March 31, 2009

Rough Draft: A Recent History of the Chicago Bears

The NFL Draft just might be my favorite time of the year. Sure, I'm normally a neurotic pessimist when it comes to my teams, but the draft is a time when anything is possible and optimism reigns. Of course, I usually end up horribly dejected by the end of Day 1. But as I scour the internet for each and every scouting report on the recent draftees, I begin to talk myself into the Bears' questionable selections. By the beginning of Day 2 I am once again bristling with hope. And the second day is even better than the first in a lot of ways,* because anything you get from those guys is gravy; while the first rounders can pretty much only disappoint -- if they perform well, they're just living up to their draft status -- the guys picked late can only end up being pleasant surprises. Day 2's a time when I can dream of a seventh-round selection like Marcus Monk becoming the next Marques Colston, before the reality of his actual skill level gets in the way.

* This is less true now that Day 1 is only the first two rounds (instead of three), which I don't like. I'd much rather they further shorten the time between picks in the first round because the three-round/four-round split distributed my research/excitement more equitably. Now I have significantly less to chew on after Day 1.

So I love the draft. And my team, the Chicago Bears, used to make it easy to love. The Bears were once one of the best drafting teams in the NFL. They drafted Hall-of-Famer Bulldog Turner with the seventh overall selection in 1940, and Turner was an AP All-Pro seven times; every other selection in the 22 rounds that year combined for one All-Pro season. Eight time All-Pro Bill George was a second-round pick. So was fellow Hall-of-Fame middle linebacker Mike Singletary. The Bears selected Dick Butkus and Gale Sayers in the same draft, for crying out loud. Their 1983 class yielded an astonishing seven starters -- Jimbo Covert, Willie Gault, Mike Richardson, Dave Duerson, Tom Thayer, Richard Dent, and Mark Bortz -- on a team that won the Super Bowl just two years later. That's essentially 1/3 of a championship team's starting lineup from a single draft. Dent and Bortz enjoyed 15- and 12-year careers, respectively, after having been selected in the 8th round, which doesn't even exist anymore because the league shortened the draft to seven rounds in 1994.

From the '83 draft, however, there was nowhere to go but down, and that's exactly where the Bears went. It's been especially bad since 1987, when snot-nosed Halas family scion Mike McCaskey canned general manager Jerry Vanisi. Then the organization lost its final link to greatness when Mike Ditka was fired in 1993. Even though Ditka successor Dave Wannstedt didn't have much to do with the draft, his general air of crappiness pervaded every aspect of the franchise. So I'm going to begin my analysis with the draft of 1993, a full 10 years after the Bears best. It also serves as a subtle tribute to Bortz and Dent, as it was the last year of the eighth round pick.

After originally setting out to look at the Bears first round picks, and then later their first three selections in each successive year, I ultimately settled on their first four picks. This is because I believe that the first four picks are where a team is really looking to fill its needs -- despite the "best player available" rhetoric everyone spouts -- and they are also the source of a huge majority of a team's impact players.

Please look at the table below. (I suggest opening it in a new window/tab.) And really look at it, because the fucking thing took me forever. Anyway, all the players' names are preceded by their draft slot and followed by their position. Reading left to right, the first column (after the years) has the Bears selections. The second contains what I have deemed to be the best available combination of players at the same four positions using the picks the Bears had. Note that the positions do not have to be selected in the same order, just that the same four positions must be represented by the four picks. The third column is the best overall combination of players the Bears could have had with those picks, regardless of position, while the fourth contains other possibilities they could/should have considered. The fifth column -- headed 'I was prayin' for...' -- has the player I personally wanted that year,** while the last one contains any additional tidbits.

Right click and select open in new window/tab to see the full-sized version of this chart. Thanks to and for the data. Also, you would really feel sorry for me if you knew how much time I dedicated towards making this stupid chart. And I'm not talking about the research part either. I probably put six hours towards the physical construction of the damn thing.

** Ok, let me just say the "I was prayin' for..." column really does contain the players I actually wanted at the time. I know it seems a tad bit convenient at times, that the guy I wanted ended up being the best player they could have had. But in at least two of those cases -- Warren Sapp and Randy Moss -- the consensus was that they were exceptional football players, and they only dropped because of character (read: marijuana) issues, which you'll be shocked to hear don't bother me one iota. So yes, I honestly did want Sapp and Moss. I think a lot of fans did. Besides, I was also prayin' for Rickey Dudley and Mike Williams, so I'm not going to make anyone forget Bill Polian any time soon.

The chart brings to light a few things, one of which is that while the Bears did have some decent drafts, they've never really nailed it. A second is that they've done much better with defensive players than those on offense. (A collective gasp from my readers.) You don't say, Professor? Yes, and they've also done better with first rounders than fourth! (Although it's not quite the slam dunk you would think.) But onward and upward, let's break it own year-by-year. Please note that the grades are based more on how well the Bears maximized the talent available in the specific draft, rather than the quality of the players they actually chose; that is, getting two decent starters in a terrible draft rates higher than getting three in a great one.

1993: Curtis Conway was actually pretty effective for some time, but considering the quality of this draft -- and the trio of All-Pros taken consecutively behind him -- it was not a good pick. Not that my Cal contemporary Sean Dawkins would've been any better. Carl Sampson and Chris Gedney gave the Bears nothing, and while Todd Perry had some pretty good years, Will Shields is a no-doubt Hall of Famer, assuming they're still letting guards in. Grade: D-

1994: This class wasn't exactly great, but the entire draft was just as bad, with hardly any stars to be had. John Thierry did nothing but spawn horrible puns spun from his last name. My Thierry on John is that he sucks, for instance. Marcus Spears didn't make it to the Bears active roster until 1996, when he played nine games and then was let go. He did hang around the league for another eight years, mostly with Kansas City. Plus there's a second Marcus Spears currently in the league, and as a starting DE with eight sacks in five seasons, is carrying on the legacy of crappiness.

Jim Flanigan was clearly the stud here. He recorded 40.5 sacks in his six years as a starter for the Bears, an impressive total for a defensive tackle. He also was exceptionally durable, playing in every game during those six seasons.

Although I loved Raymont Harris' toughness and UltraBack persona, there were two high quality running backs (Dorsey Levens and Jamal Anderson) chosen after him. That and his complete inability to stay healthy make it difficult to call him a good choice. As for my pick Shante Carver, let's just say that I may have overrated the skills of Pac-10 players a tad during my Cal years. Grade: C+

1995: First off, I loved Napoleon Kaufman, yet another Pac-10 guy. He was the pre-Darren Sproles Darren Sproles. But instead of having Kaufman fall to the Bears -- not that they would've taken him -- they ended up with Heisman Trophy winner Rashaan Salaam. Some thought this was a steal. It wasn't. He just didn't have enough speed to play in the NFL. As a guard.

