had to conspire to allow the Browns to seize that opportunity remain the top story line, not just in Cleveland but throughout the NFL. Naturally, it had a Cleveland connection as it was Miami’s drafting of Ohio State via Glenville wide receiver Ted Ginn, Jr. that allowed Quinn to slip all the way down to the 22nd pick. It cost Savage and the Browns a steep price, next year’s number one pick. But desperate times call for bold measures and sacrificing a number one pick for Quinn seems the much better and obvious play than, say, sacrificing a number one pick to draft Kyle Boller, which Baltimore did with Savage in tow in 2003.

But above all this, it was Savage who suddenly became the face and voice of a franchise so desperate for a face and a voice. Owner Randy Lerner rarely talks to the press and when he does it’s usually to say that he has nothing to do with the football operations. Head Coach Romeo Crennel has conducted any number of press conferences and interviews, but has the media presence of a television test pattern. Most shut him off immediately and those that do sit and stare do so more out of habit than interest. But when Savage left the podium in Berea yesterday after explaining what will forever be his signature move here in Cleveland, the feeling was palpable that if a transformation had not just taken place, it at least was started.

And whatever happens with Thomas, Quinn, and CB Eric Wright from UNLV, and whoever else the Browns get on Day 2 of the draft, the emergence of Savage will be the real story of this draft for Cleveland fans for years to come. Savage spoke passionately and eloquently about what a watershed day it was yesterday, saying, “This is a day that will go down as the day that the fortunes of the Browns turned. This is going to be one of those stepping-stone days.”

But it was what Savage said next which, while sounding like a defense of JaMarcus Russell, a player who hails from Savage’s home town and who Savage knows well, was really an insight into the sole of Savage himself. Taking the press conference into a seemingly completely different direction, Savage said “for me to see (Russell) bashed like he was for the last two and half months -- it's terrible. He emerged from that because he's that talented. To see what he had to go through and not be able to say a word about it, I will come to his defense today and say I think he's going to be fantastic in this league. I don't think it's right the way this process is set up. He's truly a franchise quarterback and he's going to do great.”

It seemed a little odd, initially, that Savage would use yesterday’s press conference as a bit of a bully pulpit in order to defend Russell and criticize the draft process that dwells more on negatives than positives as draft day approaches, but in the end it really said more about Savage. There was absolutely no economic incentive or advantage for Savage to talk up Russell yesterday. Certainly the Oakland Raiders general partner Al Davis wasn’t looking for and didn’t need validation from Savage or anyone else. But by coming to defense of Russell, Savage demonstrated a kind of character and courage that enabled him to make the decisions he made yesterday, even at the risk of his own professional life.

For now and for years to come, Savage’s trade with Dallas of next year’s number one pick to get Quinn will be scrutinized. And it will only get worse following next year’s draft when Dallas, or whoever they eventually trade the pick to, actually makes its selection with that pick. The careers of Quinn and Player X will be forever linked, much in the same way that Quinn and Ginn will be forever linked in the minds of Miami fans. For a kid like Ginn, who brought so much joy to Buckeye fans with his amazing speed and brilliant return ability, one can only hope that the pressure that he will feel from Dolphins fans almost universally disappointed in selection won’t define his existence in Miami. For Quinn, though, he suffers under no such pressure because the Browns addressed the wishes of fans split between Thomas and Quinn by getting them both.

But as to Savage, whatever pressure he was feeling, one thing is for sure, he wasn’t paralyzed by it. The defense of Russell and his willingness to stick his neck out at least as far as any Cleveland sports executive has in a very long time by forcing a dramatic change in the status quo in Berea is what likely will ultimately enamor Savage to Browns fans. In still a last bit of passion that he held in reserve after speaking about Russell, Savage was almost defiant in staring down the Gods who lord over Cleveland sports and ensure that any good fortune will immediately be followed by 7 years of bad luck, saying “it’s just ridiculous. I’m sick of it. We actually have a chance to do something. We’re going to do it. Just give us a chance.”

On other days and for other team officials, that would be a bold request. But given what Savage has accomplished, which, if nothing else, brought him and the Browns instant credibility, it didn’t seem like too much to ask.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Not So Safe Choices

You could go half blind and fully crazy trying to keep up with all the comings and goings of this year’s NFL draft. Maybe it’s because unlike many years, there is no national consensus as to who should be the number one pick. Maybe it’s because like most years, the Cleveland Browns find themselves in the thick of the top of the draft. Or maybe it’s because the NFL draft is the second biggest event in pro football, next to the Super Bowl.

Whatever the reason, one thing is for certain: if you’re not yet sick of hearing about the draft you soon will be.

But until most fans grow completely weary of the draft, which should occur somewhere around 6 p.m. Sunday evening, there is plenty to keep one interested. Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of this year’s draft is, as mentioned, the lack of consensus number one pick and how this impacts the Browns. As a result, whoever falls to the Browns at number 3 will have been number 1 on someone’s mock draft board and, naturally, will demand to be paid like the first pick in the draft.

Though there are nearly as many opinions about the best player in the draft as there are experts making those opinions, one player frequently mentioned as a likely number one pick is Jamarcus Russell, the quarterback from LSU. In a scene reminiscent of the Peyton Manning/Ryan Leaf and Tim Couch/Akili Smith scenarios several years ago, Russell is competing against Notre Dame’s Brady Quinn for the honor of being the first quarterback selected. Though he has been knocked around by critics for supposedly not winning enough big games in college, Quinn isn’t taking a back seat to anybody. In a story in this morning’s Plain Dealer, Quinn said, rather matter-of-factly, that “I’m the most prepared player for the NFL in the draft.” If nothing else, you have to admire his confidence.

Although not quite the consensus pick, the conventional wisdom is that Oakland is enamored with Russell and Detroit will do something stupid, leaving the likely scenario that Quinn will be there for the taking at number three. But the real question for the Browns is whether or not a quarterback is even their most pressing need. Frankly, given how poor the Browns line performed last year, it’s hard to know if either Charlie Frye or Derek Anderson are legitimate starters or better suited for perennially back-up roles. To the extent, though, that conclusions could be drawn based on the quarterback play of a year ago, you have to assume that in one way or another, the Browns will do something at the quarterback position it’s just a question of how quickly.

In many ways, even if Savage believes that a quarterback is among the most pressing needs, that doesn’t mean he will go that route. There are safer choices to make, Calvin Johnson and Adrian Peterson, for example. But if Savage sees quarterback as the best option in the first round, most seem to think he prefers Russell to Quinn because of his familiarity with Russell going back several years. The thinking is that if Russell isn’t available, then Savage is likely to go in another direction, say receiver (Johnson) or running back (Peterson). But should he? As the old saying goes, it ain’t bragging if it’s true and in this regard it is true that Quinn is as well prepared for the NFL experience as any quarterback candidate in recent memory. A column written by Pete Prisco for CBS Sportsline, provides some food for thought from a historical perspective.

While it isn’t quite perfect, Prisco makes the case that the comparisons of Russell to both Ryan Leaf and Akili Smith are worth making, particularly in the area of experience. Russell, like Smith and Leaf, was a late starter. By the time their college careers came to a close, Russell had 29 starts, Leaf 24 and Smith 11. On the other hand, Quinn and Manning both had 46 starts.

In other words, experience matters. Taken a step further, Prisco notes that the stats that matter, such as touchdown-to-interception ratio, while nearly the same for both players for their career, actually weigh more heavily toward Quinn when you consider only junior and senior years, which seems fair. In that regard, Quinn’s ration was nearly 5 touchdowns for each interception while Russell’s was slightly more than 2.5 to 1. So much for the argument that Quinn lacks accuracy.

While Russell has a much greater body of experience than did Akili Smith, it is hard to understand exactly why the scouts are drooling over him while simultaneously downgrading Quinn. Russell seems to have a stronger arm, but it’s not as if Quinn is a weak sister in that regard. Whatever one thinks of Quinn’s arm strength, it certainly is superior to that of either quarterback the Browns currently have penciled in as their starter and backup.

