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I want Vladimir Guerrero to be a member of the Nationals’ Ring of Honor

(via Reuters)

(via Reuters)

As the headline of this article plainly states, I want Vladimir Guerrero to someday become a member of the Nationals’ Ring of Honor. One of the key words in that statement, of course, is “want.” We all want things and in most cases the things we want aren’t subject to scrutiny and don’t require any kind of defense. There’s not much risk of being chastised for saying you want a heaping plate of hot wings and a cold beer. But this particular want, by its very nature, feels like it warrants some explanation and a fair stab at proving, all personal feelings aside, that it isn’t completely absurd.

Before I dig too deeply into the personal reasons and proposed evidence for why putting a player who never actually donned a Nationals jersey into the franchise’s Ring of Honor makes sense, I have to share some of my fundamental beliefs. It’s probably best to start with this: I’m a Big Hall guy. I’ve read the arguments for why the National Baseball Hall of Fame should be more strict or liberal with admission, I’ve weighed the opposing philosophies, and I’ve decided where I stand. I’d vote Pete Rose, Barry Bonds, Rafael Palmeiro, and Roger Clemens in without a moment’s hesitation. I believe baseball fans are discerning enough to let history — the good and the bad — be the ultimate judge. We don’t need asterisks to guide us. This is a relevant opinion and, more importantly, it’s also one that isn’t going to change (at least not in the foreseeable future).

The second fundamental opinion that I’m not wavering on is that I’m completely in favor of the Nationals honoring their complete lineage, which includes 36 seasons as the Montreal Expos. If you think the Expos don’t have any place in Washington, that’s fine. But I disagree (and so do the official record books that outline the franchise’s history).

Similarly, I embrace the Nationals’ paying tribute to the history of the Senators, even though the team moved from Washington to Minnesota in 1961 and became the Twins, and the Negro leagues’ Homestead Grays. The way I see it, honoring the Expos is akin to saluting the history of the franchise and honoring the Senators and Grays is paying homage to the history of the city. I’m comfortable with and in favor of doing both.

So then, why campaign on behalf of Vladimir Guerrero instead of, say, Tim Raines? The latter played in more games as an Expo (1,452 across parts of 13 seasons) than Guerrero did (1,004 games over eight seasons) and is at least on the brink of getting into the Hall of Fame, an accomplishment that went a long way towards earning Andre Dawson and the late Gary Carter their ticket into the Ring of Honor at Nationals Park. In 2008, in Raines’ first year on the Hall of Fame ballot, he received only 24% of the vote. Seventy-five percent is required for induction. However, earlier this year, Raines received 52.2% of the vote, an upward trend that suggests his canonization will come eventually. Being that Raines played the bulk of his career in Montreal and put up his most productive seasons there, it only makes sense that he’d go into the Hall as an Expo and, well, that’s precisely the path Dawson and Carter took to receiving their placards in DC.

If you follow that logic, the next question becomes whether or not Guerrero’s playing career merits enshrinement in Cooperstown. It’s an important question that I’ll come back to, but first allow me to answer why I’m inclined to push for Guerrero specifically.

I’m pushing for Guerrero for about the simplest imaginable reason: he’s been a personal favorite dating back to 1998, the year he burst onto the scene in Montreal with 38 home runs, 109 RBI, and a .324 batting average. (His slash line that year was .324/.371/.589, but I was 13 in 1998 and “slash lines” weren’t really a widely circulated metric then.) I was drawn to his five tool skill set, his propensity for swinging — and hitting — pitches no matter where they were located, and his relative anonymity.

So, yeah, I want Raines to have a place in the Ring of Honor as well, but I don’t feel any sense of personal investment to broach making a case for him.

In 1998, the Expos stunk. They went 65-97 and hadn’t sniffed the postseason since 1981. They’d seen players leave for other cities and become superstars, they played in a stadium that might as well have been a parking lot with bleachers (the despicable playing surface of that park, by the way, did a number on Vlad’s back and legs robbed the man of a lot of his speed), and damn it, that dump of a stadium was in Canada. None of my peers paid attention to the Expos and when they would occasionally come up in conversation it was as the punch line of a joke. So for me, latching onto Guerrero was like discovering an incredible band that no one else had uncovered yet. He started amassing All-Star selections in 1999 and his numbers only got more inflated, but for whatever reason, he always seemed to be sliding by under the radar.

During that 1999 season, my father and I took a trip up to another decrepit mass of ballpark — Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia — specifically to see Guerrero and the Expos play the Phillies. I collected his baseball cards, Starting Lineup figures, and even had one of these toy trucks. Actually, I think they’re all stored away in box somewhere.

The point is, in my own personal baseball history, Guerrero is a central figure. When he became a free agent in October 2003 and flirted with the Baltimore Orioles, I went to sleep at night salivating at the thought of my favorite player signing with my hometown team. I rooted for him so fiercely and with such devotion that even when he chose the Anaheim Angels, one of a handful of teams that I’ve always felt a sense of loathing toward, I continued cheering for him individually. I love that he had a resurgence for the Texas Rangers in 2010 and was thrilled when he signed to play in Baltimore a year later, even as a 36-year-old player who was clearly beyond his prime.

Of course, if getting into the Hall of Fame is a prerequisite for a spot in the Nats’ Ring of Honor — and you can safely make that assumption given Dawson and Carter are in and Raines is not — all of this is moot if Guerrero’s career doesn’t get him to Cooperstown.

In July 2010, Baseball Reference laid out the arguments for and against Guerrero being inducted and included a poll for their readers to vote on. It was posted in the midst of Guerrero’s minor renaissance in Texas and before his respectable final season in Baltimore, so some of his counting statistics have been padded since the post first went up, but nothing particularly compelling happened to sway matters one way or the other (the Rangers did win the American League, so if you give players credit for team accomplishments, there’s that). Of the 2,661 people who voted, 1,757 (66.03%) would induct Guerrero based on his numbers at the time. Another 25.82% said “probably yes” and only 67 people total said “no.” It’s an admittedly small sample size, but at least it suggests that I’m not letting my personal attachments get in the way of common sense.

So let’s say he gets voted into the Hall of Fame. Here’s the next dilemma: Dawson, Carter, and even Raines retired well before the Nationals debuted in Washington. The same is not true of Guerrero, who signed with Anaheim a year before the move and played his final seven seasons in a world where the Nationals existed and the Expos did not. Whereas it would have been impossible for Dawson or Carter to put on a Nationals uniform and play in DC, Guerrero theoretically could have made ties with the team under their new identity. He faced the Nationals 10 times in his playing career, in fact. But after leaving Montreal, Dawson played against the Expos 111 times and Carter opposed his former team 79 times. Plenty of players go on to face franchises they used to play for and it doesn’t erase any of their lineage. Just because one of those franchises happened to relocate while a player’s career was still ongoing doesn’t mean the evaluations need to be different. Equivalently, Dawson was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2010 — five years after the Expos moved to DC — and the cap on his plaque is still adorned with the Expos’ logo. Baseball history is quite powerful.

But while Dawson had arguably his greatest season as a member of the Chicago Cubs in 1987, he still played in far more games across more seasons with the Expos, and so the cap selection is easy to justify. Guerrero, on the other hand, played 1,004 games for the Expos and another 846 for Anaheim (who would eventually undergo their own identity change, becoming the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim in 2005), but arguably reached greater individual heights with the Angels, winning the 2004 American League MVP Award.

You could probably argue that if Guerrero does make the Hall of Fame and is enshrined with an Angels cap, his bond to the Expos organization is cut enough to sever even the remote chance of a nameplate in Nationals Park. Fair enough, I suppose.

But here’s perhaps the most compelling reason for Guerrero to be immortalized by the franchise: the official Washington Nationals record books, as alluded to earlier. Guerrero is the franchise leader in numerous categories and, in fact, heads more categories than Carter or Dawson.

Nationals Single Season Franchise Records Held by Guerrero:

Consecutive games played (276; 1998-99)
Batting average (.345; 2000)
Slugging percentage (.664; 2000)
OPS (1.074; 2000)
Hits (206; 2002)
Multi-HR games (8; 2000)
Runs batted in (131; 1999)
Intentional walks (32; 2002)
Total bases (379; 2000)

Nationals Career Franchise Records Held by Guerrero:

Batting average (.323)
Slugging percentage (.588)
OPS (.978)
Home runs (234)
Intentional walks (130)

The numbers speak for themselves and, frankly, whether you’re a proponent of the Nationals honoring their Expos lineage or not, the record books are what they are. They weren’t officially wiped when the organization relocated and, as I mentioned earlier, baseball fans are savvy enough to take the facts of history and frame them however is appropriate for them. The Nationals used to be the Expos. That’s an indisputable fact.

(via The Score)

(via The Score)

Now, do I honestly envision a day where Guerrero’s name is entrenched beside Carter and Dawson’s? Not really. Even being generous, it’s a long shot. But for my money, the framework of logic is in place to make it happen and, as someone who thinks wholeheartedly that baseball has the richest history of any sport and should make every effort to tap into that history, it’s a move I’d unquestionably support.

Of course, we’re talking about one of my all-time favorites here and I want what I want, after all.

ED. NOTE: This post is cross-posted and initially appeared on Red Porch Report.

The Harper/Trout/Machado debate: why choose?

I think ESPN’s culture of sitting a few obnoxious personalities behind a desk and having them shout at each other about every middling, redundant sports story has has clouded our collective reason. Or maybe its that the rise in popularity of social media has made it too easy to rush to opinion — or, worse, to feel obligated to have an opinion about each and every thing. Let’s just step back and calm down, shall we?

One of the great things about being a sports fan is that there’s always a debate to be had. You can whittle even the slightest managerial decision down into a multi-faceted back and forth if you so choose. And often, these debates are civil, fun, and quick to be left in the rear view mirror. But sometimes the same topics get trumpeted so relentlessly that we’re driven to the point of exhaustion. Or, to keep from projecting my own neurosis onto you, I should say that I’m driven to the point of exhaustion.

