MLB 2012 Season Preview

Hello Jerks and Jerkettes. Today, we are ready to embrace the newest season of God’s sporting gift to man. That’s right, baseball is back. Apple pie, Chevrolet, and all the extras are with it, too. Hop on board the train as I offer division winners (and losers), major award winners, and playoff predictions all six months ahead of schedule and sure to be wrong.

American League East

Baseball’s juggernaut division and ESPN favorite will again feature three really good teams: the Yankees, Rays, and Red Sox. Don’t discount the Blue Jays, but they are not quite ready to compete. As for the Orioles? Enjoy the crab cake at Camden Yards.

1. New York Yankees
2. Tampa Bay Rays (wildcard)
3. Boston Red Sox
4. Toronto Blue Jays
5. Baltimore Orioles

American League Central

Conventional wisdom says its Detroit and then everyone else. As to not upset that balance, I’ll stick with conventional wisdom. Prince Fielder, Miguel Cabrera, and Justin Verlander will spear the Tigers’ three-headed attack as they run away with this division.

1. Detroit Tigers
2. Kansas City Royals
3. Cleveland Indians
4. Minnesota Twins
5. Chicago White Sox

American League West

This division receive most of the media attention during the off-season thanks to three big transactions. Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson (the best player and best pitcher on the market) joined the Angels while the Texas Rangers replaced Wilson with Japanese import Yu Darvish. The race for division champion should be intriguing all summer long.

1. Texas Rangers
2. Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim (wildcard)
3. Seattle Mariners
4. Oakland A’s

American League Awards

Cy Young: Felix Hernandez (Seattle). A return to dominance with a slightly improved offense behind him.

MVP: Josh Hamilton (Texas). It’s a contract year.

Yu Darvish

Rookie of the Year: Yu Darvish (Texas).

American League Playoffs

Wildcard play-in: Angels over Rays

Divisional Round: Rangers over Yankees; Tigers over Angels

League Championship Series: Rangers over Tigers (again)

National League East

A crazy thing happened this off-season. The now Miami Marlins spent money on free agents (Jose Reyes and Mark Buerhle notably). The Phillies and Braves appear strong as usual. Plus, the Nationals young core is ever-improving. The Mets, you say? Uh… Long season.

1. Philadelphia Phillies
2. Atlanta Braves (wildcard)
3. Miami Marlins
4. Washington Nationals
5. New York Mets

National League Central

Although this division is home to the defending champions, it looks much weaker from last season. The Brewers and Cardinals are worse (though still good teams), and no one else has really stepped it up. Can Dusty Baker manage the Reds back into the playoffs? I think so.

1. Cincinnati Reds
2. St. Louis Cardinals
3. Milwaukee Brewers
4. Pittsburgh Pirates
5. Chicago Cubs
6. Houston Astros

National League West

Tougher than the NL Central, the wild West usually produces a surprise contender each season. Maybe that occurs again, but regardless, this division is between the Giants and the Diamondbacks.

1. Arizona Diamondbacks
2. San Francisco Giants (wildcard)
3. Colorado Rockies
4. Los Angeles Dodgers
5. San Diego Padres

National League Awards

Cy Young: Cole Hamels (Philadelphia). He’ll prove how good he is before signing with the Dodgers in the off-season.

Tulo!

MVP: Troy Tulowitzki (Colorado). The best shortstop in the game has to win this award sometime. Better now than never.

Rookie of the Year: Bryce Harper (Washington). Yes, he’s not on the Opening Day roster, but he could easily be called up mid-season. There’s no one else really strong enough to win it right now.

National League Playoffs

Wild Card Play-in: Braves over Giants

Divisional Round: Diamondbacks over Braves; Phillies over Reds

League Championship Series: Diamondbacks over Phillies

World Series

Rangers over Diamondbacks (in 5 games).

Enjoy the next few days, America. Play ball!

Former Seton Hall Coach Bobby Gonzalez’s Sister Releases Tell-All Blog

Bobby Gonzalez is the now disgraced former coach of the Big East’s Seton Hall Pirates. A controversial figure, Gonzalez’s on-court results never matched his sideline and off-court bravado. He was eventually fired, and then continued to make headlines after being charged with theft.

