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August 2013

2013 NFL Previews: NFC East

in NFL by
dez

Dallas Cowboys

In what was a make-or-break season for the much maligned and extremely talented quarterback, of course Tony Romo would deliver mixed results. Despite having some of the advanced statistics in the league last season, Romo found a way to leave everybody with a sour taste in their mouths by throwing three interceptions in a week 17 loss to the Redskins, all but crushing Dallas’ post-season hopes. Such is the way that most of Romo’s career has gone. He’s given us tons of brilliant moments, put up the stats of an elite QB and even won a fair share of games in crunchtime, but just when you think he’s about to turn the corner for good, his next throw winds up in the hands of the opposition, often at the worst possible times for a relapse.

While 2012 was a failure for the Cowboys in that they didn’t make the playoffs, Jerry Jones didn’t react if that was the case. Though he did make a big decision to fire defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, he also remained steadfast in his commitment to Romo by handing him a rich six-year, $108 million extension ($55 million guaranteed). Despite his awful performance in the season finale, I find myself agreeing with the Cowboys decision to keep Romo around.

First of all, though $55 million is a lot of guaranteed money, even if Romo has a catastrophic breakdown that prevents him from being even a league average quarterback, Dallas can just cut ties with him in the same way that the Bills did with Ryan Fitzpatrick just two seasons after showering him with cash be it under the best shower head or in the pool. Second of all, stripping Jason Garrett of the responsibility of calling plays should greatly benefit Romo. I think Garrett has been way to conservative with the offense over the past few years, which leads to Romo forcing things in critical moments. Bill Callahan is not an incredibly forward thinking play-caller himself, but a new voice should make a difference for the Cowboys.

If Dallas decides to be a tad bit more aggressive offensively, and perhaps even speed things up, they could have one of the best offenses in the league this season. Oklahoma State product Dez Bryant became a superstar last season and his off-the-field maturity has mirrored his growth on the field. Coming into this season, Bryant has the potential to become one of the three best pass catchers in the league. His combination of breakaway speed, physicality and reliable hands (he was catching touchdown passes with a broken finger last season for god’s sake) make him one of the few wideouts in the league that can beat a defensive back every which way, and the Romo-to-Bryant tandem is going to put up video game numbers this season.

To support their passing attack, the Cowboys have put together an impressive Bedlam backfield with former Sooner DeMarco Murray and former Poke Joseph Randle. This is one of the most dynamic duos in the league on a talent basis, with each guy able to run by, through and over linebackers while making an impact in the passing game, but Murray can’t seem to stay on the field. Murray hasn’t had a fully healthy season since his senior year in high school. When he’s healthy, he’s a game-changing runner, but I wouldn’t bet on him playing 16 games this season.

After making a pair of big additions to the secondary last off-season, Dallas didn’t make any big personnel changes on the defensive side of the ball this summer. Instead, they used their money to lock-up Sean Lee to a hefty extension and hired a new defensive coordinator: 73-year old Monte Kiffin.

Now, when your own son doesn’t want to keep you around in any capacity at the college level, there’s a reason to doubt that Kiffin’s schemes, which are becoming outdated, will work in his return to the NFL. That said, Dallas has some pieces in place that theoretically fit well with Kiffin’s ideals. Kiffin is shifting the Cowboys to a 4-3 front, putting Anthony Spencer and DeMarcus Ware on the ends of the line with Jay Ratliff and Jason Hatcher in the middle, which could actually be an upgrade for Dallas.

Additionally, with Lee in the middle of that Tampa-2 look, the Cowboys will have one of the most instinctual and effective middle linebackers in the game playing the key role in their new system; the mike, or middle, linebacker in the Tampa-2 is responsible for reading pass or run at the snap and dropping into coverage if it’s a pass play, and few can make these reads and movements as well as Lee. On top of that, Bruce Carter should make for an awesome WILL (weakside) linebacker in Kiffin’s scheme (making him the primary run stopper if things run smoothly) and free-agent signing Justin Durant, who is coming over from the Lions, will slide in as the SAM (strongside) backer.

The glaring hole in Dallas roster in regards to Kiffin’s defense is their lack of any even league average safties. The “2” in Tampa-2 refers to the two safeties and they are responsible for covering their half of the field and being able to play near the line of scrimmage against the run. Barry Church, Matt Johnson or whoever else Dallas puts on the field at those spots, aren’t equipped for that kind of role and it’s going to be hard to cover up weaknesses at those two spots. Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne should improve after struggling to get accustomed to Ryan’s bi-polar coverage calls last season, but that may not mean much to Dallas overall performance against the pass.