Case in point: Yasiel Puig has played in 38 Major League games and yet everyone seems to have him all figured out already. Post a general question about him on your Twitter account and within seconds someone will tell you with utmost certainty that he will regress to a level well below that of a replacement player. Wait a few moments longer and someone else will insist that he hasn’t even hit his stride yet and will end the season with a statistical line unlike anything we’ve seen before. And while there’s a case to be made on either side of the argument (and for all the gray area in between), it’s difficult not to wonder if even having these debates — or at least having them with such regularity and ferocity — is just getting in the way of what we should really be doing, which is enjoying the talent of a player on a tremendous run.

At the very core of sports lies the basic principle that we, as fans, want to be entertained. If we’re not being entertained in some capacity, what are we doing here?

Of all the recent debates that have bun run through the sports world’s spin cycle, the one about our own Bryce Harper, the Baltimore Orioles’ Manny Machado, and the Los Angeles Angels’ Mike Trout is the one that’s left me feeling the most worn out. By now, you’re familiar with this debate. It’s pretty simple: three incredibly talented young players that, for whatever reason, every major sports media outlet has decided we, as fans, should be choosing between. Who would you start your franchise with? Which guy will have the better career? It was a fun and even reasonable discussion to have at first, but enough is enough. Do we really have to revisit it each month like its some kind of presidential approval poll or national census? It’s nauseating now.

In those three players alone, we — the entertainment seeking baseball fans of the world — have at our disposal a wave of talent that could end up defining an entire generation of the sport. They’re that good. And so why must we insist on focusing so heavily on which one we prefer over the other versus, say, watching them play as often as we can and enjoying what they’re doing on the field? If you ask me, we’re depriving ourselves of what matters most for the sake of an utterly meaningless argument that can provide only limited mileage.

The worst part about this argument is that it has urged on some truly asinine lines of logic. Every single time this contention is rehashed on television or the internet, some genius asserts that Harper’s no good because of “the way he plays the game,” implying that he plays too hard and, as a consequence, is too much of an injury risk. Just think about that for a moment. Here we have a baseball player with potential that compares to some of the greatest players to ever put on a uniform, and we’re faulting him for giving too much effort. Are the people spouting that nonsense the same ones who years ago bashed Manny Ramirez for practically walking down the first base line on ground balls in the infield? Because if we’ve reached the point where we’re casting stones at players who give minimal effort the same as those who give everything they have on every single play, then perhaps we should just pack it in now.

As far as I’m concerned, Harper has just as much a chance of getting injured as Trout or Machado. We’re talking about premiere athletes here, the oldest of which (Trout) will turn just 22 in August. Why are we even attempting to project their long-term health? Just look at a player like Ken Griffey Jr, who was maybe the most gifted ballplayer I’ve ever seen but lost so many opportunities due to injuries. To me, the “Harper plays too hard, he’s going to get hurt” angle is just a brand of manifest destiny. We should want our athletes — whether they play for our team or not — to have long, prosperous careers. Anything short of that is bone-headed.

The bottom line is this: I love watching Machado play baseball. Speaking purely to the defensive side of the game, I don’t think there’s a more enjoyable player to watch in the entire league. He makes even the most difficult of plays look routine in ways that I can’t recall since — I don’t even know — maybe Griffey, Torii Hunter, or Omar Vizquel. And this says nothing of the offensive prowess that his him on pace to challenge Earl Webb’s record for doubles in a season set way back in 1931.

And as for Trout, well, he pretty much single-handedly validates my MLB.tv subscription. As much as I love watching Miguel Cabrera bat, I don’t often see that he’s on deck and switch over to that game. But I do for Trout. I love that he can beat you in an infinite number of ways, I love that at any moment he can turn a routine single into an exhilarating double, and I bask in knowing that every single at-bat presents an opportunity to create an indelible memory. In my mind, even though I’ve long since found the team he plays for to be repugnant, he’s the most exciting player in baseball right now.

And it should come as no surprise that Harper — though he’s played in just 197 regular season MLB games — has already established himself as one of my favorite players. There’s no doubt it helps that he plays for the Nationals. But being in constant awe of his raw power, incomparable bat speed, and super-human baseball instincts goes long way too. There hasn’t been a player with a ceiling this high in many, many years. And that “run until they tag you” mentality that some smarmy baseball fans are quick to cite as a fault — or, worse yet, confuse for youthful arrogance? I love it.

It doesn’t matter which one of these guys I’d prefer as the centerpiece of my franchise. At least not now. It used to be — for a little bit, anyway — a fun conversation to throw my two cents into. But not anymore. In the context of this ongoing meditation, I couldn’t care less that Machado plays a premium position, that Trout has already amassed a borderline ludicrous statistical resume, or that Harper has been gracing magazine covers as the next great baseball icon since the age of 16.

I’ll tell you what: if you want to keep circling the drain with this debate, have at it. I’ll be busy watching all three of these guys play and enjoying every second of it.

ED. NOTE: This post is cross-posted and initially appeared on Red Porch Report.

Take a deep breath: just two left on the West Coast

Amid a sea of seemingly bad news, here’s the good: the Nationals just have two games left against the Giants in San Francisco before finally — and perhaps mercifully — this nine game West Coast swing comes to an end.

After losing a three game set against the Los Angeles Dodgers and splitting a four game tilt against the San Diego Padres, the Nationals dropped last night’s series opener against the defending World Series Champions in particularly unceremonious fashion. The offense amassed just three hits against Ryan Vogelsong, who entered the night with an unflattering 8.06 ERA. Zach Duke, making his first start since 2011, was pummeled to the tune of four earned runs in just 3.1 innings of work. And that wasn’t even the worst of it.

Prior to last night’s game, reports surfaced that Jayson Werth — who turned 34 yesterday — had suffered a setback in his recovery from an injured hamstring. But of course, Bryce Harper, who was injured at the front end of this road trip running full force into an outfield fence, returned to the lineup, so if we can embrace the good than we can certainly absorb the bad, right?

Well, what if the bad news was to multiply?

On Sunday, reliever Ryan Mattheus was knocked around against the Padres for five runs in just one official inning of work. But it wasn’t until yesterday that we learned of the kicker: after the game, Mattheus punched his locker and broke his hand in the process, a mental lapse that has sent the 29-year-old to the disabled list and further complicated the Nationals’ ongoing bullpen struggles.

To accommodate the loss of Mattheus, the Nationals have recalled relievers Fernando Abad and Yunesky Maya, a pair of pitchers with plus-5.00 ERAs lifetime (but Abad throws Southpaw, at least), while sending down outfielder Eury Perez to allow for the team to carry an eight man bullpen. The unfortunate side effect of having to scramble to patch together a bullpen due to a freak injury: the team is now short a bat, a blow made more significant by the team’s laboring to score runs.

For a team just narrowly perched above .500 (23-22) in spite of enormous expectations, its been rough week-plus to swallow. But here’s a positive anecdote to cling to until the Nationals return home to battle the Philadelphia Phillies later this week: on this date a year ago, the Giants were also hovering a game over .500 (21-20) and sitting in second place (though they were seven games behind the Dodgers). That’s the great thing about baseball. It isn’t always about where you’ve been, but where you’re going.

Good news, Nats fans: just two more games and our boys will be putting the West Coast behind them and heading home.

ED. NOTE: This post is cross-posted and initially appeared on Red Porch Report.

If the Orioles and Nationals could address only one position each via trade…

Just one week into the month of May, it’s a fun time for baseball fans to be speculative. Teams have played right around 20% of their season’s games, so there’s been enough at-bats and innings pitched to begin honing in on each team’s strengths, weaknesses, and needs.

At the same time, it’s too early for most fans to be in panic mode. Last season’s World Series champions, the San Francisco Giants, were a cool .500 (14-14) on this date a year ago. The Orioles had the best record in baseball at 19-9 and the Houston Astros, who would finish an abysmal 55-107, were sitting in third place in the NL Central. The season is long, winding, and unpredictable, which is part of the reason baseball is such a fun sport to prognosticate.

With that in mind, I’ve recently found myself tinkering with ideas for what moves the Orioles and Nationals, who are 19-13 and 17-15 today respectively, could make to bolster their rosters in preparation for a postseason run. These brainstorms are nothing new for me. When I was a kid, the MLB trade deadline was like a holiday. It represented an opportunity to fantasize without limit, which was almost assuredly made easier by being too young to understand the intricacies of the game’s front offices (and, in some cases, the basic intelligence of potential trade partners). There wasn’t a single July that I didn’t whip up the recipe for Ken Griffey Jr’s acquisition by the O’s. I still regularly have dreams of the Orioles swapping Jake Arrieta and a few marginal prospects to the hapless Miami Marlins for Giancarlo Stanton.

But it’s one thing to focus on the game’s superstars and hallucinate scenarios where their services somehow become attainable. It’s another thing — and sadly, it’s become the more normal thing for me — to think of what could realistically occur. The Seattle Mariners weren’t going to trade Griffey to the Orioles in, say, 1996, when I was 11 years old and had his poster clipped to the back of my bedroom door. He was already too good, had too much untapped potential, and was far too integral to the success of the organization. He was transcendent. It was a fun idea to salivate over, but get real.

To reel things in a bit, the question I’ve been asking myself lately is this: if the Orioles and Nationals could address just one position each via trade, what position should they target and which players at that position would meet their needs? It’s a tricky question, because both teams could afford to strengthen two or three different roster spots. But here’s where my thinking is today…

—–

The Nationals are two games above .500, but their record should probably be better. To this point, there are four separate issues that have robbed the team of wins: Stephen Strasburg’s slow start, defensive miscues, offensive inconsistency, and a shaky bullpen. The majority of these issues are likely to be remedied over time.

Though Strasburg is off to a disappointing 1-4 start and has struggled early in nearly every game he’s pitched, his ERA+ is still just shy of where it was before being shut down last season. His strikeouts are down by more than two per nine innings, but the rest of his numbers are in line with where he was last season. Even at his most dominant, Strasburg is a guy that throws a lot of pitches and exits games early. The only thing that’s changed this season is teams have had more success cashing in on their opportunities. It’s been a problem, but it’s not of the variety that can be corrected by a roster move.

