Friday, January 28, 2011

Thomas Robinson and KU

By now, I'm sure most of you have heard the absolutely heart-breaking story of Kansas Jayhawk forward Thomas Robinson. In three weeks, Robinson has buried his grandmother, his grandfather, and just yesterday the 19-year-old from D.C. had to bury his 43-year-old mother.

His mom, Lisa Robinson, died of an apparent heart attack last Friday. Thomas found out when he received a voicemail from his 7-year-old sister Jayla crying uncontrollably. He was with both the Morris twins at the time, and he knew he had to call his sister back, but he didn't want to. He'd already had enough bad news in the last few weeks, but he called her back. That's when she told him "Mommy" was no longer with them. 

Losing a loved one is an absolutely tragic event regardless of the circumstances, but when a 7-year-old girl is forced to tell her brother that their mother is dead, it's even more tragic. Jayla had to make the call because, sadly, she was the only person left to do so. A 7-year-old having to explain to her older brother what happened to their mother. The whole story is heartbreaking.

The NCAA has, for the first time in my memory, done the right thing. They've granted several waivers to many of their useless rules, and allowed the Kansas athletic department to fly the team to Lisa Robinson's funeral, and allowed them to pay for the funeral itself. They've also allowed KU to start a scholarship in Lisa's name, in which all the money raised will go to help Jayla. For once, common sense prevailed, and the NCAA deserves credit for making a seemingly obvious decision.

Lisa's family is asking that, in lieu of flowers or other gifts, contributions be made to the Lisa Robinson Scholarship Fund, for the benefit of her daughter, Jayla: 
c/o SNR Denton, 1301 K Street NW, Suite 600, East Tower, Washington, DC 20005-3364.

It was reported yesterday that Lisa Robinson's biggest dream was that her son Thomas would go to college. After the outpouring of support that both Thomas and Jayla have received from everyone affiliated with Kansas, I think there's little doubt that Mrs. Robinson is looking down on her son and smiling. Not only is he attending college, but he's at a place that truly sees him as family.

Marcus Morris was overheard on the phone with T-Rob after KU beat Colorado, and he told Robinson "Hey let me call you back cousin, I gotta do this interview quick." Morris than said that he and Robinson call each other cousins, but "we're really brothers." He meant it.

Bill Self, again, has shown what a class-act and great guy he really is. Self has been in constant contact with the NCAA to get the waivers necessary, he sent a member of his staff to help Thomas in any way he needed, and more importantly Self has stayed in the background and just been there for a kid who is grieving in ways most of us will never understand. I don't know how other major coaches would have reacted to the situation, but I do know that the way Bill Self has handled the situation could not have been done any better.

Tomorrow, KU will try to start another streak at Allen Fieldhouse, after losing to Texas last week. Playing rival K-State, Thomas Robinson will be in the building. It still hasn't been determined if he's going to play, but he doesn't need to. There's no doubt the KU faithful will have something special planned to embrace Robinson whether he's watching in street clothes or throwing down a back door lob over Jacob Pullen. There likely won't be any dry eyes in the building when the crowd acknowledges Robinson, and after KU disposes of an overrated K-State team, Lisa Robinson will look down, smiling, knowing her son is in the best hands possible. Kansas truly is a family, and the whole country has seen that over the last week. Tomorrow will be no different.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Twins Off-Season Looks Like a Failure

This off-season has not been all that pleasant for Twins fans. After getting swept, again, by the New York Yankees, the front office promised even more spending. The payroll had jumped from about $70MM to close to $100MM thanks to the opening of Target Field, and the money seemed well spent as the team won  94 games in the regular season and seemed to at least have a chance to advance to the second round of the playoffs.

The front office absolutely deserves credit for spending more money, although of course the budget needed to be approved by ownership. Signing Jim Thome for $1.5MM last year was the signing of the year, and managing to get him back for just $3MM this year is another steal. However, the rest of the off-season has been a let down.

It was exciting to see the Twins win the bidding rights to Japanese middle infielder Tsuyoshi Nishioka, but a look at his prior seasons in Japan suggested he wasn't as good as his 2010 season seemed to suggest. (He hit .346 and won the equivalent of a gold glove in Japan) Nishioka isn't without value, and he would have been a solid player to start next to JJ Hardy because he brings speed to a team that lacked it greatly last year. I think speed is probably the most overrated skill there is in baseball, but Ron Gardenhire said he wanted more speed in the lineup and replacing Orlando Hudson with Yoshi certainly would have given the team a lot more speed. Unfortunately the team decided to trade JJ Hardy too, so we can again expect below average production from the Twins middle infield with Alexi Casilla and Yoshi.