This isn’t to make the case solely that the Browns should draft Quinn so much as it is to make the case that should the Browns draft Quinn it would hardly be the biggest mistake they’ve ever made. Likely, it won’t even be in the Top 50. But is that enough of a reason to pay third-pick money to Quinn or can the Browns do better?

Ah, this is where the guess work really comes in because it’s not as if the Browns are one or two players away from greatness. And this is really the rub for Browns fans for they so want to believe that whoever the Browns draft first will be the difference maker. If only that were the case.

The NFL draft, in many ways, is like Christmas in April. You get a shiny new present or two and you feel like those trinkets will immediately make all the difference. But the Browns simply aren’t allocated enough presents in this or any other draft for it to make an immediate difference. The only way the Browns could assure themselves of getting immediate help is if they had the first 10 picks in the draft and the cap money to pay them all.

But since that isn’t going to happen, Browns fans need to fully appreciate that whoever is the pick in the first or the subsequent rounds will merely be pieces in a puzzle that isn’t likely to come together for a year or two, at best.

This brings us squarely back to Quinn. For the most part, the NFL isn’t a place for rookie quarterbacks. No matter what their preparation was in college, the pro game is much faster than anything they’ve ever experienced. Knowing that, many fans aren’t too keen on drafting a quarterback, even if he has the pedigree of Quinn. But it you accept the fact that the Browns aren’t going anywhere next season anyway, then why is Quinn such a bad choice? It could take him a year or two to adjust, but by the time he’s ready, the Browns will hopefully have more pieces in place to make it a truly competitive team. And if he really does have the right pedigree, then Quinn may just be that final piece that can put the Browns over the top when they are ready to win.

Look at it this way. Assuming he’s there for the taking, if the Browns don’t take Quinn, they still will likely select a skill player such as Johnson or Peterson. A slight possibility exists that they would further invest in the offensive line by taking Joe Thomas, but Savage may think it’s time to allocate his cap money elsewhere. Despite the skills that Johnson and Peterson seemingly possess, the Browns still won’t be any more competitive next year with either in the lineup, even if they improve to 6-10. In other words, the other holes that need to get filled still remain. But as it all comes together in a year or two as Savage envisions, what you have to ask yourself is whether either Frye or Anderson is the right quarterback when that time comes. Probably not.

If you need a comparison, look no further than the New England Patriots. They’ve managed to do just fine without having elite receivers or running backs, mainly because they have an elite quarterback. In fact, the Patriots have been a series of moving parts in many of their skill positions, except for quarterback.

The point is, if you use New England as the model, and hopefully Savage does, then taking Quinn makes a tremendous amount of sense. Peterson may be the next coming of Ladainian Tomlinson, but the Patriots have been successful with lesser backs. Johnson may be Randy Moss or Terrell Owens without the character issues but the Patriots have been successful with lesser receivers.

Unfortunately for the Browns, they’ve not been successful with anything. This draft gives them that opportunity. While Quinn may be, in his words, the most prepared player physically and mentally for the NFL in the draft, he may also be the most likely player that gives the Browns the opportunity to begin building the identity they need to compete in the long term, even if the short term success would be better guaranteed with a safer choice.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

If You're Not Part of the Solution...

Sometimes a coincidence is just a coincidence. Sometimes it’s the beginning of a trend. The challenge for Mark Shapiro, Eric Wedge and the rest of the Cleveland Indians is figuring out whether the rather mediocre play of the team to this point, particularly defensively, is just a series of coincidences or the continuation of a disturbing pattern that defined its disappointing 78-win season of a year ago.

When it’s early in the season like this, the information from which one is forced to draw conclusions is limited and hasn’t had time to settle. But the victors are often those who get out ahead of the curve rather than waiting until the definitive pattern is set. By then, it may be too late.

At this point, the Indians find themselves in frighteningly familiar territory, stuck in neutral and unable to gain any early season traction. Much of this is due to failures in the most fundamental aspects of the game. First, the Indians simply aren’t hitting in the clutch. Going into Sunday’s game, they were among the worst hitting teams in the American League with runners in scoring position, even with Travis Hafner finding a groove over the last few games. Second, when they do get on base they commit far too many embarrassing base running mistakes. Third, and perhaps most alarming, they continue to play incredibly poor defense.

As Indians fans saw with this team last year, starting pitching and scoring runs alone won’t get you to the playoffs. Heck, it won’t even guarantee you a winning record. You need a solid bullpen and good, if not great, defense. To this point, though, the bullpen seems relatively settled, the starting pitching average, the hitting poor and the defense abysmal. It’s no surprise, again, that they have shown themselves thus far to be merely an average team.

You have to think that the hitting will sort itself out, at least to the point that it’s the least of the worries. The early season injury of Victor Martinez destabilized the middle of the lineup and no one really stepped up to fill the breach. Recall that last year, Casey Blake and Martinez got off to great starts at the plate and this allowed the rest of the lineup to the time it needed to settle in. Though that hasn’t happened to this point this year, the return of Martinez to the lineup will help tremendously, given his track record. Hafner, as noted, has warmed up as of late after a terrible spring. Grady Sizemore has cooled off since his hot start the first week of the season but he’s the real deal and will hit .300, giving those behind him ample opportunities to drive in runs.

There are still some questions to be answered with respect to the offense, however, particularly with respect to players like Jhonny Peralta, Andy Marte and Ryan Garko. Shapiro and Wedge, too, need to figure out what to do with Blake. Playing him every day and watching his repeated failures at the plate to this point is eerily reminiscent of Aaron Boone last year. But again, there is enough pop in this lineup that to this point you have to believe the Indians will score enough runs.

But what of the constant base running errors? Hafner, a seasoned pro, ran himself into outs twice in Friday’s game. Others have done similarly, many times. Perhaps this is a string of bad luck but you can’t like the trend, particularly when one factors what is still the most glaring shortcoming of this team: defense.

Going into Sunday’s game, the Indians were the worst defensive team in the American League. Peralta has been credited with three errors, Marte four and Barfield two. And these are just the official errors. To anyone watching, there are many more defense lapses that weren’t labeled errors by generous scorekeepers but were every bit errors by omission. Barfield’s misplay of a pop up in shallow right field on Saturday was the perfect example. Venturing too far out of position to make a catch that was more easily made by right fielder Trot Nixon, Barfield was not able to make the play and Delmon Young was credited with a double. On the one hand, the official scorer likely felt that the difficulty of the attempted catch made it more reasonable to credit the batter with a hit. On the other hand, the failure of Barfield to beg off the play in favor of Nixon, coupled with Nixon’s failure to communicate that he was barreling in on the catch, made it an error of omission. But however categorized, it was a case of bad fundamentals as it led to two Devil Rays, both of which were technically earned but neither of which were deserved.

This kind of thing has happened repeatedly this season to the point that Shapiro and Wedge can’t simply hope that the situation will correct itself. It’s early, but Peralta doesn’t seem to have improved in the field. His range factor, which is the number of plays made per games at the position, is still a very mediocre 4.68. His zone rating, which tracks the location of balls hit into his zone and the ability to turn those balls into outs is less than mediocre at .824. Currently, he ranks 15th in the league in that statistic. This has to be alarming given Shapiro’s statements earlier that an improved Peralta is integral to the Iindians season.

Marte, someone whom Wedge assured the fans was a major defensive upgrade at third, has been even worse. His range factor is an appalling 2.13 and his zone rating is among the worst of all third basemen at .619. Barfield, another player whom fans were assured was a major upgrade defensively, ranks a paltry 18th among American League second basemen in range factor, though his zone rating is .900, putting him 7th in the league.

Finding meaning in such statistics is a favored past time of most GMs these days, including Shapiro and his band of statistical wonks that support him. But the statistics only tell part of the story. The tougher question that needs to be answered is whether mistakes were made in the assessment of the talent collected for this year’s version of the Tribe or whether it portends of something more serious. In particular, fans and Shapiro alike have to wonder why these same things keep happening to Wedge’s teams.