Now Gonzalez’s sister, Linda, who is known for absolutely nothing as far as I am aware, wrote a “top ten” on her blog of the worst college basketball writers in America.

Bobby Gonzalez

Not just any ole “top ten” list, this one includes the “WORST, LEAST CREDIBLE, MOST CONFLICTED SPORTSWRITERS [sic].” Enter Grammar Nazi mode: “least credible, and most conflicted sportswriters,” Exit Grammar Nazi mode.

And according to Linda, the top ten (drum roll please) is: (1) Pete Thamel of the New York Times, (2) Pat Forde of ESPN, (3) Jeff Goodman of CBS, (4) Lenn Robbins of the New York Post, (5) JP Pelzman of the Bergen Record (New Jersey), (6) Gary Parrish of CBS, (7) Mike Francessa of WFAN New York, (8) Dana O’Neil of ESPN, (9) Sean Brennan of New York Daily News and Eammon Brennan of ESPN.com (tie), and (10) Dick “Hoops” Weiss of New York Daily News.

It gets better though. For each writer, she includes paragraphs of varying lengths explaining her reasoning which ends with a bolded (just in case you lose your place in the wall of text) “Prediction Fantasy.” The prediction fantasy is her desired end result for each writer which ranges from physical pain to emotional embarrassment to new professions outside of the media.

It is quintessential Gonzalez: a little in your face with just a tad too much crazy mixed in. Linda is not all bad, it seems. She makes a quick list of her five favorite writers at the end of the blog entry. That list is not nearly as fun as her main one, however.

If you thought Linda was done with her flaunting opinions, you were wrong. The Big Lead, a sports blog / website, Tweeted the blog entry which found its way to many of Linda’s “victims.”

Linda then attempted to refute The Big Lead’s quick write-up on the blog. Again, not nearly as entertaining as the top ten list. The subsequent entry is basically a defense of her brother.

The timing of this blog is odd given that Gonzalez has been out of the news for a while since his firing. Perhaps, a spur of the moment thing. Or maybe Linda’s been sitting on it for a while. Regardless the motive, you mess with a Gonzalez, you get the Linda.

What’s a no-hitter worth?

Last night, Minnesota Twins’ pitcher Francisco Liriano threw the first no-hitter of the 2011 Major League Baseball season. No-nos are so rare that they are entrenched in baseball lore alongside the perfect game. With new statistics developed over the last twenty years, the no-hitters value is changing.

Famous baseball statistician Bill James created the GameScore. The tool seeks to measure a pitcher’s value over the course of a single game. The GameScore has since been translated to position players under a different formula and name, but James’ formula remains the go-to for evaluating a pitcher’s performance.

Warning: some math will follow. The formula itself begins with the number 50. 50 represents the average score of a single game. Any final score above 50 is an above average performance, while anything below 50 is sub-average. Then outs, innings pitched, and strikeouts are added to the number while hits, earned runs, unearned runs, and walks are subtracted from the number. All put together, the formula = 50 + 1* Outs (recorded) + 2*IP after the 4th + 1*K – 2*H – 4*ER – 2*Unearned Runs – 1*BB.

Liriano’s no-hitter scored an 83 on James’ formula. An 83 doesn’t sound too bad, right? That’s good enough for a B in grade school and college. But it’s only the fourteenth best game pitched this season. Four pitchers have scored 90 or above this season: Cliff Lee with the season’s best (to date) 92, Dan Haren and Ian Kennedy each with a 91 score game, and Tim Hudson with a 90 (he just finished that game about an hour ago).

Francisco Liriano

Other pitchers ahead of Liriano include Anibal Sanchez (89), Josh Beckett (87), Kyle Lohse (87), Dice-K Matsuzaka (86), Jaime Garcia (86), Carlos Zambrano (85), Chad Billingsley (85), Jason Marquis (84), James Shields (84), Roy Halladay (83), Shields again (83), and Yovani Gallardo (83). Obviously, Liriano is in a four-way ties for fourteenth, but the fact remains that his no-hitter is not worth as much as the aura that surrounds the unique feat.

