Monday, January 31, 2011

O's sign Duchscherer

According to The Baltimore Sun's Dan Connolly, via Orioles Insider, the Orioles have signed veteran right-hander Justin Duchscherer to a one-year deal. Duchscherer, who wants to pitch in the rotation, apparently chose the O's over the Nationals and Mariners because they've guaranteed him a place on the roster as a starter.

Here are some of the details of Duchscherer's contract, detailed by Connolly:
He will make $700,000 in a base contract that will increase to $1.1 million whenever he is put on the 25-man roster (that will be pro-rated if it is later than Opening Day). He has incentives based on games started that will continue to build and eventually would bring his salary to $4.5 million if he makes 30 starts in 2011. He also has a standard awards bonus package which includes an additional $100,000 if he is named Comeback Player of the Year. His physical will be either Tuesday or Wednesday.
That certainly seems like a fair deal, especially if Duchscherer (33) can stay healthy and pitch like he did in 2008, when he had a 2.54 ERA in 141.2 innings. He won't strike out a lot of batters (6.87 K/9), but he won't walk many either (2.40 BB/9).

If Duchscherer can stay off of the disabled list and regain his pitching form, it'll give the O's a relatively cheap starting pitching option while also providing more time for Chris Tillman and Zach Britton to hone their skills in Triple-A. Duchscherer's signing also seemingly completes the O's Opening Day rotation that will likely include Brian Matusz, Jeremy Guthrie, Jake Arrieta, and Brad Bergesen.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Nick Young on road losing: "It can't be us every night"

Really, it was bound to happen, though I'm surprised it took the Wizards' 23rd straight road loss for a player to start complaining and pointing a finger at someone else. And that player was Nick Young, who, more or less, expressed some frustration after the team's most recent loss, a 107-93 beating in Memphis.

According to The Washington Post's Michael Lee, here's what Young had to say:
But after the Wizards lost . . . Nick Young openly questioned the play calling as he slipped on his sneakers in the visitor's locker room. Young was upset that the team had abandoned the scheme it had used the night before in Oklahoma City, when it pushed the Thunder to double overtime.

"I don't know. We don't stay consistent with play calling," Young said. "It's crazy. It can't be us all the time. The same thing we run against the Thunder, we came out with a different plan. It can't be us every night."

[. . .]

"We've got to be consistent really," Young said. "We got to work on just staying together really. I think that's what's making us go out there and play this way. Everyone feels they can change the game and be a game changer. We've just got to stay consistent with what we was running. We should've carried over what we had against the Thunder. We should've came out excited and ready to pump and going with the same routine."
Maybe Young is right. Maybe the Wizards coaching staff could call better plays and put the team in a better position to win. Many fans have been calling for Flip Saunders's job, believing that the Wizards should be playing better than they are and that Saunders hasn't done a very good job in his time in Washington.

But at the end of the day, players play and coaches coach. Young undoubtedly knows this and is disappointed with the constant losing on the road. But is Young really the guy who should be complaining about the plays that are called? In the double-overtime loss to the Thunder the other night, Young (32 points) took 33 shots -- 13 more than anyone on the team. He made just 13 of them. That's not terribly efficient basketball, but it's not surprising that Young favors the chance to take that many shots. Against the Grizzlies last night, Young made just two of nine shots and had eight points. (It's also worth noting that he played 28 minutes before leaving the game in the fourth quarter with a calf injury.) In two games, Young took 42 shots and made only 15 of them, yet he has the audacity to complain about play calling and possible coaching mistakes. Even if what he's saying has some truth to it -- and it does -- he didn't exactly pick the best time to make those comments.

For what it's worth, the Wizards shot 42.6 percent as a team against the Thunder. Against the Grizzlies, they shot 42.7 percent.

The Wizards' next two road games are at Dallas and at New Orleans, which won't provide any easy wins. The only light at the end of the tunnel appears to be a road game at Cleveland on February 13, but with a team that will probably be 0-25 on the road heading into that game, there is no such thing as a guaranteed victory.

At the end of the day, it's hard to be too upset with Young. Honestly, who wouldn't be frustrated after consistently losing on the road like this for nearly half a season? But Young -- and the entire team -- needs to play much better to eventually get that road win. And that means scoring 43 points on 42 shots in two games won't get the job done -- no matter the play calling.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Redskins QB conundrum

When it comes to the Redskins drafting a quarterback in the first round of the upcoming NFL Draft, most fans seem to be in one camp or the other: either feeling that 1) the Skins need to draft a quarterback early no matter what, or 2) completely opposing taking a quarterback at any point in the first round. I'm more in the middle ground: if they end up taking a quarterback, that's fine, but they should at least recognize and consider other possibilities (taking another position, picking the best player available, or trading down). That seems like a non-controversial position to take, but the Redskins do have a lot of problems to fix and are not one player away from contention.

NFL teams do not have a foolproof system of evaluating quarterbacks (or really anyone, for that matter). Except for a very select group of players, there is no sure-thing quarterback prospect. Plenty of immensely talented, early selected quarterbacks have failed spectacularly, and many others flourished after dropping to teams that were better able to utilize their talents and nurture their pro growth effectively.

Just take a look at Aaron Rodgers. Rodgers was thought to be one of the top quarterback prospects in the 2005 NFL Draft. In actuality, he was: He was the second quarterback taken overall after Alex Smith, who was selected No. 1 by the 49ers. But lots of teams passed on Rodgers -- they either weren't sold on his abilities or were content to fill other positions instead. Rodgers was finally selected by the Packers with the 24th selection. And yet, that was just the beginning. As the backup to Brett Favre for his first three seasons, Rodgers had plenty of time to be coached up on how to play the position properly. And when he finally received the full support of the entire Packers organization in 2008, Rodgers flourished. In his first three seasons, Rodgers has thrown for at least 3,922 yards and 28 touchdowns in each season. Now that's productivity.

