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Sunday, June 27, 2010

3 Up, 3 Down: 6/27/10


TRENDING UP




Carl Pavano is quickly becoming the 'stached savior of your slumping Minnesota Twins. While his soup-strainer is all the rage amongst Hennepin Ave. hipsters, it's his right arm that's
kept the sinking ship afloat in recent weeks. In his last two outings, Pavano has spun complete game gems, outdueling aces Roy Halladay and Johan Santana. With the Tigers lurking and the White Sox surging, Pavano gave up just one earned run in those 18 invaluable innings, keeping the bullpen fresh and the Twins in first place. His brilliance prevented a bad (3-6) road trip from turning disastrous. It's remarkable to think that, coming into the season, Pavano was the biggest question mark in the rotation. Closing in on the All Star break, Pavano has been the clear-cut MVP of the starting staff. He leads Twins' starters in Wins, Innings Pitched, Quality Starts, and WHIP. There's no glitz, just a rock steady 3.33 ERA and an appetite for innings. He's pitching deep into games, which is reflected in his unbelievable 15 decisions in 15 starts. In fact, he's gone at least seven innings in nine of his last ten starts. At 34, Pavano is having his best season since his 2004 breakout with the Marlins. That season set him up for his big payday with the Yankees, before injuries and a Tommy John surgery derailed his career. Finally healthy, Pavano is back on track and appears to have found a home in Minnesota. He's pitching on a one-year deal, and extending his contract has to be a growing priority for the Twins.

Justin Morneau is heating up again. No lengthy introduction necessary here. The perennial AL MVP candidate batted .412 on the 8-game road trip, including his first two home runs since June 4. Morneau can carry this team for weeks at a time, and getting him dialed in could be just what the doctor ordered for this slumping squad.

Between his own horrid start, and the emergence of fellow corner outfielder Delmon Young, Jason Kubel has flown under the radar. Slowly but surely, Kubel's finally hitting his stride. His June .542 Slugging Pct. leads the team, and he's hit .313 with 4 home runs for the month. Now that interleague play is over and the DH is back in play, expect even more at-bats for the Yankee killer.

TRENDING DOWN
Orlando Hudson's return to the lineup was supposed to reignite the offense. Batting .308 from the two-hole prior to his wrist injury, Hudson has been ice cold since his return from the Disabled List. The hope amongst Twins fans is that his .147 Batting Average and 11 strikeouts in the eight games since his return are a product of rust, not lingering injury. 

I featured Nick Blackburn in my 6/15/10 report, and while I'd prefer to see fresh blood with each installment of 3 Up, 3 Down, he's earned the dishonor of a repeat appearance. Blackburn's June has gone from putrid to downright unacceptable in his last two starts, where he's been shelled for 13 earned runs in just 5.1 innings. Where Pavano has saved the bullpen, Blackburn continues to deplete it. Trade speculation previously reserved for a closer or a third basemen is now focused squarely on Cliff Lee, or another starter, to replace Blackburn in the rotation. He's averaged just three innings in his five June starts, and his ERA for the month has climbed to over a dozen. 

Coming into the season, the Twins had three corner outfielders for two spots, and had signed Jim Thome for platoon DH work. Of the group, Michael Cuddyer was thought to be the only one who could expect regular at-bats. Fast forward to late June, and Cuddyer may now be an infielder. This is not a demotion, and to be fair, Cuddyer deserves a ton of credit for his willingness to help the team out by moving to third base. Nick Punto is terrible offensively, Brendan Harris is terrible in general, and Danny Valencia is terribly overhyped, so Cuddyer's selflessness in an era of Albert Haynesworth's is refreshing. With that said, Cuddyer continues to have an uninspiring year at the plate. Batting .259, he's well off last year's pace with just 7 Home Runs and 33 RBI's. I've been openly critical of Ron Gardenhire's insistence on keeping Cuddyer planted in the heart of the order as the right handed threat, seeing as how he isn't really a threat, and how Delmon Young has vastly outperformed him all season. It's becoming increasingly obvious that Gardenhire's insufferable loyalty to "his guys" is costing this team runs. At this point, I'm not overly concerned by Cuddyer's offensive performance, as much as I am annoyed.

Unfortunately, I had a much easier time finding "Downers" than "Uppers" this time around. That will happen after a .333 road trip. So 3 Down Honorable Mentions go out to Scott Baker, Kevin Slowey, Ron Gardenhire, and Joe Mauer. With an important 7-game home stand against Detroit and Tampa starting tomorrow, I'm hoping my next report will be more enjoyable.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

A Second Look at Wesley Johnson

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What They're Saying

Roy Williams
North Carolina Coach, after Johnson tallied 25 points and 8 rebounds in Syracuse' upset of UNC at Madison Square Garden.
"We didn't have an answer for guarding Wes."