The same could be said of the team’s early defensive blunders and offensive erraticism. As of today, the Nationals have racked up 26 errors, which is the worst of any team in the Major Leagues (the Orioles, who have committed 10 errors as a team, sport the league’s third-lowest total). They committed 94 errors all of last season, good for eighth-best in baseball. They retained Gold Glove first baseman Adam LaRoche and added renowned defender Denard Span to patrol center, so they have essentially returned and then improved upon last year’s defensive talent. Ryan Zimmerman and Ian Desmond have been the biggest error-makers, with five and seven respectively. To put that in perspective, over a full 2012, Zimmerman had 19 errors and Desmond had 14. They’re on pace for roughly 60 errors between them, which reeks of sample size distortion. Desmond in particular will never be mistaken for a Gold Glove defender, but my bet is he’s closer with the leather to last year’s records than those of 2010, when he committed 34 errors.

The Nationals have also struggled to hit in unison, meaning that every time one player heats up (Bryce Harper, Desmond), another goes into a horrific dry spell (LaRoche). Like their early defensive woes, this is a problem that good teams tend to correct across the extensive timeline of a season. Besides, the Nationals don’t really have the room in their lineup for another bat, especially if we agree that Danny Espinosa isn’t going to bat .185 and slug .370 all year.

So what position do the Nationals need most?

In my opinion, the answer is easy: relief pitching, specifically of the left-handed variety.

Today, the Nationals’ lone left hander in the bullpen is Zach Duke, who has already thrown more innings this year (14.1) than last (13.2) and given up 10 earned runs. If you exclude his limited Major League duty a year ago, Duke hasn’t turned in an ERA under 4.00 since 2005, his rookie season with the Pittsburgh Pirates. When you have a player occupying a roster spot solely because he throws Southpaw and in ignorance of his ability to get hitters out, you know there’s a screaming need.

So what players should the Nationals target?

When you’re a contending team looking to add a missing piece, the easiest approach is to scour the teams at the bottom of the standings. A team in direct competition with you for the playoffs isn’t going to help address your weaknesses. The other key is finding a team with a surplus of players at the position you need and, if you can find a guy among that surplus whose maxed out his potential, that’s all the better. The connotation of “maxed out potential” is negative, but really that just means finding a player who has plateaued versus one that’s still ascending. Teams always hold tighter — or, in other words, demand more for — players whose best days are ahead of them. Glossing over the league’s bullpen situations, the one that jumps out at me the most is that of the floundering Toronto Blue Jays, who at 11-21 are presently the second-worst team in the American League. They’ve also got a player who fits the bill perfectly: 42-year-old lefty Darren Oliver.

In the seven seasons prior to this year, Oliver has thrived in the bullpens of the New York Mets, Los Angeles Angels, Texas Rangers, and Blue Jays. He’s consistently chipped in 50 or more innings per season in that span and hasn’t posted an ERA worse than 3.78. In 2010 and 2011, he notched the best ERA+ seasons (194 and 207) of his career. And, in case you misread it the first time, he’s 42… years… old. Precisely what incentive do the Blue Jays have to keep him around, especially given that 25-year-old lefty Aaron Loup seems poised to take his role?

The reality is this: prior to the 2013 season, Nationals manager Davey Johnson, who will step into a front office role after the season, poignantly declared this a “World Series or bust” campaign. There’s little argument that the Nationals aren’t a team built to compete for many seasons to come, but they’ve also made no attempt to disguise that they want a championship this year. Oliver’s name doesn’t send shivers of excitement down the spines of any Red Porch faithful, but his skill set would fill the team’s most glaring hole and likely wouldn’t take significant compensation to pull off (would any Nats fans object to flipping Henry Rodriguez straight up for the veteran left-hander?). If the Nationals run into the St. Louis Cardinals again this post-season and Johnson needs a lefty to escape a jam, would you rather he call on Oliver or Duke? The choice seems obvious to me.

Still, it’s a strange thing to put a 42-year-old reliever in the trade market cross hairs, but I think that mostly speaks to the overall talent of the Nationals’ roster. And how often have we seen the quiet, unassuming trade end up paying greater dividends than the one for the name brand superstar?

—–

The Orioles are winning games in 2013 in much the same way they did in 2012: home runs (with 39, the O’s rank fifth in all of baseball), erratic, bend-but-don’t-break starting pitching, and a highly effective bullpen. But even as the wins mount, it’s tough to look at the depth chart and not feel as though the voids are plentiful. Does anyone look at the starting rotation and imagine those players leading the team deep into the post-season? Though Orioles fans trust Buck Showalter implicitly (and with good reason), is anybody else living in a constant state of anxiety about the Ryan Flaherty-Nolan Reimold-Steve Pearce chunk of the batting order?

Both of those bits of the roster have me concerned, but it’s that last one that has me downright mortified.

Despite the way they play, the Orioles are still, in fact, an American League team. As crucial as pitching and defense is, you have to be able to put things together offensively at some point along the way if you want to win a World Series, and it’s difficult to imagine how that happens with Flaherty starting at second and the duo of Reimold and Pearce alternating at designated hitter. Flaherty’s hitting .125, Reimold is clinging to .200, and Pearce is hitting a comparative Ruth-ian .235. Batting any combination of these guys in the eighth and ninth holes is the equivalent of batting your worst hitter and a pitcher at the bottom of the lineup, as National League squads do. Its frightening.

The first question you have to ask yourself when deciding if the Orioles need starting pitching or an offensively competent player is this: is Brian Roberts going to come back soon and stay healthy? Because if that happens, Flaherty goes back to drawing just the occasional start for the benefit of his glove and we can all turn our attention elsewhere. But at this point, it’s difficult to imagine Roberts staying healthy for an extended period of time. Doing so would be an extraordinary gamble. It’s unfortunate, too, because if Roberts could just stay healthy now, he could help to redeem that entire four-year, $40 million contract that has resulted in a grand total of 118 games played dating back to 2010.

Think about it: when Roberts signed his new contract, the Orioles were riding a decade long wave of failure. That 2010 team he signed to play for boasted Felix Pie and Ty Wigginton as every day starters and invested more than 60 starts in Kevin Millwood and Jeremy Guthrie. Alfredo Simon was the closer. Garrett Atkins was at one time a glimmer of hope as a reclamation project. That Oriole team, to no one’s surprise, lost 96 games. So what, exactly, would a healthy Roberts have accomplished in the grand scheme of things?

But if Roberts could finally stay healthy and productive for this year’s team, it could make a legitimate difference. He’d be starting for a team battling for a playoff spot. If he could chip in — just this once — you could overlook those three injury-riddled seasons of $10 million invisibility.

The redemptive narrative is nice to think about, but I just can’t bet on it. And if I can’t sell myself on Roberts staying active, I can’t help but think the Orioles need to find someone who can to help bolster the bottom of what is otherwise an impressive, at times daunting lineup.

So the Orioles’ biggest positional need is second base then?

Yep. I think so.

Flaherty is most certainly a plus defender, but let’s not kid ourselves into believing his defense is the ultimate game changer versus a second baseman who will hit, say, .270 with 20-25 home runs and average defense. Those are numbers, by the way, that neither Reimold or Pearce are likely to obtain, meaning this theoretical second baseman could be plugged in as a designated hitter occasionally, which would allow the team to continue to benefit from Flaherty’s defensive prowess (or to take advantage of the few days where Roberts is healthy enough to play).

So which second basemen should the Orioles target?

I should preface this suggestion by noting that it wasn’t my idea originally, but was instead planted in my head by a friend who knows the game well. Having said that… how about Chase Utley?

The Philadelphia Phillies are a sad reminder of what time can do to a baseball team. In 2008, the Phillies won a World Series with a core of Utley, Ryan Howard, Jimmy Rollins, and Cole Hamels. After winning their ring, they’d go on to add Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee, and then Michael Young a year ago, in search of reaching the pinnacle once again. Instead, the Phillies are an old 14-18 team with more injury risk than upside and the third-highest payroll in baseball. Sure, at just four games below .500, it’s conceivable that the Phillies catch some momentum and storm into the post-season. The composition of the roster suggests that this year may have been a last grasp at doing just that. But by July, chances are at least equally as good that this bunch will be in the NL East’s rearview mirror and mostly vanquished from the wildcard race. And if that’s the case, why not begin selling off parts?

At 34-years-old, Utley hasn’t topped 30 home runs since 2009, which was not coincidentally the last time he made it through a season without significant injury. Ergo, if he can stay healthy, he can produce. Like Roberts though, Utley’s health is of perpetual concern. But he’s hitting .263 with six home runs and 21 RBIs (Flaherty, Reimold, and Pearce combined are hitting .179 with six home runs and 19 RBI*) as he plays out the final season of a seven year, $85 million dollar extension signed back in 2007. There’s clearly some gas left in the tank, and the offensive upgrade from Flaherty to Utley would be astronomical and seemingly worth it even with the defensive decline. Plus, again, Utley could oscillate in and out of the DH spot, which might be just what he needs to stay upright through the end of summer and into October.

* I want to isolate these numbers a moment because they may just be the epitome of Moneyball. In 84 less at-bats, Utley is just five hits behind three players combined, two of which are used primarily as designated hitters. However, the home run and RBI totals are essentially equal and Utley has drawn just nine walks all season, whereas Reimold has drawn 10 total and the trio has combined for 21. Utley is being paid $15 million for this year. Meanwhile, Flaherty, Reimold, and Pearce are banking $2.1935 million between them.

One of the underlying principles of the Moneyball theology is that you seek to replace numbers with numbers rather than players with players and pay less monetarily in doing so. In other words, if you needed to replace a hitter who smashed 40 home runs, you don’t need another player who hit 40 home runs. You need two or three players who combined for 40 home runs who, because they didn’t have the big home run totals themselves, will cost millions less than the guy (who you just let walk as a free agent) who did.