But what would have happened if, for some reason, the 49ers had selected Rodgers instead of Smith? Would Rodgers have been as effective? Would he still be in the NFL? It's impossible to know, but each situation a quarterback is placed in is different. We'd like to think that a tremendously skilled quarterback would play well no matter what team he's on -- such as, would Peyton Manning be just as awesome if he were playing on the Redskins instead of the Colts. There are plenty of questions like that that just can't be answered.

While no one would argue that quarterback is not the most important position on the field, that doesn't mean that it's not important to still strive for a well-rounded team. Most of the best quarterbacks in the league are former first-round picks, but some can still be found later in the draft. Often it's about getting lucky, but that's what can happen when teams save their picks or acquire draft choices from other teams. The Redskins don't operate that way.

To shift gears a little bit, let's take a look at the top 15 quarterbacks this season in terms of QB ranking and in what spot they were drafted.

1. Tom Brady (6th round, No. 199)
2. Philip Rivers (1st, 4)
3. Aaron Rodgers (1st, 24)
4. Michael Vick (1st, 1)
5. Ben Roethlisberger (1st, 11)
6. Josh Freeman (1st, 17)
7. Joe Flacco (1st, 18)
8. Matt Cassel (7th, 230)
9. Matt Schaub (3rd, 90)
10. Peyton Manning (1st, 1)
11. Matt Ryan (1st, 3)
12. Drew Brees (2nd, 32)
13. David Garrard (4th, 108)
14. Jon Kitna (undrafted free agent)
15. Kyle Orton (4th, 106)

Of those 15 quarterbacks, eight were first-round picks. Also, two of the guys taken in later rounds were drafted by the Patriots, who seem to be pretty good at this whole drafting thing. (Also, three of the picks above were made by the Falcons, and two were made by the Chargers.) I'm not going to break down each quarterback and the situation he was drafted into -- especially since the list is only looking at a single year -- but I do think it's possible to draw a couple of conclusions:

1) If the Redskins held onto more of their draft picks, they could have taken more chances on late-round selections. Because the Skins trade away so many of their picks for other teams' older players, they rarely have the luxury of taking a chance on a player in the middle rounds. When they do have picks, they're under so much pressure to hit a home run because Redskins' teams of the last decade or so are usually old and also thin in terms of depth. Seldom do the Redskins have extra picks -- fewer draft choices mean fewer chances to unearth a hidden gem of a player.

2) It is possible to wait until after the first round to find a decent quarterback. He may not be able to start from day one and take charge of the offense immediately, but that guy can be found. That player may not be as gifted as the guys selected before him, so the team's offense may need to be built around his strengths. And that's something that the Redskins haven't done well -- e.g., making Donovan McNabb throw a ton of short passes rather than letting him throw deep more often.

3) For many, it comes down to nature vs. nurture -- do you believe that a talented player will find a way to be great no matter what, or do you think that the situation he's drafted into plays a huge role in his development? It's probably a combination of both, but no two players are the same.

I don't really have an overarching point in this discussion. Bad teams don't necessarily need to pigeonhole their first-round pick; there's nothing wrong with keeping an open mind and waiting to jump on a positive situation when it arises. Could Cam Newton end up being a solid quarterback? Sure. But if another team thinks so too and makes a solid offer to move into the Redskins' slot at No. 10 -- either for Newton or any other player --  the Skins should definitely be listening.

Mike and Kyle Shanahan would love to have a young, promising quarterback on the team's roster. But more than that, they want to win. The best way to do that is to keep getting rid of the old, overpaid players on the current roster and bringing in new, younger talent. If that means drafting a quarterback 10th, that's OK -- but the organization better hit on that pick, or else it's back to the drawing board yet again. Because when a team drafts a quarterback that early, they're investing lots of time and money into making sure that guy learns quickly and develops into the face of the franchise.

How Wall stacks up

I didn't get to watch the Wizards game last night -- a 124-117, double-overtime loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder that dropped the Wiz to 0-22 on the road -- but here are a few notes from the game:

- The short-handed Wizards definitely battled and made the Thunder earn that victory. With Kirk Hinrich still out and JaVale McGee dealing with the flu, four starters (Rashard Lewis, Trevor Booker, Nick Young, and John Wall) played at least 45 minutes each. The other starter, Andray Blatche, played 31. I'm not sure that that's the best way to distribute minutes or to prepare for a back-to-back -- the Wizards face the Grizzlies tonight -- but, then again, neither is playing in a double-overtime game in which the Wizards and Flip Saunders were desperately seeking their first road win.

- Back to Booker: The rookie had 21 points and 12 rebounds and made nine of his 11 shots from the field. He did foul out after playing 45 minutes, but he should definitely start receiving consistent minutes after an impressive performance like that. Then again, with all of the injuries, he'll probably keep seeing more minutes anyway. Saunders doesn't have much of a choice.

- Wall and Young both played 52 minutes, which is both impressive and sort of ridiculous. Wall had 13 points and 10 assists, but he only shot 5-19 from the field. Remarkably, though, he didn't turn the ball over. (More on Wall later.) Young was the Wizards' leading scorer with 32 points. Unfortunately, he needed 33 shots to get those points, and he made only 13 of those attempts.

- Finishing out the starting five, Lewis had 22 points and eight rebounds, and Blatche had 22 points and two -- yes, two -- rebounds. He did, though, have three assists and three steals.

- Only two bench players -- Yi Jianlian (28) and Al Thornton (20) -- played significant minutes. Yi scored nine points and grabbed 11 rebounds, and Thornton chipped in with six points. Mustafa Shakur, the team's de facto backup point guard with Hinrich out, played just six minutes.

