Saturday, March 10, 2007

Back in the Saddle

To my three loyal readers, I hereby proclaim that Hardball Heaven is back on track. (That's the new Mrs. Brady on the right - my little bribe to get y'all back in the fold). We got a little derailed there because, well, what's there to say about college basketball and NASCAR? Thankfully, the two Boston sports teams who dominate the news year-round are back with a vengeance.

The Red Sox, of course, have begun spring training in postcard-perfect Fort Myers, Florida - meaning the sensation that is Dice-K is in full swing. We'll get to that circus in a minute.

The Free-Spending Pats

First, though, how about them Patriots? You know, that team that doesn't spend any money? Less than a month after that gut-wrenching loss to the Colts in the AFC title game (I still haven't come to terms), the Patriots have made themselves better with a flurry of moves and signings not seen in my lifetime.

I can't remember an NFL free agency period quite like this one. Just like baseball, the money is flowing like beer at a frat kegger. Just before the frenzy began, I was reading an ESPN column that listed all the prominent free agents and predicted which teams they might end up with. To my dismay, our Patriots were nowhere to be found on the list. Then, a couple days later, we start hearing a buzz that Adalius Thomas - the monster linebacker from the Ravens - is traveling to Foxborough to meet with the Pats. Evidently, Thomas liked what he saw and heard from Bill Belichick at the Pro Bowl in Hawaii, and Belichick and Scott Pioli liked what they saw of Thomas on tape as they prepared for a potential matchup with the Ravens in the playoffs. Just like that, one of the best free agents was a Patriot. But that wasn't all.

In the coming days, the Patriots signed two players away from division rival Miami - RB Sammy Morris and WR Wes Welker, and they also added veteran TE Kyle Brady to compensate for the loss of Daniel Graham to the Broncos. Morris makes sense because Corey Dillon is officially an ex-Patriot. The jury's out on whether Laurence Maroney can be the man full-time (something tells me he'll be working out extra-hard this offseason), but Morris should be a nice addition to a rotation that includes Kevin Faulk and Heath Evans. I'm thrilled with Welker. Think of him as a younger Troy Brown - in other words, a human Swiss Army knife. He's one of the best punt/kick returners in the league (so the Pats can remove Maroney from that role), and he'll be a dangerous option for Tom Brady. He had a career-high 67 receptions in 2006, and he even kicked a field goal for the Dolphins a couple years ago in an emergency situation. Kyle Brady, on the other hand, is well-known by Belichick and is by all accounts one of the better blockers in the league.

Oh yeah, one other move. Right before the free agency madness began, the Pats slapped the franchise tag on CB Asante Samuel, who had a tremendous year in '06. While I'm sure Asante isn't pleased - considering the dollars being thrown around - here's hoping the Pats and Bob Kraft do the right thing and give the kid the money. He deserves it.

Daddy Brady

While we're on the subject of our football team, we must address the recent developments surrounding our all-world quarterback. As we all know, Brady split up with B-list actress Bridget Moynahan a couple months back and recovered quite nicely, taking up with Victoria's Secret lingerie model Gisele Bundchen. (Can you imagine telling your buddies that you're banging a Victoria's Secret lingerie model??)

While Tom's busy frolicking with the Brazilian bombshell, Bridgie lands a haymaker with the announcement that she's pregnant and Tom's the dad. Brady didn't make a statement for what seemed like eternity, but then eventually came out and said he was excited and looking forward to being a father (right). Of course, all the skeptics around here started speculating that this was all planned by Moynahan, and it certainly looks that way. Her TV show, which had been canceled, all of a sudden has been renewed. Amazing what a little publicity does for ya. Meanwhile, Brady's still romping around Paris with Gisele, and rumors are flying that she's now pregnant. Her family actually came out this week and said it's not true. Still, for a guy who's devoutly Catholic, and squeaky-clean, it's been a tough couple months for Tom. But again, he is bedding a Victoria's Secret supermodel, so it can't be all that bad.

Three-Ring Circus

And finally, the reason we exist here at Hardball Heaven...

Red Sox camp is in full swing, and stories abound. A quick, high-level recap:

Dice-K: the Nation stopped in its tracks for his two-inning debut against the mighty Boston College Eagles. NESN pre-empted regular programming to show the folks back home in frigid New England what this guy was all about. The first batter, who also doubles as BC's punter for football season, lined Dice-K's very first pitch for a double. After that, though, he was pretty impressive. My initial observations - he's got a million different looks and arm angles, his fastball isn't overpowering but it's got insane movement, and his off-speed stuff is well above average. He's only going to get better. The big question is not his ability, but how well he can handle the transition to America and MLB. Something tells me he'll manage just fine thanks.

Curt Schilling: say what you want about the Big Shill, but can you imagine if Pedro was still on this team and all the attention was being bestowed on Dice-K? Schilling has willingly taken a backseat, though his contract negotiations were news for a few days. He took to the airwaves a while back and said that he was planning to play another year beyond this one, which is his final contract year in Boston. That left open the possibility that the Sox would try to get him signed to a deal before this season began. Wisely, in my opinion, they decided not to throw millions at a guy who's 41 years old. They'd rather wait, let him be extra-incented this year, and then try to get something done. Schilling was obviously disappointed, and some fans felt they should have signed the guy for his Bloody Sock heroics alone. I think this is the right move.

The closer, or lack thereof: all in all, the Sox' roster looks pretty damn solid. They will be better offensively with Julio Lugo and JD Drew in the lineup, and their pitching is much-improved. It's the tail end, however, that is still a glaring concern. They're auditioning any number of guys for the closer role. Joel Pineiro. Brendan Donnelly. Craig Hansen. Mike Timlin. Unfortunately, the best closer on the team is now a member of the starting rotation. Jonathan Papelbon was abolutely lights out last year before he got hurt, and the Sox' medical people have made the call that starting is better for him health-wise. Still, don't you get the nagging feeling that he may return to his previous role? I'd still like to see them make a move for Washington's Chad Cordero (and I still want Helton, too) so they may not be done just yet.

Jon Lester's return: And last, we'll close on a positive note. Jon Lester, who had his season cut short last year with a shocking diagnosis of a form of cancer, looks pretty damn good for what he's been through. You knew listening to him last year after he found out that he had the mental and intestinal fortitude required to battle this, and battle he did. He looks great, and could be a very welcome surprise in 2007.

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