Wedge says all the right things during each post-game mortem. He appears visibly upset at the recurring defensive and base running lapses and he continues to promise to get it corrected. But the nature of the baseball season is such that there are few off days. That makes making in-season corrections difficult, at best. Sure, there is always time for additional hitting and batting practice, but unless a team is willing to send a player back to the minors, the learning is mostly on-the-job. Unfortunately for Indians fans, they’ve been forced to endure more than their share of players learning on-the-job.

But in the end, the question still remains: why do these things continue to happen to Wedge’s teams? Does he not place enough emphasis on fundamentals during spring training? Is he so interested in maintaining some sort of mythical team chemistry that he is reluctant to take any sort of action against the offending players? Is he unable to communicate with his players in a way that resonates and produces the intended results? Does he have the right coaching staff? It’s likely that there is no single answer to this lingering issue but there most assuredly remains a problem and to this point Wedge has not effectively corrected it. It may not be due to a lack of determination but instead a lack of ability.

When Shapiro named Wedge manager, it was an under-the-radar screen hiring because the Indians were in rebuilding mode. As a result, the fans asked few tough questions and made even less demands of him. But this season is the first time Wedge and Shapiro are no longer tethered by contracts of similar length. Shapiro recently signed on to another five years while leaving Wedge to labor under his old contract that has essentially two years left. This, more than anything else, seems to signal that Wedge is now being evaluated on a different matrix than in the past. Whether or not you are a Wedge fan, this heightened scrutiny is a welcome development.

Baseball is now in the golden age of the general manager. Thanks to people like Billy Beane in Oakland, managers have become, in the minds of many GMs, nothing more than mid-level supervisors. This systematic de-emphasis of their role has caused fans to place an overemphasis on the acquisition of talent, as if merely getting the players is all that matters. But though the job of manager has been devalued over the years, it’s still the most vital link between what happens in the front office and what happens on the field.

The offensive lapses of this early season may very well be merely a series of unhappy coincidences but given the repeated failures each season on the base paths and in the field, it is getting well past the time that this should be written off in the same way. It may be too much to suggest that Wedge is the real problem here but until he finds a way to reach Peralta, Marte and the others whose mistakes are now defining this team it also is not too much to suggest that he’s not been part of the solution either. And that, more than anything else, will determine not only his future, but that of this team.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Red Herrings

You may not ever be able to pin the exact time and place when the NFL Draft went from an administrative activity to an event, but a good starting point probably is the birth of Mel Kiper, Jr. The annual dog-and-pony show or meat market, depending on your preference, is now so big that it spans two days, is held at Radio City Music Hall in New York City and has spawned, thanks to the aforementioned Kiper, an entire industry whose sole purpose is to convince fans that they too can be a NFL general manager.

So it’s no surprise, of course, that the local media would be lock step with this approach. And this comment isn’t confined to the mainstream media, either. Any and every Cleveland sports web site/blog, including the where I’m a frequent contributor, treats the draft like a presidential election. We write countless stories and columns (like this one), conduct mock draft after mock draft and ultimately become convinced that if the Browns don’t draft X in the first round, we are in for 10 more seasons of ineptitude.

Well, the latter comment may be true given the ineptitude of the Browns since their return, but that’s another point for another day. For today, it is enough to marvel at the column inches devoted to Browns GM Phil Savage’s pre-draft press conference held on Tuesday.

This press conference was covered by everyone in the mainstream media. Despite the number of stories written about it, the essence of the conference can be distilled to one word: nothing. That’s nothing as in there was nothing that was said, there were no clues offered, nor did anyone leave with any better idea of what the Browns might do in the draft then they had before the conference started.

The real issue is why this is news at all. Did any reporter walk into that conference room thinking Savage might actually say, “Ok, people, listen up. Here’s our draft plans. We have the third pick. We were just on the phone with Mike Lombardi over in Oakland. He tells me that they are definitely taking Jamarcus Russell. Matt Millen over in Detroit says that he’s taking Calvin Johnson with the second pick. He said he figured that he may have screwed up picking other receivers, but Johnson is simply can’t miss. That means that we will have our choice of three really good players: Adrian Peterson, Brady Quinn and Joe Thomas. Right now, we’re leaning toward Adrian Peterson. That could change and if it does, I’ll let you know, but right now that’s our choice. Any questions?”

Of course not. But we and the rest of the fans and the league listen and re-listen to what Savage said looking for even the slightest clue into his thinking. While Savage offered no real insight into who the Browns might pick, he did use his platform to accomplish his real purpose: try to influence who other teams might select. This cloak and dagger stuff played by NFL general managers is perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the draft. Given the way the league is structured, draft choices are the crown jewels. Though the teams kvetch and moan about what they will actually have to pay the players once drafted, there is no question that they have all long since concluded that the key to a team’s sustained success is drafting well, year after year.

So the GMs do what they can to throw each other off the trail. If you didn’t think so, read between the lines not only of what Savage said Tuesday but what everyone else is saying. The reason, for example, that in one fashion or another a player’s stock tends to drop or rise around draft time has nothing to do with how that player performed at the combine or in private work outs. It has everything to do with teams’ general managers and other staff members purposely putting out misinformation in order to better the chances either that the same player they just trashed might fall to them in the draft or some other player they covet more will be available.

Savage is no different if you consider his comments Tuesday on the “Big 5” of the draft. There was hardly a ringing endorsement for any of them, save for Calvin Johnson. And, in many ways, the comments Savage made were just the parroting of what others have been saying for the last few weeks. Regarding Jamarcus Russell, for example, the comments were almost laughable. He said, in part, “I don’t have any questions about Jamarcus’ work ethic. I know it’s been a concern in terms of his weight.” The question is to whom, exactly has it been a concern? It certainly wasn’t to his former team, the LSU Tigers, whom he led with such aplomb that it made him one of the top players in the upcoming draft. In reality, it’s a concern only to those teams below Oakland who would like nothing more than to see Russell drop down to them. And in repeating this alleged concern, Savage became a participant in the scam hoping, apparently, that he at least has the chance to draft a player he clearly likes.

Savage’s comments regarding Adrian Peterson were similar. Despite an objectively impressive resume, many with a vested interest in having Peterson’s draft status lowered have been doing more than whispering that Peterson’s supposed upright running style could hurt him in the NFL. Savage said “he is a player who has somewhat of an upright style... The thing with Adrian, he's a home run hitter. He's going to have some runs of 0, 1, 2 yards and the next one might be 55 yards. He's definitely a guy who swings for the fences….I do think he's going to have to refine his style to a degree, to be a wiser runner. There are times he should just duck down and get out of bounds."

See what Savage did there? Just as with Russell, he sent the message to Cleveland fans that this is a top prospect while simultaneously telling them that he’s flawed so that the fans won’t be so disappointed if they don’t draft him and also telling the other teams listening in that the Browns aren’t in love with this guy anyway.

But lest anyone think that this game is only played on the downside, it’s not. Savage and his ilk also use it as a way of talking up players that they’d like off the board by the time they get to them so that they can draft who they really want without being criticized by the fans for not drafting the initial player. Calvin Johnson is this year’s poster boy for that approach.

Nothing about Johnson has changed since the season ended. He didn’t get bigger. He didn’t get faster. His hands are the same. Suddenly, or perhaps not so suddenly, you have folks like Savage talking up Johnson as the number one pick in the draft. At Tuesday’s press conference, Savage said of Johnson, “he’s a rare, rare physical prospect. There aren’t many of these walking around. People say why on Earth would the Browns take a wideout? The reason is that he affects coverage, too, and probably makes your running game better. This guy is a big-time talent. It wouldn’t surprise me to see him go No. 1.” In saying this, Savage just repeated a mantra that most fans who couldn’t pick Johnson out of a lineup are now saying.