- Other game notes: The Wizards only turned the ball over seven times. They were outrebounded 55-43 and out-assisted (not a word) 27-18. The Thunder also shot better from the field (49.4%-42.6%). The Thunder had 19 more fast-break points than the Wizards. So, basically, it seems that turnovers and sheer determination kept the Wizards in this game. I appreciate that they're battling, and at some point they're going to win a game on the road. But, seriously, 0-22 is really, really bad.


So, yeah, another tough loss for the Wizards, but what I wanted to talk about was John Wall. He needs to be making more of his shots -- he's shooting under 40 percent from the field (39.6%) -- but as a rookie who has been playing well despite not being completely healthy, he's been very exciting to watch. Out of all rookies, he's second in scoring and first in assists. What I was curious about was how Wall's season so far stacks up to other top NBA point guards' rookie seasons. Again, Wall has played in only 33 games this season, but it's not hard believe that his current numbers could stay where they are for the rest of the season.

So let's take a look:

John Wall
Chris Paul
Deron Williams
Steve Nash
Rajon Rondo
Derrick Rose

I could have included several more point guards on this list, but I just went with those five. In terms of minutes played, only Paul and Rose really compare. Wall is averaging more assists than any of those guys did, but he's also shooting the lowest percentage from the field and turning the ball over more. Still, if Wall keeps putting up these kinds of numbers, there's no question that he should fit right in with these talented point guards.

The table doesn't include defense, and I didn't add steals because they don't necessarily demonstrate solid defense. Besides fewer turnovers and better shooting, Wall also needs to get better defensively. But that's something that comes with more experience and playing time, and it's not like the Wizards have a bunch of great defensive players behind Wall anyway. Wall certainly has the ability to improve at staying in front of his man and playing better pick-and-roll defense, and he'll get better at both. Then again, Nash isn't a very good defender and look where he is.

For what it's worth, the NBA record for most assists per game by a rookie is 10.6 by Mark Jackson in 1987-1988. In that season, Jackson appeared in all 82 games and played nearly 40 minutes per game. It would be an outstanding achievement if Wall could somehow average 10 assists in his rookie season, let alone approach Jackson's 10.6. Still, if Wall stays healthy and goes on some kind of second-half surge, it's at least possible.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Guerrero, O's still talking

Vladimir Guerrero doesn't exactly have a ton of options left in terms of suitors, so with the Orioles apparently interested in his services, he's listening. And that's what ESPN's Buster Olney is reporting -- that Guerrero and the O's are "making progress in their talks for a 2011 contract."

The O's have already made a few moves this offseason to upgrade the team's lineup (particularly the infield), such as trading for third baseman Mark Reynolds, dealing for shortstop J.J. Hardy, and signing first baseman Derrek Lee. However, Andy MacPhail doesn't appear to be done trying to fix the team's offense and may want Guerrero to be the team's designated hitter. If that happens, Luke Scott would likely see more time in left field since the O's need to keep his bat in the lineup. And that would be bad news for both Felix Pie and Nolan Reimold, who currently seem headed for a time-share role in left field. If Guerrero ends up in Baltimore, the O's could trade one, or both, for pitching depth.

Guerrero is 35, can only DH at this point in his career, and isn't likely to keep posting solid offensive numbers. (Not that a one-year deal is that big of a risk, obviously.) Meanwhile, Reimold is 27 and Pie is 25. Are the O's against giving those two a chance to see what they can do in a split-duty role, or is the team basically convinced at this point of what type of player each guy is?

It's not like the O's will have to break the bank for Guerrero -- they can probably sign him for a few million bucks. But if they do bring him to Baltimore, that may shut the door on the possibility of Reimold or Pie sticking around much longer (unless they both end up as bench guys, which doesn't seem likely).

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Revisiting the Arenas-Lewis trade

It's been more than a month since the Wizards traded Gilbert Arenas to the Magic in exchange for Rashard Lewis, and it's still way too early to declare a winner or a loser in that deal (not to mention that the deal was obviously financially motivated). But so far, Arenas is having a much more difficult time adjusting to the Magic than Lewis is having with the not-as-talented Wizards.

Take a look at both Arenas's and Lewis's stats before and after the trade.

Lewis Before2532.
Lewis After1736.

Arenas Before2134.317.33.15.639.4
Arenas After1921.

Lewis's numbers are better across the board. He's not just playing more minutes and taking advantage of that, but he's also shooting a higher percentage from the field. Arenas, meanwhile, has struggled mightily and is playing the fewest minutes per game of his career. He's also making just 36.4 percent of his shots, which obviously isn't very good at all.

Remember, of course, that this is only looking at the current season and just a small sample of games, so Lewis's numbers could drop off and Arenas could start playing better as he becomes more comfortable with his role on the Magic. But right now, even if the trade wasn't about Lewis replacing Arenas on the roster and making the Wizards better right now, Lewis is playing better overall and is doing a decent job filling in.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

A plea to Shanahan and Allen

Now that the Redskins season has been over for a few weeks, much talk has centered around what the Skins will decide to do with their first-round pick (No. 10 overall). Obviously there are plenty of mock drafts to dissect, and some of them have the Redskins selecting Auburn quarterback Cam Newton at No. 10.

The first round of the NFL Draft is not until April 28, so scouting reports and mock drafts are going to drastically change in a few months. But the current Redskins team is old and has plenty of holes, and this draft is hugely important going forward in terms of shaping Mike Shanahan's and Bruce Allen's legacy in D.C.