While I think the Kiffin hire could work out well, what troubles me is Kiffin’s inability to adapt to the new style of football that is trickling into the league. The last time Kiffin went up against Chip Kelly’s offense – Oregon’s 62-51 victory over USC last November – his defense gave up 730 total yards including 426 rushing yards (7.1 per game) and 304 passing yards (Marcus Mariota was 20-of-23). Now Kiffin will face Kelly’s offense twice per season in addition to two matchups against RGIII and Kyle Shanahan’s spread system (Oakland may also be using the read-option by the time they face the Cowboys if Terrelle Pryor gets the job). While Kiffin has better personnel in Dallas, the issue was schematic when the Ducks burned him over the past three years, and a failure to contain mobile quarterbacks could cost Dallas dearly in such a competitive division.

Best-case scenario: 11-5, Romo avoids the gut-wrenching turnovers and the defense adjusts quickly

Worst-case scenario: 6-10, Romo goes Ryan Fitzpatrick on the Cowboys and the defense struggles with the new scheme

Prediction: 9-7 and a playoff birth for the Cowboys.

New York Giants

Injuries have ravaged the Giants over the past couple of years, mostly targeting their secondary and defensive line. New York was playing fourth-string corners at times last season and enter this season nicked up on the outside again; in fact, just a week ago safety Stevie Brown, who was very good last season, tore his ACL. On the line, Jason Pierre-Paul is coming off of back surgery and may not be fully healthy until well into the season and Justin Tuck, whether it be nagging injuries or age-related regression, is not the dominant end he once was. To make matters worse, running back Andre Brown fractured his leg in a pre-season game last night, which is the same injury that he suffered last season. While the NFC East is an extremely competitive division, the Giants bout with injury bug may be just as difficult.

With underwhelming corners and their best safety out of the picture and a linebacking core that failed to assist against the run last season, the Giants desperately need to have their dominant passrush of two seasons ago to return, but the injury to Pierre-Paul and Tuck’s regression have made New York’s once dominant defensive line a bit of a question mark headed into the season.

Luckily for the Giants offense, second year running back David Wilson appears to have all of the talent to be a productive number one back and can at least carry the load until Brown returns and the timeshare between the two begins. Wilson is a dynamic back that can make plays in the passing game and burn defenses with his quick cuts out of the backfield. With Ahmad Bradshaw now playing for the Colts, the Giants will start the season with virtually no depth at the running back position, which means Wilson is going to have plenty of chances to prove himself after getting put in the doghouse last season because of a fumble in the season opener.

Though the Giants still have Eli Manning leading their offense, Hakeem Nicks appears to have lost a step over the past year and Victor Cruz, despite his massive contract extension, is actually coming off of an underwhelming season. It’s funny to think that the Giants could go 7-9 and have the worst record in the division, but this appears to be a down season for the Giants as they are relying on far too many rebound seasons and dealing with too many injuries to key players.

Best-case scenario: 10-6, David Wilson becomes a 1,000 yard back and that viscous pass rush returns

Worst-case scenario: 5-11, With no running game, Eli struggles and the injuries decimate the defense

Prediction: 7-9 and a trip to the playoffs for Eli, but only to watch Peyton

Philadelphia Eagles

While critics point to college coaches that have graduated to the NFL and fallen flat on their face in the past as reasons why Chip Kelly should be doubted, count me in on the former Oregon coach being successful at this level. Though he has a very unique and regimented style, we made it through training camp and the pre-season without a rebellion, which leads me to believe that the players aren’t viewing him as a dictator and thus won’t quit on him. And if you’re a player, it’s kind of hard to dislike the coach that wants to run as many plays as possible, spread the ball around a ton and play an up-tempo, exciting brand of football.

It also helps that the team’s quarterback, Michael Vick, and their best player, LeSean McCoy, are perfect fits for Kelly’s scheme. Bomani Jones had a great piece theorizing that Vick was born to run Kelly’s offense and that, had he and Kelly crossed paths a decade ago, just how much different his career would have unfolded. While Vick has had his ups-and-downs as a pro and is certainly on his last couple of legs, at least as dual-threat quarterback, he still has enough explosiveness in his gait to make an impact on the ground and his arm has never lost its fervor.

