Friday, February 29, 2008

Movers and shakers

(Posted on Frostburg's The Bottom Line here)

As the winter sports season continues, many players from every MLB team have been arriving at their various spring training locations to start getting ready for the long season ahead. Pitchers and catchers have reported already, and position players are making their way to camp as well.

During the offseason, all teams worked on improving their rosters. Some teams made relatively small moves and kept much of their core talent together. The Red Sox, coming off of a World Series victory, did not make any notable moves and chose to keep its young talent together. The Yankees, surprisingly, did not choose to make any huge deals. Instead, the team re-signed Mariano Rivera, Jorge Posada, Andy Pettitte, and Robinson Cano. The Yankees did sign reliever LaTroy Hawkins, but mainly they are counting on young pitchers like Joba Chamberlain and Phil Hughes to perform.

Other teams, though, decided to assemble talent from somewhere else. The Angels signed Torii Hunter to a five-year, $90 million dollar contract. The Cubs signed Japanese outfielder Kosuke Fukudome to a four-year contract worth $48 million, and the Giants signed Aaron Rowand to a five-year $60 million dollar contract. Recently, the Mariners traded Adam Jones and George Sherrill and three other prospects to the Orioles for Erik Bedard. The Phillies traded for closer Brad Lidge, and the Brewers signed Eric Gagne.

Many other teams signed players to try and improve their teams, but, in my opinion, these teams made the biggest moves and improved the most:

New York Mets

The Mets made arguably the biggest trade during the offseason when they acquired Johan Santana from the Minnesota Twins for prospects Carlos Gomez, Philip Humber, Kevin Mulvey, and Delois Guerra. After the Mets acquired the star pitcher, they then signed him to a six-year contract worth more than $150 million. The Mets, who already had a formidable lineup with Jose Reyes, David Wright, Carlos Delgado, Carlos Beltran, Luis Castillo, and Moises Alou, significantly upgraded their starting rotation, which was thought to be a little thin. Santana will lead a starting rotation consisting of Pedro Martinez, John Maine, Oliver Perez, and Orlando Hernandez.

The acquisition of Santana may just be enough to make the Mets the favorite in the National League this year. At the very least, his presence should help many Mets’ fans forget the team’s disappointing collapse last season when they lost their grasp of the NL East to the Phillies and missed the playoffs.

Arizona Diamondbacks

Figuring their ace needed some help at the top of the starting rotation, the Diamondbacks acquired Dan Haren from the Oakland A’s in exchange for prospects Brett Anderson, Dana Eveland, Greg Smith, Aaron Cunningham, Carlos Gonzalez, and Chris Carter. Haren, who finished the 2007 season with 15 wins and a 3.07 ERA, will look to improve next year’s rotation that will include Doug Davis, Micah Owings, and, hopefully, Randy Johnson. The possible three-headed monster of Webb, Haren, and Johnson could be scary for the entire National League. Even though the Diamondbacks traded their closer, Jose Valverde, to the Houston Astros in the offseason, the team has many talented relievers to shoulder the load. With Conor Jackson, Stephen Drew, Chris B. Young, and Justin Upton, the D-Backs also have plenty of young and talented hitters to fill out the lineup.

Detroit Tigers

After a disappointing 2007 season in which the Tigers finished second in the AL Central and missed the playoffs altogether, the team decided to pull the trigger on a blockbuster trade that sent talented prospects away. The Tigers parted with Cameron Maybin, Mike Rabelo, Andrew Miller, Burke Badenhop, Eulogio De La Cruz, and Dallas Trahern when they sent them to the Marlins. The Tigers, however, received plenty of talent in return -- starting pitcher Dontrelle Willis and third baseman Miguel Cabrera. In a busy offseason, the Tigers also acquired shortstop Edgar Renteria from the Atlanta Braves for prospects and outfielder Jacque Jones from the Cubs in exchange for infielder Omar Infante.