Picking a franchise quarterback would be fantastic. The Redskins have not had a young, talented quarterback for a very long time, and there's no question that Shanahan will desperately be looking for a quarterback to mold and develop to his liking. But having a talented quarterback does not guarantee success. Not many people would argue that quarterback is the most important position on the field, or that having a solid quarterback is immensely important. But if the Redskins neglect the rest of the team's holes to draft a quarterback, they may not only risk taking a step back in the standings next season, but also hindering that quarterback's development (again, assuming that they don't surround him with the right pieces -- the Skins don't exactly have a ton of draft picks right now (6)).

Still, having a top quarterback does (usually) make things easier. Of all the quarterbacks who finished in the top 10 in terms of quarterback rating this season, seven made the playoffs. However, the No. 2 name on that list, Philip Rivers, threw for more yards than anyone else (4,710) and had the fifth-most touchdown passes (30), and his team still fell short of the playoffs despite having one of the best points differentials in the league.

Sure, that's just one example -- and a recent one at that. I'm also not going to go back over every draft and focus on which quarterbacks taken early were and were not busts. But unless the Redskins get lucky and select a truly elite quarterback like a Tom Brady or Peyton Manning -- not likely at all -- then it's important to keep building up the rest of the team and to not keep neglecting key areas like the offensive and defensive lines. If a team is well rounded and can compete with a mediocre quarterback, then there isn't much of a reason to draft a quarterback so early unless Shanahan and Allen -- whoever gets the final decision (Shanahan, probably) -- are completely convinced that guy is going to be a star.

Just take a look at the Jets and Bears. Are both of those teams a little lucky? Sure. The Jets sort of limped into the postseason before catching fire and taking down the Colts (a game they easily could have lost) and the Patriots (who the Jets outplayed). And the second-seeded Bears ended up facing a flawed Seahawks team in Chicago while the top-seeded Falcons were blown out at home by a determined Packers team. Would the Bears have faired as well hosting the Packers instead? We're about to find out this week. But that's beside the point. Aaron Rodgers and Ben Roethlisberger are elite quarterbacks, so it's not surprising to see their teams still alive at this point. But Jay Cutler and Mark Sanchez? They may be good quarterbacks, but neither would be considered great. This season, Cutler ranked 16th in quarterback rating (86.3) but did have 23 touchdowns to 16 interceptions. He was good -- but not great. Sanchez was even worse this season, finishing with the fifth-worst quarterback rating (75.3) while throwing 17 touchdowns and 13 interceptions. But both of those teams have been able to overcome their lack of a truly elite quarterback because they're able to do things like force turnovers, get pressure on opposing quarterbacks, and run the ball a little themselves on offense.

Of course, it's all about being able to build a franchise. The Redskins are not ready to compete for a championship; they need to add more pieces before that can happen. So all I'm trying to say is that the Redskins shouldn't reach for a quarterback so early in the draft if they're not sure he's the guy. Again, there's no guarantee the quarterback they select is going to be great, but there seems to be a little less pressure and difficulty in picking another position of need -- and the Redskins obviously have plenty of those.

I'm a fan of taking the best available player, and I think the Redskins should do that -- even if it's a quarterback. But they should also be exploring the possibility of taking any other position -- offense or defense -- or even trading back to replenish some of the picks they gave away when trading for Donovan McNabb and Jammal Brown.

In the end, if the Redskins do decide that Newton is the guy, that's fine. But he's not going to be the team's savior with so many other gaping holes on the roster, and it would be wrong of them to believe that. Shanahan and Allen have a ton of work to do, and hopefully they are not solely focused on finding a quarterback. This team needs much more help than that.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

O's avoid arbitration with four; two remain

During the last few days, the Orioles agreed to terms (and avoided arbitration) with four of their six arbitration-eligible players. Here are those players, the salary they were paid last year, and the salary they will make in 2011, via Orioles Insider:

Adam Jones: $465,000, $3.25 million
Jim Johnson: $440,000, $975,000
Felix Pie: $420,000, $985,000
J.J. Hardy: $5.1 million, $5.85 million

Jeremy Guthrie and Luke Scott have yet to reach an agreement with the O's, but each will likely sign shortly.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Terps beat Wake, get first ACC win

On the same night that Florida State took down No. 1 Duke, a feat that Maryland came close to pulling off Sunday night, the Terps earned their first ACC win in three tries, beating Wake Forest 74-55.

In what was an ugly win over an awful team (at least it was on the road!), the Terps took a 14-point lead at halftime but had to weather a bit of a Wake Forest comeback in the second half. Wake pulled to within six points with about 11 minutes to go before Maryland went on an impressive run to push the lead to 21 just a few minutes later. Wake never recovered, and all that was left was about four to five minutes of sloppy basketball.

There's not a whole lot that can be taken away from this game other than the Terps' offense needs a lot of work, but here are a few notes/observations:

- Jordan Williams had his worst shooting night of the season -- 2-13 from the field -- and yet he still put up 13 points and 15 rebounds. Most of his points came from the free throw line, where he made 9-14 shots -- not bad for a guy shooting about 50 percent from the line on the season.

- Wake Forest's zone defense made things difficult for Maryland. Because the Terps don't have any great three-point shooters, other than the hot-and-cold Cliff Tucker, Wake was content to clog the paint and force Maryland to hit some outside shots. The Terps made just five of 18 threes and Williams didn't have much room to operate inside, so in a sense that strategy worked. Maryland seemed to make the adjustment to push the ball up the court more in the second half so that Wake couldn't get their defense set. Because the Terps missed plenty of open perimeter shots in this game, I wouldn't be surprised to see other better, more athletic teams play a zone defense against Maryland to try to take Williams out of the game.

- Similar to the above note, the Terps simply have to make more perimeter shots. They didn't seem all that comfortable operating against a zone defense, but they still got plenty of open looks that they just didn't knock down. Their flex offense is particularly effective against man-to-man defense, but they still ran it several times against Wake's zone -- and still got open shots. Gary Williams will always get his team open looks -- but he can't make shots for them.