Contrary to popular belief, the foundation of Kelly’s offensive philosophy is the ability to run the ball. There are certainly some spread passing elements built into his scheme, but most of them are based off of the run, which is the opposite of the spread offense that Oklahoma State runs. While the spread offense entails certain universal principles, there is a lot of room for diversity underneath the spread umbrella. In Kelly’s case, the run game takes priority, followed by a short passing game that is analogous to running and then, once the linebackers and safeties start creeping in, the deep ball comes into play.

Of course, Kelly never had a quarterback that could sling it as far as Vick at Oregon, so he’ll have more chances to go deep. That said, you can be sure that McCoy will be the primary playmaker for this offense, and with a coach that is committed to getting him the ball out of the backfield (sorry, Andy Reid), he should have a monster season this year. McCoy is already one of the toughest players in the league to bring down and now consider what else will be going for him this year: 1) the offensive line will be healthy to start the season (most importantly: left tackle Jason Peters is back after missing all of last season with a torn ACL), 2) the read-option element will put him in better situations than draw plays and 3) as the playcount grows and grows and the defense tires out, McCoy will be able to turn on the afterburners and see defenders huffing-and-puffing in his rear-view mirror.

As you can imagine, running a ton of plays can also tire out the offensive players too, although their rate of fatigue is often slower than the defense. If McCoy needs a breather, it’s not an issue for the Eagles. Bryce Brown came onto the scene last season as a strong running back and will back-up McCoy this season, Felix Jones is far from a feature back talent-wise, but he does have some speed and ability to work as the third string back for this interchangeable offense, and even fourth stringer Chris Polk has some potential. On the outside the Eagles have even more speed and play-making ability with DeSean Jackson and Damaris Johnson. Both standing short at under six feet tall, they resemble do-it-all Oregon star DeAnthony Thomas in more ways than one, and Kelly must be slobbering at the mouth to get them involved in this offense as much as possible.

As the icing on the cake, the Eagles have also built a stable of tightends. Incumbents Brent Celek and Clay Harbor are solid players and Philly has added James Casey, a former Texan that played allover the field (tightend, H-back, slot receiver), and Zach Ertz, a second round pick out of Stanford that helped put the final dagger in Chip Kelly’s national title hopes at Oregon.

Where the Eagles fall short is defensively. They have some talent but few sure things and Kelly is ushering in a new 3-4 scheme. Amongst the beneficiaries of the switch are middle linebacker DeMeco Ryans and defensive end Fletcher Cox. Ryans was one of the better run stoppers in the league as one of the middle linebackers in Houston’s 3-4 scheme before being traded to Philly and struggling mightily to cover the middle of the field in a 4-3 defense. Back in a 3-4, and playing alongside former Texans teammate Connor Barwin, Ryans should have a bounceback season. That won’t fix the issues the Eagles have in the secondary, though, as free agent acquisitions Cary Williams and Bradley Fletcher rated out as average (or slightly worse) last season.

Best-case scenario: 10-6, Vick has a career year, McCoy puts up MVP numbers, the offense picks up the defense

Worst-case scenario: 5-11, Vick gets hurt again and the defense struggles

Prediction: 8-8 and a very good rookie season for Chip Kelly, although it will end without a post-season birth.

Washington Redskins

It will be tough for anyone to ever replicate the kind of season that Adrian Peterson had last year on the heels of tearing his ACL in 2011, but if anybody is going to, it may as well be Robert Griffin III. RGIII has had even less time to recover after tearing ligaments in his knee during the opening round of the post-season, but he has worked incessantly and put himself in a position to be on the field in week one. Griffin has now had two major knee injuries over the past four years, which will inevitably give him the injury prone label, and he certainly doesn’t do himself any favors with his reluctance to slide when he gets into the open field, but all signs point to him being 100% to kickoff his sophomore campaign.

Kyle Shanahan did as good a job as any offensive coordinator in the league last season at devising a scheme that best fit his personnel. He stole some elements from the offense that Griffin ran at Baylor and added a lot of the run principles that his father has held since his time in Denver. The combination of the read-option offense, spread concepts outside of the hashes and that famous zone-blocking scheme, the Redskins had a very complex attack with the most dynamic quarterback in football (it’s a close call between he and Kaepernick) and were able to make the post-season in what was supposed to be a transition year.

