NHL Playoff Picture

I haven’t been this revved up about an NHL season in my entire life. There are several good teams, and as divisional and wild card races start to heat up, I am growing increasingly certain that we will enter the first round of the playoffs with 16 legitimate contenders to be hoisting the cup come June. With all that in mind, here is my official prediction as of this date (2/18/2020) for the seeding of the playoffs, starting with the Eastern Conference:

Atlantic:

  1. Tampa
  2. B’s (reverse jinx?)
  3. Leafs

Look familiar? This playoff format is the single most infuriating rule in sports right now.

Metropolitan:

  1. Penguins
  2. Capitals
  3. Islanders

Wild Card:

  1. Blue Jackets
  2. Panthers

I want so badly to be a homer and say that Pasta’s Hart Trophy-caliber season that has him tied with Auston Matthews atop the league at 42 goals will give the Bruins the one-seed in this playoffs, and a chance to defend their Eastern Conference title with home ice. I just don’t see them fending off the Bolts. Tuukka is crushing it, might even win the Vezina (leads the league in both GAA and SV%), their team is firing on all cylinders, injuries haven’t been much of an issue and they’ve won nine of their last ten games — only losing to the last place Red Wings in a wonky road matinee matchup that came at the tail end of a long road trip. All of that is great, but what’s going on down south is scary to say the least.

Tampa started off the season colder than the ice they skate on and for a while was absent in the Atlantic playoff picture, replaced by teams like Buffalo and Montreal. Then water found its level, the world got back on its axes and the Lightning’s stacked roster started playing true to their talent level; Andrei Vasilevskiy’s net is impenetrable as the Chicken Box over Figawi, and they just added Blake Coleman and his 21 goals so far this season. Bottom line is this team is a problem and they’re gonna be tough to stop, but then again we all remember what happened last year with Columbus.

The Leafs’ acquisition of Kyle Clifford will make the battle between the three hegemonic powers in the Atlantic all the more interesting this April. Auston Matthews can’t stop scoring and these guys look like they might just be able to get the monkey off the franchise’s back and win their first playoff series since Mats Sundin was their captain.

The Met is less exciting. The Pens and Caps both look great, and Ovi’s quest for 700 adds to the buzz in our nation’s capital, but I think that, bolstered by their recent trade for Jason Zucker that prioritized offense over defense, the Penguins will be able to snatch the one seed from the Caps. The Islanders and Blue Jackets will battle it out right up to game eighty-two for the last spot in the Met, but I think that Seth Jones’ injury tips the scale in favor of the ‘Ders and the Jackets will claim the top wild card spot.

Barring anything crazy at the deadline, which is a week away, the final spot in the wild card will be between Carolina, Philly and (hear me out) Florida. The Panthers are currently five points out of the wild card, trailing both the Canes and Flyers. The Hurricanes are hungry after making a run to the ECF last year, only to be swept by the B’s in decisive fashion, but they haven’t really shown up this year the way a lot of people were expecting. Their scoring has been there, but their goaltending is a major cause for concern. The Flyers have looked very solid at times and really impressed throughout the season, but they have a similar situation in net. Neither one of these teams makes me think they can make a run.

The Panthers seem to have the tools necessary to pull it together down the stretch and sneak into the eight seed for a few reasons. Number one: Joel Quenneville, who was fired by Chicago last season after bringing the Hawks on a mini dynasty that featured nine playoff appearances and three Stanley Cups. Q’s experience brings an x-factor that the Panthers have lacked throughout recent years. Their potent offense boasts three twenty-goal scorers, they have a solid back end and their goalie situation is good as any. I know that Bob hasn’t quite lived up to his contract, as their games have tended to be high scoring affairs, but I know that the goalie, who made circus saves against Tampa and Boston last playoffs and was a nonstop highlight reel, can figure it out and elevate his team’s performance. They’ve shown that they can score with just about anybody in this league, so once their goaltending gets figured out, you better watch out for these guys.