- In games when the Terps shoot 38 percent from the field and under 28 percent from three-point range, they're likely going to need to make free throws. Luckily they were playing Wake Forest, so they got away with making just 17 of 33 free throws (51.5 percent). As noted, Williams shot much better from the line, meaning that the worst free throw shooter on the team has to be James Padgett, right? Williams and Padgett are both shooting about 50 percent on the season, but Padgett missed all four of his free throws last night. He also aired one of them so bad that it couldn't have been within two or three feet of the basket.

- It's pretty clear now that the Terps are going to need more scoring efforts like last night's from Tucker (21 points, 6-13 shooting). Terrell Stoglin and Pe'Shon Howard have some talent, no question, but they have struggled a bit lately to put up points -- particularly Stoglin. Stoglin made just one of nine shots yesterday and had only two points. In ACC games so far, Stoglin is shooting a combined 8-36 from the field. That's not going to get it done.

- Haukur Palsson had a nice game (four points, five rebounds, two assists) in 20 minutes. He's seen his minutes increase in the last few games.

I guess that's about it -- still a nice win, no matter what. Next on the Terps' schedule is No. 7 Villanova -- on the road. Winning that game, or beating Duke at home on February 2, would go a long way to getting the Terps back on the NCAA Tournament path. It's still early, but beating a top team like that would do wonders for these young Terps.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Seven points, 13 seconds

I realize that the Wizards (10-26) are a really bad team. I also recognize that they did, in fact, win the game last night -- 136-133, in overtime, over the Kings. Nick Young also scored a career-high 43 points, which is great -- more on that below. But at some point, even the worst teams should be able to execute basic plays at the end of games. The Wizards, frankly, did not, and that's why the Kings forced overtime in the first place.

Let's go back to the last 13 seconds of regulation. After a Young turnover gave the ball back to the Kings, Jermaine Taylor grabbed an offensive rebound and dunked the ball to cut the lead to 125-121. Rashard Lewis desperately tried to find a teammate on the inbounds pass and forced the ball to Kirk Hinrich (under the basket) instead of calling a timeout. Beno Udrih stole the ball, which eventually ended up in the hands of Francisco Garcia, who not only made the layup, but was also fouled on the play. He made the free throw.

Now leading by just one, the Wizards got the ball to Young, who was fouled. At the free throw line, he made the first and missed the second. With seven seconds left, the score was 126-124. What happened next was absolutely indefensible: Pooh Jeter -- who the Wizards somehow allowed to score eight points and dish out 11 assists in 21 minutes -- drove right past John Wall for the game-tying layup. Wall was beaten badly on the play -- it happens, I guess -- but no one was behind him to alter Jeter's shot or even make him think about passing the ball. The lane was so wide open that it looked like the Kings were still in their pre-game layup lines. Not only did Jeter's shot tie the game at 126, but the play only took four seconds. It took just four seconds for the Kings to get a wide open layup. The Wizards obviously seemed concerned with giving up a go-ahead three-pointer, but there's no excuse for defense that poorly. None.

With three seconds left, Wall missed the game-winning bucket on the other end, and the game went to overtime. (Since the Kings didn't have the ball for the final three seconds, I guess it's actually seven points in 10 seconds, but I'll leave the title alone. It sounds bad enough as it is.) Thanks to Young and Hinrich, who combined for nine of the team's 10 points in overtime, the Wizards still pulled out the victory, which should be applauded considering the monumental collapse at the end of regulation. But they're not getting off that easy. There was very little defense played in yesterday's game from either team, but the defense displayed by the Wizards in the fourth quarter was absolutely atrocious. Not only did they fall apart in the fourth quarter's final seconds, but they allowed 43 points in that quarter alone. Forty-three points! In Friday's win over the Nets, the Wizards didn't allow 43 total points until the third quarter. I know: The Nets are terrible and that's a completely different game -- plus the Nets were chucking up bricks left and right -- but where is the consistent effort on defense? The Kings were getting buckets way too easy; at times it looked like the Wizards weren't even trying.

I don't think it's just Flip Saunders's fault. It's not just the players' fault. And it's not just the assistant coaches' fault. It's everyone's fault. Performances like that make me wonder why teams don't force more pressure on opposing teams more often. I know every team won't fold under pressure and throw the ball away like the Wizards did, but some might.

There's no excuse for the level of defense the Wizards played for much of the game -- obviously in the fourth quarter -- and that's not even counting the fact that the Kings were playing without their best player, Tyreke Evans. Here were the high scorers for the Kings last night: Udrih (26), Garcia (26), Carl Landry (23), Omri Casspi (15), and DeMarcus Cousins (10). There were no Kobes or LeBrons, or Amare Stoudemires or Kevin Durants, etc., on the floor last night, and again, Evans was out.

Now, for the positives. Young had an outstanding game (on offense). He had 43 points on just 22 shots, making 14 of them. He also shot a phenomenal 7-10 from three-point range. Here's a breakdown of his production by quarter: 14 in the first, three in the second, 18 in the third, five in the fourth, and three in overtime.

As a team, the Wizards outrebounded the Kings by 15 (55-40). Three Wizards grabbed at least 10 rebounds -- Andray Blatche (13), JaVale McGee (11), and Rashard Lewis (10). Lewis also had a decent game, scoring 16 points on 11 shots and dishing out six assists. Blatche had 16 points (5-10 from the field), four assists, and four steals. Wall didn't have a very efficient game, pouring in 22 points on just 6-19 shooting. He committed six turnovers, though he had nine assists and six rebounds. He also made all 10 of his free throws.