With Alfred Morris emerging as a great one-cut back that could thrive running the read-option behind a zone-blocking scheme, the Redskins had two lethal threats on the ground, forcing defenses to focus their attention in the backfield on virtually every play. By establishing the run, the Redskins opened up the field for their play-action game, which was as good as it gets last season. One of the most endearing images of last season was Griffin showcasing his rocket arm after setting up the Saints with multiple options reads and bubble screens. Safeties are put in an impossible situation regularly by Washington’s scheme and talent, and Griffin has the offense down to a point where he rarely makes mistakes.

If the Redskins are going to fall short of improvement this season, it will be because of their defense. Brian Orakpo and Adam Carriker are very good at their jobs, but little else about this defensive unit is very convincing. Josh Wilson gave the team a bump up at corner over DeAngelo Hall last season, but that’s not saying much, and their run defense may have been worse than their pass defense last season, and that is saying a lot. There’s a chance that Brandon Meriwether can make a difference at safety this season and that inside linebacker Perry Riley continues to grow as a player, which would help give their defense a boost, but this part of their team is still a weakness.

Best-case scenario: 12-4, RGIII enters the MVP conversation and the defense plays above it’s head

Worst-case scenario: 6-10, RGIII puts himself at risk too often and the defense regresses

Prediction: 11-5 and a monster season from RGIII

2013 NFL Previews: AFC East

in NFL by
manuel spille

Buffalo Bills

Though lacking the coverage and the disdain from the media, the Bills have had just as bad of a pre-season as the Jets. Buffalo’s top two QB candidates have gone down with injuries, leading to the incredibly depressing report that undrafted free agent Jeff Tuel could be their starter in week one against the Patriots. There’s a chance that E.J. Manuel, whom the Bills drafted in the first round this off-season, will recover from the minor knee surgery he had earlier this month in time to play in week one, but the team is moving forward with Tuel as the projected starter. Kevin Kolb was the other player vying for the starting job, but sadly he suffered a concussion on Saturday that may end his career.

On the brightside for Buffalo, Manuel should definitely be back for week two, and when he gets onto the field, we should be in for an exciting season of experimenting from new head coach Doug Marrone. While his record at Syracuse was far from impressive, the Marrone’s redeeming quality is how adaptive he is for a head coach. He isn’t married to a system nor is he entrenched with a particular offensive philosophy. Manuel has a very similar story, as the Seminoles used a variation of formations and strategies during his tenure at Florida State. When you have a quarterback that can succeed in many different ways and a coach whose willing to diversify his gameplan to give defenses distinctly different looks, there is some potential for a very successful offense.

Manuel is not an elite speedster in the way that Colin Kaepernick or RGIII are, but he does possess a Russell Wilson-esque ability to maneuver around the field with agility and grace. Assuming some spread elements are implemented by Marrone this season, there will be few funner plays to watch than any kind of read-option stuff involving Manuel and C.J. Spiller, who was the best running back in the league last season on a per play basis. Spiller is one of the most electric players in the league and someone capable of making a whole lot of something even when he had nothing to work with last season. With a better offensive scheme in place this season and a “new” new offensive line, Spiller will likely have a few more gaps to work with this season, and that means trouble for any opponent.

Speaking of that “new” offensive line. Aside from a few minor additions, the major difference in the trenches for the Bills this season has to do with slimming down. Marrone plans on running an up-tempo, no-huddle attack that relies on the offensive line to be able to get up and down the field and to promptly get set. A more agile approach has worked out very well for other teams in the past, and it certainly fits with the idea of having a lot of team speed. With Manuel and Spiller in the backfield, a quicker offensive line and a nice, potential-laden receiving core featuring rookies like Robert Woods and Marquise Goodwin, the Bills have a chance to at least put a scare into teams with their offense this season.

Defensively, the Bills were awful last season, and they’re not likely to be much better this year. Marrone has shifted to an aggressive 3-4 attack, but the personnel on this side of the ball is still lacking.

Best case scenario: 9-7, Manuel figures it out early, the offense runs smoothly and the Bills score a lot

Worst-case scenario: 4-12, Manuel struggles mightily, Spiller gets hurt, and the Bills get scored on a lot

Prediction: 7-9 and a positive outlook on the future for a change.

