Saturday, March 24, 2007

Random, long overdue babble...

It's a good time on the sports calendar, but first, if I may get sentimental for a second, look at that little polar bear cub. Don't you want one of those things? Maybe until it grows into a 300-pound, fast, man-eating force.

Okay, enough Wild Kingdom. This is a nice time to be a sports fan. We've got the NCAA college hoops and hockey tournaments in full swing, the Sox getting ready to start another much-anticipated season, the NFL Draft on the horizon with the Patriots - the most aggressive team this offseason in terms of adding new talent - having not one but two first-round picks. As SI's Peter King concluded in his story this week on the Pats, the rich get richer and maybe more importantly, the smart get smarter. The Pats have to be the odds-on favorite in the AFC right now.

March Madness so far this year has been a little subdued. Not a lot of upset specials or great endings, but that's slowly changing as the Final Four comes into focus. Good games today with Ohio State vs. Memphis and Kansas vs. UCLA. Some school of thought around here thinks it's in the Celts best interest for Ohio State and Greg Oden to win the whole thing. Oden may be more inclined to go pro after hitting the mountain; a disappointing loss might leave him unfulfilled. Should be interesting to watch. Celts right now are locked into the 2nd-worst record in the league, trailing only the Memphis Grizzlies.

College hockey is always a good take too. Hockey East placed five teams in the tournament, and so far those teams are 2-1. UMass and Maine both won their first-round games, and BU got thumped last night by Michigan State. Today in Manchester, it's my UNH Wildcats playing Miami of Ohio at 1, and then BC playing St. Lawrence in the second game. Both games are on locally on CN8. Maine vs. UMass (should be a great game) are on ESPNU (wherever the hell that is on the dial) at 6. In other regionals, Notre Dame and Michigan State play for a Frozen Four spot tonight, Minnesota has an easy one against Air Force, and North Dakota plays Michigan. Frozen Four predictions: BC, ND, UMass, Minnesota.

In Red Sox land, the big, big story of the last couple days is that the Sox finally have their stud closer - and he was under their noses the whole time. The team announced this week that they're putting Jonathan Papelbon back into the closer role, and my first reaction was one of relief. I think it's the right move. Yes, it makes the dream rotation less dreamy, but that's not the key issue. The key issue is that they have now avoided the potential nightmares of watching Matsuzaka, Schilling and Beckett pitch 6 or 7 good innings and then having a late-game implosion to wipe all the good away. If Papelbon is healthy, and all signs indicate that he is, Pap should be his old, unhittable, microscopic-ERA self.

Speaking of our pricey Japanese import, Matsuzaka showed glimpses of his unhittable-ness this past week against the Pirates. One thing that's been interesting to read is all the gushing quotes from opposing players. The general sentiment is that you don't know which arm angle you're going to see every pitch, never mind what type of pitch he's throwing. Like all great pitchers, he seems to enjoy the challenge of outguessing a hitter, similar to Pedro in his glory days.

Other notes and thoughts on Spring Training:

- J.D. Drew has been lighting it up this spring

- Jason Varitek's struggles on offense have unfortunately continued. He smacked a homer yesterday, but his possible decline is a source of concern.

- Nick Cafardo has an interesting quote from a rival GM in his column this morning. The GM makes the point that the Sox' opening up a spot in their rotation (with the Papelbon move) might appeal more to Roger Clemens. Everything I've read says Clemens will make his decision around May, and that it's still the Sox, Yankees and Astros in the running. What a storybook ending that could be.

- Interesting development this week with prolific blogger Curt Schilling. Schilling made mention of the Sox moving Papelbon to the closer role, which brought up the issue of him breaking news from inside the locker room. ESPN really broke the news first, but still brings up some interesting ethical questions. If you haven't checked it out, his blog is worth a look. Little too heavy on the video game crap, but the baseball stuff is educational. And he's a pretty good writer to boot.

- Superstition alert: Dice-K is Sports Illustrated's cover boy this week on its baseball preview issue. Watch your step, Dice.

- Of course, the start of the baseball season means fantasy baseball is cranking up this week. I've got my draft this Thursday night in a league I've been in for more than 10 years. It's a 10-team league, 5x5, auction, 2 keepers. Seeing as how I've done absolutely zero prep, if you have any strategies that have worked or tips on players, let me know.

- I participate in a Home Run Derby pool that's pretty fun. The general idea: you start at 75% of a guy's homer total from the previous year, and try to pick the ones who will hit a lot more homers than that 75% total. You pick a team of 8 guys and you're basically looking for hitters that you think are trending up, or those that were injured the year before (i.e., Gary Sheffield and Derrek Lee) and are starting at a low HR base. The highest "plus" team in terms of homer improvement wins. One guy who might be worth taking on the upside angle is KC's Ryan Shealy. Any other thoughts on who you think will hit a lot of HRs this year?

- Everyone's talking about the Red Sox and the Yankees, but two teams to keep an eye on in the AL are the Blue Jays and the Angels. That Toronto lineup with Frank Thomas is going to give pitchers head-spins, and the Angels have the arms.

- Tony LaRussa got pulled over the other night in Florida for DUI. Somewhere, Edgar Renteria is smiling.

- Speaking of shortstops, has any team experienced the type of turnover the Sox have seen at this position. It's their own fault - I'd be pretty happy with Orlando Cabrera or Hanley Ramirez at SS - but now we have to welcome another new guy in Julio Lugo. I do not understand the organization's fascination with Lugo. We shall see.

- Here's what scares me a little bit about the Yanks vs. Sox. We have the edge in pitching, but the Yanks still have the superior lineup. We've got four potential weak links with Varitek, Youkilis, Pedroia, and Crisp, and Lowell is border-line. That's why they were going after Helton. Some have even suggested they may make a run at Ichiro when he becomes a free agent next year. I'm all for it. Coco's under the gun this year.

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