And grabbing a punter with a second round pick? C'mon! Unless the guy can average 75 yards a kick with 14 second hang time, I'm not drafting a punter before the sixth round, even if he does have "HANGTIME" vanity plates, which Todd Sauerbrun did. Which is why I didn't in my draft re-creation, taking a guard (the position the Bears selected fifth) instead. It also doesn't help that Curtis freaking Martin was chosen after the Bears took Sauerbrun. Grade: F

1996: The Bears actually did a pretty good job here, in terms of getting long-time starters. Now 13 years in, Walt Harris and Bobby Engram are still starting in the league (when healthy) and Chris Villarrial started 148 games in his 11-year career. Even Paul Grasmanis played nine seasons. However, the Bears didn't get any stars and this draft was loaded with 'em. Not many drafts on this chard have a player even approaching the caliber of Marvin Harrison in the "Other possibilities" column. Grade: C

1997: Complete train wreck all the way around. First they wasted their 1st rounder on Rick Mirer, who had already proven he was a bust in Seattle. Granted, there weren't a whole lot of great QBs available -- Jake Plummer, who finished just shy of 30,000 career yards, is the only member of the '97 draft class to top 3,000 yard mark -- but no one forced them to spend their first rounder on the position. And Bears got nothing from other three guys, and Bob Sapp didn't even make the team.

And if you stray just a little bit from the positional choices simply by dropping the QB (and instead choosing what's probably the most important position on your defense) you could've gotten Cal two-sport star Tony Gonzalez, Corey Dillon, Jason Taylor, and Chris Dishman. Now that's a draft class. Grade: F-

1998: All the hype leading up to 1998's first round billed it as a five-player draft -- Peyton Manning, Ryan Leaf (ha!), Andre Wadsworth (ditto), Randy Moss, and Charles Woodson -- and the Bears were picking fifth. Most people thought they would get Wadsworth, and I would've been happy with that. But I really was hoping Moss would fall to them. During his career at Marshall, ESPN had played a ton of his highlights and the guy was simply amazing. When the Cards took Wadsworth and Raiders Woodson, Moss was practically wearing a Bears uniform. But they ended up going with Curtis Enis.*** Making matters worse, Moss fell all the way to the Vikings at 21, meaning I would have to watch him humiliate the Bears twice a year.

*** The only upside was I spent most of his career saying "Curtis Enis hurt his penis" because I found it hilarious that his name rhymed with that phrase. At around this same time, my friend Pete would constantly crack, "Ow, that's my Dick Jauron." It was all very mature, really.

Tony Parrish and Olin Kreutz were both very good picks -- really, Lance Schulters and Matt Birk over them was a total toss-up, at least partially included for variety's sake -- but after losing out on Moss, who cares? Grade: C-

1999: Rex Tucker was the only one who gave the Bears anything. Cade McNown was terrible and apparently didn't bother to learn the playbook; Russell Davis was given up on way to early, and D'Wayne Bates was taken because scouting him at Northwestern was much cheaper than booking a flight out of state.

The Bears were originally on the board at seven. The early projections had them getting Chicago kid Donovan McNabb, and I was ecstatic -- I love me them two-sport stars. Of course, once McNabb worked out and player personnel guys saw his physical gifts in person, he shot up the board for the right to be booed by Eagles fans.

So the Bears ended up trading down from seven, passing on Daunte Culpepper in the process to take McNown. Making matters worse, the Redskins used the Bears' pick on some cornerback named Champ Bailey. Let's just say that history has not exactly been kind to that trade. Grade: Z-

2000: Finally something good happens. Much as I liked his name, I actually wasn't crazy about drafting Brian Urlacher when it happened; the highlight package ESPN showed during their draft coverage wasn't impressive, and Urlacher looked like he hit too high. Plus, unlike Deltha O'Neal, he wasn't from Cal. Obviously, Urlacher ended up being better than I could have ever dreamed. He's slowed down quite a bit recently, but before that he was the best sideline-to-sideline middle linebacker I'd ever seen. Sure, he never learned to shed blocks, but you flat-out could not run laterally on the guy.

Urlacher is the first guy to appear in red on my chart, which just means that he was the best possible player the Bears could have gotten at that spot. And Mike Brown very easily could've garnered some red ink as well, but I went with Deon Grant because of Brown's eternal injury woes. That's two top-quality starters from a draft that wasn't all that good. Grade: A

2001: And back to the pit we go. David Terrell was a receiver who couldn't catch, but boy did he look good not doing it. What's particularly egregious is that 2001 was an unbelievable draft for receivers -- Santana Moss, Reggie Wayne, Chad Johnson, Chris Chambers, Steve Smith, and T.J. Houshmandzadeh (among others) all were picked after Terrell. In fact, the Bears were the first team to choose a receiver, and they somehow ended up with the worst one.

While Anthony Thomas had a good rookie season and briefly captured the city's imagination courtesy of his cool moniker, current GM Jerry Angelo was right: the A-Train was not a "special back." Plus, taking guys from the same school (in this case Michigan) with your first two picks just reeks of scouting laziness to me.

Mike Gandy is the starting left tackle on the current NFC champs -- and the guy James Harrison pantsed repeatedly in the Super Bowl -- but the Bears never seemed to like him much, and Karon Riley's Bears career lasted all of five games.

In assembling the "Best" teams here, I did allow myself to make a trade, moving up from 103 to 99 to select Rudi Johnson, in part because it made my "same positions" team so glaringly superior to the Bears selections that I'd thoroughly deride former player personnel director Mark Hatley if he hadn't passed nearly five years ago, presumably from this-terrible-draft-related causes. Besides, in the real NFL teams are constantly trading up for guys their targeting, so I should be able to one measly time, right? Right? Oh, fuck you.
Grade: F+

2002: In a lousy draft with very little depth, the Bears did about as well as could be expected. Marc Colombo is a starter for the Cowboys, but had 62 major injuries in his three-plus seasons in Chicago. He was like Kerry Wood and Mark Prior rolled into one; in fact, I think that's approximately how big he is too. Just an enormous human being.

The Dwight Freeney thing was a complete pipe dream, once again fueled by the experts early projections. Freeney rocketed up draft boards once people realized just how quick he is. He would've looked great in a Bears uniform, although I have to admit Alex Brown has given them excellent value as a fourth-rounder . But still, he's no Dwight Freeney. Grade: B-

2003: Like Freeney before him, Terrell Suggs was a serious object of my obsession. He had been an absolute force of nature at Arizona State with 24 sacks in his final season alone, and the Bears began the draft with the #4 pick. They ended up flipping the pick to the Jets for a pair of firsts, missing out on Suggs and perennial Pro Bowler Kevin Williams in the process. Instead they got Michael Haynes and Rex Grossman. Draft savvy, thy name is not Jerry Angelo. Haynes started four games in his career, and I probably don't have to tell you about Grossman.^

^ However, I should add that in another overt act of scouting dereliction, the Bears somehow managed to select four players -- Grossman, S Todd Johnson, and DTs Ian Scott and the splendidly-named Tron LaFavor -- from the University of Florida. I mean, there is NO WAY all of those guys could have been the best player available at their draft slot. The odds against it are astronomical.

The Bears did, however, do very well with their next two picks, Charles Tillman and Lance Briggs, both of whom have basically been starters from the word go. They also got some contributors in the later rounds, but whiffing on two top-25 picks in a draft that yielded as many studs as this one really hurts. Grade: C

2004: If I just randomly gave you the first two columns, the actual picks and the "Best at same positions," I'm not sure you'd be able to discern which one's which. The Bears did very well here.

Though I liked Vince Wilfork's raw power over Tommie Harris explode-through-the-gap approach, that is strictly personal preference. Harris is definitely a better fit for Lovie Smith's defense, but with his seemingly endless stream of nagging injuries, I'd still take Wilfork. There is enough time for Harris to change my mind, however, as he's still just 25. And he is close to unblockable when healthy.