So what brought down Liriano’s score? Obviously it wasn’t the outs recorded or the number of innings pitched past the fourth inning. His low strikeout total (2 for the game) hurt. In fact, of the twenty best games pitched this season, only Gallardo had an equally low strikeout total. No other pitcher in the top twenty games struck out less than six. Another element that doomed Liriano was his high walk total. He issued six free passes to the White Sox in the game which accounted for twice as much as any other pitcher in the the top twenty games.

In 2010, there were five no-hitters (not counting Halladay’s post-season no-no). Ubaldo Jimenez, Roy Halladay, Dallas Braden, Edwin Jackson, and Matt Garza each accomplished the feat during MLB’s 162 game season. Yet, only three of those fantastic performances made the top twenty pitched games according to GameScore: Halladay second with a 98, Braden tied for fourth with a 93, and Garza tied for seventh with a 92. Halladay’s playoff no-hitter scored a 94. The very next day, Giants’ ace Tim Lincecum scored a 96 for a two-hit shutout over the Atlanta Braves.

Roy Halladay

Avoiding the GameScore metric for just a second, all of these games are well-pitched and deserve recognition. However, if you asked the average fan, which of the games is better, I’m betting they’d pick the no-hitter 99 times out of 100. And their choice may be justified. Then again, they may be choosing the worse performance (I know, really nit-picking here).

The point, though, is that baseball fans and statisticians have introduced interesting new measures of a player’s effectiveness over the last two decades. Tradition will continue to favor the no-hitter. Baseball has been around for nearly 150 years, and that doesn’t go away over a single game or twenty years of new formulas.

No-hitters are great to watch. They have everything a fan wants: heart-pounding excitement, anticipation, a great defensive play or two saving the game, etc. Just know, they’re not the only way to gauge a pitcher’s performance.

If you’d like to follow GameScore throughout the season, click here.

Why Jim Burr should NEVER officiate another game

Disclaimer: I am a Memphis fan. I have rooted for the program my entire life, I’ve lived in the area my entire life, I own a degree from the university, and I am currently enrolled working on a post-graduate degree. I am not advocating that Arizona was gifted a victory today against my Memphis Tigers. Rather my aim in this piece is solely Jim Burr, a referee who has continually proven his inadequacy in officiating college basketball games.

Jim Burr is a college basketball referee, and he’s been at his job for a substantially long time which is precisely where the problem lies (but more on that later). Burr was most recently at the center of controversy in the Big East Tournament when he and his two other crew members were effectively suspended for the remainder of said conference tournament for their blatant missed calls in the end of the St. Johns v. Rutgers game.

Burr returned to officiating today in the first second round of the 68 team tourney. He made his triumphant return in Tulsa, Oklahoma in the Memphis v. Arizona game. Burr and his crew called a tight game today. My argument is not there. No, my argument arose at the end of the game, where, once again, Burr inserted himself into the game unnecessarily.

There were questionable calls throughout the game, especially my favorite charge-block call that really depends on the refs perspective; a completely subjective call. Burr’s first error occurred with approximately 00:34 seconds remaining in the second half. This is a time of schizophrenia in a game; it’s very chaotic. But it is also precisely the time when a referee should be at his best, and Jim Burr has continually proven he’s not.

Arizona inbounded the ball to guard Momo Jones. Memphis trapped Jones in the near-side baseline corner. There could have been a five second call (it was close, but I don’t know if it was definitively five seconds). Instead, Jones, whose back is to the near-side baseline where Jim Burr is positioned, is granted a timeout to escape the trap. And who granted that timeout? None other than Jim Burr who could not see Jones’ hands.

The end-game chaos continues, but with five seconds remaining and Memphis trialing by three, guard Joe Jackson was fouled. He calmly sunk the first freebie. Then Memphis tried the old intentionally missed free throw play. And, somewhat miraculously, it worked. Memphis forward Wesley Witherspoon grabbed the loose ball, but Arizona’s All-American Derrick Williams swatted away the open lay-up. And Arizona won.

But replays showed that Arizona forward Jamelle Horn hit Witherspoon from behind, and Williams’ chest crashed into Witherspoon’s elbow before the shot. And there was Jim Burr, right in the middle, swallowing the whistle he’d blown all game long. I understand that in the waning seconds of a game, refs are unlikely to allow the game to be decided at the charity stripe. That’s not the point of this article. The point is Jim Burr.

