Saturday, March 28, 2009

Sometimes stories cannot wait until Friday.

Most of you probably do not remember all of the backstage drama that went on before the Colts left Baltimore (25 years ago tomorrow.  How fitting, really, with what is happening right now).  After it had become apparent that all the other tactics had failed, the City of Baltimore tried to claim the team under the statute of Eminent Domain.  They failed, and many people (myself included) put the attempt to do this down as one of the major reasons he wound up moving the team.  Many people are convinced that he would have sold the team, or at least kept it here.  But egos are a funny thing, and if you have the kind of hubris it takes to own a major sports franchise or be a high profile publicly elected official (and no one ever accused William Donald Schaefer of lacking in hubris), well, we know what pride goeth before.

In the news today was this article...

Basically it is about the state looking into avenues to keep the Preakness in Maryland, since Magna Entertainment Corp. (the company that owns Pimlico, Laurel Park, and the Preakness) has filed for bankruptcy.

Now the horse racing industry has been walking on a razor's edge for a while around here.  Many of the proponents of slots were proponents because they would go to the tracks in the area and hopefully keep locals who currently go to Delaware and their horse tracks that are loaded with slot machines here in the area.  But it seems it has been too little too late for Magna.

The thing that scares me from the article is this...

In an interview, Senate PresidentThomas V. Mike Miller said there was "obvious concern" among state leaders that the federal court would ignore the Maryland statute in favor of creditors' interests. As a safeguard, he said, "I'd be in favor of passing a law allowing the state to condemn the track and the Preakness," and then buy the assets.

Basically, the Senate President is threatening to do to the Preakness what the city tried and failed to do to the Colts.  

Now I am by no means in favor of Baltimore and / or Maryland losing the Preakness.  It is a true feather in the cap of this city and state.  The entire world (if you want to see something interesting, look up how popular horse racing is in Japan and in the Middle East) watches this event (many in smoky gambling parlors, but still).  It is one of the oldest continuously held sporting events in the entire world.  We need to fight tooth and nail to keep it.  Find other investors.  See if the model of the Green Bay Packers would work (I bet you a lot of people who live around here would buy ownership stakes in the Preakness.  I would.  It might not be the best investment, but how awesome would it be to hand down to my children a piece of Maryland history, ensuring that it stays here?  That's worth $100 a share.  And I might only buy 1 or 2.  But I bet Boogie Weinglass would snatch up a few.  And so would Barry Levinson, and John Waters, and Cal Ripken, and the Purdues (I forget what Frank's kid's name is).  But I am afraid that the tactics being discussed will be the thing that drives this incredible event right out of our state (and if it goes anywhere, my money would be to Delaware).  It is like the old saying goes..."Fool me once, shame on you.  Fool me twice, shame on me".  I think we are risking fooling ourselves right out of the Triple Crown.

And in a very real way, it reminds me of another famous saying (at least it was when I was growing up)..."Don't be a dumbass".

I'm looking at YOU, Thomas V. Mike Miller.

Friday, March 27, 2009

After a week off due to injury (think of it as my own stint on the 15 day DL), I am back.  And I really want to get into the baseball season.

It is hard to really get my Baseball review going when my hometown team only has 40% of its starting rotation set and there are 2 weeks until the start of the season.  It is going to be shades of of the 1948 Boston Braves unless some miracle happens.  They have some studs in the wings, like Matt Wieters, Jake Arrieta, Brian Matusz, and Chris Tillman.  Wieters has every appearance of being the real deal, and a lot of respected baseball publications called him the top minor league player in baseball last year and the top prospect this year.  He is starting the season in AAA (he got the word yesterday that he was being sent down), but that is only to give him a little more seasoning and (more importantly for the team) to give them another year of having him under their control before he can become a free agent (go HERE and scroll down to "after a player is drafted".  For this season, if Wieters is brought up after May 12th his major league service time clock won't start ticking until next season.  Look for him to come up around the end of May or the beginning of June).  He has a decent shot of Rookie of the Year, and unless things go wrong in a MAJOR way, he will be a cornerstone of this franchise for 10-15 years.  The Big 3 of Arrieta, Matusz, and Tillman are starting pitchers with a ton of upside, and should be pushing their way into the bigs no later than 2011.  But at least Andy MacPhail is smart enough to keep them down in the minors and not rush them, even if they might be better than who we are plugging into the lineup this year.  They need to learn how to pitch in the minors, and only then should they come up.