Tank Johnson was a great tag-team partner for Harris, and was also extremely quick for a big man. It's too bad his off-the-field issues appear to have completely derailed his career. He might've been better than Darnell Dockett. Durability issues led me to Jerricho Cotchery and Jason David over Bernard Berrian and Nathan Vasher, but if they're all on the field, I'd probably take the Bears' pair.
Grade: A-

2005: I was totally and completely furious when the Bears passed on can't miss WR Mike Williams in favor of Cedric Benson. Not only did they not have any viable receivers, they also had just signed running back Thomas Jones to a four-year deal just a season before. Plus, I thought Benson would suck. And his infamous crying on draft day -- when he basically called out all teams personnel for daring to question his past -- was so completely appalling and off-putting that I was wholly convinced he'd be Curtis Enis, Part II. I can't even write about it anymore. (Even though Williams was somehow even worse.)

Mark Bradley wasn't a disappointment when he wasn't injured, which wasn't often. In my opinion, the Bears gave up on him too soon and never should have brought back Marty Booker at the expense of Bradley. Adewale Ogunleye's been decent, but the Bears paid him huge money to be an impact player and he hasn't delivered. And while the jury's still largely out on Orton, you couldn't trade the Bears entire 2005 foursome for any of the "same positions" guys in the next column. Which generally is not a good thing. Grade: D-

2006: This draft probably got the worst reception, but it actually was one of Angelo's better efforts. With the entire fan base clamoring for more offense -- in 2005, the Bears had finished 26th in points scored and 29th in total offense, and first in points allowed and second in total defense -- Angelo arrogantly used his first five picks (including DE Mark Anderson, who recorded 12 sacks as a rookie in limited playing time) on defensive guys.

Devin Hester was obviously a revelation on special teams, and is now, sadly, the Bears best receiver. When Hester stumbled a bit in the return game last year, Danieal Manning stepped in and was immediately a force in his own right. He also is an underrated-though-misused defender. Dvoracek has looked pretty good when healthy, which, like fellow Sooners Tommie Harris and Mark Bradley, is basically never.^^

^^ It's worth noting that both Dvoracek and Bradley had major durability issues in college, so their problems staying on the field were at least somewhat foreseeable. Of course, as we would discover in 2008, injury red flags apparently mean nothing to Jerry Angelo.

As for my desire for DeAngelo Williams, you can ask anyone in my California fantasy league about that. It's a keeper league, and I drafted DeAngelo with my first round pick his rookie year. I drafted him again this season, then spent the rest of the year contemplating suicide because I released him after three unproductive weeks to open the season. By far my most regrettable fantasy decision ever, and believe me, I've had some doozies. Makes me nauseous just thinking about it. Unfortunately, I'm no better at running my fantasy teams than Angelo, John Paxson, and Jim Hendry are at operating their real teams. You know those guys. They're the incompetent boobs I'm always complaining about. Grade: B

Finally, the Bears actually take the guy that everybody -- including me -- wants. It's only two seasons in, but the early returns on Olsen are pretty good; while splitting time with Desmond Clark, he's caught 93 passes and scored 7 TDs in the two seasons.. He looks like he can be a top-10 tight end in the league for a number of years.

The rest of this draft, though, was downright terrible. In a rarity for a second round pick, Bazuin has yet to play a game in the NFL. Neither has Michael Okwo. And while Garrett Wolfe might have a future as a third-down back, in limited time he's averaged just 3.3 yards per carry, and last year did not record a single catch. That's just an awful ROI on three top-100 picks. Grade: C-

2008: The Bears got their whole offense in Matt Forte. Though he was undoubtedly productive, his yards per carry (3.9) worry me a little, and there were a ton of good RBs in this draft. Chris Williams gets an incomplete, as he missed most of the season because to a herniated disk. What's especially troubling isn't the injury itself, but that the Bears and Angelo apparently knew about it beforehand and drafted him anyway. Yeah, I guess left tackle is a low-impact position. It's like doing Tai Chi.

I really like Marcus Harrison. With limited snaps, he looks like the impact player the Bears have been looking for (see: Dvoracek, Dusty and Johnson, Tank) next to Tommie Harris. With just a year of data to work with, we don't really know if the Bears whiffed on any potential stars. But if Williams can stay healthy and be a competent left tackle, it's looking pretty good. Grade: B+

Cumulative Draft GPA: 1.7

And that's it. While the Bears rarely did well as they could have, the same is true for every single team in the NFL. No organization ever drafts perfectly, or even comes close. It needs to be kept in perspective that even when a team gets a 6th-round find, they passed on that player five times just like everybody else. In fact, the key is not to never miss, but to hit a home run just a little more frequently than the competition. So if you can serendipitously grab a Tom Brady every so often, you just might build a championship team.

Reduced to the most basic of terms, the Bears just haven't found enough impact players via the draft. Their 1993-2008 drafts produced four players -- Kreutz, Urlacher, Briggs, and Tommie Harris -- who have earned multiple Pro Bowl berths with the team; before looking at any data, I'm going to guess that their one-every-four-years rate isn't very good.

To put it in perspective, I selected four teams that my intuition -- as well as the results on the field -- told me were at least among the top drafters. Here is each team's number of multiple Pro Bowlers, counting only players who made more than one appearance while still with the team that drafted them.

Colts: 8 (Bob Sanders, Dwight Freeney, Reggie Wayne, Edgerrin James, Peyton Manning, Tarik Glenn, Marvin Harrison, and Marshall Faulk)

Eagles: 7 (Shawn Andrews, Lito Sheppard, Brian Westbrook, Donovan McNabb, Tra Thomas, Jeremiah Trotter, and Brian Dawkins)

Pats: 8 (Richard Seymour, Matt Light, Tom Brady, Lawyer Milloy, Ty Law, Curtis Martin, Willie McGinest, and Drew Bledsoe)

Steelers: 7 (Troy Polamalu, Casey Hampton, Joey Porter, Alan Faneca, Hines Ward, Jason Gildon, and Chad Brown)

For all practical purposes, they each average one every two years, meaning they hit a home run about twice as often as the Bears. When you are doing something only half as well as your opponents, you will not be a contender for long. Speaking of which, I figured I would look at the Detroit Lions -- assuming they had to be the worst drafters -- to see exactly where the Bears fall in the spectrum. Well, shocker of shockers, the Lions have just three multiple Pro Bowlers -- Shaun Rogers, Luther Ellis, and Stephen Boyd. Then, just to see if a number that low is a fluke, I checked out the other most inept franchise of recent years: the Oakland Raiders. Oakland^^^ also has drafted only three (Charles Woodson, Darrell Russell, and Shane Lechler, who's a punter. Albeit a damn good one.) So it would seem that the Bears are much closer to the bottom than the top, which has been duly reflected in the standings.

^^^ The Raiders also drafted five-time Pro Bowler La'Roi Glover, but released him after letting him play two games his rookie season. Good times.

And yet, I still cannot wait for April 25th and Day 1 of the 2009 NFL Draft. Sure, it'll probably just be more of the Bears' usual ham-handedness, but maybe, just maybe, this will be another 1983, and they'll catch lightning in the bottle again. And that's the best part of the draft: Despite all the research, you just never know.

March 30, 2009

What does 'Tabata' stand for?

The best story of spring training? Undoubtedly Jose Tabata's familial misadventures:

BRADENTON, Fla. -- Pittsburgh Pirates prospect Jose Tabata is not involved in any wrongdoing in a bizarre case in which his much-older wife is charged with abducting a 2-year-old baby girl from a Florida couple, police told the team.