Burr has worked 16 Final Fours since the mid-1980s. He’s earned a reputation, among his peers and national sportswriters, as a qualified referee. But therein lies the problem. Burr has joined the club, the proverbial “good ole boy club.” It’s clear, from the last two games he’s worked, that Burr is too old for the job. Can we really expect a 60 year old man to keep up with the fast-paced athletes of modern college basketball?

Quite simply, he’s too old. And he creates too much controversy. March Madness deserves better. The players deserve better. Fans and coaches deserve better. It’s time for old Jim to retire, whether he wants it or not. A tournament as good as the NCAA provides should not be shrouded in referee controversy. It should be about the players and the coaches. It should not be about a referee creating controversy. Unfortunately, every time Jim Burr pulls on the zebra stripes, he creates controversy by inserting himself in the game. The NCAA needs to hold its referees accountable, and that begins with Jim Burr.

One Way Street – NCAA Bracket Predictions

As my esteemed colleagues have done since the NCAA unveiled its bracket for the annual tournament championship, I too will be offering predictions. I’m guessing that’s all the introduction you need so let’s roll out the predictions.

One Way Street: I lecture, you take notes

East

There’s not much else to be said here that hasn’t been previously stated: Ohio State was awarded for being the best team all season with a killer bracket. North Carolina, Syracuse, and Kentucky are all formidable top 4 seeds, and tOSU’s potential second round match-up with all-time Cinderella George Mason ensures the Buckeyes will earn every game this March.

Potential Sleeper: Xavier. The Musketeers enjoyed a quiet season on the national scale, but do not mistake the silence. Xavier could pull an upset in the early rounds; in fact I’ve predicted them to defeat Syracuse in the Round of 32 in my bracket (for whatever that’s worth; i.e. not much).

Jared Sullinger

Player to watch: Jared Sullinger. tOSU’s all-world forward delivers Dyke-ism’s favorite tough twos. Quite simply, he’s a helluva player and the stronger he plays down low the more open (and more dangerous) the Buckeye offense becomes.

Winner: Ohio State. The Buckeyes have senior leadership, a good balance of talent, and one of the best players in the country in Jared Sullinger.

West

The West bracket is also balanced this season, though not quite at the level of the East. Duke, as the one seed, will be the favorite to escape, but San Diego State, UCONN, and Texas form a challenging top four seeds. But Arizona as a five, Cincinnati as a six, and Temple as a seven seed all poise serious threats who can make deep runs.

Potential Sleeper: Missouri. The Tigers are an eleven seed thanks to their woeful road record and struggles inside the conference. But what makes Missouri dangerous is Mike Anderson’s Forty Minutes of Hell style of play. The Tigers like to press and run teams to death. The system also produces turnovers and turnovers are a death nail in March.

Player to Watch: Kemba Walker. UCONN’s All-American showed up early in November with magical performances in Maui, and after a small stumble during the mid-season, Walker turned it on as the Huskies won five games in five days to capture the Big East tournament championship. UCONN goes as Kemba goes, and if a game is on the line in the waning seconds, he’s money.

Kemba Walker

Winner: Arizona. I’m taking an upset in this bracket. The Wildcats have the second best player to watch (and possible #1 NBA draft pick) in forward Derrick Williams. Williams poses a match-up problem for any team, and Arizona’s guards are just good enough to keep the Wildcats in ballgames. I think Williams is the deciding factor in a Sweet Sixteen match-up with Duke with propels Arizona onto the Final Four.

Southwest

Labeled as the third strongest bracket (of four), the Southwest boasts one of the strongest teams throughout the season in the Kansas Jayhawks. The other top seeds include Notre Dame, Purdue, and Louisville; all strong teams. The Morris twins lead Kansas as they attempt to wipe away memories of an early exit last season. The other top seeds all share an interesting similarity: small preseason expectations. Notre Dame was not projected to finish as high or as strong in the Big East after losing Luke Harangody. Louisville faced similar preseason expectations as it waited on a heralded 2011 recruiting class to arrive on campus. Purdue was a Final Four contender in August until Robbie Hummel tore his ACL again which accordingly dampened expectations.