Now onto the West:

Central:

  1. Avs
  2. Stars
  3. Blues

Pacific:

  1. Oilers
  2. Knights
  3. Canucks

Wild Card:

  1. Flames
  2. Jets

The Avs appear to have finally put all the pieces together and have their long-term plan in place. Their top line is as good as any, led by Hart Trophy candidate Nate MacKinnon. The Blues have been awesome, but losing Bouwmeester is significant. I know emotional moments like that can give a team a little fire, especially if he returns to the ice, but I think the Stars will edge them out.

The Pacific is incredibly tight at the moment and a lot can change but I’m penciling Calgary into the wild card spot to try to will the Battle of Alberta playoff series into existence. That rivalry has been an awesome storyline this year in the league and I would love to see them play seven games against each other. I think that the Knights are in a good spot and making strides since hiring DeBour from San Jose. They’ll be right there with the Canucks battling for home ice in their series, and I expect that to be an entertaining stretch of hockey games.

The final wild card spot will ultimately, in my view, fall to the Jets. The Coyotes and Predators don’t have rosters nearly as complete or deep as Winnipeg, and their size and physicality give them an edge late in the season when injuries start to pile up. With their offensive arsenal and solid goaltending, they could make a run in the Western Conference that is a very level playing field.

As it stands, the Eastern Conference looks head and shoulders better than the West, and that may be the case. This supremacy can come at a cost, however, as it can lead to longer, more taxing playoff series that hamper the teams durability in the Cup. I think the winner this year will be whoever comes out of the gauntlet that is the Atlantic division, but then again that’s coming from a lifelong B’s fan. Either way, there’s no better time to tune into the NHL in a season that I think is more interesting than many of the years past.

Stanley Cup Prediction: Bruins v. Blues. Same teams, new winner.

A New Jameis?

One of the best career moves I have ever seen took place this week. Entering contract negotiations, and potentially free agency, Jameis Winston has announced that he got lasik eye surgery. Let me repeat that — lasik eye surgery. This is a guy who threw for a league-leading 5,109 yards and 33 TDs. Of course, he also threw 30 INTs (the lone member of the 30/30 club), but c’mon. The guy was blind, he deserves a little slack.

I am certainly no eye doctor and I will not even pretend to know the severity of his surgery, nor how bad his vision has been throughout his career but for me, and I imagine many others, this headline inspires a little hope. I remember the 2013 Florida State undefeated championship season where Famous Jameis won virtually every award he was eligible for, including Heisman, Davey O’Brien and many more. He then led his Seminoles to an undefeated ACC Championship and a birth in the first ever CFP only to fall to that year’s Heisman winner, Marcus Mariota. He left Florida State with a 27-1 record as a two sport athlete (his baseball career is pretty impressive as well) and was the number one draft pick to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. His resume lands him among the greats in college football history.

Since coming to the pros Jameis hasn’t been that bad. He made the Pro Bowl in his rookie season after smashing virtually all of the Bucs’ rookie passing records (4,042 yards, 22 TDs) and coming a mere 23 yards shy of Josh Freeman’s franchise record — love hearing that name again. If you look at his volume-based production stats (he has the record for most TDs before age 24), he is on pace to beat out virtually all of the arms currently enshrined in Canton. Now I know the game has changed so much and that evolution has completely distorted the way that you compare passing statistics, but the numbers Jameis has put up are undeniably impressive. 

The one blemish, and I will admit it is a MASSIVE blemish, is the plethora of interceptions. In addition to the 30/30 Club, Jameis set the record this past year for most pick-sixes in a season with seven. His 50 fumbles are the most of any player in the NFL over the five year span of his career (2015-present). His turnover antics that are often visually fantastic have inspired countless jokes, including Pardon My Take’s customized prop bet that Jameis would record a touchdown, interception and fumble in his game. 