All four acquisitions should help to bolster a team that already had a talented core of players. Cabrera, Renteria, and Jones join a lineup that includes Ivan Rodriguez, Carlos Guillen, Placido Polanco, Curtis Granderson, Magglio Ordonez, and Gary Sheffield. The Tigers may be assembling the best lineup in the entire league. Meanwhile, Willis joins Justin Verlander, Jeremy Bonderman, Kenny Rogers, and Nate Robertson in the starting rotation. The bullpen, though, may still be a question mark for the Tigers with veteran Todd Jones returning as the team’s closer. If Joel Zumaya can return to form after suffering a serious shoulder injury, the Tigers should compete with the other top teams in the American League.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

NBA mid-season awards

(Posted on Frostburg's The Bottom Line here)

By the time you read this article, the NBA All-Star Game will be over and the second half of the season will be underway. Many great individual and team performances have been made during the first half, so here are some of the honors I would hand out if the season ended today:

MVP: Chris Paul, PG, Hornets

Many fans figured that the Western Conference would be loaded this season, but not many people thought that the Hornets would be sitting at the top of it with a 36-15 record. Paul continues to carry the Hornets by averaging 20.5 points, 10.9 assists, 2.6 steals, and 4.0 rebounds per game. While playing a fast-paced style, Paul has managed to commit only 2.7 turnovers per game, which has allowed him to rank third in the NBA with a 4.1 assist-to-turnover ratio. Though he is not really a three-point shooter (34%), Paul still manages to shoot 48% from the field because of his quickness and slashing ability.

Similarly to when Steve Nash won back-to-back MVP awards in 2005 and 2006, Paul makes everyone on his team better because he distributes the ball and knows how to run the show. Amazingly, Paul’s first half numbers this season are actually better than Nash’s numbers in ’05 (15.5 points, 11.5 assists) and ’06 (18.8 points, 10.5 assists). While putting up more points and comparable assist numbers, Paul also plays better defense, commits fewer turnovers, and plays with less talent around him than Nash did during his MVP run. If Paul continues his current pace, he might have one of the best seasons for a point guard in NBA history.

Apologies to: LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett

Rookie of the Year: Al Horford, C, Hawks

With the injury to Greg Oden before the season, Kevin Durant has easily been the NBA’s most heralded rookie. He has basically been handed the award by many analysts, but Horford, who was picked right after Durant in the NBA Draft, actually deserves the award -- for now. Horford has had very little trouble fitting into the starting center spot on the Atlanta Hawks, and he is averaging 9.3 points and 10 rebounds per game. He also manages almost one block, one steal, and one assist every game.

Though Durant is more skilled offensively, Horford has managed to make an efficient 47% of his shots. Durant, who is playing shooting guard at six foot eight, has struggled by shooting just 29% from three-point range. Horford is the better defensive player and recently had 15 points and 20 rebounds while playing solid defense in a win against Pau Gasol and the Lakers. If I had to pick who had the higher ceiling, I would pick Durant in a heartbeat. But so far, Horford has just been better.

Apologies to: Durant, Al Thornton, Jamario Moon

Sixth Man of the Year: Manu Ginobili, SG, Spurs

Making the case for Ginobili is fairly easy; he is averaging 19.5 points, 5.0 rebounds, 4.5 assists, and 1.7 steals per game while shooting three-pointers at a 40% clip. With so many injuries, the Spurs have been starting Ginobili recently, but when the team is healthy, he routinely comes off the bench to provide a strong scoring punch. Even with Tony Parker injured for much of the season, Ginobili’s play has helped the Spurs to a 34-17 record, good enough for fifth place in the West.

Apologies to: Leandro Barbosa

Most Disappointing Player: Vince Carter, SG, Nets

Carter is one of the best players in the league and has thrown down some of the greatest dunks of all time. Unfortunately for the Nets, he is not one of the best teammates or winners. Carter has put up pretty good averages in the first half -- 20.7 points, 5.1 assists, 5.6 rebounds -- but New Jersey is just 23-30. Carter’s lack of leadership and inability to help the Nets win more games is probably one of the biggest reasons why Jason Kidd wants to be traded. On the surface, the trio of Kidd, Richard Jefferson, and Carter should be enough to win plenty of games in the Eastern Conference, but Carter has been as unreliable as ever. Carter is still a strong individual talent, but if he’s still such a game-changing player, his name would not be as frequently involved in trade rumors as it is.