Potential Sleeper: Georgetown. A six seed isn’t much of a sleeper, but the Hoyas struggled late in the season when guard Chris Wright broke his hand. Before his injury, Georgetown was rolling towards the top of the Big East standings. His return will provide help for teammate Austin Freeman. Then again, the Hoyas could be out in the first round like last season.

Player to Watch: Marcus Morris. The better of the Morris twins, brother Marcus has expanded his game from the smooth inside

Marcus Morris

hook shots to include the ability to knock down the three pointer in Bill Self’s high-low offense. Morris, often accused as dirty, provides the gritty toughness to succeed in March.

Winner: Notre Dame. I love the make-up of the Irish. They have experience across the board, and Ben Hansbrough has shown the ability to make tough baskets when the team needs a lift. The only thing that scares me is coach Mike Brey’s less-than-stellar record in the NCAA tournament, but the team plays good enough defense to survive.

Southeast

The weakest region of the tournament displays proverbial choke-artists, Pittsburgh. The Panthers last reached a Final Four when the tournament included eight teams. Some credit is due as the Panthers have maintained a good record and resume despite high preseason expectations, but in a season in which no team is truly dominate, Pittsburgh looks vulnerable. Meanwhile in this bracket, SEC regular season champs Florida were gifted a two seed while the Davies-less Cougars of BYU are the three seed and Wisconsin is the four. This bracket is perhaps the most wide-open of them all.

Potential Sleeper: BYU. I know what you’re thinking: How can a three seed be a sleeper? Technically, they cannot. But after BYU dismissed forward Brandon Davies for violation of the university’s honor code, the Cougars have looked beatable to the point where the national media has lost hope in them. However, they still have Jimmer Fredette, an electric scoring machine. Guard play in March can be a difference maker, and Fredette’s ability to light up the scoreboard is critical.

Player to Watch: Jimmer Fredette. The Cougar guard, as I just stated, is a scoring machine. Fredette has the ability to perform like Stephen Curry did in 2008 riding his success to a top NBA draft pick. Leave him open at your own peril.

The Jimmer

Winner: Florida. Even though the Gators were probably a seed too high, they’re still a good team. The lower half of the bracket is a little weaker than the top half, and I think SEC Player of the Year Chandler Parson spurs Florida into a Final Four for the first time since 2007.

Final Four

In one semi-final, we have Ohio State versus Arizona while the opposite side features Notre Dame versus Florida.

Ohio State defeats Arizona in a battle of future NBA forwards Sullinger and Williams. The Buckeyes’ balance is enough to put them over the top. In the other semi-final, Notre Dame continues their good form with a win over the Gators. Ben Hansbrough and the rest of the experienced roster put the Irish over the top late.

In the finals, Ohio State’s dream season comes to an end just like 2007. Notre Dame rides the wave of success to a somewhat improbable National Championship.

The MLB Preview / Prediction Post

Unfortunately, due to time constraints, I will not be able to bring a week-long celebration of all things baseball to EJSIC this season. Instead, it will be a giant entry found below. I’ll provide a snippet of each team in each division, ranking the teams in order of my projected finishes. Then, as an added bonus, I’ll throw in some major award predictions and playoff prognostications sure to be wrong. Enjoy.

AL East

Red Sox New LF Carl Crawford

1. Boston Red Sox: The Sox won the off-season with additions of Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez. Now they look to bring a third championship to Chesapeake Bay since 2004.

2. New York Yankees: Jeter’s building mansions and signing new contracts, A-Rod is toning his body and being fed popcorn by a superstar, C.C. cut out Captain Crunch, and the rest of the news is meaningless in Yankee country. Joe Girardi has his toughest challenge ahead in catching the Sox with a battered starting rotation.

3. Tampa Bay Rays: The Rays bring in some new faces this season in key positions (LF, 1B, and SP). They’re probably too green to beat the Red Sox this season, but that’s why they play 162.

4. Baltimore Orioles: The O’s showed signs of life under Buck Showalter last season. Can they carry it over to April and beyond? Depends upon how good future ace Brian Matusz is in his second year in the bigs.