Jameis has not turned the Buccaneers franchise around like they hoped when they drafted him with the number one pick, far from it. His record of 28-42 has never landed his team in the playoffs, but how much of that is to blame on him? He entered the league under the leadership of Lovie Smith, who now coaches an Illinois team that doesn’t even pretend to compete in the B1G, nonetheless be in the picture for college football. Then he had three seasons with Dirk Koetter, only to have him fired and replaced by Bruce Arians, who I actually love. Bruce is looking to revive his career after a brief hiatus and after a spat of early season growing pains between coach and QB, they finished the season on a 6-2 run, after stringing together a six game winning streak. 

Winston has not proven himself to be a reliable franchise quarterback in the NFL, and he’s had more than enough time to show that. At the same time, though, if you’re Burce Arians, Jason Licht, or any of the GMs or coaches in the league do you not have to pause and take a longer look at this guy after getting his vision fixed? He’s thrown for nearly 20,000 yards and 121 TDs in five seasons, and he did all that without being able to see properly. Maybe I’m too much of a believer, but I think he deserves a shot with his improved vision. As the saying goes, “Clear Eyes, Full Hearts, Can’t Lose.” Jameis’ clear eyes won’t solve all his problems, primarily the fumble issue, but it just might turn enough of those interceptions into touchdowns for us to talk very differently about the Heisman winning, first overall draft pick out of Florida State. Will a team give this guy big money betting on the surgery?

Watching Jameis Winston play football is a unique experience that very few athletes bring to sports. He makes you think that quite literally anything could happen on any given play. He could get under center and toss Mike Evans a sixty yard dart in stride on his way to the endzone. He is also equally likely to scramble aimlessly in the pocket, strip sack himself and have a D-Lineman take it for six, but you love the ride either way. He makes me feel an excitement that very few other players provide, and for that reason I choose to root for him. All I can say is that with his impressive production over his early career, it’d be hard for me to  not at least entertain the idea of signing him as my franchise QB, but then again that might be why I’m watching from my couch.

Super Bowl Preview

The San Francisco 49ers and the Kansas City Chiefs will face off this Sunday in what many rightfully expect to be one of the best games of the year for Super Bowl LIV. It felt like 49ers Chiefs was one of, if not, the best potential Super Bowl matchup going into the playoffs and here we are. This is just the second time in the last twenty years that the point spread for the game has been below 2– the Chiefs are currently favored by 1 point after opening as a pick’em. The only other time was in 2014 for Super Bowl XLIX between the Patriots (-1) and Seahawks which was about as close as a game can get without actually going to over time, and one of the more entertaining Super Bowls in recent memory. I think this Sunday will be no different. Patrick Mahomes and the high-powered Kansas City offense are coming in off of an impressive 8-game winning streak while the 49ers have won 5 out of their last 6 including two dominant wins in the divisional round and NFC championship game. In the end I think San Fran has what it takes to pull off the slight upset. Here’s why:

Kansas City comes in with the 3rd rated offense in the NFL and the 14th ranked defense in terms of efficiency as rated by pro football outsiders. This is a season long evaluation as of December 30, 2019 so those rankings need to be taken with a grain of salt– Kansas City has out-performed those numbers in recent weeks, particularly on the defensive side of the ball. San Fran meanwhile, has the 7th rated offense and 2nd ranked defense in the league. What’s important to note for the 49ers, though, is that they are healthier now than they have been for most of the season, especially on the defensive side of the line of scrimmage. They were without Dee Ford and Kwon Alexander– two key pieces on their defense– for 5 and 8 games respectively. Linebacker Kwon Alexander, in particular, is huge for this defense and is considered by many to be the leader on that side of the ball for Shanhan’s niners team. The games he didn’t play this year were also some of the 49ers worst defensive performances– allowing 21, 31, 29, 46, 20, 8, 26, and 27 points in games he did not suit up. In games he did play, their defense allowed 25, 13, 0, 7, 3, 20, and 17 twice. To be fair, some of these games were against poorly rated offensive teams like the Bengals, Redskins, and Browns but still, his importance to this team can’t be overlooked. Outside of linebacker, the defensive unit that is going to have to show up for the 49ers is their defensive line. Part of the reason they’ve been so dominant in the playoffs thus far is their ability to rush the passer without having to blitz. Bosa and Ford are going to have get some key tackles/sacks in non-blitz packages to contain Mahomes. The chiefs have such fast skill guys and Andy Reid is such a great offensive mind (with two weeks to prepare, no less) that San Fran’s DB’s and Safety’s are going to need all the help they can get (important to note also, 16 of the 18 interceptions Mahomes has thrown in his career have come against 4 or fewer pass rushers). Not to mention, as we saw in the AFC championship game, Mahomes is a serious running threat if the play beaks down and he sees an opening. There’s a reason Bosa is the 7th player listed to win MVP, and I don’t think he’s a horrible bet at +1800 if you think the 49ers will win. Not only is he an impact player, but Jimmy G isn’t at all a lock to win MVP if the 49ers do in fact end up winning– despite a Quarterback winning Super Bowl MVP 29 times out of 53 games– given how much they tend to rely on their run game.