The team has done very little outside of the Hardy trade, though. They watched Jesse Crain, Matt Guerrier, Jon Rauch and Brian Fuentes all sign elsewhere. The team did avoid arbitration with Matt Capps, although they are paying him a hefty $7.1MM for 2011. The team could have easily added two good relievers for that price; for example, Rauch and Guerrier will make $7.5MM combined in 2011. Now, I would actually prefer Capps to Rauch and Guerrier, but there were several solid relievers available that the team would have been better off signing with that money. Chad Qualls, who's 6+ ERA was a lot more bad luck than bad pitching last year, signed for just $2MM. It's certainly possible, and in my opinion it's actually likely that Qualls will have a better year than Capps this season.

The assumption would be that the Twins considered other relievers before deciding to keep Capps, but I'm not sure that's the case. Bill Smith told ESPN 1500 that they chose to keep Capps over signing two different relievers because they 'wanted a closer.' Obviously he means they want insurance incase Joe Nathan can't make a full recovery from Tommy John surgery, and on paper that would seem to make sense. However, most closers were once set up men, and Matt Capps is no exception. I continue to be amazed that such intelligent minds can be so naive about what makes a good reliever. Contrary to popular belief, there isn't a 'mindset' that goes with being a closer. More often than not someone who pitches very well in the 7th or 8th inning will be basically just as good pitching the 9th inning.

Most people remember Boston's closer-by-committee approach years back, and because it failed miserably for the first two months everyone just began to buy-in to the "He doesn't have the mindset to be a closer" argument. Some even argued that because the pitchers didn't have specific roles they struggled because they didn't know when they would be pitching. I find that hard to believe. I think the Red Sox had a good idea that was executed poorly, mainly because the manager had no idea how to use his relievers.

The Twins bullpen is still likely to be at least above average, assuming Joe Nathan returns to full strength, because a Capps/Mijares/Nathan late-inning combination is as good as anyone in baseball besides maybe the Yankees. The Twins have a quality lefty, though, which the Yankees lack, so it's at least an argument that can be made.

However, the point isn't that the Twins are suddenly going to suck, but rather that the front office continues to allocate parts of their budget incorrectly. The goal in any business is to get the most bang for your buck, and despite a national reputation for doing just that, the Twins really struggle in this category more often than not. Michael Cuddyer, Matt Capps, Nick Blackburn and Delmon Young are all overpaid for their production; although if Young continues to improve like he did last season he may one day be worth the money he's going to be paid over the next few years. Blackburn's extension was silly at the time and looks even worse now.

I'm not trying to pick on the Twins, because every team in baseball has contracts that look bad now. The Twins are actually in solid shape, because Capps will almost certainly fetch a draft pick next year when he's a free agent, although offering him arbitration again next season might be tricky because if he accepts the team would be on the hook for a one-year contract worth about $8MM. Cuddyer's contract is also up, so the team can simply cut ties with his $11MM salary and below average defense, but he's been an integral part of the Twins roster for so many years I'm sure Gardy and Smith will do everything they can to bring him back. Hopefully it's on a much more team friendly deal, or at least at the market value.

As mentioned above, the only sure things in the Twins bullpen for next season are Capps, Nathan and Mijares, and of course Nathan isn't a sure thing because he's 37-years-old coming off Tommy John surgery. That would leave four spots open. Assuming the Twins and Carl Pavano finally reach an agreement in the near future, the team will have six starters for five spots. Pavano, Francisco Liriano, Scott Baker, Nick Blackburn, Kevin Slowey and Brian Duensing. Unless the team decides to trade one of their extra starters, which I think will only happen once the team sees Kyle Gibson in Spring Training, there will only be three bullpen spots available.

Jim Hoey, who was acquired with Brett Jacobsen from Baltimore for JJ Hardy, will likely be given every chance to win a bullpen spot. Unless he completely implodes during the spring, I think he will be one reliever on the roster. That would leave Glen Perkins, Anthony Slama, Anthony Swarzak, Pat Neshek, Alex Burnett, Eric Hacker and Rule V draft pick Scott Diamond to battle for two positions. Carlos Gutierrez, the former first round pick out of Miami, is a long shot to make the team because he's not yet on the 40-man roster, but if his sinker is as impressive as scouts suggest I hope he gets a legitimate shot to win a job this spring. Even if it means the team has to remove someone from the 40-man roster.