These comments were not directed at the fans. They were instead designed primarily for the Detroit Lions and Oakland Raiders in general and Matt Millen and Mike Lombardi (or whoever is making draft decisions for Oakland these days) in particular. If Millen takes Johnson, then it’s just a question of who Oakland takes. If, as assumed, Oakland takes Russell, that will leave Savage with a choice of one of the top two quarterback prospects, or the top running back or the top lineman. And since he also just trashed Russell, he’s hoping that increased the chances that Russell will fall to him and the Browns.

But irrespective of whether it’s Oakland or Detroit that takes a quarterback, Savage wins in his scenario if he can get either of them (or another team who overpays to trade up) to take Johnson. Whether fans would agree or not, it’s at least clear that Savage would rather make his choice with Johnson already off the board. If that doesn’t happen, then Savage is faced with the possibility of also ignoring someone he just said could easily be the number one pick in the draft.

What really should not get lost in all this shuffle is that while the first pick generates all the noise, the issues with the Browns go significantly deeper. They are more than just one player away, to be charitable. Certainly the right pick in the third slot is critical to filling some of the team’s many needs, but it’s not the only answer. Instead, the real test of this or any other draft is what Savage does with the rest of his picks. This, more so than the first pick is likely to tell us more about how soon we can expect this team to become a factor in its division, let alone in the league, than anything else.

The smoke and mirrors, the deceptions, the red herrings that go up at this time of year make for great fun but are mostly irrelevant. Savage’s job hangs in the balance not on whether he picks Quinn or Russell or Johnson or Thomas but whether he can find other gems in the later rounds.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

The Real Value Analysis

The signing yesterday by the Cleveland Indians of free-agent-to-be pitcher Jake Westbrook is undoubtedly seen by many as proof that owners Larry and Paul Dolan are not the cheapskates that they often are portrayed to be. To be sure, the size of the contract suggests an unusually robust commitment to payroll that the Dolans, to this point, have been reluctant to demonstrate. But an article in Saturday’s Wall Street Journal, while not specifically mentioning this signing, nonetheless puts it into context and provides perhaps the best insight into the way GM Mark Shapiro really operates. And to those who still believe baseball is just a game and not a multi-billion dollar business, the way he operates may not bring them much comfort. (Note: The article is considered “premium content” and thus not available on the Journal’s web site without an on-line subscription. A copy can be obtained by purchasing the Saturday edition.)

According to the article, Shapiro and a former Pepsi executive turned baseball consultant, Vince Gennaro, are using a cutting edge analysis that places its focus directly on not just the player’s value to his results in the box scores, but to his potential impact on the team’s bottom line. It is the kind of analysis, as Russell Adams, the article’s author notes, that can easily result in a team being satisfied with profitable mediocrity rather than unprofitable success.

It’s not secret, as Adams writes, that teams these days are using all manner of statistical analysis to determine a player’s performance and hence his worth. That’s why teams chart everything from where fly balls land to “calculating complicated data-heavy metrics like ‘Wins Above Replacement Player (“WARP”).’” Call it the further outgrowth of the analysis Billy Beane and his “Moneyball” approach has brought to the game.

But to Cleveland fans, it is the use of this new analysis that is most intriguing, both because of its unusual nature and because Cleveland appears to be the only team currently fully engaged in the process. Adams notes in his article that the process was really an outgrowth of Gennaro’s time with Pepsi’s Midwest bottling operations headquartered in Cleveland. Apparently as the Indians were moving into Jacobs Field, Gennaro signed a contract with the Jacobs to have Pepsi replace Coke as the exclusive drink offered at the park. The contract was for $850,000 per year which was seen then as an above-market deal. However, with the Indians success in the early and mid-‘90s greatly increased its attendance and hence its revenue. When the contract came up for renewal, having exclusivity was now even more important because the on-field success would generate more sales. Pepsi ultimately paid nearly double, or $1.6 million a year, under its new contract.

This apparently validated a theory that Gennaro, a part time M.B.A. candidate, was working to develop—that there is a direct and quantifiable link between winning and revenue. That sounds simplistic enough, but as applied by Gennaro, who is now working directly with Shapiro, to players both on the roster and in the free agent market it allows the Indians to determine how the value of what they offer to a player will impact the team’s overall profitability. It’s not just a question of direct payroll costs as much as it is the embodiment of how much profit might be realized by investing in a particular asset, in this case a player. In this way, then, it’s not merely a question of whether the team’s payroll can sustain the signing of a particular player but whether that signing will ultimately improve or at least sustain profitability.

According to the article, Gennaro builds upon the widely accepted WARP formula (available at Note: Baseball Prospectus has some free content but is generally a subscription-based site). WARP attempts to quantify how many wins a team may realize by having a certain player rather than a theoretical below-average player. But Gennero then takes this statistic and translates it into revenue to determine the real dollar value to attach to a player. For example, if Player X can add 5 wins per the WARP formula and that means an extra $5 million in additional revenue, you then compare that to the cost of the player in the first place in order to determine his real value to the club. If his salary is less than the extra revenue his presence generates, you have an undervalued player. On the other hand, if a player’s salary exceeds the additional revenue his presence brings, then he’s overvalued. Thus, it is not just the salary of the player that is important; the key is the delta between salary and additional revenue.

While Adams’ article goes into a fair amount of depth about several players, he notes that Gennaro would only speak to him on the condition that they not discuss any players currently on the Indians roster, which is too bad. But in terms of the players they did discuss, Gennaro identified Derek Jeter as severely undervalued and Alex Rodriguez as overvalued. For example, Jeter’s WARP number is 10, meaning his presence contributes to an additional 10 wins vs. the theoretical replacement player. Each extra Yankee win is worth about $2.92 million (although how this number was reached is not disclosed) and thus Jeter’s value overall is $29.2 million. Because his salary is $22 million per year, he his undervalued per the formula at $7.2 million. A-Rod, on the other hand is worth about 6 wins, according to his WARP number. That translates to $19.3 million in additional revenue against a salary of $27 million, meaning that he is overvalued by $7.7 million.

Gennaro’s groundbreaking work has a great many implications, as Adams notes. For example, the differences in revenue between baseball teams are driven by two main components: attendance and broadcasting. If it’s true, and it certainly seems to be, that wins translates into greater interest in the team, then greater interest translates into increased attendance and higher ratings for both the team’s radio and television partners. When a team like Cleveland also owns the network broadcasting the games, higher ratings allows it to charge more for advertising. From there, it’s just a matter of calculating total revenue per win. Then if a player can be expected to contribute more wins then his theoretical replacement, you can then calculate how that translates into additional revenue to determine his real value to your ball club. Of course, the economics of each team vary greatly and, accordingly, so does the theoretical value of any given player.

To what extent Shapiro is using these metrics to make his decisions is left unsaid by the article but it is clear that it is a key component in his thinking. In Westbrook’s case, according to Baseball Prospectus, his expected win total is 13 a year but even more telling is that the team’s expected win total in games he starts is 17 and that the Indians should expect to win 54% of the games he starts. This means that Westbrook not only is a consistent winner but he also keeps his teams in the game even when he doesn’t get a decision. His WARP is in 2006 was a relatively high 6.4. What is unknown is the revenue per win number the Indians are using but one can easily conclude that the $11 million a year that Westbrook will receive provides an ample profit margin for the Indians. In other words, it is unlikely Shapiro would have signed Westbrook had his expected WARP in relation to his new salary projected him being overvalued out of the gate.

If you extrapolate this to two other key potential free agents, C.C. Sabathia and Travis Hafner, there are additional conclusions to draw. With respect to Sabathia, according to the Baseball Prospectus analysis, his win total is only expected to be one higher than Westbrook’s and the team’s expected win total in games he starts is the same, 17. But the team does tend to win 60% of the games started by Sabathia, which is 6% more than Westbrook. This translates into a couple more wins overall, assuming a similar number of starts. Not surprisingly, then, his WARP is higher than Westbrook, 7.0 to 6.4.