Tabata, a 20-year-old outfielder who is one of the Pirates' top minor leaguers, said in a statement Wednesday that he is "hurt, frustrated, and confused" that his 43-year-old wife, Amalia Tabata Pereira, is accused of taking the girl from a woman at a health clinic in Plant City, east of Tampa, on Monday night.

Tabata's wife was turned over Wednesday to authorities in Hillsborough County after she was held Tuesday night in a Bradenton jail in lieu of $750,000 bond. She was arrested after handing over the girl to authorities in a Bradenton shopping center parking lot, less than 24 hours after the infant was taken.

Read the full account here. I love how they make the age difference seem so scandalous. Then in the follow-up, we get these money quotes from Tabata himself:

"She completely falsified her pregnancy and the eventual birth of a baby girl, which would have made me a father for the first time. Imagine how that made me feel."

Yes, Jose, forget about the kidnapped child and her traumatized parents; you are the true victim here. Way to break the ol' self-obsessed-athlete stereotype.

"The truth is that my wife told me many lies that, until this whole situation began, I did not know. One that hurt me a lot was her history as a criminal -- that she had spent years in prison, that she had robbed and committed fraud."

I'm now guessing the vetting process for a 20-year old Venezuelan prospect's prospective wife isn't all that rigorous. Jesus, doesn't this kid have an agent?

"I will do everything possible, with the support of God and my family here with the Pirates, to overcome this craziness. The truth is I would never wish this situation on anybody, but I know that life has its good and its bad, and I know that good times are not too far off in the future."

Verily, one of the things that God definitely does is help people overcome craziness. It's like his prime directive. Though perhaps Tabata's not talking about that God:

"I asked myself, 'What would [Roberto] Clemente do in this situation?' I know Clemente was a man known for his decency, responsibility, doing what he says, and always doing the correct thing. And I believe the only correct thing in this moment is to tell the truth."

In these situations you must think, WWCD? By the way, your stance of totally deflecting blame, playing the victim, and lauding yourself for truth-telling is very Clemente- and/or Christ-like.

Finally, to answer my title's question, What does 'Tabata' stand for?

hose abducted babies are trouble anyway.

Take that, memory of Roberto Clemente!

March 24, 2009

March Madnessless, Part I

(Click here for Part II)

Confession time: I did not fill out an NCAA Tournament bracket. In fact, I can't remember the last time I did. It's kind of sad really. I used to be among the biggest college basketball fans out there.

As a kid, I thought Phi Slamma Jamma was one of the most amazing sequences of words ever, right up there with Akeem Abdul Olajuwon; I used to say both out loud to myself pretty religiously, just to hear how cool they sounded. Illinois' Kenny Norman, Doug Altenberger, Bruce Douglas, and Efrem Winters were my boys. So were Wayman Tisdale, Walter Berry, and Armon Gilliam. I hated Uwe Blab with every fiber of my being. My friend Adam and I -- a huge (fair-weather) NC State fan -- used to re-create the Dereck Whittenburg/Lorenzo Charles sequence from the 1983 title game in his driveway. And other than the Cubs' soul-crushing meltdown in the 1984 NLCS, the defining moment of sports-fan disappointment in my youth was the Flyin' Illini's last-second national semifinal loss in the 1989 NCAA Tournament.

As the lone No. 1 seed in the Final Four and facing a Michigan team they had beaten by 12 and 16 points during the regular season, the Illini were the prohibitive favorites to win the title. If memory serves, with guard Kendall Gill in the lineup -- he missed 17 games with a broken ankle -- Illinois was unbeaten going in, and 31-4 overall.* And yet they lost to the Wolverines 83-81. Damn you, Steve Fisher! If Bo Schembechler hadn't canned Bill Frieder for not waiting until the season had ended to accept the Arizona State job, which forced Fisher to step in right before the tournament, I am convinced that the Illini would have won it all. But the coaching change somehow galvanized the less-talented Wolverines and they caught fire, taking the title without looking back and stealing what was rightfully mine. I mean, the Illini's.

* You'd be amazed how tough this shit is to research. It's a shame that it all occured pre-internet, because the online archives for college sports from the 80s are somewhere between nonexistent and god-fucking-awful. In fact, I just had to edit most of the section on the Flyin' Illini on the Illini Basketball Wikipedia page because it was completely inaccurate. "Lost on a last-second shot by Rumeal Robinson," it said. It was Sean Fucking Higgins, and it was a putback of a Terry Mills miss. Jesus, do I have to do everything around here?

Other than possibly that undefeated UNLV team that threw the Final Four rematch against Duke in 1991, the 1989 Illini have to be the best team of all time not to have made it to the title game. With Gill, Nick Anderson, Kenny Battle, Lowell Hamilton, Stephen Bardo, and Marcus Liberty -- all of whom were between 6-foot-5 and 6-8 -- the team was a collection of almost entirely interchangeable super-athletes. Versatile, athletic, and exciting, they were certainly the squad that got Dick Vitale worked up into his most Dick Vitalesque frenzy. With the constant activity on defense consistently leading to breakaway dunks, they were almost ludicrously entertaining. It's a real shame that Fisher screwed them because they were such a memorable team, but without an NCAA title to validate them, they've been almost completely forgotten in the annals of college basketball history.

Of course, when I rejected the University of Illinois and chose to attend UC-Berkeley, I largely forgot them too, as my college sports fanaticism moved with me to California and the Golden Bears. If I hadn't had so many friends go to U of I, I likely would have remained an Illinois loyalist, but it was just so much more fun to create my own little rivalry between the schools. So Cal immediately became the lone object of my collegiate affection, and even though supporting your alma mater above all else is a given, I'm still a little sheepish about having shifted my allegiance. It remains the only time in my life that I have done so.

But oh was it worth it. While at Cal, I was lucky enough to witness the Jason Kidd era in its entirety.** The guy was just unbelievable with the basketball in his hands. The astounding array of assists was unlike anything I'd ever seen. Three-quarter-court bounce passes with crazy english on them... Oddly angled lobs on the fast break... No-look behind-the-backs threaded between two guys... His court vision was otherworldly, and he played the game on an entirely different level from anyone else out there. I was also lucky enough to watch him in the cathedral that was Harmon Gym. Going to a college basketball game is just so superior the NBA experience, and Harmon was one of the places to see a game. Tiny and cramped, and louder than shit.

* Incidentally, Kidd and I both dropped out of school following the 1994 basketball season. He left to make literally hundreds of millions of dollars playing in the NBA, while I, uh ...


During Kidd's first season (my sophomore year), he got the coach fired; led the nation in steals with an NCAA freshman-record 110; established single-season school records for steals and assists; led the team to just its second NCAA Tournament bid in 33 years; hit a crazy, contested, last-second pretzel shot to beat LSU in the first round; and knocked out two-time defending National Champion Duke to advance to the Sweet 16 (where the team lost to Kansas).

The next season, Kidd was just as brilliant, leading the nation in assists while breaking his own school record, earning first-team All-American honors, and becoming the first sophomore ever to be named Pac-10 Player of the Year. Unfortunately, the team battled injuries all year long and bricked its way out of the NCAA Tournament in the first round, after which Kidd bolted.

As did I, though I would return 12 years later to complete my degree. I suppose that brings the score to Jason Kidd $165,853,968; me 1.


