On The Edge Blog

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Addressing the Philly rumor mill

It’s late May, and much later than expected, we have hit the point in spring where the Flyers’ and Sixers’ seasons have come to an end, and the Eagles are still months away from playing games that actually matter.

Right now, all we have each night are Phillies games, and unless Cole Hamels is pitching, the potential for a very frustrating outing from a Phillie starter.

So what better time than now to address the rumor mill that is swirling around our sports teams?

The most intriguing rumor buzzing around this town involves the Phillies and a division rival’s best player. Various reports have the Washington Nationals looking to deal their 23-year-old third baseman Ryan Zimmerman to the Phillies for a package that includes Pedro Feliz.

Obviously our homer-or-bust third baseman isn’t valuable enough to get one of the top up and coming third basemen in the league, so the Phillies sudden depth in the outfield leads me to think that Shane Victorino would be included in that deal, along with whatever prospects the Phillies might have floating around in the minor leagues.

Victorino doesn’t seem to be one of Charlie Manuel’s favorites, as both last year and this year, Jayson Werth (pre-recent injury) bumped Victorino to the bench when the Flyin’ Hawaiian’s legs started giving him trouble. He’s also very cheap at this point in his career, so he would make the most sense to go.

Down on the farm, the Phillies do have two quality middle infielders to dangle in front of the Nationals to make this trade work. Adrian Cardenas and Jason Donald both project as major league infielders, but are blocked by Jimmy Rollins and Chase Utley, respectively, so they would be perfect candidates to help reel in a top-five third basemen in the majors.

Brett Myers’ name has also been mentioned in this rumor, but with his $8 million salary and astronomical ERA this year, it is unlikely that he would be coveted by a team that is still a few years away from contending for the National League East crown.

Could you imagine the Phillies infield with Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins and Ryan Zimmerman? Without exaggeration, that would be the best infield ever assembled.

Switching over to football, the Lito Sheppard rumor mill is kicking up again because starting cornerbacks around the league are already going down with injury, and it is only the start of voluntary workouts.I’ve said in the past that Chad Johnson’s 2008 salary cap hit drops by $6 million on June 1, so expect the Lito to the Bengals rumors to start up soon.

Also, Anquan Boldin is boycotting workouts in Arizona in hopes of signing a contract extension similar to the one his teammate Larry Fitzgerald signed two months ago.

Depending on these receivers’ actions in the coming weeks, one or both could be available, but odds are that as long as Lito says the right things and keeps a smile on his face, he’ll be an Eagle this year, and they’ll address the issue again in March.

Now that the Flyers have cleared out their lockers for the summer, general manager Paul Holmgren has the task of re-tooling the team for another deep playoff run. Holmgren did a fantastic job turning the Flyers from the worst team in the league into a team that reached the NHL’s final four, but after seeing the Penguins dismantle the Flyers, it showed us all how far they still need to go.

The Flyers have already stated their intentions of re-signing Jeff Carter and R.J. Umberger, but like last year, when Holmgren got creative and traded a first round draft pick for the negotiating rights of Kimmo Timonen and Scott Hartnell, Holmgren needs to get creative again.

Everyone knows that the Flyers will attempt to improve their defense, which could lose Jason Smith, Derian Hatcher, and Jaroslav Modry, but one thought (not a rumor...yet) comes from my friend Rogo, who suggests that the Flyers should go after Pittsburgh’s restricted free agent goalie, Marc-Andre Fleury.

What’s the worst that could happen? If he chooses to sign with the Flyers, he is an immediate upgrade over Martin Biron, who gets traded away, and it takes a huge bite out of the Penguins core group of young stars.

If the Penguins match the Flyers’ offer, then it costs them extra money against the salary cap for the next five to ten years, depending on how big of an offer the Flyers make. Paul Holmgren is pretty savvy, so you know that outside-the-box ideas like this one are floating around in his head as he watches the Red Wings and Penguins battle for the Stanley Cup.

I don’t know what is going to happen, and I doubt that any of these rumors will actually come true, but isn’t it fun to hope?