5. Toronto Blue Jays: Just when the birds of the Great White North finally shed the albatross contracts of Vernon Wells and Alex Rios, they commit $62 million to a guy who had never hit more than 16 HRs in a season until mashing 54 last year. Oh well, they’re not winning any time soon anyway.

AL Central

1. Minnesota Twins: Some injuries and slow starts have dominated Twins’ news in Spring Training. These guys always find a way to win though. Don’t count ‘em out (unless they play the Yanks in October, then bet your house against it).

2. Chicago White Sox: I really wanted to list the South-siders as numero uno in the AL Central. They may very well finish there, but on-going health concerns with Jake Peavy and other pitchers leave the Chi Sox behind the Twins on paper.

3. Detroit Tigers: I liked Detroit’s off-season, until Miguel Cabrera’s DUI. Even then, not sure they have the talent to overtake the Twins.

4. Cleveland Indians: Shin Soo Choo is probably the best RF in baseball you’ve never heard of, and they have a future star at catcher, Carlos Santana (not the rock legend), but this team is still not close to competing.

5. Kansas City Royals: It could be really bad in KC this season. I mean, extremely, never-before-seen Royals bad. But the future is bright. Numerous outlets labeled the Royals’ farm system the best in baseball. That has to count for something, right?

AL West

Oakland's Young Ace Dallas Braden

1. Oakland A’s: Want a team that could replicate last season’s Giants? Look no further than north of the bay. The A’s are loaded with pitching; in fact their staff led all of baseball in quality starts last season. The downside? Like the defending champs, a struggling offense could derail their season.

2. Texas Rangers: Cliff Lee is gone which leaves a huge hole in their rotation. Plus, their starters were taxed to career highs last season. I still love this offense with Josh Hamilton in the middle, but their pitching is worrisome.

3. Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim: They dominated the late off-season by foolishly taking on Vernon Wells’ contract after whiffing on target Carl Crawford. Their pitching will be good enough to keep the halos alive through the summer, but unless a mid-season bat arrives, they probably just don’t have quite enough.

4. Seattle Mariners: King Felix Hernandez rightfully won the Cy Young last season. And he’ll probably be in contention for the award throughout the next decade. He, along with Ichiro, are lone bright spots for a struggling franchise.

NL East

1. Philadelphia Phillies: They have to be favorites in the division because of their rotation. However, Chase Utley’s long-term health is a major question mark as is the replacement of RF Jayson Werth who moved to Washington in the off-season. Most analysts are putting the Fightin’s on a crash course with the Bo-Sox in the World Series.

2. Atlanta Braves: The Braves finally addressed their need of a power hitter by trading for 30 HR man Dan Uggla. Their pitching staff will remain a strength of the team. Atlanta may be closer to the Phillies then some analysts originally thought.

3. Florida Marlins: The Marlins are dark-horse team in this division. They traded away Uggla, but they also rebuilt their bullpen after it cost them numerous games last season. Josh Johnson is a Cy Young in waiting.

4. New York Mets: I wanted to peg this team for the cellar, but they can’t be that bad, can they? Maybe they can. Their pitching staff is horrendous, and there’s no telling when Johan Santana will return or how effective he’ll be. Jose Reyes could be on the move by mid-season.

5. Washington Nationals: No Strasbourg or Harper this season, but they have the $100 million dollar Grizzly Adams in RF (Jayson Werth). The Nats do have, in my opinion, the best 3B in all of baseball, Ryan Zimmerman. He really should receive more attention.

NL Central

1. Cincinnati Reds: A little magic and an easy schedule propelled the Reds back into the postseason where they were promptly swept by the Phillies. Cincinnati returns most of that team plus the added experience of playoff baseball. I like the Reds to repeat as NL Central champions.

New Brewers' Ace Zack Grienke

2. Milwaukee Brewers: A trendy pick to win the division with their off-season acquisitions of Zack Grienke and Shaun Marcum, the Brew Crew are exciting fans in Milwaukee. And although I can see them winning the division, there’s still some reservation with this team; particularly defense.

3. St. Louis Cardinals: No Adam Wainwright will be the death-nail of the Cards in 2011. Pitching coach Dave Duncan has worked miracles before, but losing one of the best 6 pitchers in all of baseball (check the stats if you don’t believe me) cannot be replaced. And so begins a long season with the fate of the game’s best player unknown.