But I digress (for only 936 words). The point being that I used to be a HUGE college basketball fan. While I have remained a loyal Cal follower -- sticking by the team even during the mostly-dreadful Ben Braun era -- somewhere along the way, I lost my ardor for the sport.

So what has caused this to happen? Check back later for the shocking reveal!

March 23, 2009

March Madnessless, Part II

(Click here for Part I)

Reggie Harding.


Wait, who? Reggie Harding. Yes, that Reggie Harding. He is the force that destroyed college basketball. For me at least.

So who is Reggie Harding? Just the first high school player ever drafted by the NBA (in 1962, by the Pistons in the fourth round.) And after him, the deluge. Over the next three decades a tidal wave of two players, Darryl Dawkins and Bill Willoughby (both in 1975), continued the preps-to-pro onslaught.* So a total three guys in 33 drafts, all because every kid from every inner-city playground dreamed of being the next Reggie Harding. Forget Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell, Oscar Robertson, Earl Monroe, and Elgin Baylor; Harding towered over them all in the minds of aspiring young players beginning in 1962.

* A handful of others, notably Moses Malone and Shawn Kemp, entered the NBA after bypassing college, but had some intermediate experience -- in Malone's case, the ABA -- in between high school and the Association.

And yet somehow in the mid-90s, things got even worse. Thinking that the 1-every-11-years torrent of high school players entering the NBA was somehow not enough, a Chicago high school kid named Kevin Garnett decided to do something about it. A scant 20 years after Dawkins and Willoughby, in 1995 Garnett was selected fifth overall by the Minnesota Timberwolves. It was Garnett's relatively immediate success that proved to be the death knell of college basketball.

Shocking reveal #2: The first reveal (at the top of this entry) really should have been Kevin Garnett. But in researching Garnett I discovered Harding, and he truly is the early-entry Jackie Robinson. And yet unlike baseball free-agency pioneer Curt Flood, Harding has had absolutely no lasting legacy; before today, I had never even heard of him. Which is shocking when you recall that I am, in fact, Mr. Sports-Know-It-All.

Regardless, it was Garnett who proved that a kid with no college experience could thrive in the modern-day NBA, and he became the role model for other young players. And that, in turn, ruined college basketball. Look, I know that the early-entry-has-destroyed-basketball theory is hardly groundbreaking, but for me it rings entirely true.

Because Garnett's selection completely opened the floodgates. Hell, just the year before when Jason Kidd entered the draft as a sophomore, that was somewhat rare. But everything changed in 1995. Each of the four players chosen before Garnett -- Joe Smith, Antonio McDyess, Jerry Stackhouse, and Rasheed Wallace -- were sophomores; there was a total of five sophomores (Chris Jackson, Kenny Anderson, Chris Webber, Anfernee Hardaway, and Kidd) chosen in the entire first rounds of the previous five drafts combined. As recently as 1990, all but two picks in the first round were college seniors. But the year after Garnett, two more high school players were drafted in the first round, and both Kobe Bryant and Jermaine O'Neal became stars, albeit to varying degrees. Additionally in 1996, two college freshman (Shareef Abdur-Rahim and Stephon Marbury) were picked in the top-4, the first time that had ever happened.

In the succeeding years, there were generally two or three high schoolers who entered the draft, some of whom -- like Rashard Lewis, famously -- slipped out of the first round. But the tipping point came in 2001, when for the first time a high school player (Kwame Brown) was chosen first overall. With Tyson Chandler and Eddy Curry going to the Bulls at Nos. 2 and 4, three of the top-4 picks were preps-to-pros. It was here that I believe David Stern decided he would impose a minimum age restriction on the NBA Draft -- only he didn't want to implement it until after LeBron James had entered the league.

So let's review. When I was growing up, just about every great player donned a college uniform for at least three years. (Two notable exceptions: Isiah Thomas and Magic Johnson, both of whom left school after their sophomore seasons.) This meant three years of Michael Jordan at North Carolina. Four years of Patrick Ewing at Georgetown. Three years of Akeem Olajuwon at Houston. Four years of Chris Mullin at St. Johns. Three years of Clyde Drexler at Houston (two of them with Akeem). Four years of Reggie Miller at UCLA. Three years of Shaquille O'Neal at LSU. Four years of David Robinson at Navy. Three years of Alonzo Mourning at Georgetown. Even without a point guard -- and you could have your choice of John Stockton, Kevin Johnson, and Gary Payton, all of whom played a full four years -- that's a pretty damn good collection of players. It's basically the bulk of the All-NBA team for most of the late 80's through the 90's, and they all played college ball for at least three seasons, within a 10-year period of each other.

Now compare that to this team of All-Stars: Kevin Garnett, Kobe Bryant, Tracy McGrady, LeBron James, Amare Stoudamire, and Dwight Howard. None of those guys went to college. Jermaine O'Neal, Josh Smith, Al Jefferson, Andrew Bynum, and Monta Ellis too. Isn't it hard not to feel cheated? Without a doubt, the quality of play in the NCAA, the level of competition, and even the excitement of the games themselves, all of it suffered.** Can you imagine Kobe at Duke (where he was slated to go) with the Cameron Crazies behind him? Garnett could've single-handedly brought DePaul back to relevance. And what if LeBron had shocked the world and decided to play for his hometown Akron Zips, doing for them what Larry Bird did for Indiana State? Christ, even lesser lights like Chandler or perhaps Shaun Livingston might have been transcendent as college players.

** I think the rivalries took the biggest hit of all. As a kid rooting for the Illini, I really grew to hate the players on the other Big 10 teams because you saw them so much and just got sick of them. Roy Marble? Despised him. Steve Alford? Couldn't stand the sight of him. Antoine Joubert? Jou-sucked. All of these guys faced the Illini a minimum of eight times during their careers, and the constant battles lifted the intensity level of the players as well, who really took those games personally. They remembered the slights from when, say, Indiana beat them by 27 points when they were a freshman, and every game was a chance to avenge some previous ignominious defeat. And while college basketball still has a few great rivalries like Duke-North Carolina, back then virtually all of your conference foes were truly 'conference rivals.' Now that's mostly just a term we use, a relic from days gone by.

Sports are always defined by their stars. So what happens when you excise the greatest players from a game? You know how people always discount the two titles the Rockets won because they came in the years that Michael Jordan was (mostly) retired? Imagine how it would be if there'd also been no Charles Barkley, Hakeem Olajuwon, Karl Malone, John Stockton, David Robinson, Patrick Ewing, Scottie Pippen, Clyde Drexler, and Shawn Kemp. You would've had Mitch Richmond scoring 40 ppg. That wouldn't have even been a reasonable facsimile of the NBA. And it's almost exactly what transpired with the college game.

Take the 2005-'06 college basketball season. The title that year was won by Florida, but the season was defined by the play of Adam Morrison and J.J. Redick. However, without early entry that would've been LeBron James' junior year, and Amare Stoudemire's senior season. Carmelo Anthony and Andre Iguodala would also have been seniors, Chris Paul and Luol Deng, juniors. Dwight Howard, Josh Smith, Al Jefferson, J.R. Smith, and Marvin Williams all would have been sophomores, Andrew Bynum a freshman. That's a 12-man rotation that neither Morrison or Redick could crack. So there's a reason that Morrison and Redick have struggled to be contributors in the NBA after being so successful at the NCAA level: they were the best college players simply because none of the best players were in college.