Miami Dolphins

The Dolphins showed promise last season as Ryan Tannehill stepped onto the scene as a surprisingly effective rookie quarterback, but Miami doesn’t appear to be on the upswing just yet after their 7-9 2012 campaign. Though the addition of wide receiver Mike Wallace gives Tannehill a vertical threat to work with, the loss of Reggie Bush puts a lot of weight on the shoulders of Lamar Miller and Daniel Thomas to be productive in the run game and in the passing game. And it will be tough for them to do that with such a porous offensive line.

General Manager Jeff Ireland had an opportunity to build on Miami’s successful 2012 season, but instead he made questionable decisions and built a team with more flaws than they had a year ago. After Jake Long, once considered Miami’s franchise cornerstone, left for St. Louis this summer, partly because of a lowball offer from Ireland, the Dolphins traded their first and second round picks to move up in the draft and pick third. Following the selections of Eric Fisher and Luke Joeckel, it seemed logical for the Dolphins to take Lane Johnson, a massive and agile offensive tackle. Instead, the Dolphins took Dion Jordan, a defensive end out of Oregon, which is a position they already had covered.

Jordan is a nice player, but you don’t need to trade up to #3 to draft a defensive end who wasn’t dominant in college, particularly when the best player on your team is also a defensive end: monster passrusher Cameron Wake. It gives the Dolphins a dynamic duo of athletic freaks, but the tradeoff is weaknesses at other key spots. It’s one thing to draft a luxury when you’ve already got a playoff foundation in place, but in Miami’s case, there were glaring needs elsewhere on the roster and Ireland decided to give himself a surplus of talent on the bookends of his defensive line.

As a result, Miami does have a strong passrush and should get to the quarterback often this season. Linebackers Dannell Ellerbe and Philip Wheeler were both added this off-season to give the Dolphins even more blitzing prowess, and both players can hold their own in the run game as well. Miami has added a lot of weapons they believe will pressure opposing quarterbacks, and that will be huge this season since their cornerbacks can’t cover anybody. Safeties Chris Clemons and Reshad Jones are solid players, but they can’t do enough to cover the blemishes of the defenders lining up out wide.

Best-case scenario: 9-7, Tannehill and Wallace click instantly and Wake and Jordan reek havoc on opponents

Worst-case scenario: 4-12, Tannehill regresses behind a poor offensive line and the defense gets roasted weekly

Prediction: 6-10 with a lot of questions about who should be in charge of the team coming up in the off-season.

New England Patriots

As if Tom Brady hadn’t already padded his legacy with enough accomplishments, keeping the Patriots offense at an elite level this season would be a remarkable feet. And yet, we all kind of expect it to happen anyway. That’s just hot consistently good Brady has been over the last decade, able to elevate the play of whoever is around him with his incredible leadership, precision and knowledge of the game.

New England enters this season without their top five receivers from last season. Wes Welker left for less greener pastures (in terms of dollars) in Denver, Brandon Lloyd is still looking for another job, Aaron Hernandez may have committed several murders, Danny Woodhead is now a San Diego Charger and Rob Gronkowski has now undergone more surgeries than Joan Rivers. While Gronk may be back at some point this season, the cupboard is bare outside of newly added wideout Danny Amendola. Amendola is a solid young playmaker with a similar skillset to Welker and should replace him rather well, but he is still predominately a slot receiver, leaving the Patriots without a logical threat to rely on outside the hashes.

Why might this not be a lethal blow to the Patriots? Besides having Brady putting it all together, New England has built one of the best run games in the league. Interestingly enough, Belichick rarely, if ever, incorporates elements of the run game typical of spread offenses like draw plays. The Patriots are a power run team that can pound the ball down your throat, a fascinating contrast to the fleet-footed and finesse characteristics of their passing attack. Stevan Ridley has emerged as one of the best running backs in football, Shane Vereen is a very good runner with the ability to make plays out of the backfield and Belichick even used Brandon Bolden last season with a surprising amount of success.

Defensively the Patriots should improve this season. Late-season addition Aqib Talib gives the Patriots their first stable number one corner in a few years and if Alfonzo Dennard’s legal troubles amount to nothing, the corner tandem of Talib and Dennard will give New England a formidable pass defense for a change. In the middle of the field, few teams stopped the run better last season than the Patriots. With the massive Vince Wilfork clogging things up the middle and Brandon Spikes anchoring a solid linebacking core with an instinctual ability to find the gaps on run plays, the Patriots maintained an average defense by shutting down the run. With an uptick expected from their secondary, the Pats should wind up with a top 10 defensive unit this season.