Unquestionably, then, Sabathia’s presence on the roster generates a few more wins for the Dolans and therefore can be expected to generate even more revenue than will Westbrook but that doesn’t necessarily mean that signing Sabathia is a more profitable move. The key will be the difference in salary that Sabathia might command. Considering Sabathia’s status, the Indians can realistically project that signing him will cost anywhere between $3-9 million a year more than Westbrook. This difference clearly eats into the additional revenue that would result from the additional wins Sabathia would generate and may ultimately make him overvalued and thus cause the Indians to take a pass on signing him. In fact, the argument could be made that finding another Westbrook at a similar price is the much better move, something that certainly must have crossed Shapiro’s mind.

Travis Hafner presents a similar dilemma for Shapiro. His VORP, or value over a replacement player, according to Baseball Prospectus, is 79, meaning he can be expected to generate about 79 more runs than the theoretical replacement. His WARP is even higher than Sabathia, at 7.2. Again, though, the key is the salary he can command measured against the additional revenue that would be generated from the wins that result if he remains with the club and performs as he has. Projecting this essentially two years in advance for either Sabathia or Hafner is a difficult task, one made even more difficult by the crazy signings by several teams this last off season.

And that is where the rub in this analysis lies. It helps one draw conclusions about which players to sign but it also creates as many questions as it answers. The Adams article points out that other teams are somewhat skeptical of this analysis for all the reasons that most would be skeptical of a purely analytical view of a player. As Adams notes, a team’s fortunes and thus its underlying economics vary from year to year and players who might otherwise be overvalued do bring other intangibles that may pay dividends even after a player is signed. Adams quotes J.P. Ricciardi, general manager of the Blue Jays, who while seeing some merit to the analysis, said that teams still have to occasionally bite the bullet in order to realize long-term revenue and win goals and “even to create a culture of winning.”

And that’s exactly the situation that Shapiro faces as he relies more and more on these kinds of metrics. The decision to sign Westbrook or anyone else is no longer just about Westbrook. It’s also about what Shapiro projects for the rest of the team during the years Westbrook will be in the fold. His current value is so much a product of the current make-up of the team. Change any of those parts and the economic analysis changes as well. For example, if neither Hafner nor Sabathia is signed and their replacements fall well below their productivity, the Indians will win less no matter how well Westbrook personally pitches. Thus what may look like a good value today could easily turn into a nightmare in a year or two. And that assumes that everyone remains healthy and performing as they have. Any number of injuries or other failures, whether by Westbrook or others, will also determine whether the Westbrook contract makes sense.

Today, many fans are rightly applauding the commitment by the Dolans to someone like Westbrook. But behind the scenes the signing wasn’t so much a feel good move by the Dolans to let the fans know that they are committed to winning so much as an icy business move that their best analysis tells them will make the team profitable. The questions that really need to be asked, though, relate to what the Dolans and Shapiro project the rest of the team to look like during Westbrook’s tenure. While Shapiro isn’t likely to offer anything more than generalities to such questions, it is the key to the signing and, ultimately, to whether Hafner and Sabathia will be retained as well.

But one thing is for certain. With Shapiro himself recently signed to a new 5-year contract, it signals that this is the way the Indians intend to conduct business going forward. Get used to it.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

It's About Time

All you ever needed to know about the difference between the way major league baseball and professional football are governed came this week.

In short order, the figurehead running baseball, Commissioner Bud Selig, scratched his head, wrung his hands, and addressed a freak early spring snow storm in Cleveland by sending the Indians to Milwaukee to play a home series, thereby depriving Cleveland fans of at least 3 home games. Meanwhile, NFL Commission Roger Goodell, fed up with a string of embarrassing incidents of off-field misconduct put his foot down on the litany of player misconduct and reconstituted the league’s conduct policy and sent its two poster boys miscreants, Adam “Pacman” Jones and Chris Henry, packing for the better part of next season.

In the first case it was just another in an embarrassing string of weak and poor decisions by one of the great thumbsuckers of all time. In the latter case, a commissioner running a major sport asserted his authority and literally dared anyone to disagree. The difference in leadership may not be the only reason one sport is healthier than the other, but it’s the main reason.

Consider the evidence. When steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs emerged as the issue threatening the integrity of major league baseball, its players and nearly every key offensive statistic in its record book, Selig was ever the man of inaction, so afraid that any move he might make would incur the wrath of union head Donald Fehr. As a result, baseball had a joke of a drug testing program that allowed steroids to run rampant and unchecked. Fehr winked as he hoisted himself and his clients on the podium of personal privacy knowing full well, as did everyone else, that the real motive was economic. Chicks not only dig the long ball, so do the fans and players who can hit it far or throw it faster make more money. After all, a high tide raises all ships.

Rather than take Fehr on, Selig has instead allowed Fehr and his misguided agenda to control the best interests of the game. It was only when Congress stepped in and literally threatened to eliminate baseball’s precious but antiquated antitrust exemption that the drug policy changed. Even with that, the policy is still a joke when compared to its counterparts in nearly every other sport, including amateur sports.

But this was hardly the only example of Selig’s spineless leadership or his handing over of the steering wheel to Fehr and the players union. Selig has never been able to negotiate a salary cap with Fehr despite its presence in every other professional sport. Likewise, he has not been able to use the gravitas of his office to convince the owners that revenue sharing is in the best interest of their sport. Instead, he wrings he hands, complains that this and every issue is hopelessly complicated and what the fans are left with is a situation whereby the New York Yankees can spend $189 million on players while the Tampa Bay Devil Rays have a payroll of $24 million.

The adoption of the unbalanced schedule in baseball, ostensibly to create better intra-division rivals has had any manner of unintended consequences and is responsible, in great measure, to what happened to the Indians this past weekend. Amazingly, the opening day weekend visit by the Seattle Mariners is the only time that team will be here all season! Same for the California Angels. Given that this is necessitated by an unbalanced schedule and inter-league play, it begs the question as to why both teams had to visit in April as opposed to having Cleveland open in either city where weather wouldn’t have been an issue. But again, Selig wrings his hands and complains that the issue is soooooo complicated. No one seriously expects Selig to ask the owners to shrink the schedule a bit in order to eliminate early April games or November playoffs, but he could at least take control over the schedule to the point where it’s not necessary to ask the players union for permission to add an additional day/night doubleheader or two. As strong as the United Auto Workers might be, they don’t get the right to determine how many cards the auto companies are allowed to produce.

Football, under first Pete Rozelle then Paul Tagliabue and now Roger Goodall, may not be perfect, but it’s never been the management mess that is major league baseball. The various commissioners always have maintained control over their sport in a way that must make Selig envious, assuming he could recognize the difference. Football’s drug testing system may not be as stringent as that used in the Olympics, but it’s significantly stronger than that in place in baseball and has been in effect for many more years. But the biggest difference between the two sports was starkly illustrated by Goodell’s moves on Tuesday.

Simply put, Goodell wasn’t paralyzed by inaction nor did he feel constrained by how the union might react. Instead, he put the hammer down on Jones and Henry and in the process sent a message to every person affiliated with the league that he is in charge and either this kind of conduct stops immediately or there will be sever consequences. And, more importantly, he didn’t wait to see whether the union would give him permission to shorten the leash. Upshaw’s comments to ESPN were the most telling. "The NFL Players Association and the Player Advisory Council have been discussing this issue for several months," Upshaw said to ESPN. "We believe that these are steps that the commissioner needs to take and we support the policy. It is important that players in violation of the policy will have the opportunity and the support to change their conduct and earn their way back."

Goodell’s approach was the polar opposite of how Selig would have handled it. Faced with a problem calling for decisive action, he discussed his concerns with the union but he didn’t wait for their permission to act. In asserting his authority, Goodell also essentially dared Upshaw to try to defend the indefensible conduct of a growing cadre of thugs in the league. Upshaw, a more pragmatic leader than Fehr anyway, didn’t dare take on Goodell over this issue and instead supported it. He didn’t complain or threaten legal action but instead embraced what was in the fans best interest. While this may something good about the kind of leader Upshaw is, it also firmly establishes that there is no question who is running the sport.