One thing that will be interesting to see is how the 49ers come out on defense. Throughout the year they ran predominantly cover 3 defense i.e. zone. They run a very similar defense as the Chargers who were able to limit Mahomes to just 19/32,182 yds passing, 1TD, and 1 INT in week 11 and 16/25, 174 yds passing, 1 TD, and 1 INT in week 17. The big difference, obviously, is that the 49ers have a better defensive group– both players and coaches. However, a lot of teams tried to run more man coverage on Mahomes because he seems to struggle against man compared to zone. The Colts went into KC in October and beat the Chiefs 19-13 running almost entirely man coverage despite the fact that before that game they ran over 70% zone coverages. In that game they held Mahomes to a 22% success rate and 4.7 YPA in man coverage and allowed an 86% success rate with 16.1 YPA in zone. Bill O’brien’s defense followed the same blueprint when they played in KC a week later and were able to win 31-24. Of course, we know how things ended up for the Texans in the divisional round matchup, but regardless, the 49ers will have an important decision to make this Sunday and I am excited to see how they decide to play things. In my opinion, the Texans would have won that game if they could’ve gotten any sort of pressure on Mahomes, but they finished the game with just one sack for five yards. Whether the lack of pressure was more a result of defensive line struggles, the Texans defense tiring out, a commanding performance by the chiefs offensive line, or Mahomes rushing ability I’m not entirely sure. It was definitely some sort of combination, but one thing is for sure, this 49ers defense is legit and I think they can do a much better job at containing this Chiefs offense. One more important thing to keep an eye on– Mahomes has been sacked 4 times in a game just once all season and the result was a 19-13 loss to the Indianapolis Colts. The Chiefs offensive line allowed the 2nd fewest QB pressures (111) during the regular season. The 49ers defense on the other hand averaged 3 sacks per game in the regular season and 4.5 thus far in the playoffs. This game could very well be won and lost in this matchup up front. 

On the other side of the ball we have the run-heavy San Fran offense matched up against a Kansas City defense that has struggled against the run this season– ranking 26th in the league in rush yards allowed and 29th in rush yards per attempt. Despite their season-long struggles against the run, Kansas City was able to hold Derrick Henry to just 69 yards rushing on 19 attempts for a mediocre 3.6 YPC. I see two main differences in this 49ers team compared to the Titans that make me believe KC won’t enjoy the same type of success in stopping the rush as they did in the AFC championship game. First, I have more faith in Jimmy Garoppolo’s ability as a passer than I do in Ryan Tannehill–therefore, I think KC won’t be able to gear up for runs in obvious running downs as easily or effectively. I know Tannehill had a great stretch through the second half of the season and into the playoffs, but in the end I think he was who a lot of people thought he was: a responsible game manager who was careful with the football but who relied heavily on his run game to keep defenses off-balance and create more room for his wide receivers. Secondly, I think Kyle Shanahan is right up there with Andy Reid in terms of premiere offensive minds of the game. With the Titans, Henry was predominantly in on running downs and they would bring Deion Lewis in for passing downs. I think Kyle Shanahan and San Fran has the personnel groupings to disguise some of their looks a little better and keep the KC defense off guard– not to mention, San Fran uses a ton of pre-snap motion which should help them create mismatches on offense.