4. Chicago Cubs: Mike Quade performed admirably down the stretch after Sweet Lou rode into the sunset, but the Cubs still remain a cash-strapped, aging team. I don’t think they have enough to compete for 162.

5. Houston Astros: The Astros believe they can win this season with their pitching. I’m not so optimistic. They’re always a second half team so maybe they turn a few heads and make things interesting in August, but there’s not enough on this team currently to make any objective viewer believe they can compete with the top of the division. Then again, this is the weakest division in baseball again.

6. Pittsburgh Pirates: Andrew McCutchen and Pedro Alvarez are solid young franchise centerpieces that could help return the Pirates to past glory. They need some pitching help first though. The Bucs are a franchise on the (slight) rise, but not this season.

NL West

1. Colorado Rockies: I picked them to go to the World Series last season, and I’m not backing off too much after a less-than-expected performance last year. Ubaldo Jiminez, Troy Tulowitzki, and Carlos Gonzalez mark the core of a Rockies franchise that should be regularly competing for the next decade. They get the job done this season.

Future 2011 MVP Troy Tulowitzki

2. San Francisco Giants: The defending champs rode their strength (pitching) to a championship last season. But their talented hurlers threw career-highs in innings last season. Will it affect them Giants? Historical stats point to yes. Giants come up a little short this season.

3. Los Angeles Dodgers: Look for LA to bounce back this season and remain in the hunt for the division title through September only to come up a little short. Matt Kemp will be a name to keep an eye on as he looks to bounce back from a career worst season.

4. San Diego Padres: The Padres won 90 games last year and barring a late season 10 game losing streak, would have been the NL West champs. Now they’ve shipped Adrian Gonzalez off to Boston for prospects which means their offense probably takes a step back this season. Their pitching will keep them in ball games in the tough NL West.

5. Arizona Diamondbacks: The highlight of the D-Backs’ season will be hosting the 2011 All Star game. The lowlights will be everything else. New GM Kevin Towers will rebuild Arizona into a winner, but not this season.

Playoffs Predictions

NLE Phillies v NLC Reds: A rematch of last season’s opening round repeats itself. Phillies advance.

NLW Rockies v NLWC Braves: Rockies hand the Braves a second straight playoff exit at the hands of a NL West team.

ALE Red Sox v ALWC Rangers: Texas misses Cliff Lee’s postseason brilliance as it loses to the Sox.

ALC Twins v ALW A’s: The Twins’ playoff misery continues as the young Oakland staff gets it done.

NLCS Phillies v Rockies: Funny how often history repeats itself, huh? The NL West champion Rockies send the Phillies home again in the NLCS as they march on to the World Series.

ALCS Red Sox v A’s: Oakland pulls the upset on the heavily-favored Bo-Sox as Moneyball GM Billy Beane assembles his franchise just enough offense to survive.

The World Series Trophy

World Series: Rockies v A’s: The Oakland dream ends in the Fall Classic as Rocktober finally brings home a championship to the Mile High City. Tulo claims World Series MVP.

Regular Season Awards

NL Cy Young: Josh Johnson (Fla)

AL Cy Young: Jon Lester (Bos)

NL MVP: Troy Tulowitzki (Col)

AL MVP: Josh Hamilton (Tex)

So there you have it folks, my predictions surely to be wrong. Take it to the bank and enjoy the season.

December Soccer Update

Admittedly, I’ve been absent when it comes to the beautiful game on EJSIC since the end of the World Cup in July. Well, I gotcha back on some of the recent issues surrounding the sport starting with Qatar’s 2022 upset, UEFA Champions League, etc.

1. 2022 World Cup

The U.S. deserves the tournament more than a country the size of Connecticut. I will never say otherwise. Qatar’s oil money won out, so I’ll just have to get over it.

And I could fill this blog with the previously hashed out arguments of the extreme heat, grumpy Europeans with no alcohol, security issues, etc. but I’ll spare you all. We lost, I’m over it (mostly), and Qatar has some great ideas / stadium designs so maybe they’ll succeed and peace will transcend throughout the Middle East (too far right?).