And honestly, the team does have some good pieces in place.  They signed RF Nick Markakis to a 6 year deal in the off season, and CF Adam Jones had a good year, and came on stronger at the end of the season.  That is 2/3 of a very good outfield.  If LF Felix Pie (pronounced pee-YAY) pays off and lives up to his potential, then the Orioles will have one of the better outfields in baseball for a long time.  All 3 are above average defensively, Markakis is one of the more talented hitters in RF in the entire league, and he is getting better each year.  Jones has speed to spare and could conceivably be a perennial 50 steal guy with some pop in his bat, and Pie is a 5 tool player with plus scores in all areas, but who was pushed out of the Chicago Cubs lineup because they are a veteran laden team trying to win it all right now and do not have room on their roster for a rookie to learn in the big leagues.  Because his minor league options were up, the Orioles got him on the cheap.  He might not pan out, but it was a chance that the team could not pass up.  A big move was the signing of 2B Brian Roberts to a 4 year extension.  He is 31 and will probably not play much past this new contract.  And there is the chance that his play will decline more than a little bit over the next 5 years (the final year of his current contract and the 4 year extension).  But his leadership on the field and the example that he sets on and off the field are as important as anything else he does, especially in the next 2 years as this team builds towards being a contender again.  They have a number of other players that are probably in their last year with the team (Melvin Mora and Aubrey Huff being the two prime examples), as the team continues to develop their prospects (actually, if Huff has another good year I could see them keeping him.  But I do not think the team is going to re-sign Mora.  From a fan perspective I will miss him if they do not re-sign him, since he has been a bright spot, especially since he was the only really positive return from the "fire sale" that Syd Thrift had in 1999.  But it is time for the team to move on, and probably time for him to move on, too.  I just hope he retires and becomes ambassador for the team both here and abroad.  I have heard rumors of that being discussed with him.  I hope it is true).

In the off season the team made a valiant effort to sign local product and budding superstar 1B Mark Teixeira.  They made a fair offer, and said to his agent that if he is truly interested in coming home and playing for the team he watched as a kid they would be willing to move on that offer.  However (and this is why I think Andy MacPhail not only knows what he is doing but needs to be left the hell alone to do it), he also told them that he would not allow his team and their fans to be led along and used in order to get bigger offers from other teams.  He would not allow the franchise to be a negotiating ploy.  And it turns out that Teixeira never had any intention of coming here, as he signed with the New York Yankees (which a lot of local fans took personally, which is just stupid since he owed the franchise and its fans nothing).  His favorite team as a kid was the Orioles, but his favorite player (the one he modeled himself after since he played the same position as him) was Don Mattingly.  And when he was offered the chance to stand in his place he jumped at it.  Signing him would have been a step away from the blueprint that MacPhail has set forth on how this club needs to operate, but it was one that made sense from a fan and from a team perspective.  The team will be much more active in free agency in the next two years (as long as some of these prospects pan out), but right now the best course of action is to continue to develop from within.  They have greatly expanded their presence in Latin America (which is a hotbed of baseball talent), and they signed their first Japanese player (who is not a top flight talent, but a decent player.  The importance of the signing is getting the team a foot in the door of the Japanese talent pool and getting the team on the lips and in the minds of the players and fans.  They all know who the Yankees, Red Sox, and Mariners - who are owned by Nintendo - are.  Now they have reporters following the Orioles every day.  If Koji has a good time and likes what he sees then another world of talented players become available to the team.  It is another smart move by MacPhail.

I am not looking for this team to win more than 70-75 games this year, and would not be surprised if they were closer to 60 wins and 100 losses (they were 68-93 last year with one rained out game not made up as it made no difference in the final standings, playoffs, or draft slotting).  I am expecting to see Wieters by the beginning of summer and possibly 1 of the 3 pitching prospects (my money would be on Matusz) before the season is over.  I want to see Markakis improve his base stealing and expect to see an improvement in his power and RBI totals.  I expect to see continued improvement in Jones' overall offensive performance.  I am anxious to see what Pie can do as a full time starter in the majors as opposed to a call-up / fill in / part time player like he was in Chicago.  Basically I am looking for improvement on the field more so than in the standings.  The W-L record will get better only after the players do.  One step at a time.

Next week - Overall predictions for the season!
I figured since I missed last week, I owed you an extra one this week.  And there is something else I wanted to talk about, but on a completely different topic.