Like any philosophy, Moneyball has detractors. I’ve always found it intriguing, but in this case — maybe because I’m an at-times suffering fan who can’t see the big picture through all the Flaherty strikeouts (20 in 81 plate appearances) — I’m genuinely taken aback. Take the enormous contract out of it. If you can get from one roster spot what you’d otherwise get from three, that’s a plus, right? As a fan, I can’t help but feel less concern with the money because it isn’t mine and there aren’t going to be any long-term salary cap ramifications, especially when you’re talking about a trade deadline rental player.

Of course, Utley’s contract does allow him to block trades to 21 different teams (I don’t know if the Orioles are on that list), which means he would have to be convinced to do so before any deal. But here’s the thing: if Utley wants to be a Phillie and the Phillies want Utley back, he could just as easily play out the season for a contending Orioles team and return to Philadelphia this offseason as a free agent. It’s happened before. And switching cities from Philadelphia to Baltimore is a matter of heading two hours South, whereas other teams don’t offer the same kind of geographical benefits.

You also have to imagine that if the Phillies do indeed fall far enough behind the NL East to a point where they’d entertain shipping off one of the faces of their franchise, the price tag would be affordable so long as the Orioles agreed to absorb some of the money left on Utley’s deal. The Orioles are in the middle of the payroll pack, so it’s not as if paying for half a season of Utley would wreak havoc on their books. Really, the money would probably be the biggest factor in such a deal. Clearly, Utley is at a point in his career where they can’t reasonably expect to pry a player like Arrieta away, and that circumstance makes the market all that much alluring for a potential buyer.

The Orioles were wise this past offseason to play it straight after such a successful, if totally unexpected, season. When you fall just five games short of the World Series (how’s that for positive spin?), it would be understandable to go aggressive in trying to bring in the pieces to get over the hump. The Orioles didn’t do that and would be wise not to be too bold at this year’s trading deadline. With Showalter at the helm, they do tend to be conservative. But Utley represents a happy medium: a calculated risk for a player that would be a marked upgrade and likely wouldn’t require breaking apart any of the foundation set in place for the future. In a lot of ways, he’s the perfect target for this team.

Instant reaction to the Dolphins’ addition of RT Tyson Clabo

The Dolphins’ slow developing offensive line plan has finally come to a head, with the Miami Herald’s Barry Jackson reporting that the team has agreed to sign former Atlanta Falcons tackle Tyson Clabo.

Clabo, who was cut by the Falcons on April 4 for salary cap reasons, came into the league undrafted out of Wake Forest and was a Pro Bowl selection in 2010. He’s started a full slate of 16 games every year since 2008 and, according to CBS Sports’ Pat Kirwin, has been flagged just twice for false starts and only seven times for holding in the past four seasons. By all accounts, Clabo is consistent, reliable, and would seem to be far and away the safest of a free agent tackle pool that includes Eric Winston and Winston Justice, who worked out for the Dolphins last week.

For my money, this is the best possible resolution to the Dolphins’ offensive line concerns. By signing a free agent versus, say, trading for an established player like the Kansas City Chiefs’ Branden Albert, the cost of acquisition is purely monetary. The rumored trade for Albert appeared dead once the 2013 NFL Draft had come and gone anyway, but whispers of a deal never quite dissipated completely. At this point, it seems safe to say that deal is completely dead. And that’s for the best. Not only would Albert have demanded a long-term contract with a significant price tag, but he would’ve cost future draft choices. Clabo, an Ironman-type player, may be just a stopgap option at the moment, but the risk and cost are much more manageable.

The other advantage of signing a right tackle versus trading for Albert, who plays on the left side, is that last year’s second round pick, Jonathan Martin, can slide over to the left side where he was every bit as productive last year as Jake Long, who signed this off-season with the St. Louis Rams. There will almost assuredly be bumps in Martin’s play, especially as he’s still developing. But I’d rather the team have a 23-year-old with significant upside on the left with an established, 31-year-old safety valve player on the right side rather than the other way around.

Perhaps best of all is that the big question marks about the tackle position can finally be put to rest. With a proven NFL starter secured, the team can concentrate on depth and development. It felt like a long time coming, but with Clabo officially in the fold, the wait feels worth it now.

Dolphins trade up to draft DE Dion Jordan, plus more draft thoughts

In what’s difficult to call anything other than a complete surprise, the Dolphins traded up nine picks with the Oakland Raiders last night to select Oregon defensive end Dion Jordan with the third overall pick in the 2013 NFL Draft. For the right to move up, the Dolphins swapped their 12th overall pick and the higher of their two second round picks (42nd) this year.

My knee-jerk reaction to the deal was one of jubilance, if only because it’s a lot more fun picking third than twelfth, especially when you didn’t have to suffer through the agony of a 4-12 season to get there. Some of the scuttlebutt I’ve seen suggests the Dolphins made a mistake by not grabbing offensive tackle Lane Johnson to fill the void left by the departed Jake Long, but I disagree. In fact, I’m still not entirely convinced that left tackle is a pressing need.

If you consider that a year ago Jonathan Martin, who was drafted in the second round out of Stanford in 2012, not only moved over from the right side and sufficiently substituted for Long when he was out with injury, but actually functioned as an upgrade, then it stands to reason the team could slide him over to the left tackle position permanently in 2013 and instead seek a right tackle. They could sign someone like Eric Winston, who could function as an inexpensive stopgap, or use one of their remaining middle round picks to fill that hole. Premiere left tackles are drafted early, but right tackles can be found later.

But even if you take the question marks at tackle out of consideration, it’s hard not to like the Jordan pick and, maybe even more so, the aggressiveness behind it. You can argue that Jeff Ireland’s track record prior to this off-season speaks for itself and speculate that all of this year’s maneuvers are solely to pass a new stadium deal. That’s not a debate I’m willing to dive into at the moment. But even a devil’s advocate should be excited about the team’s “go big or go home” approach, and no move screams that sentiment louder than climbing to the top of the draft and staking claim to one of this class’ premiere pass rushers.

Look at the blueprint of the New York Giants’ two recent Super Bowl-winning teams. Neither squad had a particularly dominant offensive line or elite cornerbacks. They rode a good (and at times scary) offense and a menacing pass rush to a pair of Lombardi trophies. Adding Jordan, who could be a Jason Taylor clone with a bit of added bulk, helps create the same type of aesthetic on the defensive side. Opposite all-world sack artist Cameron Wake, Jordan should ease into the NFL without having to face double teams or the elite tackle of opposing teams. And while Jordan creates a daunting tandem aside Wake, that pair makes up just the front line of what could be a formidable stable.

Olivier Vernon, the team’s third round pick a year ago, had a marvelous rookie season on special teams and added in 3.5 sacks in limited pass rush duty. Koa Misi, drafted in the second round of the 2010 draft, has mostly been a low impact player, but he’ll now be in a position to rotate in and out of the game, meaning less will be asked of him at large and I think the opportunity to tap into some of his unseen potential is ripe. When Dannell Ellerbe and Philip Wheeler were signed to replace Karlos Dansby and Kevin Burnett, one of the reasons cited was their collective ability to be disruptive presences, which Dansby and Burnett weren’t. In short: if the Dolphins get from Jordan what they expect to get, which is a young, studly pass rusher in the vein of Aldon Smith or Jason Pierre-Paul, it’s going to make this entire fleet of players better. The front seven on the defensive side was the team’s biggest strength a year ago, and now they’ve added a complementary pass rush unlike anything I can remember seeing from this team before (or at least not since the Taylor/Adewale Ogunleye days of 2002-03. Getting to Tom Brady is no longer solely on the shoulders of Wake.

The other thing to consider is that the compensation to move up was fairly low. All it cost was a second-round pick, which isn’t as much as you’d expect for a team moving into the top tier of the draft. It might sting if the Dolphins decide they prefer Branden Albert to Martin on the left side and the Kansas City Chiefs hold out for a second-round pick, but otherwise it’s only a minor dent in the armor. They still cling to the 54th overall pick and two third-round selections, so the cabinet wasn’t raided to jump after Jordan.

Obviously, with two days of drafting left to be done, it’s too early to see the whole picture. But the early returns are favorable and, in a single night, the Dolphins defense appears to have gone from upgraded and overhauled to the brink of being flat out dangerous.

—–

• I didn’t do so hot on my mock draft, but I was able to nail a few picks and, even if a couple of draft slots changed, match the correct player with the correct team in a couple instances. The only team, pick, and player I connected on at the appropriate slot was defensive tackle Sylvester Williams to the Denver Broncos with the 28th overall pick. But I also successfully paired Tavon Austin with the St. Louis Rams and Eric Reid with the San Francisco 49ers. The only other thing I can hang my hat on is putting quarterback EJ Manuel in the first round, though I never would have pegged him for the Bills.

• Am I the only Dolphin fan thrilled that the St. Louis Rams traded up with the Buffalo Bills to grab Tavon Austin? I’m still not 100% convinced that Austin is the second coming of Percy Harvin (and if he is, hopefully it’s only in regards to talent and not headcase-itude), but there are always a handful of players in the draft that I know I’ll want to root for, and Austin is one of those players. But clearly, I couldn’t root for a member of the New York Jets, which probably would have happened had the Rams not made the deal.

• Speaking of the Jets: my mock draft was published before they traded Darrelle Revis for an extra first-round pick, but one thing I was very clear about with regards to their draft strategy was that as long as Rex Ryan is head coach — even if he’s perceived to be a lame duck — they’re going to favor defense over offense. “As long as Rex Ryan has a say in the process, I’m convinced the Jets will use every possible pick on defense,” I wrote. And they did.

Adding cornerback Dee Milliner and defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson could end up being a boon for the Jets, but it certainly doesn’t have me stricken with fear this morning. The Jets essentially swapped one cornerback with injury concerns for another and upgraded the middle of their defensive line. That’s a net gain, but I’m still curious how they plan to score points.

• The New Orleans Saints selection of safety Kenny Vaccaro is one of my favorite moves of the first round. Getting him 15th overall is a good value slot and he fills a glaring need for a team that has needed help on defense for what seems like the entire Drew Brees era.