Apologies to: Just about anyone on the Heat or the Knicks

Most Disappointing Team (besides the Heat or Knicks): L.A. Clippers

Picking on a team without its best player, Elton Brand, hardly seems fair, right? Well, the Clippers just missed the playoffs last season with a record of 40-42 even while playing a part of the season without Brand. At 17-33 the Clippers would seem to be a team without much talent on its roster, but that is not really the case. Even without Brand, the Clippers still have Chris Kaman, Corey Maggette, Cuttino Mobley, and a very talented rookie in Al Thornton. However, Sam Cassell has not played well and neither has Tim Thomas. Many Clippers fans hoped that the team could stay close in the standings so Brand could come back and lead the team to the playoffs – but that’s not happening. Maybe it wasn’t such a good idea after all to sign Tim Thomas, who has career averages of 10.3 points and 4.5 rebounds, to a 4-year, $24 million dollar contract after the 2006 season.

Most Surprising Moment: The Pau Gasol Trade

Without a doubt, the Gasol trade came out of nowhere. Not only did the Lakers get Gasol for very little, but the trade also sparked the Shaq trade to Phoenix and the near-completion of the Nets-Mavericks trade involving Jason Kidd. The Western Conference was already much better than the East before the trade, but somehow the conference got even better in a matter of weeks.

Apologies to: the Warriors signing of Chris Webber; anything Bill Walton says

Most Bizarre Story: The Downfall of Latrell Sprewell

Before leaving the NBA after the 2005 season, Sprewell had a relatively successful career playing for the Warriors, Knicks, and Timberwolves. His career, though, took a strange turn when he turned down a three-year, $21 million dollar contract after the season. Sprewell’s rationale for turning down the contract was confusing at best; he said, “I’ve got my family to feed.” As it turns out, Sprewell’s home was recently up for foreclosure, and he also had to sell his yacht. No one knows for sure exactly why Sprewell stopped playing in the NBA, but his apparent troubles only prove one thing: athletes can be just as strange as everyone else.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Meet the Coach: Interview with FSU Women’s Lacrosse Coach Ashley Manion

(Posted on Frostburg's The Bottom Line here)

Frostburg State University’s new head women’s lacrosse coach, Ashley Manion, was hired in August to lead the program. After being a four-year starter at Lehigh University and graduating in 2004, Manion was hired by Binghamton University’s athletic department to become the first full-time women’s lacrosse assistant coach in the program’s three-year history. I had the chance to ask Coach Manion a few questions about her experience in Frostburg so far and on the upcoming season that begins in March.

MK: You held a variety of duties during your time at Binghamton University, including being the recruiting coordinator, helping with fundraising activities, and obviously helping with practices. How has your performance on the field and experience on the sidelines as an assistant coach helped you prepare for your first head coaching opportunity with Frostburg State?

AM: I think that my experience at Lehigh, where I had three different head coaches in four years, helped prepare me for my first year as a head coach. By seeing three different styles of coaching, I was able to really see what I liked, what I felt worked best, and what meshed best with my vision and personality as a coach. At Lehigh my junior year, we were the number one turn-around team in all of Division I, going from 4-10 in 2002 to 10-4 in 2003. During that turn-around year, I was a starter and team captain. My leadership skills grew tremendously that season because the coach asked a lot of the players and of the captains. That season showed that if you work hard at your goals and believe you can win, you tend to accomplish more than you ever set out to.