The team has plenty of options, and ultimately keeping Matt Capps over two relievers is something the team obviously felt they could do because of the depth they currently possess. However, the team could have gotten two relievers who are likely to be as effective as Capps for the same price; for example Fuentes and Qualls would have cost about $7.3MM for this season, while Capps and even a minimum reliever are now going to cost the team $7.5MM.

It's hard to be down on a team that won 94 games last year, especially considering Morneau was an MVP favorite before getting hurt and missing the final 80 or so games. The team hasn't done much to improve, but many teams have proven over the years that it's not all that difficult to rebuild a bullpen on the fly. While it's been hard to watch the White Sox and Tigers bring in big name stars, it's worth remembering that these teams HAD TO do something to catch the Twins.

Most people will likely pick the Twins to finish second or third in the division, which obviously means nothing. As a Twins fan it's certainly frustrating to see the team make even small mistakes, especially when anyone who looks at a certain move logically can determine it's unlikely to be the right move. Bill Smith is far smarter than I will ever hope to be, and the things he needs to do on a daily basis as the GM of the Twins goes well beyond simply signing players and trying to make trades. Sometimes it's difficult to remember that it's not like a video game, and there's no doubt Bill Smith and company are doing what they feel is best for the team. I just hope they're right, because there's nothing better than October baseball at the beautiful Target Field.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Some exciting news

I'm going to start writing at SoMuchSports, probably about once or twice a week from now on. I will still continue to write here, and sometimes if I think something I wrote there makes sense to post here too I will double post, but more likely than not I'll simply link to my posts over at SoMuchSports.

Check out the site and keep reading; I wouldn't be able to write elsewhere if it wasn't for you guys continuing to show interest, so I appreciate it.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Who the Vikes Should Draft

With both the year 2010 and the 2010 NFL regular season behind us now, us Vikings fans can spend the next eight months trying to recover from one of the worst football years in my memory. First, we all had to sit through the agony that was January 24, 2010. Then we watched the Vikings on Sportscenter basically every single day from April until August... so naturally after being over-hyped they finished a lousy 6-10. And the team couldn't even suck the right way, as they improbably upset the Eagles two weeks ago and moved down from what would have been a guaranteed top 6 pick to the #12 pick in the draft.

The team needs a franchise quarterback. There's no doubting that, and the most likely way to find that player is via the draft. Stanford QB Andrew Luck was considered the consensus #1 prospect in the draft, and the Panthers were undoubtedly going to make him the #1 draft choice in April. Except Luck announced yesterday that he was going to return to Stanford. Him returning is worthy of a post all on its own, but my immediate reaction was shock. Luck's return leaves at least four interesting quarterback prospects that the Vikings will need to look at; Cam Newton from Auburn, Blaine Gabbert from Missouri, Ryan Mallett from Arkansas and Jake Locker from Washington. 

Now, the Vikings won't have their choice of any of those four. There are several teams drafting ahead of the Vikings that also need to find a franchise QB. With Luck no longer in the draft, I don't expect Carolina to draft a quarterback. I think no matter who the new coach is he will now give Jimmy Clausen another look. By my count, there are only three teams between the second pick and the twelfth pick that seem to clearly NOT need a quarterback. Denver, with Tim Tebow,  the Cowboys with Tony Romo, and the Texans with Matt Schaub. The Browns likely think they've found their answer in Colt McCoy as well, but with Eric Mangini getting the boot, it's impossible to know what a new staff will decide to do. Buffalo hopefully will give Ryan Fitzpatrick another year to show what he can do, and many people connected to the game think the Bengals will be too cheap to draft another top 5 quarterback and will instead just keep the quarterback formerly known as Carson Palmer for another year.

That would leave the following teams in need of a QB: Arizona Cardinals, San Francisco 49ers, Tennessee Titans, Washington Redskins and our Vikings.