One can only imagine if Selig had this matter on his plate. Undoubtedly he would have talked tough to the press until Fehr essentially said negotiate or else. Selig would have then set up some worthless ad-hoc committee to make recommendations that would be ignored the next time the parties decided to get together at the bargaining table to negotiate a new collective bargaining agreement.

The situation with Pacman Jones in Tennessee is a national joke. The situation in Cincinnati, in other ways, is even more serious. And in both cases, action from the top was needed because in both cases neither ownership nor management was adequately addressing the problem. It wasn’t Jones’ first time to the rodeo and the same was true for Henry. Moreover, the number of players arrested on the Bengals no longer suggested coincidence but culture. With these suspensions and the concurrent tightening of league conduct policies, Goodell sent a message to both teams, and everyone else, that continuing to allow that kind of culture to exist will not only result in action against the player but also against the team. The most likely target will be draft choices. In a league where draft choices are treated like the crown jewels that will certainly get some attention.

In the end, Goodell did what he had to do. It’s refreshing to actually see that happen in professional sports.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Payroll Apologists

The headline was promising too bad the story didn’t live up to it.

In Sunday’s Akron Beacon Journal, an enterprising copy editor must have read only the first few paragraphs of Sheldon Ocker’s story about the Indians pathetic payroll and decided that the gist of the story was “If money talks, Indians are mute.” Unfortunately for that poor copy editor, he or she missed Ocker’s point. Beat writer turned team apologist Ocker essentially defended what has become nearly indefensible—the fact that the Dolans continue to drift further and further from funding the team at a competitive level.

Ocker’s story was on the heels of Terry Pluto’s column earlier in the week in which team president Paul Dolan suggested that the team is in a “win now” mode, has money to spend and that General Manager Mark Shapiro has the payroll flexibility he needs to make a deal he likes.

Pluto’s column was more or less an interview with Dolan and was presented simply as Dolan’s viewpoint. Fine. But it doesn’t appear as though Pluto really challenged much of Dolan’s assertions. But more on the Pluto/Dolan interview in a moment because more offensive was the column by Ocker who has gone from an enterprising, insightful beat reporter to a cranky, lazy team shill who probably should either be removed from the beat or start getting his paychecks directly from the team.

It is true, as Ocker notes, that teams with a lesser payroll can be more successful than teams that spend more. In making this rather pedestrian observation, Ocker mocks those who think otherwise, referring to his “e-mails and the learned opinions of talk-show callers” who believe that if the Dolans would spend more the Indians would be perennial competitors in the World Series.

What Ocker, and by proxy, the Dolans, doesn’t want to acknowledge is that it’s also true that when lesser spending teams are successful, it’s fleeting and still the exception and not the rule. Teams that consistently spend like the Yankess are consistently in the hunt, plain and simple. The Yankess might not win it all every year or any year, but they are always in the mix. Kansas City, on the other hand, never spends and is rarely competitive. In the last 17 years, they’ve had a winning record just four times. Even then, their high water mark was 84-78 in 1993.

Tampa Bay, another team that never spends, has never won more than 70 games since they entered the league in 1998. But since ending a four-year sub .500 streak that began in 1989, the Yankees haven’t come close to a having a losing record. In that time span, however, they’ve won 100 games four times, and between 95-99 games five times. Even the one team that seems to defy the odds on a regular basis, the Oakland As, have not won 100 games during that period. Ocker’s right, the fans are idiots. There is no correlation between spend and result.

But far more offensive than Ocker’s slam at fans who rightly question the Dolans commitment to consistently producing a competitive team is the exercise he went through to try to prove his point. He compiled a list of former Tribe players “many” he claims, were traded because they “made more money than the Cleveland market could sustain.” The problem with his list is that it is wildly inaccurate and in most cases doesn’t support his underlying premise.

The “fantasy roster” as he dubs it is the highest-salaried former Indians player at each position who, again, were discarded by the Dolans for money reasons. Of the former pitchers, only a handful meets those criteria. Most were unsigned free agents. And of those unsigned free agents, salary wasn’t the issue, effectiveness was. The salary casualties were clearly Bartolo Colon, Kevin Millwood, Bob Wickman, Danys Baez and Bob Howry. The suggestion that injured Jaret Wright, barely effective Scott Elarton, Julian Tavarez, Justin Speier, Jose Mesa, Alan Embree and Rheal Cormier weren’t signed because “the made more money than the Cleveland market could sustain” is laughable. The Dolans may be cheapskates, but this is hardly the list one would compile as evidence.

The same goes for the position players. Jeff Kent played exactly 39 games for the Indians in 1996. That was four years before the Dolans even owned the club. Brian Giles left in 1998, two years before the Dolans took over. Sean Casey was traded in 1997 again well before the Dolans’ ownership. Josh Bard, Aaron Boone and Kenny Lofton salary casualties? Hardly. In fact, in almost every case, the player Ocker identifies fails to even minimally meet the criteria set forth.

That’s the problem with being a team apologist. It requires you to bend and stretch reality to fit the talking points. Having set up a ridiculous straw man of an argument, Ocker rightly concludes that this “fantasy” team would not be superior to the current Cleveland lineup. But far more useful is considering which of the actual salary casualties should not have been and then add them to the current roster and determine whether or not the Indians would be better off.

On this score, the results are far different. Colon is a legitimate number one starter, but his trade did yield two starters: Cliff Lee and Grady Sizemore. Moreover, if the Indians are in good shape anywhere, it’s starting pitching so that salary dump, while painful, has worked out fine and shouldn’t be revisited. Millwood is a different story. He wasn’t a salary dump but the Indians decided not to pursue him out of salary considerations solely. Keeping him would only have cost the Dolans money, $9.8 million to be exact. While starting pitching is strength, a rotation with Millwood would make the Indians even stronger. Of the relievers Ocker chose, the three that were salary casualties, Wickman, Baez and Howry, all would make the Indians much stronger. Of the position players Ocker names, only Omar Vizquel was really a salary casualty. The jury is still out on Jhonny Peralta, his replacement. Certainly the Indians would have been much better off last year with Vizquel at short. In fact, Vizquel’s presence would have solidified a shaky defense that cost the Indians a winning record.

Thus, assuming Millwood, Wickman, Howry, Baez, and Vizquel had been signed, it would add about $30 million to the current payroll. However, the net addition to payroll would be about half that when you lop off the players on the current roster they’d replace, such as Jhonny Peralta, Joe Borowski, Roberto Hernandez, Aaron Foltz, Jake Westbrook or Paul Byrd. Thus, that would put the Indians 2007 payroll at, roughly, $75 million, which would place them 17th in the league and third in the AL Central, well behind Detroit and Chicago and just slightly ahead of Minnesota. You could take this exercise a step or two further by throwing in Jim Thome, but that would probably put the payroll in the top 15, which is too much to ask of current ownership.

No one is saying that the Indians should have the highest payroll in the league. But they shouldn’t have among the lowest, either. But the frugality of the Dolans, to put it generously, is why the Indians find themselves these days on the outside looking in.

As for Pluto’s interview with Paul Dolan, it’s easy for Dolan to say that the Indians are in a win-now mode and have payroll flexibility when the season is young and there are no trades to make. The real test, which the Dolans have failed in each year of their ownership, comes in late July when the trading deadline approaches. But while Pluto didn’t take a similar disdainful view of the fans in favor of an ownership that has failed these fans, neither did he do much to challenge the assertions of Dolan on behalf of the fans.

For example, Pluto didn’t seem to push Dolan on his claim of a $69 million payroll when the true 25-man payroll is $8 million less, or about two Bobby Howrys. And while Pluto gave Dolan a forum for recounting all the coulda woulda trades and acquisitions that the team has tried to consummate but did not in the last few years, Pluto never asked the harder question of why it is that Shapiro can never seem to get the deal closed.