At Binghamton, the former head coach, Emily Edmonston, did a great job of mentoring me and giving me a lot of responsibilities which allowed me to grow as a coach. I worked with the goalies, training them in proper technique and trying to increase save percentages. During my third year at Binghamton, I handled a large portion of the attack side of the ball. I was designing some of the plays and calling all the plays during games. I think being recruiting coordinator just made the transition to head coach easier in terms of being able to recruit prospective student-athletes, as I had experience in all aspect of the recruiting process.

MK: How has your personal experience at Frostburg been since you were hired in August?

AM: Since I was hired here at Frostburg, I have felt nothing but welcomed in by my team and the athletic department as a whole. The team has been extremely responsive to what I have asked them to do in practice and with putting structure into our program to build it up. The athletic department, and athletic director Mr. Troy Dell, have supported me and given me added confidence with rebuilding our Bobcat women's lacrosse program.

MK: In 2006, you helped to lead Binghamton to an upset over American. What did you take from that win or any other notable wins during your coaching career?

AM: The upset against American was the number one upset in Division I in 2006. American was ranked in the 30s, I believe, and Binghamton was in the 80s. From that win I learned how important a good scouting report is on another team and that on any given day a team can raise up and win if they want it.

MK: Over the past three seasons, the women's lacrosse team at Frostburg has finished with records of 7-10, 6-11, and 5-8 respectively. What goals do you have for this season?

AM: I think the most obvious goal would be to have a winning season. I think we have an excellent chance at accomplishing this looking at our game schedule and how the team is developing in practices. We will focus on specific stats this season to track our team’s successes in more than just the win/loss column. These stats include shot percentage, ground balls, draw controls, and some of the critical stats in games that tend to be the deciding factors.

MK: Three team leaders in points and goals from last season, Carly Rihard, Elisabeth Hildebrand, and Lindsay Lamont all return this season. Besides strong performances from them, which other players do you think will step in to make an impact?

AM: I am looking for Erin Morrell to step up in goal and have some huge games for us. I think we have a strong midfield, which will be our strength this season. I will look for our two senior captains, Lindsay Lamont and Carly Rihard, to lead us on the field and in the midfield. I think all of our midfielders that will be starting will have huge contributions this year, whether or not that means in goals. They each play an integral part in accomplishing success this season. On the defensive side of the ball, two sophomores will help Erin direct the defense, and they are Davia Procida and Marissa Henderson.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Renting an inactive All-Star

(Posted on Frostburg's The Bottom Line here)

After contemplating a return with different teams such as the Detroit Pistons and the L.A. Lakers, Chris Webber officially signed with the Golden State Warriors on Tuesday. The Warriors hope that he will be ready to play in early February or after the All-Star break in the middle of the month.

Although his role on the team will not officially be determined until he gets back on the court, Webber will probably land a starting role at center in the second half of the season as the Warriors push for a playoff spot. In the crowded Western Conference, the Warriors are currently 28-19, which is good enough for eighth place.

Webber faced an interesting choice last season when he was waived by the Philadelphia 76ers after only 18 games. Webber sat back and went through his options, and he eventually chose to join a very strong Pistons team right around the second half of the season.

Starting at center for 42 out of 43 games, Webber averaged 11.3 points, 6.7 rebounds, and 3 assists during the regular season for the Pistons. The Pistons, the number one seed, advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals to face the Cleveland Cavaliers, who eventually prevailed in six games due to the outstanding play of LeBron James. Webber contributed 9.9 points, 6.3 rebounds, and 1.5 assists during the playoffs.

Webber, at the time of his signing by the Pistons, seemed like an ideal fit for the team. He had the ability to play solid defense and hit mid-range jump shots. He was also still one of the best passing big men of all-time. He played well at times and gave the Pistons another talented frontcourt player.

But with his recent decision to join the Warriors, an up-tempo team that always looks to run and push the ball, Webber’s contributions may be limited.

Webber turns 35 in March, and his most athletic years are behind him. In his recent stints with the 76ers and the Pistons, Webber played in slow-tempo offenses. Only time will tell how well he can adjust to Don Nelson’s style with the Warriors.