Seems like each year in Philadelphia, all we have is hope.

But the Phillies look good! Right?

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Am I a jinx?

One of the hardest parts about writing a local sports column is balancing my unbiased opinions about players and teams with my undying support of those very same players and teams. In the past two weeks, I have written about both the Flyers and the Phillies, and it is a weird feeling to see my negative thoughts come to life as if I am a jinx for the team, or to see the occurrence of the exact opposite of what I wrote just days earlier.

I was at the Phillies game on Friday night for their 10-3 victory over our “rival,” the Toronto Blue Jays.

Personally, I will always hate the Blue Jays because of 1993 World Series, but to Major League Baseball, the Blue Jays are only our rival because the Montreal Expos moved to Washington, D.C. and now play 30 miles south of the Baltimore Orioles. Nonetheless, just days earlier I wrote about some of the slumps that certain hitters were going through in the early days of May, only to see them break out of their swoons right before my very eyes.

If you remember, I wrote that Jayson Werth “started out hot, but is just 4-for-24 in the month of May.” He only happened to smack the cover off the ball, hitting three homers and driving in eight runs on Friday night, and in the process, burying the memories of his slumping batting average. Oh, his performance earned him a vote of confidence from Phillies Manager Charlie Manuel, and pushed Shane Victorino to the bench. So much for that slump I wrote about.

The next slump that snapped was that of the Ten Million Dollar Man, Ryan Howard. Last week, I wrote that he looked “content” with his arbitration award, and wasn’t making any adjustments to fix the Mr. Baseball-esque hole in his swing. Whoops! While he still strikes out nearly twice per game, since last Monday, when I wrote that column, RyHo has hit .333 with three homers and six RBIs, and raised his batting average 20 points in the process (stats through Sunday, May 18).

At least I was right about Brett Myers. He just looks lost out there on the mound, surrendering homer after homer and looking more like Adam Eaton than an opening day starter. (Maybe these two sentences will get him back on track!)

I’ll admit, it sure is fun to be wrong when the team succeeds, but when it feels like my column acts as a jinx, as my Flyers/Penguins preview did, being correct never felt worse.

The first sign of the jinx occurred on the Thursday that my column was hitting the newsstands. I wrote about how the Flyers had amazing health through the first two rounds of the playoffs, specifically on defense, and sure enough, Kimmo Timonen misses the first four games of the series with a blood clot in his leg.

If that wasn’t bad enough, Braydon Coburn gets hit in the face with a puck in game 2 and misses the rest of the series. Those are the Flyers best two defensemen, and my column put a hex on them. If this were an instant message, there would be a frowning emoticon next to that last sentence.

I also posed the question: “What if the Martin Biron from the regular season returns?” Sure enough, the Biron who, at best, could be described as “inconsistent” returned to the ice, instead of the one who made so many spectacular saves against the Capitals and the Canadiens.

So in response, I have decided to focus on harnessing this power and jinxing one of our teams to a championship, because they haven’t been able to do it on their own in the 100 seasons of sports since the 1983 Sixers brought home the NBA title.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

The Phillies at the quarter turn

It’s mid-May and the Philadelphia Phillies are approaching the quarter-turn of season, and what better time to look at the goings on of the defending National League East champions.

As of May 12, the Phillies are 21-18, which, while not exactly dominating, is a good sign in comparison to the tortoise-slow starts of years past, and puts them 2.5 games back of the first place Florida Marlins. In fact, the Phillies have made it to the top of the division a full five months sooner than last year!

So let’s take a look at the good and the bad so far this year for the Phillies.

The Good:
Chase Utley is on fire. Right after opening day, I predicted that Utley would bring the Phillies their third straight National League MVP, and he is just tearing up the league, hitting .327 with 13 homers and 28 RBIs. I know it is still early, but Chutley is on pace for a 50-homer season.