There is no question that any difficult issue is imbued with a variety of perspectives. Baseball economics certainly falls into that category. But the most telling aspect of the Pluto interview was Dolan’s admission that luxury suite sales are down, precipitously, as is attendance. In the end, that is the most visible evidence that the fans are fed up with the product and its prospects under this ownership. Simply spending more may not be the only answer, but if you’re compiling a list, it’s in the top two.

Friday, April 06, 2007

Hughes Disappointment

If only the weather outside really did match the calendar. Then the Cleveland Cavaliers miserable loss on Thursday night to the Miami Heat would not seem so significant. But unfortunately for the Cavs, it’s April, not June, the playoffs are around the corner and the nagging tendencies that have kept this team from fully achieving all season take on an added significance.

Back in mid-February, just as the NBA All Star break was approaching, we noted that the Cavs were on pace to win 48 games. With just six games left, the Cavs need to go 3-3 to make that happen. In other words, the Cavs haven’t put on the late season surge that many expected. As a result, they will end up slightly worse than last season when they won 50 games.

This is troubling for any number of reasons. First, it contrasts sharply with last season. As most will recall, following last year’s All Star break the Cavs were a very streaky team that ultimately became a good team. They had a five-game losing streak and another three-game losing streak. But they also had a four-game winning streak and an impressive late-season nine-game winning streak, something they haven’t achieved this year. Moreover, they were 19-10 after the break last year and need to go 5-1 in their last six games this year to equal that mark. In their final 17 games last year they were an amazing 14-3 and were clearly headed in the right direction come playoff time.

This season, they are a very average 14-9 since the All Star break and need to go 5-1 in their last six games just to equal both last year’s post-break total and last year’s season win total. It could happen but the signs don’t look encouraging. With just a handful of games remaining, unless they win them all the Cavs enter the playoffs on much different footing than a year ago.

Another reason all this is troubling is that it is an almost total repudiation of GM Danny Ferry’s off-season strategy to stay the course. The thinking was that a healthy Larry Hughes and another year of seasoning for a young team coming together were bound to result in more wins. Hardly. While many want to point to LeBron James’ numbers being slightly down from a year ago as the culprit, the real problem has been the poor play of Larry Hughes, a high-priced free agent from Washington who just hasn’t panned out.

While Thursday night’s loss to the Heat was a team effort, the final play in overtime told the story. Needing a three-point shot, head coach Mike Brown had Hughes throwing in the ball from the sideline. As expected, the Heat was playing tight defense and Hughes had trouble finding an open man. With the five-second clock in his head ticking down, Hughes panicked and threw an ill-advised pass completely across court that was easily intercepted. Game over.

In Brian Windhorst’s game story in the Akron Beacon Journal, he rightly notes that James once again had the ball in his hands at the end of the game and couldn’t convert. He also rightly notes that it’s hard to pin the blame on James considering his 35 points and 9 rebounds as well as his 9 clutch free throws in the fourth quarter that helped key the comeback in the first place.

Strangely, though, Windhort never mentioned the terrible inbounds pass by Hughes or the fact that, once again, Hughes was generally a non-factor. While James is clearly the engine that drives this train, Hughes is a key piston who has been misfiring all season.

For example, Hughes is only shooting 39% from the floor this year, down from his career average of 41%, which itself isn’t all that impressive. James gets criticized repeatedly for shot selection but he looks positively Larry Bird-like in comparison to the junk that Hughes consistently attempts. Hughes’ three-point shooting percentage is 33% this year, up from a career average of 29% but for his career he averages about 2 three-point attempts per game so this statistic is relatively meaningless. But where Hughes is really hurting the team is at the free-throw line. Much has been made about James’ troubles, but it is Hughes who is hurting the team more. Hughes is hitting only 68% of his free throws, down from his career average of 75%. Contrast that with James who is hitting 70% this year versus a career average of 73%. Moreover, since March 1, James has raised his average, hitting 76% from the free throw line while Hughes is hitting only 69%, essentially the same as he has been doing all year. James has clearly turned up his game a notch and Hughes continues to founder.

Certainly the Cavs problems this year shouldn’t all be pinned on Hughes, but it should be remembered that in a way he, more so than James, was counted on to help get this team over the hump. James has played at a consistently high level for all four years of his career. Although there is still room for improvement in his game, it isn’t that great. For the golfers out there, it’s like trying to go from a 1 handicap to scratch.

Hughes, on the other hand, is like the 8-handicapper that everyone thought would become a scratch golfer. Instead he’s turned into a 14-handicapper at a time when the Cavs need him most. Instead of validating a stay the course strategy, Hughes play has highlighted a gaping hole that needs to be filled if this team is ever going to contend for a NBA championship. This is perhaps is really why his play is most troubling. Hughes has thus far demonstrated that that any faith in his ability has been misplaced, which more than anything, spells trouble heading into an off-season where the Cavs have no draft picks and precious little cap room.

Thursday, April 05, 2007


One downside of the length of the major league baseball season is that it is often difficult to drawn any conclusions for weeks, unless you happen to follow the Washington Nationals, in which case the only issue is whether they will challenge the ’62 Mets for incompetence. Teams can go 1-10 and recover, though that was hardly true of the 1987 Indians, and teams can go 10-1 and fall apart, like the 2002 Indians.

This is why the beginning of the baseball season is such a frustrating tease. The Indians opened the game in Chicago and beat up on the White Sox 12-5. Two players that struggled mightily in spring training, Travis Hafner and Grady Sizemore, led the offensive onslaught. On Wednesday, the Tribe once again topped the White Sox, this time 8-7. Again, Sizemore was a key contributor, hitting another home run. But Sizemore certainly won’t hit .400 for the season or hit 162 home runs, his current pace. Victor Martinez is hitting .750 after two games and threw out a runner at a crucial point in the game. But what can we really infer from any of this? Does it mean that Hafner’s and Sizemore’s spring training slumps have ended or is this just an aberration? Does it mean that Martinez has suddenly turned into Ivan Rodriguez? If the Tribe loses the next three games will fans suddenly wring their hands and assume this will be a long year?

While we’re weeks if not months from understanding what turns this season might take, it was nice to see the Indians win the first game of the season, something they haven’t done since 2002. If they go on to win the AL Central they can say they went wire to wire, like the White Sox in 2005. But beyond this small bragging point, there really is very little to be gleaned by early season victories or losses.

But that doesn’t stop us from trying. For example, the performance of Hafner and Sizemore, given their track records, probably indicates that we can expect more of the same. It is encouraging that Martinez threw out a runner so early in the season, if only for his confidence. It also allows us to consider what to make of Joe Borowski’s performance in the two games. His role as the anointed closer makes him one of the keys to the season. His mop up duty in game one wasn’t very impressive. He gave up two runs in one inning of work, which was the only blemish in an otherwise flawless game. His save on Wednesday was a high wire act reminiscent of Bob Wickman at his most aggravating. But again, does this portend anything for the season?

Trying to find insight so early is hardly a Cleveland hobby, however. In Chicago, a column in the Chicago Sun-Times following the loss to the Indians dispelled any suggestion that White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen’s job is in jeopardy. If you’re left wondering why such a notion needed to be dispelled there are probably a couple of plausible explanations. First, maybe the loss just aroused a latent concern among White Sox fans about Guillen that had been lingering since the Sox fell short last year despite seeming to have the best talent in the division. But this seems like a rather ridiculous premise so soon into the season so the more likely explanation is that Chicago has too many sportwriters with too little to do. In a pinch that seems to well explain away most of Bill Livingston’s columns in Cleveland.

As defending World Series champs, St. Louis would seem to have little reason to have any concerns by its early season offensive slump. But because they’re defending World Series champs, it was incumbent upon ESPN to have its underpaid interns dig through the record books to find out the last time a defending champ lost its first two games and scored two or less runs. As it turns out, such opening day futility hasn’t happened since 1943. But the postscript is that it was the Cardinals, coincidentally, who set the prior mark and that team ultimately went on to win 105 games and successfully defended its National League title, rendering an interesting footnote mostly irrelevant. So much for trends.