Off the bench, Hinrich scored 14 big points, all of them coming in the fourth quarter and overtime. He needed only nine shots to get those 14 and also had four rebounds and four assists. In 12 minutes, Al Thornton chipped in nine points on 4-5 shooting.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

NFL playoff picks: Wild-card round (Sunday)

Wow, what a great way to begin the NFL playoffs. First the Seahawks shocked the Saints, 41-36, in a high-scoring, exciting game, and then the Jets survived a last-minute field goal by Adam Vinatieri and won on a last-second field goal of their own (by Nick Folk) to get a 17-16 win over the Colts. Today's games probably can't top those two, but they should still be entertaining.

I sided with the Saints and Jets, so I went 1-1 with my first two playoff picks. Here are my next two (which won't be as in-depth).

CHIEFS (+3.5) over Ravens

Did you know that the Chiefs (10-6) are 7-1 at home this season? They only beat one team above .500 (the 9-7 Chargers), but that's rather impressive. Still, they didn't face a lot of great teams this season; it's not a knock on them, it's just a fact. The 12-4 Ravens, on the other hand, played a much tougher schedule that included games against the Jets, Patriots, Falcons, Saints, Buccaneers, and Steelers (twice). They seem like the much more battle-tested team, but they'll still have their hands full with the resurgent Chiefs, especially in Kansas City.

On offense, the two teams are pretty similar: The Chiefs score 22.9 points per game, and the Ravens score 22.3 points per game. Defensively, the Ravens are better, allowing 16.9 points per game, while the Chiefs give up 20.4 points per game.

Matchup to watch: Chiefs rushing attack vs. Ravens rush defense. The Chiefs rush for an NFL-best 164.2 yards per game; the fifth-ranked Ravens rush defense allows 93.9 yards per game. Something has to give.

It's worth noting that Joe Flacco (93.6) and Matt Cassel (93.0) were ranked Nos. 7 and 8, respectively, in quarterback rating this season. Cassel had two more touchdowns and three fewer interceptions, but Flacco threw for more yards (3,622-3,116).

I think the Ravens have a great shot at winning this game; they are favored, after all. But the Chiefs do have the advantage of being home, which actually means something at Arrowhead Stadium. I think the Ravens will win, but it'll be a close game. I wouldn't be all that surprised to see this game turn out to be like the Jets-Colts game.

EAGLES (-3) over Packers

Aaron Rodgers is an outstanding quarterback. This season, he had the third-best quarterback rating (101.2), which was just behind Tom Brady and Philip Rivers. If given time, he has the ability to pick apart just about any defense. Unfortunately, similar to Peyton Manning, his team's offense rests mostly on his arm. The Packers just are not very good at running the ball -- they average just over 100 yards per game on the ground. Although the Eagles aren't that great at stopping the run (110.4 yards per game -- 15th best), they should be able to focus on Rodgers instead of being forced to keep a ton of defenders in the box.

The Eagles do scare me a bit, though. After their enormous come-from-behind victory over the Giants in Week 15, they fell flat and lost to the Vikings in Week 16 before resting some players and basically conceding defeat to the Cowboys in the season's final week. Did they pack things up a little early to gear up for the playoffs? Will some of that rust prove costly against the Packers?

I don't think so. The Packers defense is solid, allowing only 15 points per game, but with Michael Vick, LeSean McCoy, DeSean Jackson, and Jeremy Maclin, the Eagles can put plenty of points on the board against any defense. The real key, to me, is going to be Rodgers against the Eagles defense. He's going to be under pressure, and just a few mistakes could prove costly.

The lack of a run game will hurt the Packers dearly, and the Eagles will win this game by at least a touchdown.

Regular season: 114-136-6
Playoffs: 1-1
Overall: 115-137-6

Saturday, January 8, 2011

NFL playoff picks: Wild-card round (Saturday)

Just a terrible job during the regular season picking games. So much for the moral victory of getting back to .500. But it's playoff time now, which means it's time to focus -- or something like that.

Saints (-11) over SEAHAWKS

The Saints (11-5) recently placed Pierre Thomas and Chris Ivory on injured reserve, leaving them one injury away (to the already injury-prone Reggie Bush) from giving the bulk of their carries to Julius Jones. Safety Malcom Jenkins and tight end Jimmy Graham, who were both injured last week against the Buccaneers, are also expected to miss the game. And yet, despite the Saints' injuries, I have absolutely no confidence in the Seahawks.

You probably already know that the Seahawks recently became the first under-.500 team (at 7-9) to make the playoffs. They were also outscored by 97 points this season and were blown out in each of their nine losses. In fact, their smallest margin of defeat in those nine losses was 15 points, which, interestingly enough, came against the Saints (at New Orleans) in Week 11.

The main two reasons to possibly side with the Seahawks are 1) the Saints' injuries, mentioned above, and 2) that Seattle can be a difficult place to play. The Seahawks finished with a 2-6 record on the road but had a 5-3 home record. So who did they beat at home? The 49ers (6-10), Chargers (9-7), Cardinals (5-11), Panthers (2-14), and Rams (7-9). And who beat them? The Giants (10-6), Chiefs (10-6), and Falcons (13-3). So besides that Chargers win, the Seahawks beat a bunch of bad-to-mediocre teams at home and lost to the good teams. So much for that enormous home-field advantage.

Really, the only thing holding the Saints back in this game will be themselves. And despite the injuries, they should still roll.

Jets (+3) over COLTS

The Colts (10-6) closed out the regular season by winning four straight games, and yet none of those games came over a team above .500. The Jets (11-5), meanwhile, ended the season on a bit of a roller coaster, winning four straight from Week 9 to Week 12, losing two ugly games to the Patriots and Dolphins, somehow beating the Steelers on the road, losing a shootout in Chicago to the Bears, and then blowing out the Bills at home.

So how do these two teams stack up?