Pat Burrell is smacking the cover off the ball like it’s a contract year, because, well, it is. Along with Utley, Pat the Bat has carried the Phillies offense, which despite pitiful output from several key hitters, is still among the league leaders in runs scored. Burrell is hitting just under .300, but has added 9 homers and 31 RBIs, putting him on pace to approach career highs in both categories.

The Phillies bullpen has bailed out the hitters and starters on more occasions than I can count already this season. Just look at the numbers. Brad Lidge, Chad Durbin, J.C. Romero and Rudy Seanez all have ERAs south of 2.00. In fact, if you take out the five run debacle on opening day by Tom Gordon, the Phillies top five relievers have given up just 12 runs in 88 innings. The concern here is that the pen is being severely overworked due to the fact that Cole Hamels is the only Phillies starter who has given them consistent, quality innings. In fact, Brett Myers is the only other starter averaging more than 6 innings per start, but his ERA is 5.33, so I don’t think it’s really a good thing that he’s pitching so much. More on Brett in the bad section.

The Bad:

The Phillies hitters who are not named Utley or Burrell. What is wrong with these guys? Ryan Howard, Carlos Ruiz, Pedro Feliz, Shane Victorino, and Jayson Werth are all under-performing this year.

Jayson Werth started out hot, but is just 4-for-24 in the month of May and the rest of the starters haven’t been told that the season has started.

Feliz, Ruiz and Werth aren’t key catalysts for the Phillies offense, but the two guys that need to get going are Howard and Victorino.

Ryan Howard is playing like a guy who is content with the $10 million arbitration award he received in the offseason, and refuses to make a single adjustment at the plate. It has gotten so bad for Howard that even the Phillies announcers are making comments about his stubbornness at plate. Howard is hitting in pitcher territory at .171, and has struck out 54 times in 39 games, putting him on pace to break his own strikeout record. It’s easy to look the other way when a guy strikes out 199 times if he also smacks 47 homers and drives in 136 runs like he did last year, but this year, he’s on pace for less than 30 homers, and the ones that he does knock out of the park seem to be accidents.

While Victorino did miss time this season with a leg injury, he is hitting just .232, and what’s worse is that he can’t seem to draw a walk at the top of the lineup. Luckily, he’ll slide back into the 2-hole in the lineup now that Jimmy Rollins has returned from injury.

Switching over to pitching, the Phillies starters have not been consistent. Nothing infuriates me more than a pitcher tossing a gem one game and then following it up with a clunker. Cole Hamels has pitched brilliantly this year, despite his pedestrian 4-3 record. After Hamels, the other four starters all have ERAs around 5.00 and WHIPs at about 1.50.

Those are bad numbers, but luckily the bullpen has been pitching so many solid innings, the Phillies team ERA is actually more than a half of a run lower than last year. Through 39 games, the Phillies team ERA is 4.05, and that includes Jamie Moyer, Ryan Madson, Brett Myers, Adam Eaton and Clay Condrey all delivering ERAs above 5.00.

I’ll admit that I expect poor pitching from Madson, Eaton and Condrey, but Brett Myers has been especially frustrating this season. From opening day when he made the comments about losing his command when making the switch from the bullpen to the rotation, to his puzzling lack of velocity on some days, Myers has been a disappointment all season. The problem with Myers, who is 2-3 with a 5.33 ERA, is that he isn’t pitching poorly, he just makes poor pitches. I’m not crazy, there really is a difference between those two assessments. Adam Eaton and Ryan Madson pitch poorly. They get hit hard consistently. Brett Myers pitches well and keeps hitters off-balance, but he makes a mistake with one pitch and it gets crushed. Myers has served up 12 homers this year in eight starts. For instance, look at his starts against the Cubs and the Astros in April. In back-to-back starts, he gave up a total of four runs in 15 innings pitched, but all four runs were scored on solo homers. I’m not ready to write off Myers yet. He can turn it around if he just focuses better during the game, because as we saw last season, his stuff really is electric.

The final analysis of the first quarter of the Phillies season is quite interesting. The bullpen is the strongest part of this team, and the hitters struggle, yet seem to score runs at the most opportunistic times.