But sometimes the hand-wring is well justified. The aforementioned Washington Nationals are simply terrible. While not technically mathematically eliminated from the playoffs just yet, their opening-day loss was ugly and was followed by an equally ugly loss the next day. Conclusions can and should be drawn.

The Nats feature some promising young players but field a team so almost totally barren of major league talent that it makes one wonder why the D.C. area keeps begging for a baseball team if this is what they get. Tom Boswell, in today’s Washington Post, got it just right when he observed: “The brightest memory of the day was a 10-foot Teddy Roosevelt mascot soaring down a cable from the top of the right field roof to win the Nats' daily Presidents' Race. Teddy -- shut out in 2006 -- watched the top of the fourth from the top of RFK as [John] Patterson got bombed, [Nook] Logan got hurt then limped slowly off the field and one Nats disaster followed another.” Hopefully Boswell left something in reserve because one way or another it will be a long season for fans and press alike in the nation’s capitol.

Another poor team, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, suffered a similar fate, taking it in the shorts on the field and in the press opening day. Brendan Roberts, writing for The Sporting News, called the Devil Rays opening day performance, in which they lost to the Yankees 9-5 a “microcosm” of the entire team. But really, when you consider the definition of “microcosm”, as Roberts apparently did not, it seems like an awfully poor use of the word. Perhaps in retrospect Roberts’ observation might turn out to be correct, but with only one game in the book, it’s a little premature, to say the least, to consider the loss representative of what the team will be like for the season. At this point, it’s merely a prediction. But props to Roberts anyway because if anything is a microcosm it was his column. It exquisitely captured the insane practice of trying to discern patterns before they can be set.

Harry Schulman of the San Francisco Chronicle saw no reason for perspective in discussing the shut out the Giants suffered on opening day. Schulman wrote “the offense was comatose, Barry Bonds was tagged out at home on the Giants' best chance to avert the dreaded Opening Day skunking, the defense let Zito down at a crucial time and the young bullpen was porous.” While technically a description, it reads more like an epitaph, something that likewise seems just a tad premature after only one game. But when you have to cover Barry Bonds on an everyday basis, a little displaced anger is understandable.
Finally, you have this column from Richard Justice of the Houston Chronicle following the Astros opening day loss to Pittsburgh in extra innings. The loss was pinned on Brad Lidge, who blew the save opportunity in the ninth. Justice, apparently no fan of Lidge at this point, said “Lidge has had enough chances. Garner shouldn't allow one player to drag his team down. That's the lesson of this opening night, a night when a one-run ninth-inning lead turned into a 4-2 loss to the Pittsburgh Pirates in the 10th inning.” If one save opportunity on the first day of the season constitutes enough chances, one wonders how badly this guy would have excoriated Eric Wedge last season after he trotted out Fausto Carmona as the closer for the third time in a week.

In the end, the reason these kinds of columns and stories get written is not so much out of laziness but because it appeals to our inner need to know now how the season is going to turn out. If only that were the case. For one thing, it would limit our gambling losses. For another, we could order post-season tickets now it it’s supposed to go well or free up more time for golf if it’s going to go bad. But the real allure of baseball is that it generally defies our needs in that regard, which is really a good thing for the best part of baseball is the mystery, hope and drama that develops over its 162 chapters.

Monday, April 02, 2007

Unfinished Business

Monday may be the opening of the 2007 baseball season but there is other, more pressing business that needs to be taken care of first.

The Ohio State Buckeyes play in another national championship game against another team from Florida. The Buckeyes beat the Miami Hurricanes for the 2002-03 football national championship and were humbled by the Florida Gators in the 2006-07 football national championship. Tonight the Buckeyes take on the Gators for the 2007 basketball championship. Apparently there are two centers of the college sporting universe: Columbus, OH and the state of Florida.

The differences between George W. Bush and the rest of the country pale in comparison to the differences in attitude of Buckeye fans today versus the their attitude heading into the BCS Championship game just a few months ago. Then, the Buckeyes and their fans were borderline arrogant, dismissing any chance that the Gators might have of crashing the planned victory parties. Now, the fans, if not the players, are apoplectic at the thought of losing again to Florida, giving the Buckeyes precious little chance to prevail.

Not being prone to predictions, the only thing that bears mentioning is that the Buckeyes have been an incredibly resilient team during this year’s NCAA tournament much to the consternation of most NCAA pool participants and media geniuses.

Somehow the Buckeyes found a way to come back from the dead against both Xavier and Tennessee. This only convinced most to predict their demise against Memphis. Of course, Ohio State responded by playing one of their best games of the season.

The intelligentsia responded to this odd turn by favoring the lower-seeded Georgetown Hoyas in Saturday’s semi-final game. The Buckeyes were so intimidated that they took control early in that game and basically never relented, despite Greg Oden’s foul trouble in the first half.

Naturally, this only resulted in the experts, in near unison, giving the Buckeyes no chance in tonight’s game. It tends to remind one of Urban Meyer and the Florida Gators last season and how they finished the football season. Each time they survived, and there were significant scares, it just gave others reasons to pick against them, as if finding a way to get the job done is a negative. Florida carried that chip on its shoulder into the national championship game and never looked back.

Florida is a very good basketball team. They have a national championship-winning coach who, once again, has them peaking at the right time. They way they handled the Buckeyes earlier in the season and UCLA on Saturday night, who many believed to be the second best team in the country, makes it difficult to pick against them. It tends to remind one of the Jim Tressel and the Buckeyes and how they finished the football season by handling Michigan. Of course, the success and the ensuing accolades only made the Buckeyes fat and happy, believing that victory against Florida was inevitable.

Florida hasn’t had to sit on ice for 50 days like the Buckeyes did at the end of the football season so they’ve not had to listen to how great they are for all that long. Still, there is enough talk of a dynasty and the supposedly feel-good story of players who decided to remain in college to make them at least consider the possibility that the Buckeyes probably don’t deserve to be on the same court. If nothing else, it makes for interesting theatre, assuming you like yours of the Greek Tragedy variety.

It would be nice if the theatre surrounding the Cleveland Cavaliers was that interesting. Instead, it plays out like a bad high school musical. The victory against the Chicago Bulls on Saturday could have been season-defining if they didn’t go out and pretty much undo most of the good they accomplished by then losing to the hapless Boston Celtics the next night. This is the difference between good and great teams and good and great coaches.

If one considers just the last few weeks of the Cavaliers season, it pretty much tells you anything you need to know about their flaws. On March 7th, they beat the Detroit Pistons in Detroit. But on March 20th they lost to Charlotte. They drilled the New York Knicks a few nights later but then lost, handily, to a very average Denver Nuggets two nights later, at home. They beat the Indiana Pacers but then somehow lost to those same, pathetic New York Knicks the next night. This was followed by the alpha and omega of this past weekend with Chicago and Boston.

Head coach Mike Brown will tell you that the Cavs seemed to have lost their defensive edge somewhere along the scenic path. He has vowed to return to the basics in any upcoming practices, assuming he can fit them in considering their current schedule. But it does beg the question and make one wonder why the Cavs have lost their ability to defend at the time of year they need it most and ponder who, exactly, is responsible for it.

The Cavs are in the midst of what should have been their easiest five-game road trip in recent memory, one in which they could solidify a much easier playoff path. Winning all five games was very realistic, particularly if the Cavs are to be an elite team. Instead, they are 2-2 headed into their game with Minnesota on Tuesday. It’s hardly the scenario that most envisioned or one that serves them well with the playoffs just around the corner.

Still, like the Buckeyes, the Cavs are in the mix. The fact that the discussion is debating how elite of a team either is only underscores the otherwordly nature of the discussion overall. It’s not as if fans are arguing about when either team is going to be competitive as they do with the Browns or whether success will be defined by spare parts and retreads as they do with the Indians. Both are solid teams with true superstars and while neither may have enough to get over the top this year, you have to like the trends. And for Cleveland fans, that is something we haven’t been able to say very often, ever.