Offense: The Colts have the fourth-ranked scoring offense (27.2 points per game) despite rushing for the fourth-worst yards per game (92.7). With an average, or slightly above-average, offensive line, that's a lot of pressure on Peyton Manning to put points on the board. (Unsurprisingly, the Colts throw for the most yards per game (288.1).) The Jets score the 13th-most points per game (22.9) and have the fourth-ranked rushing attack -- 148.4 yards per game. Mark Sanchez can make some solid plays at times, but with a 75.3 quarterback rating, he may be handing the ball off a lot unless the Jets get down by a few scores.

Defense: The Jets only give up 19 points per game (sixth best), while the Colts allow 24.3 points per game (23rd best). The Jets also forced four more turnovers than the Colts (24-20). In terms of sacks, the Jets had 10 more than the Colts (40-30), but because Manning is so quick with the ball, the Colts only took 16 sacks. The Jets allowed 28.

Special teams: The Jets averaged the third-best kickoff return yardage per attempt (25.2) and returned two kickoffs for touchdowns (both by Brad Smith). The Colts returned one kick for a touchdown (by Tyjuan Hagler on an onside kick), but they only averaged 19.6 yards per return (29th). On punt returns, neither team had a return touchdown; the Jets averaged 9.6 yards per return, and the Colts averaged 6.9 yards per return.

If Manning has a huge game, the Colts will probably win. And if he's under pressure all game and throws a few interceptions, the Jets will likely win. It will be hard for the Colts to run the ball against the Jets, but they should be able to block long enough to give Manning time for much of the game. Still, I don't think either team is that much better than the other, and this is the type of game that could come down to a late field goal. I don't want to side with Sanchez on the road, but he also is working with the better rushing attack and the better offensive line. Manning doesn't have that advantage. I'm going with the Jets.

Last week: 5-11
Regular season: 114-136-6

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Gregg joins O's bullpen

On the heels of signing Derrek Lee, the Orioles have agreed to terms with reliever Kevin Gregg on a two-year deal. According to Jeff Zrebiec of The Baltimore Sun (via Orioles Insider), Gregg's deal is worth $10 million and "also includes a club option for 2013 that could vest if Gregg is able to finish a certain number of games during the 2012 season."

Although signing Gregg makes more sense than a Type A free agent like Grant Balfour -- Gregg has Type B status, meaning the O's don't have to surrender a draft pick -- the move continues a puzzling trend of giving mediocre relievers multi-year contracts. Just last year the O's gave Mike Gonzalez a two-year, $12 million deal; even worse, he was a Type A free agent. Gonzalez seemed to right the ship as the 2010 season went along and he got healthier, but there's no chance that he lives up to his contract. The same can probably be said of Gregg.

Doesn't the O's front office remember what happened in the winter of 2006? Sure, Andy MacPhail wasn't with the O's yet and some, if not most, of the front office personnel is different now, but the valuable lesson(s) learned from that disastrous offseason should not be forgotten. That offseason, Mike Flanagan and Jim Duquette handed out a combined $41.5 million to Danys Baez (three years, $19 million), Chad Bradford (three years, $10.5 million), and Jamie Walker (three years, $12 million). According to FanGraphs, here's the total wins above replacement each was worth in his time in Baltimore:

Baez: -0.4 WAR (2007: -0.8 WAR; 2009: 0.4 WAR; missed 2008 with injury)
Bradford: 1.6 WAR (1.3 WAR in 2007; 0.6 combined WAR in 2008 with O's and Rays, after a trade)
Walker: -0.5 WAR (2007: 0.7 WAR; 2008: -0.9 WAR; 2009: -0.3 WAR)

For all of that money handed out to hopefully shore up the bullpen, the O's received a combined 0.7 WAR -- not even a full win. The Baez-Bradford-Walker debacle should have taught the O's how not to build a bullpen. Granted, the Gonzalez and Gregg deals are not three-year deals and may not hamstring the O's much from making other moves, if necessary, but it's hard to understand why they'd want to overpay relievers when guys like George Sherrill, Mark Hendrickson, and Will Ohman have been at least relatively effective, cheap bullpen additions in the past couple years. Maybe it's because MacPhail values closing experience and doesn't mind targeting relievers who have piled up saves in the past. Gonzalez had 54 career saves before coming to Baltimore; Gregg has 122. (For what it's worth, Koji Uehara received a two-year, $10 million deal before the 2009 season, but he was signed to be a starter and did start before eventually moving to the bullpen amid injury concerns. He's also been effective in Baltimore, posting a 1.7 WAR in 2009 and a 1.4 WAR in 2010.)

Dave Cameron said it best in a December 2010 post, "Relievers Are Not Worth Multi-Year Deals" (which is certainly worth reading). I don't think MacPhail and the O's have learned that lesson quite yet, but at least they haven't started handing out three-year deals to relievers again.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

With Lee on board, O's infield makeover is complete

When the Orioles signed Derrek Lee to a one-year deal worth about $8-$10 million, they fortified the right side of the infield (along with Brian Roberts) and completed an obvious offseason goal of improving the entire infield. Along with signing Lee, the O's traded for Mark Reynolds to fill the hole at third base, acquired shortstop J.J. Hardy from the Twins (and infielder Brendan Harris), and re-signed Cesar Izturis to fill a utility role.