• The other move I love: tight end Tyler Eifert landing with the Cincinnati Bengals. A week or two ago I was trying to evaluate the ceilings of every team in the AFC and the Bengals were one of the teams who I felt might have reached theirs, even in spite of having a tremendous young wide receiver in AJ Green and upstart quarterback in Andy Dalton. It’s just hard to look at their roster, acknowledge that Marvin Lewis is still entrenched as head coach, and see them as anything other than a squad with an expiration date that falls somewhere between the wildcard and divisional rounds. But Eifert has altered my opinion a bit. Though Jermaine Gresham still projects as the Bengals’ starter, the addition on the offensive side is exactly what this team needed. Their defense is more or less good to go. But if they have any hope of beating the big boys come playoff time, they’re going to need to be able to score more points. In the past two seasons they’ve been disposed of in the playoffs by the Houston Texans while scoring a combined 23 points.

• I don’t have any personal investment in the Minnesota Vikings, but I’m glad they traded up for wide receiver Cordarelle Patterson and not linebacker Manti Te’o. For the purposes of my own entertainment, I like that Te’o is still on the board heading into the draft’s second day. And though he’s raw, I like Patterson’s upside. It’s conceivable their offense will actually be improved with Greg Jennings and Patterson rather than Harvin.

• The downside of that Vikings trade is that their trade partner came in the form of the New England Patriots, who had only five draft picks entering the day but have now accumulated three more to bring their total to eight. I’m mostly fond of Bill Belichick’s strategy of stockpiling picks and seeking value, but the act is starting to grow tired. As I mentioned in my mock, the Patriots will almost assuredly grab a defensive back or two with those picks, and if history maintains course, those two players will fail to develop and eventually disappear to another team’s roster. Having a lot of picks is great, but the real key is turning them into productive players (which, mind you, I’m not saying they haven’t ever done, because they obviously have). If I’m the Patriots, I might have preferred picking Patterson (or safety Matt Elam, who eventually landed on the Baltimore Ravens) for myself there.

• So, which quarterback will the Jacksonville Jaguars snatch up with the first pick of the second round: Geno Smith, Ryan Nassib, or Matt Barkley?

• When the 49ers go on the clock with the second pick of the second round, keep in mind that they received the pick from the Chiefs in exchange for Alex Smith. My prediction for who they’ll take? Florida State defensive end Cornellius “Tank” Carradine, who would be the theoretical heir to Justin Smith.

• To close things out, here’s my mock (read: wild guesses) of the first ten picks of the second round:

Jacksonville Jaguars (33): QB Ryan Nassib, Syracuse
San Francisco 49ers (34): DE Tank Carradine, Florida State
Philadelphia Eagles (35): QB Geno Smith, West Virginia
Detroit Lions (36): CB Jamar Taylor, Boise State
Cincinnati Bengals (37): RB Eddie Lacey, Alabama
Arizona Cardinals (38): OT Menelik Watson, Florida State
New York Jets (39): S Jonathan Cyprien, Florida International
Tennessee Titans (40): TE Zach Ertz, Stanford
Buffalo Bills (41): WR Justin Hunter, Tennessee
Oakland Raiders (42): DT Jesse Williams, Alabama

Well, the Dolphins’ new uniforms have leaked

(via UniWatch)

(via UniWatch)

As much as I love the thrill of early access, there’s something to be said for the days where anticipation paid off on schedule rather than via an inopportune leak out of left field.

This afternoon, the brand new Dolphins uniforms leaked shortly after the Jacksonville Jaguars’ unveiled their own fresh new look. The same thing happened with the new logo, so I suppose all is harmonic with the way in which the uniforms first met the public’s eye. It just feels a little anticlimactic this way, that’s all.

On the bright side, the new look is brilliant at first brush. The white-on-white uniform has dismissed the shadowed bubble letters in favor of digits reminiscent of the early Dan Marino era. They’re flat, smooth, and most of all, extraordinarily clean. The display uniforms that were leaked are of the sleeveless variety, so it remains to be seen whether or not they’ll be striped like in previous iterations. Add to that the white face mask and aqua helmet stripe and the end result is a well-constructed overhaul that relies an awful lot on subtleties and getting back to the franchise’s basics.

(via UniWatch)

(via UniWatch)

I’ll need a bit more time to digest the aqua jerseys, if only because the hue has changed so dramatically. The new aqua is lighter in tone and, again, recalls the franchise’s early years, specifically the 1960′s era Dolphins of the AFL. I’m too young to have a lot of attachment to this time period, obviously, but I’m more often than not in favor of tapping into whatever history is available. The Dolphins have too much of it to detach from it aggressively.

On the new look as a whole, it probably seems like I’ve been an entrenched optimist. I defended the new logo, I spent an absurd $50 on a t-shirt just to support the new look early, and now I’m openly digging on the new uniforms. And, yeah, there’s probably a bit of manifest’s destiny at play. I wanted to like the new logo and the new uniforms, and so I’d conditioned myself to think of them favorably even before they came along. But on the other hand, I like to think I have a pretty strong critical thinking ability and the bottom line is, I like everything I’ve seen to one degree or another.

In fact, I like it so much, I’m still giddy about Thursday’s uniform unfurling ceremony even though I’ve already seen the goods.

2013 NFL Mock Draft

If I were to compile a list of completely worthless things that I adore anyway, mock drafts would rank somewhere near the top. For those of you who have never come across one of these things, a mock draft is a sports website’s equivalent to one of those “top 10 celebrity hook-up” lists you might stumble upon in the darkest depths of the internet. Mock drafts are completely useless, meatless articles designed to drive web traffic, turn user comment sections into vitriolic arguments between complete strangers, and make the common football fan feel like they know more than someone else. They’re the best.

A few years back, I found myself so overcome with mock draft lust that I began writing up my own. Granted, I don’t watch college football and most assuredly don’t watch any of the NFL combine, so my credentials for writing such a thing are mostly non-existent. But I enjoy the exercise. It gives me an opportunity to familiarize myself with the rookies that will be coming into the league through the various scouting reports and think pieces Google leaves at my fingertips. And that’s the thing that makes mock drafts simultaneously ridiculous and fascinating: anyone can do one and since everyone who does will be catastrophically incorrect anyway, there’s no particular need for knowledge or accountability.

The basic logic of a mock draft is this: if a team is awful, they probably need a quarterback. If they gave up a lot of points last year, plug in a defensive player who had the word “prototype” or “freak” somewhere in a published scouting report. And if all else fails, just give them the guy who got a 10 minute segment on ESPN because he ran really, really fast or completed 94% of his passes while wearing gym shorts and throwing to receivers without even the slightest facade of a defensive presence. The latter strategy is best employed when filling in your choice for the Oakland Raiders’ selection. In the end, there will be six or seven trades in the first round anyway, so the team picking eighth today will end up picking nine spots lower, throwing your entire mock down the tubes. Plus, no one will ever come back after the fact and belittle you for being incorrect. In a lot of ways, mock drafts are the irresponsible sportswriter’s greatest concoction.

So, with all that out of the way, here’s a look at my own 2013 NFL mock draft…

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01. Kansas City Chiefs | OT Luke Joeckel, Texas A&M

The Chiefs picked a really bad year to win just two games. If they’d sunk to the bottom of the NFL in 2011 like they did this past season, they’d have put themselves in position to draft either Andrew Luck or Robert Griffin III. Instead, they get the first pick in a draft ripe with offensive linemen and question marks and seemingly void of any so-called “franchise quarterbacks.” And so, even with Branden Albert currently manning the left tackle spot, the safe money is on the Andy Reid era beginning with the selection of an offensive tackle, be it Joeckel or Central Michigan’s Eric Fisher. Fisher’s name has been near the top of prospect lists throughout most of the draft lead-up, but he’s recently started appearing at the tip-top of other writer’s mock drafts. I don’t know why. It seems like every year a hand full of players will rise or fall for no discernible reason. Joeckel, on the other hand, has been projected to go in the first few picks since before the NFL’s regular season ended and you have to assume that people smart enough to run professional franchises aren’t going to change their minds at the last minute.

By adding Joeckel, the Chiefs can protect Alex Smith and his eventual successor for the next decade or so. It would also free them up to trade Albert, who is seeking a long-term contract extension worth more money than he’s probably worth in the long haul. In effect, they could get a significantly younger player of roughly equal value and at a lesser financial obligation, plus whatever draft picks or players they would receive as trade compensation. That’s a net gain for the rebuilding Chiefs.

02. Jacksonville Jaguars | CB Dee Milliner, Alabama

This team has such an appalling amount of weaknesses on their roster that the only thing that makes any real sense is to take whoever they believe is the best player in the pool. The difficulty is that there doesn’t seem to be any kind of consensus about who that player is. And so I refer back to the Jaguars’ first-round pick in 2010, defensive tackle Tyson Alualu, who the team took tenth overall. Admittedly, the Jaguars have been reconfigured from top to bottom since then, outfitted with a new owner, general manager, and head coach. There’s no real reason to suspect the current regime will unexpectedly reach for a player like the 2010 bunch did for Alualu, but I do have the sinking suspicion that the pick here — assuming they don’t trade down, which is a scenario best ignored for mock draft purposes — will be someone at least moderately surprising just like that ’10 pick. That someone is Milliner, who many of the mock drafts I’ve stumbled across have placed outside the top five.

Realistically, the Jaguars would be better off jumping at Oregon’s Dion Jordan or BYU’s Ezekial Ansah, players coveted for their abilities to rush the opposing quarterback. Milliner’s great, has terrific measurables, and comes from a big-time program that should at least theoretically have some impact on his transition to the pro game, but it’s 2013. Good offenses have too many weapons to be deterred by a single cornerback. But those offenses can be disrupted by guys who can blow past the offensive line and pressure the quarterback, which is precisely what Jordan and Ansah are being touted for. Still, my gut tells me to expect the unexpected with this pick (which, though I obviously didn’t go in this direction here, could very well mean Geno Smith).