I mentioned previously that the NFL Owners have chosen to opt out of the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) and that this coming season is the last under the current salary cap.  If no new contract is reached, then the 2010 season will be an uncapped season (an explanation of what that would mean for the league can be found HERE), and odds are the owners will stage a lockout in 2011.  To make matters worse, longtime NFL Players Association (NFLPA) Executive Director Gene Upshaw passed away last year.  Upshaw had an excellent working relationship with the league, and losing him puts another wild card into the negotiations, as no one knows what is going to happen when NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and NFLPA Executive Director DeMaurice Smith sit down and start negotiating.  That is why I found this story so interesting, and have been wondering why it hasn't gotten the attention that I think it merits...

Now why is this such a big story?

  • Players hate preseason

Preseason games are no longer nearly as necessary as they were even 20 years ago.  The off season camps, both mandatory and "optional", the workout sessions, the personal trainers and nutritionists that the players and the teams keep on staff...all of that adds up to players no longer needing 4 games in order to get in playing shape.  Training camp itself is still needed in order to get players familiar with the playbook and to integrate new players, be they rookies or free agents.  But the days of players taking jobs in the off season in order to make ends meet is long gone, and the players are able to spend their off season rehabbing injuries and making themselves ready for the season.  All these games are good for (in the players' minds) is for getting injured before their contracts become guaranteed (this is important.  Remember this).  It seems like every year there is a marquee player getting injured in the preseason.  And who knows how many regular joes or guys scrapping for a slot on special teams go down with a season (and sometimes career) ending injury in a meaningless game in August?  There is no benefit for them.

  • Owners aren't THAT fond of it either

The owners do get SOME benefit from the preseason games in that the season ticket holders have to buy tickets to the 2 home preseason games as part of their package.  And they do make some money on concessions.  But the stadium is never as full, as energetic, or as hungry or thirsty as they are when the game means something.  The non season ticket holding fan is not going to buy a ticket to see the 3rd string left tackle play 3/4 of the game.  Most of the fans that DO attend leave by halftime, since the games are usually played on weeknights.  Thursday at 9pm in August, I just want to go home and sit in the air conditioning and decompress.  I am in no mood to put on my jersey, paint my face, and get stupid crazy in the stands.  It is just a fact.  And owners do not like when the stars go down any more than the players do.  They aren't going to cut them, so they have to pay them to do nothing.  Now they don't care as much when that undrafted rookie free agent goes down, because they don't have any kind of significant investment in that player.  But it is safe to say that no one likes to see another man get hurt for nothing (except maybe Philadelphia fans.  Sorry C3PO).  But since these games are not part of the broadcasting contract (local markets may broadcast them, but the networks do not show them nationally like they do regular season games), there is no real revenue for these games, and therefore no real benefit for the owners (this is also important).

The soon-to-be expired CBA (in the eyes of the owners) gave too much overall revenue to the players.  The vast majority of that revenue came from the television contracts, but the fact of the matter is that the Buffalo Bills do not generate as much money as the Dallas Cowboys.  They might get the same cut of the big pie, but their own bakeries have vastly different outputs.  And that puts the small market teams at a bit of a disadvantage.  This old CBA basically got hammered through by Upshaw and former NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue, because Tagliabue did not want their to be the potential of labor stoppage during his tenure (the NFL has gone the longest of any professional league without a work stoppage of any kind).  Truth be told, the old CBA was not that nice to the owners, and they want the chance to correct that.  But the players have had a taste of the big money and they will not give that up without a fight.  And not without getting some other concessions...

Like maybe a reduction in meaningless games?

Think about it.  Less preseason games means less games before a contract is guaranteed (currently if a player has 4 years of credited service under the pension plan, then even if they are released once the season starts that season's pay is guaranteed).  Less preseason games means that it is more likely that a player who has already been with a team will be kept over someone else, just because the coaching staff has less of an opportunity to see if another (probably cheaper rookie) player will be able to do what the current player has already established that they CAN do (protecting the jobs of teammates who are on the bubble.  You always protect your own fraternity members before you ask others to join you).  All of this is good news for players.  Now add to that the fact that more regular season games means more ticket sales and concessions sales for owners, giving them more money.  Also, the television contracts would have to be renegotiated, and even in a recession the networks do not want to lose their cash cow.  And if one network balks, another will surely jump in (or, the NFL could move more games to the NFL Network and keep ALL the money, not to mention giving them a chance to get their network into more homes with their own increased negotiating power as a game broadcaster all season long).  There are a lot of options here, and pretty much all of them end up with more money for the league.  Also, if the season is expanded, the league can justify adding some more players to the active roster.  A bigger roster means more jobs for more players.  