Arizona and San Francisco I think are virtual locks to each draft a quarterback. Blaine Gabbert's skills are better suited for the Cardinals offense than Cam Newton's are in my opinion, so I think when it's all said and done Gabbert will go 5th overall to the Cardinals. That seems high for Gabbert, but he always seemed better than people gave him credit for and now ESPN has Gabbert also predicted 5th overall to Arizona. Obviously the pro day workouts and the combine will have a huge effect on which quarterbacks go where, but for now Gabbert seems like a solid choice for a Cardinals team who needs some stability at the quarterback position.

If Gabbert does indeed go ahead of Cam Newton, I think the 49ers will jump all over Newton at #7. I've gone back and forth on Newton being the answer for the Vikings, but he's been very impressive this season at Auburn and I would love for the Vikings to end up with him. However, beating the Eagles likely cost them a chance at the Heisman winner, and without a third round pick they don't have a lot of ammunition to move up in the draft.

I think Jeff Fisher and the Titans will go out and acquire Kyle Orton from the Broncos, because he's unlikely to want to spend another top 10 pick on a quarterback unless he really likes them after the whole Vince Young fiasco.

That would leave the Redskins, picking at #10, as the only team ahead of the Vikings with a need at quarterback. It's certainly possible that the Shanahan's actually do like Rex Grossman, and they decide to draft a mid-round quarterback to groom behind Grossman for a few years. But, since it's Rex Grossman we're talking about, I'm guessing that they will be looking to draft a potential difference maker to run the offense. Remember, Shanahan drafted Jay Cutler 11th overall because he fell in love with his arm strength when he already had a pretty good Jake Plummer leading the team. Mallett has an absolute cannon. But the consensus among draft 'experts' is that Washington is in dire need of a play-making receiver so look (and hope) for them to choose between Justin Blackmon or Julio Jones.

If Washington does indeed draft a receiver, the Vikings will need to determine if they think Ryan Mallett or Jake Locker is the answer at quarterback. If the team doesn't like either player, which they will determine well before the draft, then they need to make a move to get Kyle Orton. However, I'd prefer the team drafts a potential franchise quarterback. 

To me, Mallett is much much better than Locker. Locker has been one of the strangest draft prospects I can remember. He's long been considered a future top 5 pick, because of his football IQ and athleticism, but after last season Locker asked the draft advisory committee, who tells players where they would be likely to be drafted if they left school early, where he would be drafted. They advised Locker that he wasn't going to be a first round pick and he would be better off to stay in school. That was surprising to several experts because most people felt Locker would be a mid-first round pick at worst even if based solely on potential. Locker is again projected anywhere from seventh overall to the end of the first round, but with his athleticism it seems likely he will find a team somewhere in the middle of the first round who falls in love with him after watching him workout. Locker also completed just 55.4% of his passes this season, and then went 5-16, good for a 31% completion rate, in the bowl game against Nebraska.

Some have argued that Locker's completion percentage is due to a lack of any kind of talent at the receiver position. Except Washington was only about middle of the pack in dropped passes, and even if they had tied for fewest drops in the league, Locker's completion percentage would have only gone up to 57.8%. Poor receivers or not, a potential franchise QB will almost always complete 60% of his passes in college. I would be very surprised if Jake Locker is the exception.

Ryan Mallett on the other hand has had a very, very good statistical season for Arkanas. Mallett finished 14th in the country in completion percentage (66.5%) but 3rd in the country in yards per attempt (9.8), which makes his completion percentage that much more impressive. He has probably the strongest arm of any quarterback in the draft, so the completion percentage is very important because it suggests along with having superb arm strength he also has the accuracy that so many draft busts seem to lack. Mallett finished third in the country in quarterback rating, behind Heisman winner Cam Newton and Boise State's Kellen Moore. Moore doesn't do anything for me as an NFL prospect, though, because he played a very weak schedule and he seems to lack even the average arm strength that a franchise quarterback must possess. 

Mallett has been called a head case, and because of his natural ability, he's been compared by some to Jeff George. That comparison isn't necessarily a bad one, but George seems like an extreme example of a head case. I think Mallett is unlikely to be as crazy as Jeff George was over his career, and I feel pretty safe making the prediction. 