03. Oakland Raiders | OLB Dion Jordon, Oregon

If Jacksonville doesn’t take Jordan, I presume Oakland will. The Raiders are another team where nailing down just one or two pressing needs is impossible. Having recently traded for quarterback Matt Flynn, they would at least appear on the surface to be out of the market for West Virginia’s Geno Smith and, if you’re going to give up even more picks to acquire a quarterback (see below), you give yourself even less options to address the other side of the ball. For all the reasons above, Jordan and the Raiders are a logical fit. I’m less confident that the Raiders and logic are a logical fit.

To illustrate that final point: assuming they don’t ship it off to a division rival in exchange for that team’s special teams coach or something, this will be the first first-round pick made by the Raiders since 2010. In 2010 they drafted Rolando McClain, a real gem of a person, eighth overall. He signed with the Ravens just yesterday. In 2009 they made Darrius Heyward-Bey the seventh overall pick. He’s now a member of the Colts. The Raiders traded their first-round pick in 2010 to acquire Richard Seymour, who is currently a free agent, from the Patriots. They squandered last year’s first-round pick (and a second-rounder this year) trading for Carson Palmer, who has since relocated to Arizona. So anyone who thinks they’ve nailed down what the Raiders are going to do with this pick is lying to themselves, and that includes those in the Raiders’ front office.

04. Philadelphia Eagles | OT Eric Fisher, Central Michigan

If you were unfortunate enough to have watched even one Eagles game last year, this projection should require no explanation. This is a team that started King Dunlap 13 times a year ago primarily at left tackle. Dunlap is best known for being 6’8″, which suggests the Eagles were conducting some type of experiment to determine if sheer size could trump basic competency along the offensive line. Dunlap debunked that myth soundly, regularly being either burned by mediocre opposing pass rushers or flagged for violating the basic fundamentals of the game. The Eagles would have been better off starting a literal turnstile at the tackle position, seeing as how turnstiles are stationary objects and unlikely to jump offsides or get caught holding every other play.

05. Detroit Lions | OG Chance Warmack, Alabama

It stinks playing so poorly that you end up drafting in the top five, but fans of the Lions should think positively. Here’s the thing: if you make the playoffs but don’t win the Super Bowl or at least come dramatically close to doing so, there’s not much difference between getting ousted in the first round and finishing 4-12. The Lions were 10-6 in 2011 with basically the same team they had last year, so you can either concede that they overachieved or take comfort in knowing the foundation is strong and the odds of a bounce back season are good. So in a roundabout way, the Lions are stocked up with some high picks and poised to add to a roster just one year removed from a playoff run. It could be worse.

Of course, it could be better. If you buy into my mock to this point, then Detroit goes on the clock here with the top players at their primary positions of need already gone. They’ve needed cornerback help for years, but Milliner’s gone. They could use some stability along the offensive line, but Joeckel and Fisher are gone. They’d probably love an edge rusher, but Jordan’s gone. If the board plays out as I’ve projected, that leaves Ansah, offensive tackle Lane Johnson, and my final pick, Warmack, as the best options. In the end, I’ve settled on Warmack even though it’s an admitted stretch.

It’s rare that an interior offensive lineman is drafted this high, but getting back to the consensus opinions mentioned earlier, Warmack is one of the few guys who has steadily been viewed as a top tier commodity. Drafting him fifth overall isn’t a particularly strong testament to value, but if you feel like Warmack is a sure thing and a player like Johnson is a bit more of a gamble, then why not plug in the sure thing and move on when the need at each position is similar? Additionally, the Lions have shown a tendency to use the draft to address their lines. In three straight drafts, they’ve picked linemen of either the offensive or defensive variety in the first round (Ndamukong Suh in 2010, Nick Fairley in 2011, and Reilly Reiff last year).

06. Cleveland Browns | DE Ezekial Ansah, BYU

By signing Paul Kruger away from the Ravens, the Browns acknowledged their need for some semblance of a pass rush and began addressing the problem. But if the Browns front office has access to the same advanced statistics as me (thanks, Google), then they’re well aware that Kruger is a situational player that put up numbers almost exclusively when Terrell Suggs was in the line-up. And so logically, if your big off-season acquisition is at his best when he has help on defense, you should provide that help or else expect your investment to tank.

07. Arizona Cardinals | OT Lane Johnson, Oklahoma

To me, trading for Carson Palmer isn’t the long-term answer in Arizona, but it suggests to me that Bruce Arians and company aren’t salivating at the thought of this year’s rookie class of quarterbacks (or at least not those with first-round projections). That would cross Geno Smith off the list of options here. Palmer might be a turnover factory, but if you find yourself in a position where you have to settle on a stopgap for a year or two, you could do far worse.

In Johnson, the Cardinals would be addressing their most glaring need and taking strides towards protecting their investments. They may have acquired Palmer for pennies in terms of draft picks, but they’re still on the hook for his salary and that of Larry Fitzgerald, who simply isn’t worth the value of his contract if his quarterback play isn’t at least respectable. Fixing the offensive line gives Palmer a chance which, in turn, helps utilize Fitzgerald’s talents. The Cardinals are another team with a lot of needs, but going offensive line early is a no-brainer.

08. Buffalo Bills | QB Geno Smith, West Virginia

As I write this, the quarterbacks on Buffalo’s depth chart are a couple of guys named Kevin Kolb and Tarvaris Jackson. So, like, they really need a quarterback.

Through my research for this post, I’ve come to notice that conventional wisdom seems to be new Bills coach Doug Marrone coveting Ryan Nassib, his quarterback at Syracuse. That may be true, but it doesn’t really make sense to me — at least not with the eighth overall pick. Plus, where’s the track record of coaches jumping to the pros and latching onto their collegiate quarterback? Steve Spurrier taking over the Redskins and employing Danny Wuerffel comes to mind, as does the Dolphins’ drafting of Ryan Tannehill, who’d been coached by offensive coordinator Mike Sherman in college, last year. It’s not unprecedented, but it seems a bit lazy to me to simply connect coaches with their former players and pack it in. Smith just makes the most sense here, especially given how I’ve projected other dominoes to fall.

09. New York Jets | OLB Barkevious Mingo, LSU

As long as Rex Ryan has a say in the process, I’m convinced the Jets will use every possible pick on defense. Of course, that’s backwards. Ryan’s a terrific defensive coach, which suggests to me that he should be able to get by with lesser talent on that side of the ball simply by virtue of his schematic and strategic talents. Since he’s taken over as coach of the Jets, he’s mostly neglected the offensive side of the ball, to the extent that he once admitted openly that he didn’t want to draft wide receiver Stephen Hill and instead preferred a defensive player. The jury is still out on Hill, but those comments speak to what I think has been the Jets’ biggest problem in the Ryan era: all defensive bravado and barely an attempt to rectify the sorry state of the offense.

At the same time, those comments suggest that Ryan’s involvement in the draft may be less than what you might get from other head coaches, especially given that his leash is exponentially shorter with a new general manager around. But, again, I refuse to accept that a team with Ryan as its head coach will invest a premium pick on an offensive player, and so I’ll continue to lean towards Mingo here until witnessing otherwise.

10. Tennessee Titans | DT Sharrif Floyd, Florida

With the premiere pass rushers off the board and Floyd lingering, this picks feels like something of a given. The Florida defensive tackle has long been written about as one of the three or four best prospects in this draft, but in the scenarios I’ve written about here, team need and the occasional surprise pick have led to him almost falling out of the top of the draft entirely. I don’t necessarily believe that the Titans will enter the draft with the defensive tackle position high on their list of targets, but situations can change in a heartbeat and if this one were to present itself, it’s difficult to imagine they look in another direction (to cornerback Xavier Rhodes or linebacker Jarvis Jones, for example).

Glancing over my top-10, this is the one pick that says the most about the value of mock drafts. If you peruse CBS Sports’ mock draft panel, for instance, you’ll notice that none of the six participants have Floyd going any later than the fourth pick. (As of this posting, all three of the mock drafters at NFL.com have Floyd going third overall.) Pete Prisco aside, there’s a decent chance those guys are more tapped in to things than I am. And by “decent” I mean “definite.” But the thing to remember about mock drafts is this: one surprising pick will send the entire thing into a tail spin. I just can’t trust that the Raiders will jump on Floyd as so many mocks — including that one — suggest. I can’t trust the Raiders to be predictable about anything, really. So dropping Floyd all the way to Tennessee is just sort of what happened when I factored in the odds of at least one unforeseen selection.

11. San Diego Chargers | OLB Jarvis Jones, Georgia

There’s a big part of me that believes the Chargers will opt for an offensive lineman, be it North Carolina’s Jonathan Cooper or one of the top tackles were they to fall to them. It would make sense given new head coach Mike McCoy is an offensive guy. But slotting Jones here is a way of employing the same reverse logic I applied previously to Rex Ryan and the Jets: if you’re a good coach on one end of the ball, your need for talent there is less than it is on the other side, where you’re less inclined to beat teams strategically.

12. Miami Dolphins | OT D.J. Fluker, Alabama

I can’t even begin to count how many times I’ve seen a cornerback slotted to the Dolphins here, but I’m having a hard time buying it. Even though it’s a position of need and the team invested heavily on the defensive side of the ball in free agency, the Dolphins have clearly made offensive improvement the utmost priority of this off-season. And if you’re going to draft a quarterback and spend big on receivers and a tight end, the logical next step is to protect those investments. This slot is several picks too high for Fluker and you have to imagine the Dolphins would prefer to see Johnson or even Warmack fall to them here. But if they don’t, Fluker seems like the safer bet than, say, Florida State corner Xavier Rhodes, who may not be the most ideal fit in the zone coverage scheme expected to be employed going forward. Add to that the depth at both offensive line and corner in this year’s draft and it stands to reason that that the Dolphins won’t lunge for a corner as quickly as they might a tackle, a position Jeff Ireland has notoriously coveted.

Homer note: this isn’t a pick I was thrilled about projecting. This off-season I’ve become the type of insufferable fan that clamors at the prospect of every explosive player in the draft, meaning I’d be psyched to see Tavon Austin or Tyler Eifert get snapped up here regardless of what was addressed in free agency. I just don’t think that’s reasonable to expect, especially from a regime that has historically invested early picks in grunts like Mike Pouncey and Jared Odrick rather than trendy playmakers.