The hitters need to get on track in a hurry, because this pitching staff can’t and won’t carry the team for the next 120 games. The bullpen should remain solid, but for the next four-and-a-half months, can the starters keep getting them the ball with the lead if the hitters don’t round into form? And, at what point will the arms in the bullpen start to tire out from constant use. At least there are five arms out there that can be trusted with a lead, unlike last year when there were only three.

Needless to say, it should be an interesting couple of months considering the Braves are starting to get a little healthier, the Mets are playing just as inconsistent as the Phillies, and most shocking, the Marlins’ youngsters have progressed to the point where there are eerie similarities between this team and the 2003 team that shocked the New York Yankees to win the World Series.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

There goes the first defenseman

Why did I have to jinx the Flyers' health?
In the last post, I wrote that the Flyers usually lose defensemen to injury just as they get close to the finals and here's the first injury.
Kimmo Timonen, the top defender on the Flyers, is out for the rest of the playoffs with a blood clot in his leg. Timonen was the team's best chance to stop Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. Let's hope that Ryan Parent quickly turns into the shutdown defenseman that he is projected to be!

Flyers soaring through the playoffs

It’s early May and the Philadelphia Flyers are still playing hockey!

With victories over division champions Washington and Montreal, the Flyers have advanced to the conference finals and look like a team that could win it all. Of course, all four of the remaining teams look like they could win it all. None of the NHL’s final four lucked their way into victories, as Detroit, Dallas, and Pittsburgh each handily disposed of their opponents thus far.

In my New Year’s predictions column back in December, I wrote, “The Flyers will make some noise in the playoffs this year, but they’ll fall in the second round because they’re still far too young and inconsistent to seriously compete for a Stanley Cup.”

Well I sure am glad I was wrong!

As the Flyers prepare to square off against their cross-state rivals, the Pittsburgh Penguins, they are still too inconsistent in their play late in games, but so far, it hasn’t buried them. The Flyers have let too many leads disappear in their 12 playoff games, some of which turned into losses, other times, they held on for a victory but turned some of my hair prematurely gray.

So how are the Flyers winning in the playoffs after three months of unbelievably lackluster play?

Back in March, I pondered why the Flyers were floundering as the season was winding down. In that column, I determined that three fundamental problems were keeping the Flyers grounded: Martin Biron’s allowing soft goals in net, the lack of a game-changing goal scorer, and injuries.

Through two rounds of the playoffs, Biron has still allowed the occasional soft goal, but he’s made more amazing saves in the last 12 games than I saw from him during the entire regular season. He’s eighth in the NHL in goals against average, which puts him squarely in the middle of the pack, but you have to take into account the fact that the Flyers are constantly shorthanded. (I’m going to wait until two weeks from now when the Flyers have been jobbed out of a spot in the Stanley Cup finals to completely rip the NHL, its league office in Toronto, and the playoff officiating crews for the blatant anti-Philly bias they have displayed during the playoffs.) While statistically, Biron has played worse in the playoffs than the regular season, he has erased the “Oh [shoot]!” factor. Now when teams enter the Flyers’ zone, I don’t feel a sense of dread come over me, as if the puck is destined for the back of the net. After standing on his head for at least half of the playoff games so far, Biron has me feeling pretty confident that he’ll make the big save and send the Flyers back the other way on offense. Just for the record, Robert Esche, Sean Burke, John Vanbiesbrouck, Garth Snow and Roman Cechmanek had very high “Oh [shoot]” factors.

One of the biggest problems the Flyers had during the season was their lack of a sniper on offense. In the playoffs, one player can get hot and carry a team a few games and push them into the next round.

Against the Capitals, Danny Briere was that player. He carried the team with six goals, almost all of which were momentum changing tallies. Without a doubt, the mid-season addition of Vaclav Prospal has changed Briere from a pass-first center into a shoot first, opportunistic goal scorer.Against the Canadiens (did you ever notice that they spell Canadiens wrong?), R.J. Umberger did his best Mario Lemieux impression, scoring an amazing eight goals in five games, after scoring just 13 goals in 74 games during the regular season.