Best-case scenario: 13-3, Brady makes it seem like nobody left and the defense improves

Worst-case scenario: 8-8, Brady has his first down season since he tore his ACL and the defense remains average

Prediction: 11-5 and a conference title battle with Peyton.

New York Jets

What a circus this franchise has become. Only the Jets could have their rookie quarterback that most of their fans seem to be clamoring for throw three interceptions in a pre-season game and then have their incumbent starter get injured on a meaningless play in fourth quarter of the same game. Rex Ryan’s job has dominated the headlines over the past few days because of his decision to stick Sanchez in there, but the real story with this team has nothing to do with Sanchez or rookie Geno Smith. It’s that the team has no talent anywhere on the roster.

While the loss of Shonn Greene is actually a positive, the Jets aren’t replacing him with a sure thing. Chris Ivory has had his moments in spots for the Saints over the past few years, but he had all of 40 carries last year and is entering the season as the Jets best offensive option. The only productive pass catcher that the Jets had last season – tightend Dustin Keller – is gone and even if Smith or Sanchez were to play well this season, the results probably wouldn’t show it because of the team’s lack of talent at receiver.

There are some promising players on the defensive side of the ball like young defensive end Quinton Coples, but the cornerstones of this defense (Darrelle Revis and Bart Scott) are no longer on the team, leaving this unit in search of a new leader, making it analogous to the rest of the team.

Best-case scenario: 7-9, Geno Smith is slightly better than Mark Sanchez and the defense sends Rex Ryan off with a solid season

Worst-case scenario: 3-13, Geno Smith is as good as or slightly worse than Mark Sanchez and the defense gets tired of playing defense

Prediction: 5-11 and lots of turnovers.

Taking A Chance

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USATSI_7325902_154512334_lowres

On September 29th, the final day of the 2013 MLB regular season, the Pittsburgh Pirates are going to have more wins than losses. Disregarding the infinitesimal chance that the Pirates undergo a colossal collapse for the second season in a row, there’s a strong chance the the Pirates are going to play more than 182 games this season.

It’s hard to explain how much that means for this franchise, a downtrodden punching bag whose last winning season came before I was born. Even last season, when the Pirates were on pace for their first winning season in over a decade before having a 5-18 stretch in September, Pittsburgh couldn’t climb above fourth in the NL Central.

Now that the Pirates can practically feel the brisk October chill flowing off the Allegheny, management has made a risky move to help firm up the roster heading into the post-season. In acquiring veterans Marlon Byrd and John Buck from the New York Mets, they’ve offered up 19-year old middle infield prospect Dilson Herrera.

What’s particularly interesting about this move is not so much the players involved – a pair of solid veterans and a well-regarded prospect – nor the effect that each party will have on their new ballclubs (although I suspect both sides will be happy with the deal in the short-term) but rather the idea of going for “it” whenever “it” is in sight. Herrera is not going to be the next Mike Trout or Manny Machado, so to some extent this is not the perfect illustration of a team sacrificing it’s future for immediate results, but it is fair to question why a team would trade an intriguing young player for a pair of older, more experienced guys, one of which will likely be nothing more than a back-up catcher.

Last season we saw a team take the opposite stance, albeit in a different context. The Washington Nationals decided that their organization would be better off in the longrun if they shut Stephen Strasburg down for the season in August. On the day after Strasburg’s last start of 2012, the Nationals were six and a half games up on the Braves in the NL East and were a sure bet to make the post-season. Even knowing that, the Nationals, an expansion franchise that had been one of the worst teams in baseball since they moved to the states and had the most electric young pitcher/hitter duo in the league between Strasburg and Bryce Harper, decided to take the overly cautious route.

One year later, the Nationals currently sit 13 games back of the Braves in their division with no hope of a wildcard birth. They wagered on their team being able to become a perennial playoff participant when they sat Strasburg, and they’ve lost the bet this season. Of course, we are just one year removed from the decision, and in the macro the decision to spare Strasburg’s arm a month of work may payoff somehow.

Or, more likely, fewer miles on Strasburg’s odometer won’t have any affect on his ability to perform in the future. As we continue to learn each time a pitcher tears a ligament, there is almost nothing that can be done to prevent it. Could Strasburg have blew out his elbow on August 30th of 2012, thus costing the Nationals a full year of service from their ace? Of course, but ligament damage is either going to happen or it’s not. Would it have been ill-timed for Strasburg to hurt himself then? Yes, but his risk was no higher that it has been any time he’s been on the mound this season. Washington made unnecessary preparations for something that could have happened, and it cost them an extremely rare opportunity to compete for a championship.