13. Tampa Bay Buccaneers | CB Xavier Rhodes, Florida State

This pick hinges almost entirely on whether or not the Bucs are able to pry Darrelle Revis from the Jets. If they can, they obviously exit the market for cornerbacks. If they don’t, it’s hard to envision a scenario where they draft a player elsewhere. Personally, I don’t have strong feelings about Rhodes as a player, but I can tell you this much: if I’m Tampa, I’d rather pick him in this slot than fork this pick — plus others — over to the Jets for Revis, then turn around and offer my new corner a hefty new deal. Even if Revis recovers from ACL surgery and returns to being the best cover man in the league, the overall compensation is just too much for a player at a position that offenses can simply game plan around. Rhodes could be a bust, but giving up picks and taking on cost for a player coming off a major injury is the far greater risk.

14. Carolina Panthers | WR Cordarrelle Patterson, Tennessee

I love the Panthers nucleus. Once they can get out from under a few of their exorbitant contracts — especially the ones erroneously handed to DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart — this is a team with enough upside to contend for the playoffs. But even with those big dollar deals on the books, this is one of a hand full of mediocre teams that should be in line for a few steps forward.

While they could use a defensive tackle and both Star Lotulelei and Sheldon Richardson linger, why not take the draft’s top rated receiver in an attempt to give Cam Newton weapons? Steve Smith will be 34-years-old by the time the new season starts and though Brandon LaFell has put together consecutive respectable seasons, it’s hard to envision him being the guy to take over once Smith fades away. Not only could Patterson be that guy in the long-term, but as a short-term option, he’s a player who provides a perfect complement to Smith’s measureables and skillset.

15. New Orleans Saints | DT Star Lotulelei, Utah

It seems like the Saints’ defense has been broken forever. At this point, it’s a given that Drew Brees and the offense are going to be prolific with what they’ve got, so going after anything other than defense here would seem a little irresponsible. Lotulelei would give the Saints the inside presence they clearly need and he would come at a decent value. Due to a heart condition that’s since been medically cleared, Lotulelei’s stock has dropped. He was once considered a top-10 or even top-5 talent. The Saints offense — especially with the return of Sean Payton — should keep them competitive, so they’re also in a position where they can afford to take a risk on a player who has difference-making upside.

16. St. Louis Rams | WR Tavon Austin, West Virginia

Austin is arguably the draft’s most exciting prospect and after losing both Danny Amendola and Brandon Gibson to free agency, the Rams are in desperate need of a receiver (though I think the tandem of Chris Givens and Brian Quick are a solid under the radar duo). Austin’s dynamism is eerily similar to that of Percy Harvin: he’s fast as hell, elusive, and has had success lining up in a number of different places. If he’s still available here, I’m not sure what would possess them to go with anyone else, especially since they have a second first-round pick acquired in last year’s trade with the Redskins that netted RG3 for Washington.

17. Pittsburgh Steelers | DE Bjoern Werner, Florida State

The Steelers are old as dirt defensively and have a storied history of drafting players and developing them into studs (Lawrence Timmons jumps to mind), so this pick makes more than a lot of sense. A couple months back when mock drafts first started crawling their way around the internet, Werner’s name was regularly popping up within the first 10 picks. Mysteriously, that’s changed, but it speaks to the potential value of this particular player. If he was rated highly prior to all the silly individual workouts that measure a player’s strength and speed independent of the game of football, then why would his stock suddenly dip now? He’d be a steal here for Pittsburgh.

18. Dallas Cowboys | FS Kenny Vaccaro, Texas

The Cowboys safeties are straight up duds, with Will Allen being the only guy whose name you might recognize (though you’d likely just be confusing him with the other Will Allen who was actually a pretty good player for a time). Vaccaro is the kind of player who could immediately change the way the secondary plays, which is key given that the Cowboys’ secondary is generally woeful. There’s also the added benefit of keeping the former Longhorn in the same state he played college in, which is exactly the kind of marketing bonus Jerry Jones tends to get off on.

19. New York Giants | OLB Alec Ogletree, Georgia

The New York Giants have won two championships in recent years and one of the big reasons on both occasions was the ability to rush the passer. Having lost Osi Umenyiora, it seems logical to think the Giants would try to restock their tool shed a bit. Here’s the caveat: Ogletree recorded just three sacks in each of his last two seasons, so he isn’t exactly a prolific blitzer. But his potential and most projections suggest that he could blossom and if there’s a system in which that could happen, its New York’s.

20. Chicago Bears | OG Jonathan Cooper, North Carolina

By hiring Marc Trestman, the Bears made it clear that they’re finally going to start valuing offense. In order to do that, you need to invest in offensive players, which means Cooper because an increasingly viable option. And even though they went out and signed Martellus Bennett, I was tempted to plug in Notre Dame’s Tyler Eifert here. If they did indeed go in that direction, I wouldn’t be shocked. But Cooper gives them help along what has been a tattered and abused offensive line in recent years and addresses a need rather than satiates a desire.

21. Cincinnati Bengals | CB Desmond Trufant, Washington

There are a lot of perfectly tuned in, intelligent writers who have the Bengals taking Eddie Lacy, the running back from Alabama, in this position. It would make a lot of sense given that, between BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Cedric Benson before him, the Bengals have long since been overly reliant on plodding, one dimensional running backs. Lacy’s a tough, physical runner too, but he’s also considerably more versatile. Still, the Bengals have been run fairly intelligently in recent seasons and intelligent teams rarely draft running backs in the first round unless it’s their only need or the player’s talent defies convention. For the Bengals, neither line of reasoning applies. Instead, I think the Bengals go defense with either a corner, linebacker, or maybe even Sheldon Richardson, who hasn’t yet been plucked from my mock’s pool.

22. St. Louis Rams | SS Matt Elam, Florida

Full disclosure: before thinking it through, I plugged Notre Dame’s Eifert into this slot for the Rams. Then I remembered they signed Jared Cook and scrapped the thought, but part of me wishes Jeff Fisher’s team would be so bold. For a half dozen or so years, the Rams’ offense was Steven Jackson and a scrap heap of fill-ins. I’m not sold on Sam Bradford, but I think adding Austin and Eifert — even with Cook in place — in the same draft would be the kind of sweeping overhaul that could drastically reverse the fortunes of an offense. But alas, that’s mostly video game logic and Rams’ brass is wise enough to see that Elam fills a need, while going offense again — and especially Eifert — would be just a frivolous expenditure.

23. Minnesota Vikings | DT Sheldon Richardson, Missouri

How’s this for fortune? The Vikings will almost assuredly target a wide receiver in this month’s draft, but they could also use a defensive tackle and Richardson is a guy that probably should have come off the board a half dozen or so picks ago. Trading Percy Harvin to the Seahawks also ensures they have another pick just around the bend, so they can stand pat on a receiver and instead take the top player left.

24. Indianapolis Colts | DE Datone Jones, UCLA

With Andrew Luck and a gaggle of good receivers and tight ends secured, the Colts should focus their efforts on building a competitive defense. Jones is a disruptive player who had 19 tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks in college a year ago and could provide a seamless transition from Dwight Freeney. He may be markedly slower than Freeney, but the talent is there. And for the Colts, so is the need.

25. Minnesota Vikings | WR Keenan Allen, California

More fortune! It’s a bit of a bummer for Vikings fans to see Harvin leave town, but the offense may end up better off in the long run with the reliability of Greg Jennings and upside of Allen. The Cal product isn’t a burner and had a down year statistically in 2012 (blame it on the injury bug), but he showed enough flashes of greatness the year prior to be worth this slot. If you stumble upon early mock drafts like I do, you may also recall that Allen was at one time considered a top-10 caliber player. At 25th overall, the Vikings will gladly take the value.

26. Green Bay Packers | TE Tyler Eifert, Notre Dame

Jermichael Finley probably isn’t long for the job in Green Bay and, hell, even if he is, Eifert’s talent and what he could bring to an offense led by the game’s best quarterback is too much to pass up. It’s also a fairly common thing for teams to line-up with two receiving tight ends, so there’s a precedent for stocking up at the position. Of course, the Packers are in perpetual need of offensive line help, so it wouldn’t be a shock to see them lean in that direction. My only real concern here is the Packers’ almost deliberate unwillingness to do anything too glitzy, which adding Eifert might be. It’s almost like Ted Thompson and company get a thrill out of drafting linemen in the first round. The past four years, they’ve taken four total, splitting the picks across the offensive and defensive sides.

27. Houston Texans | QB E.J. Manuel, Florida State

Okay, I’m completely pulling this one out of left field.

In 2011, I truly believed that a healthy Texans team was the best in football. The problem was, they couldn’t get all of their guys healthy and on the field at the same time. They eventually lost Matt Schaub for the playoffs and were eliminated by the Ravens. It was a close game though and my take away was that if Schaub had played, Houston probably wins. I didn’t feel confidence in Schaub individually, but rather felt as though he fit well within the team as it was constructed and was good enough to be the difference in that particular contest. After 2012, I feel dramatically different. I still like Houston’s talent, but I think the quarterback position is a problem.

It’s also really difficult to envision a year where just one quarterback goes in the first-round of the draft. The Texans admittedly have greater areas of immediate need. They’ve needed a legitimate WR2 for pretty much Andre Johnson’s entire career. But even with another receiver, the Texans offense is only going to go as far as their quarterback, and I can’t help but feel like the potential of Manuel and the value of getting a possible franchise-changing passer this late in the draft is worth the shot. Plus, Schaub is respectable enough that he can continue playing for the immediate future and give Manuel a bit of time to develop.

28. Denver Broncos | DT Sylvester Williams, North Carolina

For the Broncos, this pick would both address a need and adhere to the best player available strategy. With the offense more or less set in stone entering 2013, it seems a given that Denver will go defense early, with the only real question being whether or not they look to safety (which doomed them a year ago against the Ravens) or the pass rush. Williams isn’t necessarily either, but he would be beneficial to helping the latter. This year’s draft is seemingly deep enough that the Broncos could come back and get a true pass rusher in the second or third round where they can get better overall value.