Doug Collins
Philadelphia 76er Head Coach
"Watching Wesley work out was like, 'Wow, that was impressive.' This young kid has got it. He's charismatic. He can play. He's respectful. He's older. Impressive... Not as good of a ballhandler right now as Scottie (Pippen), but he's a better shooter... He has a real good feel."


David Kahn
Timberwolves President of Basketball Ops.
“He’s got a beautiful stroke... He has almost a classic basketball body. Good height. I thought he picked things up very quickly during the workout and clearly can run, which is so important to all of us in terms of how we want to play."


Jonny Flynn
Timberwolves Point Guard
"Shooting was one of our weakest points last season, and Wes can shoot it... He's long and athletic. He can open up lanes for everybody. He's really a good fit for us... If he had been able to play with us in my last year (at Syracuse), we would have gone to the Final Four."

A First Look at Wesley Johnson



The Timberwolves' long-term rebuilding plan is not as long-term as it might have been. By selecting NBA-ready Syracuse swingman Wesley Johnson with the fourth pick in tonight's draft, the Wolves will get instant bang for their buck. The Big East Player of the Year and First Team All-American will undoubtedly be a favorite for Rookie of the Year honors, as his game is more polished than most of the raw lottery talent. He should have an opportunity to immediately contribute for the Wolves at Small Forward, where the ordinary Ryan Gomes started 64 games last season. While some say that Johnson's age (he'll be 23) limits his upside, others merely consider him a late bloomer. Unusually late.

Where blue-chippers like John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins have been destined for stardom since Middle School, Johnson came out of high school in Corsicana, Texas without much fanfare. After stops at two prep schools to improve test scores, followed by two up-and-down seasons at Iowa State, Johnson made the life-changing decision to transfer to Syracuse University. Due to NCAA transfer rules, Johnson was forced to sit out a season, missing a chance to play with Wolves Point Guard Jonny Flynn. In his year off, Johnson continued modeling his game after childhood favorites Scottie Pippen and Penny Hardaway. Said Johnson, "Man, that journey from high school to finally getting to Syracuse, I learned a lot throughout the years from bouncing around. I think it really matured me a lot. I had to be patient and work hard to get where I'm at so I think that helped my work ethic and made me hungrier than anyone." That hunger was on full display last year.

Previously an unknown, Johnson's stock skyrocketed in his only season with the Orangemen. He emerged as an explosive athlete with a silky smooth jumper, scoring from everywhere on the court. At over 6'7", with a 7'1" wingspan, his length allowed him to rack up steals, blocks, and rebounds in the Syracuse 2-3 zone. These skills generally translate well to the NBA, and his intensity and awareness should make for a smooth transition on the defensive end. "I grew up playing [man-to-man]. It all comes down to want-to," said Johnson. But it was his offensive versatility that had scouts on the edge of their seats. They noted his deep NBA range, quick release, fluid body control, and explosive finishes in transition. Johnson scored within the flow of the game. He made teammates better, and rarely took bad shots. In short, he was lethally efficient. Comparisons started to flow. Shawn Marion. Rudy Gay. Rashard Lewis. In pre-draft workouts, Johnson continued to gain momentum, as he stood out against unrefined teenagers. In a period of seven months, Wesley Johnson had catapulted from anonymity to early lottery.

Like any draft pick, Johnson comes with question marks. He's just 205 lbs., and the dreaded "S" word has been attached to his scouting reports. Whether he plays soft or not, he's going to need to add bulk to survive in the NBA. Scouts wonder if he relies too heavily on his jumper; he has the ability to take it to the hole, but would prefer to avoid contact. Because of this, there are questions about whether he can create his own shot. The good news for Wolves fans is that Johnson's flaws are not fundamental, and seem correctable with an NBA training staff.

So how does Johnson fit in with the Wolves? The team wants to run the ball, and Johnson fills the transition lanes beautifully. He adds sorely needed outside shooting to open up the middle. In the triangle offense, he can play within the flow without having to go one-on-one. And he projects as a good perimeter defender, which should help the Wolves' 29th ranked Points Against average (107.8). On paper, Wesley Johnson appears to be a wonderful fit for the Minnesota Timberwolves. It won't take long to find out.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Webb Gem?