The above stadium is my favorite design I’ve seen so far, but you can view them all here. They look great, and I honestly do wish them the best of luck in hosting the tournament. I’m sure a lot of the countries around the world felt the same way the U.S. now does when we were awarded the tournament in the early 90s.

2. FIFA President Sepp Blatter

The FIFA president who oversaw Qatar’s victory has since caused more controversy. While in South Africa officially closing out the 2010 World Cup (because it’s apparently a year-long event), Blatter warned homosexual fans who attend the 2022 event to not do anything sexually that is illegal there. He later apologized.

I guess it means this ref (video below) probably won’t be chosen to officiate the events.

3. UEFA Champions League – Round of 16

One can make a very strong argument that Europe’s most prized club competition features the best played soccer in the world (even better than the World Cup). Legendary Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson has commented so numerous times. I tend to agree with the arguments.

The UCL provides teams with better chemistry since they play together for 8 months out of the year rather than the ~8 weeks of an international team in the World Cup. Still, there is something to be said for playing for a nation’s flag. But if you want to watch good soccer, check out the UCL when it picks back up in February.

The following are the Round of 16 match-ups with a rough preview:

AC Milan (Italy) v. Tottenham (Eng) – Milan seems to be improving from their results of the past few seasons, but the Spurs possess the ever-dangerous Gareth Bale

Valencia (Spain) v. Schalke 04 (Germ) – Two under-the-radar teams who are overshadowed by giant clubs in their home country should play an interesting 2 games

AS Roma (Italy) v. Shakhtar Donetsk (Ukraine) – Shakhtar won its group over English juggernaut Arsenal and now look to take down an Italian powerhouse

Arsenal (Eng) v. Barcelona (Spain) – Barcelona are the favorites in the tournament, but Arsenal poses a tough test in the first knockout round

Copenhagen (Denmark) v. Chelsea (Eng) – The defending English champions have struggled lately, but with two months to heal and find their form, Chelsea should be able to defeat Copenhagen

Lyon (France) v. Real Madrid (Spain) – Real is Europe’s most successful club, and they look to recapture past glory against a scrappy but slightly under-manned Lyon

Marseille (France) v. Manchester United (Eng) – United looked dead earlier in the English season, but now find themselves at the top of the standings. Marseille, like Lyon, are too under-manned to be the favorites in this match-up

Internazionale (Italy) v. Bayern (Germ) – In last year’s finale, Inter defeated Bayern 2-0 to capture European glory. Their manager left for Real, but the players remain. Bayern will be looking for revenge

Q: When does a fan-made sign become racist?

A: It never does in Russia.

FIFA officials are in the process of visiting the countries currently bidding for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups. The heavy-hitters are the United States, England, Russia, a Belgium-Holland joint bid, and a Portugal-Spain joint bid.

Russia and England appear to be the favorites for the 2018 edition when the announcement is made in December of this year. FIFA officials recently spent some time in the Motherland examining the facilities, infrastructure, etc. FIFA expressed concerns over racism in Russia’s highest football league, the Russian Premier League.

And like a good commie, the Russian representative denied any problems. And when FIFA referenced a specific sign displayed by the fans of Lokomotiv Moscow, the denials became interesting.

Stay classy, Russia

The sign (above) is thanking English club West Brom for for acquiring Lokomotiv’s Peter Odemwingie. The problem, of course, is that Odemwingie is from Nigeria and his skin color is not the same as the shirtless commies in that pic. Thus, the banana came to signify racial tensions.

A Russian official explained to FIFA reps that the sign was not racist: “Apparently fans were not happy with the fact that he plays better for Nigeria and worse for the club. That’s why they have shown their satisfaction after he left. And there is nothing racial in it.”

The official went on to say: “In Russia ‘to get a banana’ means ‘to fail a test somewhere’.”

Oh, just a simple misunderstanding, right? The foreign player didn’t really know the origin of the banana in Russia. Well there’s more.

According to this BBC article, the banana did mean that at one time in the Motherland, but that time is no more.

So, it really is racist? I’m confused. The nice little tour guide of greater Russia said it wasn’t racist?

All of this can only mean one thing: England congratulations on securing the 2018 World Cup.