29. New England Patriots | CB Jamar Taylor, Boise State

Bill Belichick is widely regarded as a coaching wizard, but here’s what’s always baffled me: for a guy with a background in defense, why is his secondary always so suspect? Having to shove Troy Brown and Julian Edelman out there at cornerback isn’t clever or crafty, it’s evidence of neglect. It seems like every time they draft a corner or safety (think Ras-I Dowling, Patrick Chung, Darius Butler, and Terrence Wheatley), they struggle for a year or two and then disappear from the team. Their offensive picks — and even some of the guys they’ve brought in at linebacker — tend to work out well. Maybe it speaks to what I wrote earlier about drafting talent for where your coaching skills are weakest and relying on schematics with lesser talent where your coaching skills are their strongest. Either way, the secondary seems like the best place for the Patriots to waste spend this pick.

30. Atlanta Falcons | TE Zach Ertz, Stanford

This upcoming season has got to be Tony Gonzalez’s last, right? With that in mind, I tend to have two different schools of thought: the first is that if you know you’re built to contend long-term and are going to lose a huge contributor in a year, you need to ensure you have a replacement in tow to try and fend off regression. We can agree that the Falcons are a team that should contend beyond just this next season, yeah? And then my second school of thought is that you’ve got one more year coming from a historically durable player, so you can put off filling the hole he’ll leave for another year and try to maximize your team’s potential now. Both forms of logic make sense, but I favor the first and, in this case at least, think they can function in unison. Ertz gives them potentially dominant tight end depth now in an effort to secure a championship, but he also allows them a good chance at a smooth transition after Gonzo’s eventual farewell.

31. San Francisco 49ers | FS Eric Reid, LSU

The 49ers have one of the deepest rosters in football, but their reported interest in Ed Reed and Charles Woodson during the first few days of free agency suggests the team is actively targeting an upgrade at safety. Reid represents the best player left at the position.

32. Baltimore Ravens | WR Robert Woods, USC

Contrary to popular belief, the Ravens have had a really good off-season. They’ve lost a lot of players with name value but have managed to replace most of those pieces with equal if not better alternatives, often saving money in the process. Swapping in Elvis Dumervil for Paul Kruger is an upgrade, as was adding Michael Huff to replace Ed Reed, whose name and past performance far outweigh his current level of production. They still need a linebacker to work the middle, which makes Notre Dame’s Manti Te’o a viable option, but I think Woods is too talented to pass up here. The loss of Anquan Boldin is a bit overstated (as terrific as he was in the playoffs, let us not forget that he never registered 1,000 yards in a season for the Ravens after coming over from the Cardinals in 2010), but I’m just not sold on the team expecting Jacoby Jones to fill those shoes and, subsequently, Tandon Doss to fill Jones’ in the receiving game. If you’ll recall, Jones had opportunities to be a WR2 in Houston and it didn’t stick.

The other thing to consider here is the Ravens’ track record of developing defensive players. Granted, you have to assume the leadership of Ray Lewis and Reed figured into that development a good deal. But if Baltimore is confident they can conjure up a productive linebacker like they’ve done in the past (Adalius Thomas was a sixth-rounder in 2009, while Bart Scott and Dannell Ellerbe were both undrafted signees), why not stick to the program?

At last, baseball is back

(via Facebook)

(via Facebook)

2012 was the year I rediscovered baseball. For too many years, my childhood love of the game had faded away, obscured by a growing obsession with football and a dispersal of the time and patience that baseball requires. That the Orioles had spent more than a decade wallowing at the bottom of the standings certainly didn’t help.

But as the new season crept up, I made the conscious choice to rededicate myself to the sport. I subscribed to the full MLB.tv package, signed myself up for fantasy teams, and placed a series of orders for new Orioles and Nationals merchandise. Quickly and most assuredly nudged along by the early season arrival of Bryce Harper and the Orioles’ sudden knack for competence, my intrigue returned. I began watching games religiously again, using my TV service subscription to evade commercial pauses and catch the at-bats of the game’s top players, effectively refamiliarizing myself with the landscape of the league.

So much had changed since the last time I clung to every at-bat. The game had calmed down from the offensive insurgence of the late 1990′s and early 2000′s. Pitchers dominated again and seemingly every night came packed with at least a couple games still undecided in the late innings. The Orioles kept winning even though it seemed like they shouldn’t, the Nationals’ promise started to fulfill itself quicker than most expected, and Mike Trout and Miguel Cabrera turned in two of the greatest single seasons I’d ever witnessed, ensuring that I had to stay up just a little later to catch their last at-bat of the night. For the first time in longer than I could remember, I felt like the kid who would spend hours sitting on the floor playing out all-star games with Starting Lineup figures (the players in hitting poses would bat and those in fielding poses would play the field, of course) and shreds of loose leaf paper for bases.

Today, after what seemed like an eternal spring training, baseball is finally back. And the kid in me couldn’t be happier.

—–

It’s hard to say exactly what my expectations are for this coming season. Last year, I was mostly free to take the game as it came. My expectations for the Orioles had long since been crippled and, while I did think the Nationals were poised to be a contender, I hardly believed they’d put up the best regular season record in baseball. And the truth is, at this time last year I couldn’t even be positive that I’d be drawn all the way back in.

With regards to the Orioles, my gut and basic logic tell me to expect regression. The team still lacks a transcendent player in the line-up and last year’s improbable playoff run was made possible by an even more improbable 29-9 record in one run games. The 2012 O’s were 16-2 in extra inning games as well, which would seem to be a record with little shot of being replicated this season. Of course, they also stormed into the post-season with a magnificent late season run before eliminating the Texas Rangers and taking the hated New York Yankees down to a final deciding game. Luck is certainly a factor, but the kind of prolonged success the Orioles had last year is at least cause for hope. And really, at this point, how can you not trust in Buck Showalter?

Oddly enough, the player I’m most excited for in Baltimore is Pedro Strop. It’s a strange feeling to be psyched about a relief pitcher, but, well…

The Nationals, on the other hand, should be playing deep into October, especially with Stephen Strasburg’s innings cap lifted, the arrival of Denard Span, and the addition of Rafael Soriano to strengthen an already stacked bullpen. My only concern here is health, particularly in the rotation (Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann, and Dan Haren all have injury blemishes in their history). But so long as the roster isn’t ravaged by DL stints, this is a team with the kind of depth, untapped potential, and players in what should be their primes to give any number of reasons for excitement. Referring back to my gut instinct: a second consecutive National League East title or at the very least one of the two wildcard spots seems like an appropriate starting point.

—–

All predictions and expectations aside, the best thing about the return of America’s pastime is the renewed excitement I feel about it. Opening Day is an official holiday that went without celebration in my life for too long. Last season, I was perfectly content to listen to the first games of the season on the radio from my desk at work. This year, I’ve spontaneously tapped into my vacation time to skip out early, guaranteeing that I won’t miss a pitch.

Hokey as it sounds, I’m as ready as one can be for those two famous words: “play ball!”

Instant reaction to the Dolphins’ addition of CB Brent Grimes

The Dolphins splurging continues, as Adam Shefter has just reported that the team has agreed to a one-year contract with former Atlanta Falcons cornerback Brent Grimes worth in the ballpark of $5.5 million, which lands him among the top of this year’s market at the position.

A year ago, the Falcons used their franchise tag to hang onto Grimes, a former Pro Bowler, for another season. Of course, he tore his achilles in the first game of the season and would finish the year on injured reserve. Given he’ll be 30 at the start of the season and is coming off an injury that has hampered many a player’s career, there’s certainly risk involved for the Dolphins. But my impulse is that this move marks another plus move for a massively upgraded roster.

One of the most promising things we’ve heard of late from head coach Joe Philbin is the recognition that the team needs to be better at forcing turnovers. The Dolphins’ defense had just 16 takeaways last season, good for third-worst in the AFC ahead of the Indianapolis Colts and Kansas City Chiefs. From 2009-10, Grimes picked off 11 passes, so there is a proven track record of forcing turnovers. Of course, the same was true of Karlos Dansby when he came over from the Arizona Cardinals in 2010 but he accumulated just one pick in his three seasons in the aqua and orange.

The risk/reward of this deal seems fairly obvious though. On a one-year contract, the Dolphins have done a fine job of evading a long-term commitment and while the dollar amount is a bit high, the team could concurrently release cornerback Dmitri Patterson to immediately free up $4.5 million in cap space without having to absorb any dead money against the cap. Whether or not that happens remains to be seen, but it does speak to what this move does in the grand scheme of things: create options.

With five of the first 82 picks in this year’s draft and one of the most glaring positional needs now addressed for the short term at least, the Dolphins find themselves in a better position to draft based on talent rather than need. They still need a tackle to fill the void left by Jake Long and could probably use another young cornerback even with the addition of Grimes, but that is no longer a pressing need. With just that one glaring weakness (tackle), the team could conceivably use their 12th-overall pick to continue adding weapons to the offense or to obtain a much-needed and coveted pass rusher. Sure, they could still use their first pick on Florida State’s Xavier Rhodes or Washington’s Desmond Trufant, the latter of whom has a skillset that may better fit the Dolphins’ zone coverage philosophies, but the point is, their hand no longer has reason to feel forced. Where a weapon like Tavon Austin (I dream) may have seemed like a luxury item yesterday, he and players of his ilk now become just a little bit more digestible with yet another hole in the roster corked.

If there’s one thing you can’t help but credit about what has been a busy off-season, it’s Jeff Ireland’s methodical way of going down a check list of needs and eliminating them one-by-one. The best teams in the league got where they are by constructing a foundation and then using the draft to build upon it, which is exactly what’s been unfolding throughout the month of March. By adding Grimes, the Dolphins have put in place yet another piece of that foundation and set themselves up about as well as anyone could hope for a draft that will determine so much of the franchise’s future success.

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