"You're a goddamn quarterback! You know what that means? It's the top spot, kid. It's the guy who takes the fall. It's the guy everybody's looking at first - the leader of a team - who will support you when they understand you. Who will break their ribs and their noses and their necks for you, because they believe. 'Cause you make them believe. That's a quarterback." - Al Pacino (as Tony D'Amato), Any Given Sunday

OK, so maybe the conversation between Brad Childress and rookie 6th rounder Joe Webb wasn't quite that colorful. However, the 199th pick in April's draft was so impressive throwing the ball at last month's rookie minicamp that Childress was prompted to award him the third red quarterback jersey. This effectively ended Webb's brief career as a converted NFL wide receiver, returning him to his natural position where he starred at the University of Alabama-Birmingham. Meanwhile, Sage Rosenfels, who just sixteen moths ago was acquired to become the Vikings' starter, has been unofficially demoted to fourth string. His exit from the team now looks inevitable. In related news, somebody kicked his dog and stole his lunch money. Webb, on the other hand, appears poised to assume the real-life Steamin' Willie Beamen role, as a raw, ultra-athletic 3rd string quarterback waiting in the shadows of an aging legend.



Webb is a bit of a mystery. He's probably better known for his viral YouTube jumping spectacle than he is for his prolific career at UAB, where he became the first quarterback in NCAA history to pass for 2,000 yards and rush for 1,000 yards in back to back seasons. UAB coach Neil Callaway, who also coached Bo Jackson at Auburn, said that Webb is "in the same league" as Jackson from a physical standpoint. However, despite his freakish athleticism and strong arm, Webb's below average accuracy, shaky mechanics, and questionable decision making had scouts projecting him as a marginal pro quarterback prospect. So Webb split out to play receiver at the Senior Bowl, where he figured to best capitalize on said athleticism. A man without a position, the 6'4", 220 pound Conference USA Player of the Year was one of the more notable Draft Combine snubs.

Undeterred, Webb attacked his UAB Pro Day, and further cemented his status as one of the premier athletes in the entire draft. His 42.5" vertical jump, 11'5" broad jump, 3.91 second 20-yard shuttle, and 21 bench reps all would have ranked first among combine receivers. His 4.43 40 time would have put him fifth among receivers and first among quarterbacks. What makes these numbers even more remarkable is that Webb carried a larger frame, wingspan, and hand size than all Combine receivers. While he clearly lacked polish as a receiving prospect, his raw size-speed measurables compared favorably to the likes of Vincent Jackson, Marques Colston, Brandon Marshall, and even rivaled Calvin "Megatron" Johnson. His ridiculous broad jump score, which is a measure of explosion, was nearly a foot longer than Adrian Peterson's. Had he been invited to the Combine, he surely would have garnered similar hype to Maryland's Offensive Tackle and workout warrior Bruce Campbell.

Trying to project the uniquely talented Webb's future in the league is impossible at this point. The consensus seems to be that, if used creatively, he could be a lethal Wildcat weapon, but not an every down signal caller. In the coming months you'll see names like Kordell Stewart, Josh Cribbs, Brad Smith, and Tim Tebow. For now, Vikings fans can only dream about a future backfield featuring Webb, Adrian Peterson, and Percy Harvin causing nightmares for defensive coordinators. Most likely, that dream will never come to fruition. I'm not buying Sid Hartman's "Quarterback of the Future" speculation. Webb simply lacks the quarterback-specific traits needed to succeed at the next level. But he is another tool for Darrell Bevell to utilize, and for a 6th round draft pick, this is shaping up to be something special. There is no doubt that Webb is a lottery athlete, and for the first time in years, preseason games will be worth watching well into the second half. Whether he can make a meaningful contribution in the regular season will be widely debated, but keep in mind that on any given Sunday, the #199 pick could make a difference. Just ask Tom Brady.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

3 Up, 3 Down: 6/15/10


TRENDING UP
I feel compelled to kick off my 3 Up, 3 Down series with a player who I’ve ripped more than anyone over the last two seasons.
Delmon Young came to the Twins in November of 2007 with a ton of hype. He also brought with him a poor work ethic, a reputation for being uncoachable, the stigma of an epic bat toss, and a lot of baby fat. Watching Matt Garza and Jason Bartlett excel for the Rays over the last two seasons, while the key cog in our side of the deal inexplicably struggled, was beyond frustrating for Twins fans. Despite a surprisingly strong finish to 2009 and worlds of untapped potential, many fans were ready to cut their losses and move on without Young, like we did Carlos Gomez. Our power-swinging prospect had morphed into, at best, an undisciplined seeing-eye singles hitter. And, what was worse, he didn’t seem to care.