Ultimately this game reminds me a little of the 2002 Super Bowl between the Rams’ Greatest Show on Turf and the New England Patriots. Obviously the Patriots were much bigger underdogs than the 49ers, but I still see some similarities. The Chiefs have the greatest Quarterback in the game and flashy weapons on offense who seemingly have the ability to score at any time from anywhere on the field. The 49ers have a solid young Quarterback who isn’t necessarily asked to do a whole lot– mostly because San Fran relies primarily on their great running attack and solid defense– but can win a game for you if he has to. I think that’s what happens here. Chiefs go down early, then come storming back (sound familiar?) but in the end, Jimmy G leads the 49ers down the field for a game-winning touchdown. Prediction → 49ers: 31 Chiefs: 27 

NFC Championship Preview

This Sunday the 1 seeded 49ers and the 2 seeded Packers will faceoff in San Fran for a trip to the Super Bowl. Green Bay is coming off a tight 28-23 win against a banged up Seattle team. San Fran, on the other hand, is coming off an impressive 27-10 victory over a Minnesota Vikings club that went into New Orleans and upset the Saints a week earlier. 

The biggest difference for the 49ers here is their oppositions quarterback. Aaron Rodgers is a tier (or maybe two or three) above Kirk Cousins and he should have all the motivation he needs– the Packers got absolutely torched against this 49ers team on National TV in week 12 and Rodgers (a California native) has a particular vendetta against San Fran. He was asked on his draft night how disappointed he was that his hometown team didn’t take him. His response? “Not as disappointed as the 49ers will be that they didn’t draft me.” Rodgers’ career record against San Fran is a mediocre 4-5 (2-5-2 ATS). However, I’d still say the 49ers ended up disappointed they didn’t draft him because, instead, with the number one overall pick they drafted Alex Smith who is no longer in the league. I’m not a huge fan of the ‘motivation’ edge considering guys on both sides have been thinking about getting to the league and then to the Super Bowl their whole lives, but it definitely can’t hurt Rodgers’ performance this Sunday. That’s something that potentially bodes well for a Packers team who will need their quarterback to put up one of the best performances of his playoff career this Sunday for them to advance. 

On the other side of the quarterback coin is Jimmy G, who had his highest passer rating of the season (145.8) when these teams faced off in the regular season. Despite the 37-8 drubbing in week 12, I think there are a few reasons to think this game could be closer than last time. First off, Green Bay went 1/15 on 3rd down in that regular season matchup. Lafleur is too good of a coach to let that happen again. Also, it’s hard to win a game when your opponent gets the ball to start both halves, which is essentially what happened last time because Rodgers fumbled the ball on his own 25 yard line on the opening drive of the game. San Fran returned the fumble to Green Bay’s 2 yard-line and it was 7-0 before the game even started. Beyond this game in particular, there is a relatively surprising trend that bodes well for Packers fans– there have been 20 instances when a team lost by 4+ touchdowns to a team in the regular season and then played that same team in the playoffs. The team that lost by 4+ touchdowns is 6-14 in the playoff rematch. This trend speaks to a couple things. First, it shows just how much teams can change throughout the course of a season (Green Bay has won 6 straight since their matchup with San Fran) and it shows how fickle the NFL can be. It is such a week-to-week league, that it’d be crazy to totally rule out the Pack in this game. 