With all of those guys on board, the O's will likely have an Opening Day infield that looks like this:

C: Matt Wieters
1B: Derrek Lee
2B: Brian Roberts
SS: J.J. Hardy
3B: Mark Reynolds

Not too shabby. And when comparing that to last year's Opening Day infield arrangement, it looks even better:

C: Matt Wieters
1B: Garrett Atkins
2B: Brian Roberts
SS: Cesar Izturis
3B: Miguel Tejada

2011's infield is clearly better, but let's examine the offensive abilities of the two (excluding Wieters and Roberts, since their presence doesn't change):

Player2010 OBPCareer OBP2010 SLGCareer SLG

Player2010 OBPCareer OBP2010 SLGCareer SLG

There is only one place where a player in the first table outperforms someone in the second table: Tejada's career on-base percentage is five points higher than Reynolds's OBP. That's it. Lee, Hardy, and Reynolds are clearly better offensively across the board, and they're all, at the very least, minor defensive upgrades at their respective positions as well. Also, Lee, Hardy, and Reynolds have an average age of 30, while Atkins, Izturis, and Tejada had an average age of about 31-32, so the O's got a little younger while also strengthening three positions.

It would be hard to classify any of the moves as long-term solutions, and Reynolds may end up as the only one still in Baltimore after the 2011 season. Still, the moves make the O's better, and because the O's don't have a bunch of infield prospects knocking on the door to the big leagues, they're not blocking any almost-ready minor leaguers either. It's hard to ask for more than that.

Monday, January 3, 2011

What did the Shanahans learn about Rex Grossman?

In his three starts this season, coming in an apparent audition for either the starting job next season or a long-term backup role -- depending on what the Redskins brain trust collectively decides to do in the offseason -- Rex Grossman performed reasonably well. Sure, everything is not about numbers, and the Redskins won just one of his three starts, but here are his stats anyway:

Week 15 at Cowboys: 25-43, 322 yards, 4 TD, 2 INT, 1 fumble lost, 93.4 QB rating
Week 16 at Jaguars: 19-39, 182 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT, 0 fumbles lost, 60.0 QB rating
Week 17 vs. Giants: 26-44, 336 yards, 2 TD, 1 INT, 2 fumbles lost, 88.8 QB rating

Total: 840 yards, 7 TD, 4 INT, 81.4 QB rating, 55.6 completion percentage, 3 fumbles lost

It's worth noting that Grossman did not face an elite defense in his three starts. In terms of points allowed per game, Grossman faced the 17th-ranked Giants (21.7), 27th-ranked Jaguars (26.2), and 31st-ranked Cowboys (27.3) -- not exactly a Murderers' Row of defenses. Considering how often he turned the ball over against those defenses, that doesn't bode well for Grossman if/when he faces better defenses in the future.

In Week 8 against the Lions when Grossman filled in for Donovan McNabb in the fourth quarter, Grossman, which I'm sure most fans remember well, was immediately sacked and lost a fumble -- which was returned for a touchdown -- putting the game away for good. The fumble wasn't necessarily his fault -- there was very little blocking on the play -- but it happened. Still, I didn't include that fumble in the numbers above and focused on his three starts.

Grossman's three-week performance indicates a few things: 1) He can, when given time, put up some points in this offense; 2) His completion percentage is a little low for an offense in which he's seemingly familiar with; and 3) He will turn the ball over. Turning the ball over seven times in three games is inexcusable, but he did also throw seven touchdown passes. If the Shanahans are going to go with Grossman as the starting quarterback next season, they're going to get a quarterback who can lead the offense to a few scoring drives, but he'll also make some boneheaded plays and turn the ball over at inopportune times. This is Rex Grossman, after all.

Grossman deserves credit for playing this well after holding a clipboard for most of the season. He faced enormous pressure when he took over for McNabb, and he didn't embarrass himself. His 81.4 QB rating (in his three starts) isn't spectacular or anything, but it still is about four points better than McNabb's (77.1). I, or probably most fans for that matter, didn't think Grossman would play well and would make the Redskins look even worse. Instead, he looked decent at times and certainly played no worse than McNabb did. Whether or not that means he'll get another chance to start next season is another question, and that will depend on what the Redskins do in the draft.

If I had to guess, I'd say that Grossman performed about as well as the Shanahans thought he would, meaning that they may decide to go with him as the starter next season and draft a quarterback for the future. Grossman as the starter for a full season? If that ends up being the plan, the Redskins better surround Grossman with some much-improved talent, or 2011 may end up being disastrous.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Week 17 picks

This post is my first in 2011, so Happy New Year, everyone. I finished 10-6 in Week 15, and Week 16's picks can be found here, here, here, and here. Yeah, that's a little confusing, but I couldn't put up a full picks post because of the holidays. Blame it on Santa.

For the most part, Week 17 is basically a crapshoot. Some playoff-bound teams will start resting their players, and there are already a ton of injuries since it's the last week of a long season. For what it's worth, I'm also not a fan of extending the regular season two games. Just take a look at some of the quarterbacks who will probably get playing time this week: Joe Webb, Stephen McGee, Jimmy Clausen, Brodie Croyle, Mark Brunell/Kellen Clemens, Kevin Kolb, Rex Grossman, Alex Smith/Troy Smith, John Skelton, Trent Edwards, and Charlie Whitehurst. It's hard to get excited about that. Some of them will end up playing only because their teams will be resting their regular starting quarterbacks, but most of them will be playing as a result of injuries. No wonder the league is trying to protect quarterbacks, especially its stars, so much.

Anyway, on to the picks. Enjoy the games!

Raiders (+3.5) over CHIEFS

PATRIOTS (-6) over Dolphins

Steelers (-6) over BROWNS

RAVENS (-10) over Bengals

Vikings (+3) over LIONS

Bills (+8) over JETS

FALCONS (-14) over Panthers

SAINTS (-7.5) over Buccaneers

COLTS (-10) over Titans

TEXANS (-3) over Jaguars

Giants (-4.5) over REDSKINS

PACKERS (-10) over Bears

EAGLES (-3) over Cowboys

Cardinals (+6) over 49ERS

BRONCOS (+3.5) over Chargers

Rams (-3) over SEAHAWKS

Last week: 9-7
Season: 109-125-6