Not coincidentally, that '05-'06 season was the last in which the top high school players could just eschew college entirely, as Stern put in his "minimum age of 19/one full year out of high school" draft requirement, forcing players like Greg Oden and Kevin Durant to become "college students" for (at least) a season before entering the league. I believed at the time that it was first part of a plan to eventually raise the age to 20/two years out of high school, and it looks like that'll be the case. My guess is Stern didn't take the hard-line because of two factors: 1. The players' union might have resisted a measure as drastic as raising the limit by a full two years all at once, so he decided to ease it in. And 2. Immediately raising the limit two years would have completely decimated the draft*** for consecutive seasons and had a deleterious effect on the quality of play. It also would have considerably reduced the chances of a quick turnaround for any lottery team. And so he settled for 19. For the time being, at least.

*** Even the one-year increase completely screwed the Bulls, who had the #2 overall selection in the stripped-down, high school player-less draft of '06. They used the pick to select LaMarcus Aldridge, whom they immediately flipped to Portland for Tyrus Thomas. Now I am probably the biggest Tyrus Thomas apologist around; I believe with consistent minutes he will be a very good player in the league, and he has already taken a huge step forward this season with an increase in his playing time. But still... Had high schoolers been eligible, Greg Oden would have been the without-a-doubt No. 1 pick. Which would have left Kevin Durant to fall right into the Bulls' laps. And for as much as I like Thomas, KD over Tyrus is the very definition of a no-brainer. Of course, whether Paxson would have been too inept to realize that is a whole 'nother story.

So that's what happened. Yes, only the uppermost echelon of players went straight to the pros or left after only a season or two. But it's those very players that make the games worthwhile. It's the people that are four and five standard deviations from the norm that make the difference, and you can't lose the elite and not have it affect the product. I'm trying to conjure up an adequate analogy, but all the ones I can think of come from another sport, because athletics is the one arena where greatness is so clearly defined. So imagine the 2008 US Olympic team -- winners of 36 gold medals -- without its 12 best athletes. So subtract out Michael Phelps, Ryan Lochte, Aaron Piersol, LaShawn Merritt, Angelo Taylor, Natalie Coughlin, Rebecca Soni, Dara Torres, Margaret Hoelzer, Katie Hoff, Nastia Liukin, and Shawn Johnson, and the US gold medal count is nearly cut in half, reduced to 19. Which is the exact same number as those uncordinated spazzes from not-so-Great Britain. We're a country of 300 million people, how can there be such a huge difference if you lose 12 people? Because the 12 are the truly exceptional, while Nos. 13-24 -- the ones you'd plug in to replace them -- are merely great. We watch sports to see the very best, and without them, why tune in? And that is why I stopped being such a huge college basketball fan.

There is a glimmer of hope, however. The college seasons since Stern barred high school players from entering the draft have been much improved, and it was great to see a player like Kevin Durant play a little college ball. Though I did become perturbed when even writers I really, really like -- such as Bill Simmons -- ran stories about Durant having the best freshman season ever. Of course it was great statistically; there was absolutely no competition whatsoever. It's not like when MJ was a freshman, and he had to fight legitimate players just to get minutes, let alone to put the ball in the basket. Durant faced essentially zero resistance. Argh. Anyway, players like him, Oden, Derrick Rose, and Michael Beasley really did help make the product noticeably better. If Stern can somehow get the draft age upped another year -- further improving competition while restoring luster to some of our forgotten rivalries -- I just might jump back into college hoops with both feet.

Maybe then, and only then, will I finally be able to forget about that rat-bastard Reggie Harding.

March 22, 2009

My blogging is like the Special Olympics or something!

Tragedy of tragedies (and by the thinnest of margins, it is sports-related):
While appearing on "The Tonight Show" to tout his economic plan, President Barack Obama -- who famously rolled a gutter ball while trying to woo primary voters last year -- told Jay Leno that he had been practicing in the White House bowling alley and recently scored an unimpressive 129.

"It's like -- it was like Special Olympics or something," the president said, prompting laughter from the audience.

-- Stacy St. Clair and John McCormick, L.A. Times, 03.21.09
Oh, no! That joke was just the most awful thing. I mean, all right-thinking people would agree that Special Olympians are just as coordinated and skilled as any other elite athletes. Which is why the differently-abled don't need their own, "special" Olympics.

Wait, they do? Hmm.

Look, I'm not saying Obama's "joke" was in good taste. It wasn't. Still, some of the events in the Special Olympics do have a certain awkwardness to them. So if his bowling is somewhat uncoordinated -- and by all accounts, it is -- it's not like the analogy was entirely ill-suited. It wasn't particularly sensitive, either, but let's be honest: For all the truly admirable qualities of Special Olympians -- determination, dedication, and positivity foremost among them -- their athleticism is generally somewhat less impressive. We can all applaud their achievement while acknowledging that the competition isn't exactly world class. To pretend that it is, well, is kind of absurd. So while it's a tad unseemly to make a joke at the expense of the less fortunate, Obama was attempting to poke fun at himself, and on the list of insensitive declarations by the powerful, I'd put it well below this:
Special Olympics bowler: I can beat the president!
I should probably mention that I'm referring to the declaration made by the AP with the headline, not the one by the actual bowler. Anyway, just look at that for a moment. That's an actual headline from an actual AP story. Written by Corey Williams, the item went on the wire and was picked up by hundreds of news organizations. I saw it and had just one thought:


Is there any way that if this story was about a non-mentally disabled person that they would've used an exclamation point in the headline? Fuck no. I mean, it's not even a direct quote, so they can't even justify it by saying the statement was uttered excitedly. So how did it end up in there? My guess is it went something like this:
Associate Editor: I'm gonna tag it "Special Olympics bowler: I can beat the president"

Editor: Yeah, you better throw in an exclamation point at the end there. That's how retards talk.
Seriously, what else could it have been? Even if that's not precisely the way it went down, it didn't just occur randomly; someone made a conscious decision, one that was at least tacitly supported by the powers-that-be. And it was allowed to happen because the AP is, quite frankly, the Worst. Organization. Ever. To wit:
Retail Sales Plunge
October 15, 2008 - 2:47pm
By The Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) — Retail sales fell off a cliff in September, plunging by the largest amount in three years as worried consumers shunned the malls and auto showrooms in the midst of the country's financial meltdown.

The Commerce Department reported Wednesday retail sales decreased 1.2 percent last month.
That's right. "Plunge" = "-1.2%". I am wholly convinced that sensationalized reporting by the AP has been a major contributing factor in the current economic climate; notice that this story is from October, when the recession hadn't become nearly as severe as it is now. The AP has completely inundated us with this type of cartoonishly-negative hyperbole, affecting the collective subconscious and eroding consumer confidence. Yet for all of the typically over-the-top hysteria used in the story, there was at least one tactic that the AP apparently thought would have crossed the line: using a fucking exclamation point the headline. Nope, gotta save those up for the stories about 'tards. Kudos to you, fine sirs.

March 20, 2009

Marshall Law (non-Sammo Hung version)

Filed under the category 'Only Two Years Too Late':
Lou Piniella named Sean Marshall as his fifth starter Thursday, as expected, ending the four-way battle for the last spot in the Cubs' rotation.

"Marshall is going to be the fifth starter, and [Aaron] Heilman is going to pitch in that seventh-eighth-inning role," he said.