On the other side of things, if you’re a 49ers fan you’re looking at the fact that Dee Ford and Kwon Alexander were both out in the regular season matchup. Ford and Alexander are two of the most important players on the 49ers defense who was as healthy last week as they had been all season– they held the Vikings to just 10 points. For the Packers to have any chance, they have to win the turnover battle and. again, Rodgers is going to have to put up a hall of fame performance in what could be his last chance to get to a second Super Bowl. Ultimately, I don’t think he’ll be able to do enough to get there. The 49ers will win this game and put the winner of the AFC championship game on notice. I’d put the final score in the 27-17 or 30-20 range. It could be lower scoring depending on how much Shanahan trusts Jimmy G here. In the game last week, after Jimmy G threw an interception, the 49ers ran the ball eleven straight times. The 49ers do have the luxury of relying more heavily on their run game because it is so effective (they rank 2nd in the league in rush yards), but if the Packers can put the pressure on by going ahead early, San Fran may no choice but to ride the Italian Stallion to Miami. If I had to pick a side I’d go with San Fran (-7.5) but I don’t love the idea of laying a touchdown and the hook in a conference championship game. If there’s anything in this game that I do like it would be the first quarter over 9.5. Both LaFleur and Shanahan are great offensive minds and will no doubt have solid scripts for this game. The 49ers scored on their first possession of the game in 65% of their drives compared to 44.3% score rate on average, while the Packers scored on 41% of their opening drives (all of them being touchdowns) compared to 37.1% average score rate. In two of the 10 opening drives the Packers didn’t score, it was because they lost a fumble. Don’t be surprised if there is scoring early that levels off as we get into the second half– not totally unlike last week in San Francisco.

Offseason Blues- Red Sox Edition

Image result for chaim bloom

As the most successful decade in Red Sox history comes to a close, all eyes turn to what has been, to this point, an underwhelming offseason. The 2019 campaign was undoubtedly one of the most disappointing in recent memory- the Sox were coming off a year that will go down in the annals of baseball history and returned every impact player from that championship team. Fast forward to the winter of 2020, and the organization seems to be engulfed with question marks surrounding both its short and long term direction. 

The two major roster questions at the moment surround the statuses of Mookie Betts and David Price. While there are numerous theories being thrown around about what the Sox could do, it is clear that one number stands above all- $208 million, the threshold at which the luxury tax penalties start to take effect. After $208 million, there are higher thresholds that, if met, result in stiffer spending penalties. Alex Spier of the Boston Globe has a great primer on how it works if you are unfamiliar with its nuts and bolts. 

Anyway, almost everyone believes that Red Sox ownership has directed newly minted head of baseball operations, Chaim Bloom, to get under this magic number. After Dave Dombrowski was shown the door, Henry stated “this coming year we must be under the CBT. That was something that we have known for more than a year now. We may not be under, but that is our goal.” What is the best way to do that? Well, moving the cumbersome contract of David Price is a great place to start if you are looking to shed cash. Price is owed $32 million over the next three seasons before becoming a free agent in 2023. At $32 million per year, Price is the 6th most expensive starting pitcher in baseball in terms of AAV- his teammate Chris Sale sits right behind him at 8th

There was some slight regression from Price in 2019- his ERA ballooned from 3.58 to 4.28, while his ERA+ dipped from 123 to 113. Furthermore, in 2019 he gave up the most hits per 9 innings in his career- nearly a hit and a half more than he gave up in 2018. That said, 2019 was not all bad news for Price. Before the all start break, Price struck out 28% of the batters he faced, gave up just 0.76 home runs per outing, and his 66 ERA- ranked 17th among the 146 pitchers who had thrown at least 50 innings before the Midsummer Classic. Lastly, Price’s 10.7 strikeouts per nine innings a season ago was the best mark of his career.

So, with the facts on the table, what should the Sox do? To me, it seems foolish to trade Price at this stage in the game. Yes, the contract is costly, but the market is limited- teams like the Dodgers and Angels are not going to give up any of their high-end prospects for an aging pitcher with a terrible contract. If you are able to shed Price’s $32 million off the books, who are you going to spend that money on to improve the pitching staff? There are no established starters left on the free agent market who could reasonably be expected to come in and compete for the fourth spot in the rotation. A year from now, they could sign a free agent starter, but given that the market is not all that enticing and the Sox are, supposedly, looking for more homegrown pitching talent, this would make little sense. Theoretically, the Sox could keep some of the salary to compel another club to include a top end prospect. For example, say the Sox agreed to pay 30% of the $96 million left on Price’s contract. At that point, a team like the Dodgers would almost certainly be more willing to include a higher end prospect, something the Red Sox desperately need- their farm system is last in the league, according to MILB. com.  While any Sox fan would welcome some young blood in the system, a team built around this lineup shouldn’t be discounted from competing for the first wild card spot. As we saw with the Washington Nationals a season ago, you just need to give yourself a punchers chance by playing your best baseball in October. The Red Sox, as currently constructed, have perhaps the second-best player in baseball at the top of their order, two legitimate power bats in Rafael Devers and JD Martinez, and a shortstop in Xander Bogaerts who is coming off the best season in his career. Assuming the Sox keep Betts around- something that certainly is not set in stone- they will enter the season with one of the most talented lineups in the American League.  