Here are several players college stats from their final collegiate year (completions/attempts, Yards, TDs, INTs, Season Strength of Schedule*):
Player A: 209/316, 2,566 yards, 24 TD, 8 INT, SOS: 56
Player B: 266/411, 3,869 yards, 32 TD, 12 INT, SOS: 14
Player C: 287/477, 3,819 yards, 37 TD, 11 INT, SOS: 2
Player D: 227/410, 3,968 yards, 34 TD, 11 INT, SOS: 37
Player E: 388/654, 4,507 yards, 31 TD, 19 INT, SOS: 44
Player F: 184/332, 2,265 yards, 17 TD, 9 INT, SOS: 2

*The season strength of schedule is just to compare how tough the players competition was in that season. The numbers aren't great when compared with other years, since it's obviously possible the talent level during the 2004 season was better than the talent in a different year, or vice versa. But ultimately it's probably not a huge difference talent wise from year to year so I will compare the numbers anyways.

Looking just at those numbers, whether you can guess who the six are or not, it seems pretty clear that Player C is the most impressive, despite completing just slightly over 60% of his passes. A TD:INT ratio of 3:1 is very good, and his was even above that, but considering Player C threw more passes than anyone besides player E his ratio is that much more impressive. Also the fact that he played a difficult schedule that year may help explain the slightly low completion percentage. Who would you guess player C is? It's Peyton Manning.

Based strictly on TD:INT ratio, Player D would appear to be the next choice. He threw for more yards in less attempts, which also explains why he threw less touchdowns. There is a red flag in Player D's numbers, though, and it's the completion percentage. It falls in at 55.4%. No, player D is not Jake Locker. It's Ryan Leaf. The biggest bust in NFL history. His low completion percentage at the time was shrugged at, with many experts suggesting that his completion percentage was low because his yards per attempt were higher than most quarterbacks. Leaf's yards per attempt that year were a very good 9.7. Mallett's was 9.41 this year. Both have what is considered very rare arm strength. Mallett completed almost 65% of his passes, though, so the accuracy that Leaf seemed to lack even in college doesn't look to be an issue for Mallett.

Player A had a great completion percentage (66.1%), and a 3:1 TD:INT ratio, but his lack of attempts seemed to scare off some teams in the draft. Player A is Aaron Rodgers. Maybe he was a bit raw and sitting for a few years behind Brett Favre allowed Rodgers to learn what he needed to because he didn't throw enough in college. But in my opinion Rodgers would have been really good eventually whether he had started immediately or waited like he did. However, he likely wouldn't have been good immediately.

Player E threw the ball a ton, more than Rodgers and Player F combined actually, which is why his interception total looks so high. However, 19 INTs in 654 attempts works out to about 1 interception every 34 attempts, which just isn't all that high. His high number of throws suggests that his coach had a ton of confidence in him, though, and unlike Rodgers his numbers would suggest the immediate impact that is sought after by every general manager. Player E is Matt Ryan.

Player F has a ton of red flags when compared with these other players. His lack of attempts, like Rodgers, suggests a larger learning curve will be needed for him to adjust to the speed of the game. His low number of attempts coupled with his poor completion percentage (55.4%) are worrisome, and the fact that his yards per attempt were just 6.82, almost three yards worse than Ryan Leaf's, means his accuracy problems are likely going to be with him his whole career. Player F is obviously Jake Locker.

Locker does have some things going for him, though. He played the second toughest schedule in the country, so it's possible he's seen some NFL schemes from some of the elite college defenses this season. He's incredibly fast, and some expect him to clock in as high as 4.40 in the 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine. However, his very poor completion percentage coupled with a very weak yards per attempt seem to suggest Locker will be below average during his time in the league, and for that reason I hope the Vikings avoid him.

That leaves Player B, who is Ryan Mallett. Mallett's attempts, yards, touchdowns, yards per attempt and interceptions are all very very similar to Ryan Leaf's. Of course, as mentioned above, the major difference is in the players completion percentage. Mallett threw just one more pass than Leaf, yet completed 39 more passes. Mallett's completion percentage is the second highest of these players mentioned, behind only Aaron Rodgers.

I'm hoping that Mallett is able to slide to #12 somehow to allow the Vikings to rebuild their team around someone I think will be a fantastic professional quarterback. Even if the team needs to move ahead of the Redskins just to be sure they get the man they want, it needs to be done. Ryan Mallett is the answer, now it's just up to the Vikings organization to make it happen.

UPDATE: Mallet's likely going to go later than 12, so the Vikings need to correctly gauge where he goes. Either take him in the 2nd round if he'll be there, or trade down from 12 and pick up another pick.


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