The biggest surprise of the playoffs so far is how healthy the Flyers have been (knock on wood wherever you are as you read this!). With the exception of the Mike Knuble hamstring injury, which he returned from in five games, the Flyers have been very healthy, which is never the case when they get to the playoffs.

During the season, the Flyers were crippled by injuries. Mike Richards missed nine games, Joffrey Lupul missed 26, Scottie Upshall missed 21, R.J Umberger missed eight, Derian Hatcher missed 38, and Simon Gagne missed 57. That many injuries to key players at the same time usually does cost a team a few points in the standings. That begs the question, with a little better health, could the Flyers have picked up a few extra points and been in the top half of the conference, making this playoff run a little less surprising.

Prediction time: As we head into the conference finals, I’m feeling pretty good, but not too good. I’ve been on record for a while as thinking that Pittsburgh’s center Evgeni Malkin is best player in the NHL, and with how often the Flyers have been penalized (still not writing about the officiating) in the playoffs, I’m terrified of seeing Malkin, Sydney Crosby, Marian Hossa and Sergei Gonchar on the Pittsburgh power play.

So as much as I’d love to pick the Flyers, they have burned me too many times in my 23 years, and I just can’t see them winning this series. There are too many things that can go wrong. What if the Martin Biron from the regular season returns? What about the defense?It’s been spectacular so far, but as high as I am on Ryan Parent, who has been a healthy scratch for much of the playoffs, the Flyers defense is just one injury away from being blown apart again (see: Tampa Bay, May 2004) while facing a very dangerous offense. When is Crosby going to explode with a flurry of goals? Why can’t we get one lousy call to go our way? I mean seriously! How is it not high sticking when a player smacks the puck down with his stick, then the stick hits the crossbar? The officials would have to be complete morons or just hate the Flyers to allow that goal to stand in the first game against Montreal!

Sorry, but I had to rant just a little about the officiating.

Penguins in 7. (I hope I’m wrong!)