The star-studded lineup should serve as a reminder to Bloom about what this team is capable of doing. If you go into the season with a starting rotation of Sale, Eduardo Rodriguez, Nathan Eovaldi, and Martin Perez, you are throwing your hat out of the ring before the games even begin and not only is that unfair to guys like Betts, Martinez, and Devers, it is a slap in the face to one of the most passionate fanbases in sports. The Sox should hope that Price can pitch like he was before the break, but even if he puts up similar numbers to what he finished with a season ago, it would represent a substantial upgrade over anything they could settle for in the current free agent market or the prospect system. If they do trade Price, they are left with two holes in the rotation with no immediate answers. With Price, even if he does not get back to what he was in 2018, you can have a realistic expectation that he will find a middle point between where he was in that season and where he finished the 2019 season. Because of this, it would be dumbfounding for the Sox to deal Price at this point- a Price-less rotation would struggle to win 75 games in a division with a stacked Yankee roster and the surging Rays. With Price in the fold, you are at least giving yourselves a chance to win a wild card spot.

This gets us to the rumors swirling around Mookie Betts. There have multiple reports over the last few weeks linking the Sox and Dodgers on a potential Betts trade. Betts just made $27 million in arbitration, meaning that if he were shipped out of town, it would get the Sox below the $208 million luxury tax threshold that stands as the driving force for both the Betts and Price trade rumors. In return, the Sox would likely demand a top prospect (from the Dodgers), such as pitcher Dustin May or catcher Keiburt Ruiz, in addition to a proven MLB bat, perhaps along the line of David Pollack or maybe even Corey Seager.

As of now, I think it is ridiculous for the Sox to consider trading Betts, widely regarded as the second-best player in baseball behind Mike Trout.  With Betts at the top of the lineup, the Sox have someone that can consistently get on base, terrorize opponents on the base paths, bat for power, and field as well as an outfielder in the game. Betts 7.0 DEF ranked best among right fielders in 2019 and while his average slipped to .295 in 2019, it was still good for third best amongst right fielders and his 6.8 WAR trailed only Christian Yelich at the position. Even in a “down” year, it could not be clearer that Betts is an essential, perhaps the most important, part of the Red Sox operation. Without him, the Sox have no clear leadoff batter as Andrew Benintendi showed he was not ready for the role in 2019 and we saw how shaky JD Martinez was in the field. If Betts were to be dealt out of town, the Sox would immediately go from playoff contenders to barely being able to hold their heads above water, regardless of what happens with other unknowns like David Price and Jackie Bradley Jr. Secondly, why are the Boston Red Sox, considered by Forbes to be the 12th most valuable sports franchise in world, implementing an austerity program? Meanwhile, their arch rivals to the south just splurged on the best pitcher in baseball and look loaded for years to come. It should upset Sox fans that this franchise, a beacon of excellence over the last decade, is cost cutting to point where it is in danger of being a non-factor in what is a wide-open American League outside of the Bronx.