All of this adds up to the owners being able to come to the negotiating table with a chance to offer the players more money, but with a lower percentage of revenues (2 more games means about 10% more revenue right off the bat - 2 games is 12.5%, minus what they would make off of the preseason games - plus the additional television revenue from the national contract adding more than they are losing from local broadcast rights for preseason games, and by my guess by more than a little bit.  So they can offer a lower percentage than they currently give, but that percentage would be more overall money than the players are currently getting).  Plus the players get more jobs to go around and a better chance of guaranteed payment for a number of their players.  Both sides make concessions and both sides win.

Of course, it is not as simple as all that.  There are a lot of things that have to go into any CBA, and a lot of things that both sides are going to want addressed.  But to me this smacks of an opening salvo from a very smart businessman named Roger Goodell.  He comes out to the public in support of something players have mentioned wanting for a while (less preseason), but with the added caveat of something the owners want (more revenue).  It is a very smart move, and one that I think is going to have major ramifications as the negotiations heat up.

Friday, March 13, 2009

We are about the enter the best 4 weeks in sports.  Of course, I am referring to March Madness (and also the conference championships the week before that set the lineup).  There are probably more intense moments, especially if you have a personal stake in a team competing for a championship.  But the sheer quantity of teams and the history of teams making that "Cinderella" run to the Final Four makes for all kinds of excitement (not to mention all kinds of lost time at work.  This thing rivals the Super Bowl in scope of time wasted and also for casual gambling.  Get your brackets ready!)

Final selections are this Sunday.  You get in either by automatic bid or by an at large berth.  There are 31 automatic bids.  A lot of teams "on the bubble" are affected by the automatic bids.  Basically it breaks down like this...

North Carolina is a lock to get an at large berth.  They have been in the Top 10 all season long, and been ranked Number 1 for a good portion of the season.  They could be eliminated in the first round of the ACC Tournament and still get nothing lower than a 2nd seed (and will probably get a top seed) in the NCAA Tournament.  Likewise, Duke, Wake Forest, Clemson, Florida State and Boston College are also considered locks to get an at large berth if they do not win the ACC Tournament.  

Maryland is considered on the bubble (and by many to be on the outside of the bubble looking in).  It has been said that they would have to do anything from win 2 games in the ACC Tournament all the way up to get to or even win the tournament in order to guarantee a spot in the NCAA Tournament.  The odds of them winning the ACC are slim (there is a reason they went 7-9 in the regular conference season and were the 7th seed going into the tournament last night, where they beat NC State 74-69).  But it is always a possibility that they could make it to the ACC Finals, lose, and not get a bid.  It is also possible that they could win the ACC Tournament and therefore get an automatic bid to the NCAA's.  

If Maryland DOES get an at large berth, then the selection committee has deemed them more worthy than others who were considered borderline teams to make the tournament.  But if they were otherwise not going to make the tournament but DID win the ACC Tournament and therefore did receive an automatic bid to the tournament, they would wind up bumping out another team that otherwise was considered stronger than them and would have made the tournament over them if they had not received the automatic bid (dang but that was a long sentence).  In that scenario, Penn State or New Mexico could be bumped out of the Big Dance (another nickname for the NCAA Tournament).

In other words, 31 teams get invited no matter what else happened in the regular season.  Now the vast majority of the time the teams that get invited no matter what are not competing with the borderline teams for one of the other 34 open slots (the "mid major" and minor conferences are usually one, two teams tops for the tournament, since their SoS and their RPI are not enough to put them in the running).  But teams from the major conferences (like MD) who have decent SoS and RPI, but not at levels guaranteeing them an at large berth, have to be one of those 31 teams to get that guarantee.  And if they buck the trend and beat those schools above them and win one of those automatic bids they probably knock another school out.

And once they get in there, there is no telling what can happen.  And THAT is why I am planning on wasting as much of my bosses' time as possible the next month or so (even more so than usual, which is a hard thing to top.  But I shall strive to be as unproductive as possible, furtively glancing at my online scoreboard whenever they are not able to see my screen.  It is the American way, you know).

Friday, March 06, 2009

I was very tempted to get on last Friday as soon as I sat down at my desk and start going crazy over the start of free agency.  But I didn't.  I felt like I should let it shake out a bit and see where we stood after the first round of dust had settled.

I think we did pretty darn well, really.