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Eagles draft analysis

Last week, I wrote that the Eagles only had five or six roster spots open, and in the 2008 draft, the Eagles were able to come away with a mix of the players they needed for this year and players and draft picks for the future.
I feel like too many people, including ESPN's draft guru Mel Kiper Jr., are giving the Eagles low marks for their draft, but seriously, that trade with Carolina really was too good of a deal to pass up.
I know, I know. I wanted a big name in the first round, too. But for the 19th pick, the Eagles got a defensive tackle (Trevor Laws) who immediately steps in as the number three player in the rotation, a right tackle (Mike McGlynn) in the fourth round to back up Jon Runyan, and a first round pick next year.
Look at what the Eagles got on the first day. After Laws, they got DeSean Jackson with the 49th pick, and they traded a fourth round pick for Lorenzo Booker, a running back that they liked last year, who will fill the role that Ryan Moats never seemed to grow into.
The problem with us Eagles fans is that we look at every move individually, instead of as a whole. If I said last week that the Eagles would get one of the top wide receivers in the draft, a 300-pound defensive tackle who led Division I in tackles last year, and the 2009 first round pick of a team that didn't make the playoffs last year, all without trading Lito Sheppard, you would have called me nuts and said that it was impossible.
So with that analysis, doesn't the Eagles draft weekend seem a little smarter? I think it does.
Even further, look at the players drafted between number 19, where the Eagles started the day, and number 47, where the Eagles drafted Trevor Laws out of Notre Dame. Which of those 28 players can you honestly say the Eagles need more than Laws or DeSean Jackson?
The only one that comes to mind is Kenny Phillips, the safety out of Miami. But because of the complexities of Jim Johnson's defense, Phillips wouldn't even be a contributor this year, which means that Andy Reid and company looked at the present and actually drafted guys who will step onto the field this year.
More importantly, the Eagles now have two first round picks in 2009. These picks mean that the Eagles now have more ammunition to pursue a trade for a top wide receiver as the summer goes on.
They could even keep Lito Sheppard (which I doubt will actually happen) and just use the two first round picks to trade for Chad Johnson. As I've stated before, the cap hit the Bengals will take by trading Ocho Cinco drops dramatically after June 1. Imagine if the Eagles kept Lito and brought in Ocho Cinco.
Yes, I know I'm dreaming in that scenario because it just makes too much sense to keep the top secondary in the league intact and bring in a Pro Bowl wide receiver. The gods would never let those of us who bleed green be that happy.
What is more likely to happen is that the Eagles will trade both first round picks next April to move up and draft the best offensive lineman coming out of college. I can already hear you asking why the Eagles didn't just take offensive tackle Jeff Otah at number 19.
Well, simply, Otah would have been the sixth offensive lineman drafted at that point. Do you really want to trust the sixth best lineman in the draft to protect your quarterback's blindside? Otah wouldn't play this year anyway because Jon Runyan and Tra Thomas are the starters, so wouldn't you prefer that the Eagles wait until next year and package those two first round picks to move up and draft the best offensive tackle coming out of college instead of the sixth best?
I'll be honest with you. It took me two days to reach this point of rational thinking. At just after 5 p.m. on Saturday when the Eagles went on the clock, I was screaming for Devin Thomas or Kenny Phillips. But the truth is, the Eagles don't have that many holes on their roster, and you can't keep drafting 10 or 11 guys just to replace other young guys that have been blocked by starters.Does it really make sense to cut guys like Max Jean-Gilles, Scott Young or Victor Abiamiri just to replace them with newer versions so you can say you had a productive draft? Isn't it better to keep those guys, fill in the holes where you can and plan for the future? Personally, I'll take the latter, especially because DeSean Jackson's 4.35-second 40-yard dash means that Reno Mahe and Greg Lewis won't be returning punts for the birds next year, or even make the team.
Quick hits on the draft picks:
Trevor Laws, DT: Drafted number 47 and immediately gets playing time in Jim Jackson's four-man rotation at defensive tackle. How can you not like a guy who had 112 tackles as an interior lineman?
DeSean Jackson, WR/KR: He's lightning quick and can stretch the field if the Eagles put him in motion so he doesn't get bumped at the line of scrimmage. He also solves the Eagles' revolving door of kickoff and punt returners.
Bryan Smith, DE: At approximately 230 pounds, he's too light to play defensive end, but with his speed, he'll make an excellent special teams player on kick coverage, which was a weakness for the Eagles last year.
Mike McGlynn, OL: Andy Reid must have had the shakes by the 109th pick in the draft, and instinctively chose an offensive lineman. Experts project him as a guard, which could mean that the Eagles are planning to move Shawn Andrews back to tackle after Jon Runyan moves on next offseason.
Quintin Demps, S: The Eagles waited until the fourth round to draft a safety, which means they probably are just looking for depth at the position, and possibly special teams help. They'll need to find Brian Dawkins' replacement next offseason through free agency.
Jack Ikegwuonu, CB: I like this pick, despite his alleged criminal past and his current knee injury. Before the injury, Ikegwuonu projected as a first day draft pick, so the Eagles can stash him on the IR this season and have themselves a solid replacement for Lito Sheppard in 2009.
Mike Gibson, OG: I doubt he'll make the squad unless there are several injuries on the offensive line this summer.
Joe Mays: LB: He fits in as a pass rusher at linebacker, but the Eagles are already set at the position with guys under 25 years old, so he probably will find his way to the practice squad.
Andy Studebaker, LB: Andy comes from Wheaton (a college I have never heard of), but dominated Division III by consistently causing havoc in the other team's backfield. If he gains some confidence in the rookie camps, he has a chance to stick around. Guys with his instincts don't disappear that easily.
King Dunlap, OT: This guy is huge! He's 6-9, 310, but couldn't keep his starting job at Auburn, so why would he make the Eagles?
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Name: Matthew Fleishman, Yardley News Editor
Location: United States

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