As I wrote earlier in the piece, when you go into a game with Mookie Betts, Rafael Devers, JD Martinez, and Xander Bogaerts at the top of your lineup, you’ve got a chance to win on any given night. Those are some of the most talented players in baseball and while they will need more help that they got a season ago from guys like Benintendi, with all of them in the fold, the Sox should be a wild card team. The goal to get under the luxury tax is not one without logic- if the Sox are able to get under $208 million, then they will have more room to maneuver both during this season, should things go well (or south), and more importantly, in the future, when the will need to retool the roster with younger, homegrown talent. Relying solely on big ticket free agents is not a way to win championships- just look at the Yankees from 2009-2017. With that in mind, I do think there is a high chance that the Sox will deal centerfielder Jackie Bradley Jr, who is owed nearly $11 million in 2020. While JBJ is the best centerfielder in baseball, his penchant for going on prolonged cold streaks at the plate have been difficult to overcome and the Sox could surely use some more pop at the bottom of the order. Should the Sox part ways with Bradley, as I expect them to in the coming weeks, they could set their sights on someone like former Oriole Kevin Pillar.  Is it ideal? No, because there is almost no scenario in which the Sox become a better team by dealing Bradley- they would give themselves some more flexibility regarding the cap- but if they deal Bradley along with Price or Betts (or both), it would be equivalent to Bloom walking out to the pitcher’s mound on opening day and plating a white flag…….as long as it is under budget.

NFL Divisional Preview: 49ers vs Vikings

After one of the best wild card weekends in recent history, it’s time to shift our focus to the divisional round. Opening up the weekend in the Saturday afternoon time slot is a showdown between the number one seeded San Francisco 49ers (-6.5) against the six seeded Minnesota Vikings. After pulling off the upset in New Orleans as 8 point road dogs on Sunday, do the Vikings have the ammo to come into Candlestick and upset a rested niners squad? Let’s get into it. 

Ultimately, it feels like this game will come down to two things for the Vikings: first, can their defense put up a stellar performance on the road against one of the most innovative offensive minds in the game for the second week in a row? Mike Zimmer’s defense was able to hold Sean Payton’s Saints to just 20 points– their lowest point total in the dome, this year, in a game Drew Brees started. A huge part of the defensive performance was their ability to get off the field on third down as they held the Saints to just a 4/11 conversion rate on Sunday. Third down success will be key again this weekend against a Kyle Shannahan led 49ers team that ranked 5th in the league in third down efficiency this year. 

Second, Kirk Cousins is going to have to be the effective game manager that he was for a lot of the year. He finished the season with 26 TD passes and 6 interceptions– a good season definitely. $28 million a year good? Not by a long shot but that’s a different conversation.  Regardless, Kirk isn’t going to come out slinging and win this game for the Vikings, nor will he be expected to. The Vikings are a fundamentally sound, defensive team who centers their offense around one of the top running backs in the league– Dalvin Cook. Last week against the Saints was the first time both Cook and Adam Thielen (WR) were on the field at the same time since week 6. Really, Cousins is going to have to get the ball out of his hands quickly (49ers are fifth in sacks and first in hurried %) and into the hands of his playmakers– if he doesn’t, Stefon Diggs will no doubt remind him. 

Despite a great performance last week though, I’m still not convinced Kirk Cousins and this Minnesota team can pull off another upset. My main concern with the Vikings is that they’re in such a tough spot. They played Sunday in New Orleans, got back to Minnesota Sunday night, and are going to have to fly to California for the early game Saturday. Not only do the 49ers have the bye week, but Minnesota’s on a short week that’s bookended by cross-country travel. Kirks inconsistencies in big games throughout his career coupled with the fact that Kyle Shanahan and the 49ers get an extra week of preparation makes me lean San Fran. Also, the 49ers are getting some key guys back from injury– notably linebacker Kwon Alexander, defensive end Dee Ford, safety Jaquiski Tartt, and potentially right guard Mark Person. 

In the past 10 seasons, the road team in divisional round games that take place on Saturday are 2-18 SU and 5-14-1 ATS. (courtesy of @JTFOz)

Right now the line sits San Fran -6.5 with the O/U at 45 after opening at 46. Funny enough, the last time these two teams faced each other in a meaningful game was week 1 of last season in Minnesota and the home Vikings were favored by 6.5. The score? 24-16 Vikes. I think we get close to the opposite here. 49ers move onto the NFC Championship game to face the winner of Seattle Green Bay after winning→ 
Prediction: 49ers: 27 Vikings: 16