The game of baseball has an inherent challenge that few other professional sports do: it incorporates a minor league system in which the 30 major league teams have complete control over the development of their prospects. Thus, there is an added layer of strategy that must be factored in when building a team that regards to what the franchise will look like years down the line. While it’s important for teams to do their best to strike a balance between finding productive major league players and stocking their system with assets that project to take their place, it’s not a perfect science, and it’s heavily dependent on context.

In the case of the Pirates, they are a team that has been scratching and clawing at relevancy for as long as I’ve been alive, and they’ve finally built a team that is on the cusp of contending for it all. Herrera may turn out to be one of the best second basemen in the league someday, but right now he is an unknown, a question mark in a farm system full of them. What is not a question is that the Pirates are one of the best teams in baseball, one with a narrow gap separating them from a trip to the World Series, a gap that could be filled by someone like Byrd or Buck.

So, when you are presented with a chance to accomplish the ultimate goal of the sport, you have to be willing to deal with the unknown, whether that means taking the reigns off of your staff ace or trading away one of your better prospects. The tradeoff may mortage your future, but there’s no way of guaranteeing that the Pirates will ever have this good of a chance to win it all again.

Rangers Finding A New Way

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rangers

I remember sitting back as the Rangers started off last season 13-3, with an 8-1 record on the road and a locomotive offense that putting up close to six runs a game, and thinking about how little that blazing hot start could mean in the long run. I had been through the historical stretches of offensive domination before, only to see it all fade away at the end of the year. To be clear, Texas’ offense was consistently brilliant, but I just couldn’t wrap my head around a third straight trip to the World Series given all that has to go right for a team to get that far just once, much less three times in a row.

When Texas started struggling down the stretch last year, you could tell that the team had lost it’s way. If a collapse wasn’t evident in the boxscore each night, it was easy to see disintegration in the body language of the players. When Oakland finished off their incredible surge to take the division title from Texas on the final day of the season, just about every Ranger walked off the field hanging their heads, and their season wasn’t even over yet.

Last year’s demoralizing finish set into motion a fundamental change to the Rangers’ roster. It started with Josh Hamilton going to the Angels, which turned out to be a blessing disguise, and ended with the Rangers choosing not to make a major move involving Elvis Andrus or Jurickson Profar that would have netted them a major slugger to fill Hamilton’s void. Instead, the Rangers decided to make smaller moves to secure role players and solid starters. They didn’t overreact to the losses of Hamilton and Mike Napoli and instead kept their foundation of young, versatile players together, with the exception of trading Mike Olt for Matt Garza at the trade deadline.

This has left the Rangers with a team less reliant on the longball and more dependent on their contact hitters and loaded pitching staff. The Rangers may well end up with the same amount of homeruns as they had last year, but the overwhelming majority of their longballs came in the first half of the season, which was back when Nelson Cruz (and Lance Berkman) were playing regularly. Now Texas only has one player carrying a substantial load on offense from a power perspective, and the result has been a more balanced offense than we saw in years past.

According to FanGraphs, the Rangers are one of only two teams currently in the playoff picture (Oakland is the other) that only has one player worth over 3 Wins Above Replacement (WAR) this season. Most teams have an all-star caliber player leading the way – your Miguel Cabrera and Andrew McCutchen’s of the world – and Texas holds up well in that department with the ageless Adrian Beltre. Where the Rangers don’t compare well to the rest of the contenders around the league is with their secondary star or offensive co-pilot. The Pirates have McCutchen AND Starling Marte, the Dodgers have Hanley Ramirez AND Yasiel Puig, the Red Sox have Jacoby Ellsbury AND Dustin Pedroia. The Rangers have Beltre and … Leonys Martin?

And it’s not as if those teams only have two above average players, either. The Pirates also have Russell Martin, the Dodgers have Adrian Gonzalez and the Red Sox┬áhave Shane Victorino. Statistically speaking, Texas’ third best player this season has been Craig Gentry, who has played nearly 50 fewer games this season than Elvis Andrus. I’m a huge fan of Gentry’s and I think he gives the Rangers value in a lot of places, but for him to be the Rangers’ third most productive position player right now perfectly illustrates how much change has occurred over the past 12 months.