Marshall posted a 0.63 ERA in five outings, including four starts. Heilman, who started Thursday's 9-2 victory over Seattle, allowed two earned runs in 132/3 innings over five games. He was the only other viable option.

The other two candidates, Jeff Samardzija and Chad Gaudin, both struggled in their outings and now are on the bubble for two bullpen vacancies. Kevin Gregg, Carlos Marmol, Neal Cotts and Heilman are considered locks, while Luis Vizcaino probably will make it because the Cubs would have to eat $4 million if they release him.*

-- Paul Sullivan, Chicago Tribune, 03.20.09
* And here, I instantly became infuriated. I don't know if it's Sullivan editorializing, because it's bad enough that the Cubs most high-profile beat writer doesn't understand the concept of a sunk cost. But oh God do I hope he's editorializing. Because if the Cubs themselves don't understand the concept, I seriously might hang myself. And not the quick, kick-the-chair-out-from-under-me hanging. No, I'm talking the slow and torturous kind, where I am gradually lifted by the neck, painful and prolonged, begging for a death that just won't come, as I feel my every last excruciating moment on this Earth slowly melt away. It's just that upsetting.

So anyway, Marshall's the fifth starter, eh? To which I reply, "About fucking time."

Yes, Sean Marshall should have been the Cubs fifth starter going into 2007. Let's compare two National League starting pitchers' lines from 2006:

Pitcher A
14-16, 33 GS, 194.1 IP, 221 H, 136 R, 130 ER, 35 HR, 75 BB, 96 K, 6.02 ERA, 1.523 WHIP

Pitcher B
6-9, 24 GS, 125.2 IP, 132 H, 85 R, 78 ER, 20 HR, 59 BB, 77 K, 5.59 ERA, 1.520 WHIP

Admittedly, there's not a whole lot to choose from there. However, add in that Pitcher B was a 23-year-old rookie left-hander, while A was 27 and righty. And that Pitcher B worked in a hitters' park, while A toiled in a (slight) pitchers' park, making their respective ERA+'s 83 (not so good) and 74 (REALLY not so good). I mean, you'd have to go with Pitcher B, right? Not so fast. Pitcher A had a freshly-minted World Series ring, and postseason performance could certainly swing the pendulum in his... What's that? What's that you say? You say Pitcher A didn't once play?

That's right. Pitcher A's postseason line:
0-0, 0 GS, 0 IP, 0 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 0 HR, 0 BB, 0 K, 0 HBP, 0.00 ERA, 0.000 WHIP

But, hey, the WHIP and the ERA look pretty damn good. In Pitcher A's defense, it's difficult to pitch when YOU ARE LEFT OFF THE POSTSEASON ROSTER. Which, incidentally, probably isn't a great sign. But instead of just paying Pitcher B (Sean Marshall, surprisingly) the league minimum to be their fifth starter in 2007, the Cubs inexplicably gave Pitcher A (Jason Marquis) a 3-year, $21 million contract to fill the role.** Ugh.

** For those of you who want to accuse me of using the benefit of hindsight in my analysis, I made essentially the exact same post on my fantasy football league's message board shortly after all this happened. Seriously, you can ask them. I'm sure they'll all remember, as they were no doubt thrilled that I was using a California-based fantasy football league's web site as a forum to bitch about the Cubs' foibles.

Due to injuries and others' ineffectiveness, Marshall still ended up making 19 starts for the Cubs in 2007; Marquis made 33. Their stats as starters:

12-9, 191 IP, 186 H, 107 R, 94 ER, 22 HR, 75 BB, 107 K, 4.43 ERA, 1.366 WHIP

7-8, 100 IP, 105 H, 52 R, 45 ER, 13 HR, 33 BB, 64 K, 4.05 ERA, 1.380 WHIP

Again, not a whole lot to choose from. The larger issue was, for that very similar production, the Cubs paid Marquis about 15 times what Marshall made. No matter. With the ink barely dried on that canny contract, Marquis was again given a spot in the rotation in 2008, while Marshall was ticketed (primarily) for the bullpen. The numbers:

11-9, 167 IP, 172 H, 87 R, 84 ER, 15 HR, 70 BB, 91 K, 4.53 ERA, 99 ERA+, 1.449 WHIP

3-5, 65.3 IP, 60 H, 28 R, 28 ER, 9 HR, 23 BB, 58 K, 3.86 ERA, 116 ERA+, 1.270 WHIP

I'll say this for Marquis: He sure is lucky with that win-loss record. However, after the season the evidence of Marquis' mediocrity became too much for even the Cubs to ignore. Of course, they didn't have the cajones to just cut him loose, which turned out to be a good thing for the Cubs. By sweetening the deal with $875,000 cash, Hendry ultimately found a taker in the Rockies in exchange for fellow free-agent bust Luis Vizcaino -- see how it comes full circle? -- saving the Cubs' new owners a cool $5 million. And now the Cubs can, in fact, just dump Vizcaino, and the uproar over paying him $4 million to go away will be nothing compared to what Hendry would've faced had he waived Marquis this offseason. Then he would've had to answer for paying $21 million for two seasons of replacement-level starting pitching, whereas now no one even mentions that he wasted $16 million on it.

Which is why I believe Hendry will have no trouble getting rid of Vizcaino if he's not performing -- the entire acquisition was just a subterfuge to begin with. Jim Hendry might be an idiot, but he ain't no dummy.

March 18, 2009

Albatrocalypse Now

Amazingly, precisely half of my followers took issue with my labeling of Derrek Lee as a contract albatross in the previous post. (Strangely, no one objected to the same categorization for Alfonso Soriano. I mean, anytime you can lock up a non-superstar at a non-premium position at a mere $17 million per season for basically the entire duration of his 30's, that's something you just have to do.) The general perspective is best summed up by loyal reader Matt Armstrong:
Lee's contract might be an albatross only because that wrist injury [in 2006] turned him into Mark Grace. ... If he could play at 80% of that monster year ('05?) that contract would be a steal and he had a sterling injury history up to that point.

By the way, that was sent via text and I had to painstakingly translate it into traditional written English. But enough about my trials and travails -- is Matt right? Coming off the monster 2005 Matt mentions -- a year in which he hit .335/.416/.662 with 46 homers and 50 doubles -- Lee signed a five year, $65 million contract right at the beginning of the 2006 season. However, since the Cubs tore up the remaining $8 million season on his previous contract, from the team's perspective, it was really more of a four-year, $57 million extension, meaning the Cubs agreed to pay $14.25 million per for Lee's age 31-34 seasons. In my opinion, even if Lee had only declined somewhat mildly -- as would be expected as he entered his mid-30s -- the contract would hardly have been a steal.