In most cases, when athletes get older, they usually start to break down and are not able to do the same things they could do when they were younger. Webber has lost some of his athleticism, which is something that the Warriors thrive on.

The top eight players on the Warriors, in no particular order, are as follows: Baron Davis, Monta Ellis, Stephen Jackson, Al Harrington, Andris Biedrins, Kelenna Azubuike, Matt Barnes, and Mickael Pietrus. Each of these eight can play a large amount of minutes if needed, and with the exception of Biedrins, all of them are interchangeable at different positions. They can all run the floor and are excellent in an up-tempo game. Webber’s addition will take away minutes from some of these eight players, which could possibly alter how the Warriors play when he is in the game.

Obviously, though, Don Nelson and the Warriors’ front office are simply making a move that they feel is right for the team. They think that a talented player like Webber can help push them over the top. Usually, though, teams do not bring an inactive player into their organization in the middle of the season, especially when they are already doing so well.

While Webber’s return may not seem like such a big deal, the same can not be said for the last few years of Roger Clemens’s career. Choosing to retire in 2003 after playing with the New York Yankees for several seasons, Clemens instead decided to play for the Houston Astros in his native state of Texas. The Astros paid Clemens enormous amounts of money, and he rewarded them by putting up excellent numbers in 2004 (18-4, 2.98 ERA, 218 Ks, Cy Young winner) and 2005 (13-8, 1.87 ERA, 185 Ks).

Led by timely hitting and the excellent pitching of Clemens, Roy Oswalt, and Brad Lidge, the Astros reached their first World Series. Unfortunately for Clemens and the team, the Chicago White Sox swept the series.

After the season Clemens again said that he would retire and that he was done pitching in the MLB. Not many people were surprised when they found out that Clemens was interested in returning in the middle of the 2006 season.

Because the Astros had declined arbitration on Clemens, he could not be signed until May. After either deciding which team he would rather play with or wrestling with the idea of actually retiring, Clemens came back to the Astros in June and stayed for the rest of the season. Clemens, as usual, posted a solid 2.30 ERA, but the team won only seven of his 19 starts. The Astros finished 82-80 in 2006 and missed the postseason.

Shockingly enough, Clemens retired again -- but not really. Amid another dose of annual speculation that he would return to the league, he eventually did. At a Yankees game on May 6, Clemens, then 44 years old, announced to the Yankees’ home crowd that he would be coming back to play in New York.

What Clemens did not tell the fans that day was that the Yankees would be paying him around $18.5 million dollars for the rest of the 2007 season -- almost $4.5 million per month and over one million per start.

ESPN and other sports channels found themselves unable to stop talking about Clemens’s return to New York. They repeatedly pondered how well he would perform, and they speculated just how great the team would be with him. They even televised his first start back in the minor leagues with the Class-A Tampa Yankees, and they broke down his performances against minor league hitters. John Kruk could hardly contain his excitement.

Unfortunately for the Yankees, Clemens finally hit a bump in the road and did not pitch that well when he returned to the majors. He compiled a 4.18 ERA, but he finished 6-6 and the Yankees won just six of his 17 starts. For the whole circus he caused, his performance did not live up to the hype or the huge salary.

When bringing in an extremely talented player in the middle of the season or after retirement, teams need to make sure the move actually makes sense. Chris Webber’s return to Golden State does not make sense on the surface, especially since his various skills, besides his passing, do not seem like they will mesh well with the other players on the floor. But they could -- no one saw Don Nelson leading his eight-seeded Warriors over the Mavericks last year in the first round.

Similarly, many baseball analysts figured that Clemens’s return to New York would help push the Yankees over the top. It did not, and they lost in the first round to the Cleveland Indians.

Sometimes teams should think a little bit more instead of just trying to make a bold move. Sure, these are just two examples of many in sports over the years, especially since athletes in many sports often can not cope with leaving the competition and glory behind.

But in the end, unless Michael Jordan is coming back from retirement wearing number 45, who knows exactly what a team is going to get?