Let's look at my unscientific list of UFA's the team had...

OL Jason Brown
LB Terrell Suggs
LB Ray Lewis
FB Lorenzo Neal
S Jim Leonhard
TE Daniel Wilcox
CB Corey Ivy
LB Bart Scott
OT Chad Slaughter
PK Matt Stover
WR Terrence Copper
QB Kyle Boller
QB Todd Bouman

Before we go too far, a caveat.  I did suggest using the Franchise Tag on Jason Brown if the team was able to sign Terrell Suggs to a new deal before Free Agency started.  Of the two, it was more important to sign Suggs, because 26 year old DE/LB hybrids with the ability to rush the passer as well as play in space are harder to come by than interior offensive linemen.  Especially when you consider that they do not specify line position when assigning the contract value of an offensive lineman.  And since tackles (specifically left tackles) are one of the highest paid players on a team, it would have been cap suicide to franchise Brown.  

Of that list, only 5 players have been signed.  2 by the Ravens, 2 by the Jets (who hired Raven's Defensive Coordinator Rex Ryan as their Head Coach, who took a couple of assistant coaches along with him, which is the norm), and 1 by the Rams.  Of course he is going to want to sign players who he is comfortable with and who can help teach his system to the new team.  Ryan waited outside Scott's house and at 12:01 AM (the moment he could speak to Bart without being accused of tampering) he knocked on the door and pushed hard to get him.  The Ravens pushed hard back, and the final deal (6 years, $48 million) is probably overpaying him a bit.  We will see how it plays out.  Likewise the Jets went after Jim Leonhard, who was a valuable fill in in the secondary and in punt returns after Dawan Landry went down with an injury.  But with Landry returning, and with Tom Zbikowski and Haruki Nakamura waiting in the wings (along with Ed Reed still there), he was not a priority and the money will be spent on other areas of the team that need more attention.  That being said, they are two good signings by the Jets, and two players I fully expected to lose.  Jason Brown is good, but Ozzie Newsome once again showed why he is one of the most respected GM's in the league.  The Rams definitely overpaid Brown to get him.  The Ravens responded by signing Matt Birk, an 11 year veteran, formerly of the Minnesota Vikings.  He is going to be a leader on the line and in the huddle, helping the maturation process of Joe Flacco.  He gives the Ravens 3 years to either develop Chris Chester or Marshall Yanda as a center or to draft and develop a center.  The contract is MUCH more cap friendly than Jason Brown's would have been. 

And this is important.  Most people think of the cap only in the context of that particular year.  But the cap is an ever evolving number that affects the team EVERY year.  They probably could have signed Scott, Brown, and everyone else on that list.  But next year they have to re-sign Haloti Ngata, and if you look at Albert Haynesworth's contract that he just signed with the Redskins (7 years, $100 million - $115 million if all incentives are reached), and Ozzie knows that he will have to keep that in mind when he is negotiating with Ngata's agent over the next year.  So the Ravens possibly upgraded on the offensive line and gave themselves more breathing room this year and next year.  And with Leonhard and Scott, there are other, young players waiting to take over.  The Ravens have been known for their linebacking corps for years, and the guys they have on the team (Tavares Gooden, Nick Greisen, Antwan Barnes, Prescott Burgess) are considered bright talents with a lot of upside.  It is the right thing to do to move forward with them.

The big news is that Ray Lewis is re-signing with the team.  It looks like he overplayed his hand when thinking that teams would get into a bidding war for a 33 (will be 34 by the time the season starts) linebacker.  He is going to eat a little humble pie and sign another cap friendly contract that lets him secure his legacy as a career Raven, a Hall of Fame player, and a leader who has the chance to get another ring before he hangs up his cleats for good.

The news that is not getting any attention is that the Ravens have apparently decided to part ways with Matt Stover, severing the last link to the old Cleveland Browns team (unless he does not re-sign with anyone else and is brought into camp to compete for the job.  Kickers have ABSOLUTELY no job security, since their contracts are usually so minuscule in the grand scheme of things that there is no cap ramification to switch them around all willy nilly).

Free agency is not over with.  There will be more deals before the season starts.  But as of now it is a slow trickle of signings here and there.  The big moves are done with.  

Hopefully I will be switching to more baseball coverage now, at least until the draft in April.  The World Baseball Classic is about to begin, and the Orioles have some interesting things happening in camp that should be looked at.

As always, if you have any questions about this or any other sports related questions please leave them in the comments section.  I would love to get a column idea from you.