But that, to me, is the tiniest of potatoes. The real issue is the other part, as at this point I'm not entirely convinced it was Lee's injury in 2006 that "turned him into Mark Grace." (By the way, "Mark Grace" is Matt's shorthand for "a first baseman with little power.") Though he hit 17 homers as a 22-year-old, Lee really didn't establish himself as a big-leaguer until age 24; in three seasons before that, he had a cumulative line of .227/.306/.384. But in his fourth year, Lee upped his OBP to .368 and belted 28 homers. Since that time, he has never hit fewer than 20 home runs in a single full season. And Matt's absolutely right about his injury history before 2006; going into that year, Lee had a six-season streak of playing 155 games or more, and in all but one of those years he played at least 158. So with that backdrop, here are Lee's year-by-year homer totals in lovely graph form:

And this is the typical home run aging curve, courtesy of TangoTiger:

The typical player's power peaks at Age 27; that season is therefore assigned a 1, while the rest of the numbers are all relative to that. To finish off, I've taken Lee's Age 27 homers, normalized them to Tango's aging curve, and then graphed the results against Lee's actual power output:

Ok, shut up. I know you can't hit tenths of homers, but without them, you lose the nuance of the numbers. Nonetheless, I look at the graph and it's obvious that two seasons at least appear to be major outliers: Ages 30 (injuries) and 29 (????). I won't say exactly what I think might've been going on in during that huge year in 2005, but it rhymes with Gurglormance Fendancing Klugs. I mean, it could've been a Davey Johnsonesque fluke. But I'm guessing it's more Brady Anderson, if you know what I mean. Alright, fine. I'm implying that Derrek Lee might have done steroids that season! I know I was remarkably veiled, but there it is. Anyway, that's what I initially thought -- before even graphing the numbers -- and I sent Matt the following (cleaned up) text:
Not certain injuries entirely to blame. ... Homers on perfect career trajectory if you take out those two fluke-and-injury seasons.
As I said, that is what I initially thought. When I was making the graphs it occurred to me that I should really do this with his road homers, what with him going from a pitchers' park in Florida to the generally-power-hitter-friendly-but-sometimes-who-the-hell-knows Wrigley Field before his Age 28 season. And here are those numbers, both raw and predicted by Tango:

Wow. 2005 isn't really an outlier at all. Sorry Derrek. I'm sure you understand by now, I'm suspicious of you all. But don't worry; I'm no anti-PED zealot (more on that to come.) Nevertheless, seeing as how the injury limited Lee to 50 games at age 30 while he played at least 150 at 31 and 32, the true outliers are the last two seasons. And so Matt does have a valid point, that the injury -- it was, and apparently still is, a bum wrist -- is likely to blame for Lee's precipitous power plunge. And yet I stand strong. For regardless of the circumstances, they do not mitigate the fact that Derrek Lee is now, and will always be,* a contract albatross.

* 'Always' defined as 'through 2010'.

March 17, 2009

A lovesong for alternating handedness

Good news, Cubs fans:
With Mike Fontenot being named the regular second baseman Saturday, the Cubs' lineup is beginning to take shape with left-handed batters spread throughout.

Fontenot is the projected sixth hitter, with Kosuke Fukudome in second and Milton Bradley fourth.

"I don't want to get caught with two left-handed hitters sixth and seventh or sixth and eighth at the tail end of the lineup," manager Lou Piniella said. "So 2-4-6 is a real nice way to break things up."

-- Dave van Dyck, Chicago Tribune, 3/15/09
My lede wasn't entirely facetious. While I would still rather have Mark DeRosa around, it is good news that Fontenot is starting. At a soon-to-be 29 with a career OPS+ of 110 -- a damn good figure for a middle infielder -- he deserves the chance to show that he can hold down an everyday job. He is an infinitely better option than 32-year-old Aaron Miles -- over whom the Trib sent me into a tizzy by inexplicably anointing him the starter when he signed -- and his career .329 OBP, so I applaud Piniella on his choice.

But let's get to the other part of this: the obsession with making the lineup "more balanced." Look, as the Cubs were getting ignominiously throttled clean out of the first round of the playoffs for the second year in a row, did anyone honestly think, 'If only they hadn't been so right-handed?' That was the reason you guys looked so terrible? I think everybody watching saw the same thing: The Cubs players -- with the exception of DeRo and Derrek Lee, both of whom, shockingly, hit right-handed -- folded under the pressure. As soon as Ryan Dempster allowed that grand slam to James Loney -- in the top of the fifth of Game 1, no less -- the series was, rather sadly, over. But instead of going out and getting players with more, um, intestinal fortitude, Hendry decided that their problem was they were too right-handed.

Just as a side note, who created this righty lineup that Hendry was saddled with? Oh yes, that's right, now I remember, it is the product of the incompetent boobery of Jim Hendry. This is, in large part, what happens when you sign to long-term contracts two right-handed guys (Lee and Alfonso Soriano) who can only play positions (first and corner outfield) that are largely the domain of lefties. Now again, I don't think there was any problem with the handedness of the lineup; however, if Hendry does, shouldn't he be held accountable for that?

So in his never-ending pursuit of a perfectly-balanced lineup -- and because he had two right-handed contract albatrosses manning 1B and LF -- Hendry got rid of the one guy who showed a pair (DeRosa) against the Dodgers. I mean, with their only home run and four of their six RBIs, DeRosa was undoubtedly the Cubs' MVP (if that's possible) in that series -- and perhaps for the season, with his versatility and unexpected punch -- and Hendry trades him to "balance the lineup." Huh? Really, the problem was that the guy playing DeRosa's position hit from the wrong side of the plate? I thought it was that you guys went into the fetal position at the first sign of adversity. Thank God Jim Hendry is here to set me straight.

One final thing, and I know it's a small sample size. Cubs left-handed position players in the Dodgers series: 6-for-29, 1 2B, 0 HR, 1 BB, 7K, .207 BA, .233 OBP, .241 SLG. The righties? 18-for-70, 7 2B, 1 HR, 4 BB, 15K, .257/.297/.400. However, before you sneer, keep in mind that without a certain second-baseman/utility man, the righties' line falls to .241/.290/.328, and that, undoubtedly, does make it more balanced.

March 15, 2009

Finally, a German a Jew could actually like

First off, let's be honest. The name is irresistible. (For those of you who are unawares, the last name is pronounced "her-MAHN," most likely so we would know he's not a Nazi.) Esteban German. Rolls off the tongue like a modern-day Angel Echevarria.

But why else would I be in like with a Royals castoff? Well, unlike the previously-signed Joey Gathright, German actually, you know, gets on base. Despite last season's pitiful .303 OBP, German's career mark stands at .359. Going into last season, it was at .370 in 849 PAs. Add in a .393 OBP in a whopping 3,859 minor league plate appearances, and I believe that German is exactly the kind of guy you'd want pinch hitting, especially in a bases-empty situation, so that he could commence the process of clogging them up. Plus, he has played almost every position on the diamond, though mostly 2nd, 3rd, and left. Granted, at 31 he doesn't have a whole lotta upside left; still, he seems to be a great utility guy for NL play, especially given Piniella's affection for the double-switch. He is a much better option to be "this year's Mark DeRosa" than Aaron Miles, who has been touted as such. Of course, German probably won't make the team.

Because the Cubs would most likely rather keep the aforementioned Gathright (.328 OBP, 68 OPS+ in 1296 PA vs. .359/95/1091 for German). Look, they already have Reed Johnson as a backup CF. Assuming they are going to keep way too many pitchers (12), as is the trend now -- yes, I know, some teams ridiculously carry 13 -- and a backup catcher, you're only left with four bench guys. Johnson is a lock. With the trade of Ronny Cedeno, Miles is the only guy who can play a (barely) passable shortstop, so he is too. Hoffpauir should be. That leaves one spot. Instead of choosing between another backup outfielder in Gathright and a guy of questionable health who can only play one position (third base; I assume just about anyone can play first) in Corey Koskie -- who has by far the best career numbers of any of them but hasn't played since July 5, 2006 -- they should just keep German. Which is why I'm quite certain they won't.