With the suspension of Cruz, who had 27 bombs and a career high strikeout rate before the Biogenesis scandal came to light, an average year from Ian Kinsler and setback seasons for Mitch Moreland and David Murphy (in Murphy’s case, it has been a catastrophic setback), the Rangers are hitting the stretch run with a very different offense than the one that struck fear into each and every opponent on their path to the World Series.

After Beltre, the contributions the Rangers have gotten from their next five best position players are about equal. Martin, Gentry, Elvis Andrus, Ian Kinsler and A.J. Pierzynski are all on track to finish the season with around 2-3 WAR, which places them in the “solid” to “good” category. For perspective, Texas had six players worth over 3 WAR in 2011, including three over 5 WAR (Beltre, Napoli and Kinsler). Texas has lost a substantial amount of thump in their line-up and the edge they had heading into games over the past few seasons is definitely gone, but they’ve found a way to remain productive.

One of the biggest reasons the Rangers have maintained a top seven scoring offense is an extremely simple concept: they are getting the bat on the ball more often. Last season, the Rangers made contact on 79% of their swings, which ranked 22nd in baseball. This season the Rangers have the third best contact rate in the league at 82.3%. An increase of 3.3% may not seem like much, but when you’re dealing with thousands of swings over the course a 162-game season, it’s a significant bump that has played a part in keeping Texas’ offense chugging along.

A side effect of their improved contact rate is that the Rangers rank dead last in swinging strikes this season, which means they swing and miss less than every other team in baseball. Anyone who watched the Rangers last year understands how large a role Hamilton’s departure played in that statistical development. On a related note: the Rangers have the second lowest strikeout rate in the league this season. Putting more balls in play, or being more patient at the plate, leads to a higher number of baserunners and more baserunners is exactly what a team that can’t rely on the longball needs. The Rangers are no longer a detrimentally free-swinging bunch; they’ve taken a more conservative approach at the dish and it’s paid off.

The other major factor in the Rangers success this season, outside of their pitching, has been their tremendous defense. Last season the Rangers ranked 13th in the majors in Ultimate Zone Rating per 150 innings, which is the most widely accepted advanced metric for defense, at 1.4 UZR/150. This season the Rangers have jumped to fifth in baseball this season at 6.2 UZR/150, due in large part to Leonys Martin becoming an everyday player this season.

Martin has been great offensively for the Rangers this season, hitting a solid .275 with 27 stolen bases in his first full season in the bigs, but his value has been even greater on defense. He’s played 93 games in centerfield this season and he’s already emerged as one of the best defensive outfielders in baseball. On top of displaying great range in center, Martin has been a recurring character on nightly highlight reels because of his rocket arm. Martin combines every element of throwing – the power, accuracy, footwork and grace – and has thrown out runners in situations that usually don’t even merit throws. He’s saved Texas a few runs with his arm alone, and he’s been a huge upgrade over Hamilton defensively this year.

With Gentry, one of the best defensive outfielders in the league, and the above average Alex Rios alongside Martin in the outfield, the Rangers have the best defensive outfield in baseball (Murphy is a solid defensive back-up as well, but he’s been a nightmare at the plate this season). With Elvis Andrus at short, Moreland’s underrated glove at first and the always brilliant Beltre at the hot corner, the Rangers have several defensive stalwarts and no weakspot amongst their everyday position players. Even Jeff Baker has been solid in spots at first base (and his bat has been a pleasant surprise as well), and anytime Profar has gotten on the field, he’s looked solid.

Texas lost some big name players and some big time production this offseason, but as we enter the stretch run, they are tied for the best record in the American League. Fans may look at the ceiling of these differently because they don’t possess the star power that they used to, but the Rangers know far too well that the team with the big names and the big homerun totals don’t always win. Even looking back at last year, it wasn’t the team with Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder that won it all; in fact, they didn’t win a single game against the Giants while Marco Scutaro and Pablo Sandoval lead their team to victory.

With an improved pitching staff, including a deeper rotation and one of the best bullpens in baseball, and a more balanced offensive group, one that actually fits Ron Washington’s micromanaged smallball attack, Texas has found a different way to win games this season. It may not seem as impressive or flashy, but a “substance over style” approach is the common denominator amongst most World Series champions, and it’s nice to see the Rangers testing out a new philosophy.

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