But something clicked last offseason. Young showed up for Spring Training 30 pounds lighter. He started showing dedication to improvement. He hustled. He listened. He cared. Yes, Delmon Young suddenly appeared to have
become a professional. Building upon his late ’09 upswing and a newfound commitment, Young has emerged as the Twins’ most dangerous right handed bat throughout the first half of 2010. Batting .295 and slugging .500, he tops fellow right-handed masher Michael Cuddyer in both categories. In 45 less at bats, he also bests Cuddyer in Home Runs (8), Doubles (15), and RBI (41). It's worth noting that he trails only Justin Morneau in the RBI department (43). It doesn't end there. He's drastically cut down his strikeouts. He's having good at bats; he's already taken more walks than all of last year. He's hitting in the clutch. And while his fielding is still suspect, he's covering more ground this year since unhooking the plow. This is the player we thought we were getting in 2007, and as of right now, he's entrenched in a battle with Francisco Liriano and John Rauch for the best surprise of 2010.

After a shaky May, Liriano is dialed back in. In his two June starts, he's struck out 21 in 15 innings, with a 1.20 ERA. His 87 strikeouts currently rank 5th in the Majors, and he leads the four pitchers in front of him in K/9 and ERA.

John Rauch doesn't have Joe Nathan's stuff. Not even close. But he's done everything the Twins have asked of him. What he lacks in a dominant strikeout pitch, he more than makes up for with a perfect closer's mentality. He has poise, he's fearless, and he has a short memory. This is something for which I've been openly critical of Nathan, especially with last season's stretch-run tailspin that snowballed into the playoffs. So while murmurs of an "upgrade" via trade continue to swirl through Twins Territory, Rauch's 16 saves are tied for the league lead, and his 2.52 ERA remains stellar. He's getting the most out of limited talent, and for that I applaud him.

TRENDING DOWN
After a 5-0 May, Nick Blackburn has gone the other way. His three June starts have been 13.1 innings of batting practice (an 8.10 ERA). Gross, but not all that surprising. Blackburn is an average pitcher, and a pitch-to-contact type who can't strike anyone out, so there was bound to be a correction. It's just never pretty when it happens.

I know, it's too soon to be hard on Trevor Plouffe. But after two hits in his debut, he's gone 1 for 21, and has looked a bit lost at Shorstop filling in for the injured J.J. Hardy. A former first round draft pick, I guess my criticism is more a cumulation of failed expectations and disappoinments. Selected 20th overall in 2004, Plouffe has hovered around mediocrity every step of the way. I have an easier time picturing him as the classic Twins' fringe AAA/MLB middle infielder than I do as an everyday Shortstop. He certainly doesn't have the limitless upside of Miguel Angel Sano, who's replaced Plouffe as the organization's new "Shortstop of the Future."

I feel a little guilty mentioning Denard Span here. He's so solid and fundamentally sound in every facet of the game, which makes me think that this funk will be over soon. Good mechanics usually prevent long slumps, and his .204 June BA is surely a mirage. In fact, I'd have let it slide, if not for his more troubling .235 June OBP. With just 2 walks in 51 June plate appearances, the Twins simply need better from their table setter. I'm not worried.

You may have noticed that I omitted Jesse Crain from this list. It's just too easy. He's out of options, and I'm out of bourbon, so we're calling it a night. Check back in the coming weeks for more 3 Up, 3 Down Twins analysis.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

The Death of the $7.99 Fantasy Football Magazine


For some, the fantasy football season is right around the corner. For others, like myself, it never really ends. I started jotting notes for the 2010 season about halfway through the 2009 season. As the fantasy football monster continues to grow, managers are getting savvier, stakes are getting higher, and leagues are becoming more cutthroat. My goal with this entry is to provide a comprehensive collection of fantasy resources that you may not have previously considered. Think of it as your guide to cheaper, better information. Because if you're showing up to a draft in late August with a $7.99 fantasy magazine, you're not only donating your entry fee, you're donating your pride.

Fantasy football happens in real time. Values are changing right now. And now. And now. Herein lies the obvious problem with fantasy magazines. Sure, they have their place. They can be fine as a refresher on last season's stats and offseason roster moves. However, it's imperative you understand that your shiny new magazine will be outdated by the time you swipe the Visa. In fact, it was outdated on the shelf long before you even smudged it up. My buddies have chided me for years about my Brad Childress-esque color coded cheat sheet that I bring to my drafts. It's a custom report tacked to an old-school clipboard; the summation of months of researching my most trusted sources, participating in countless mock drafts, and weighing my own gut instincts. What it lacks in gloss, it makes up for in year-end payouts. Nothing on my final draft day printout comes from a magazine. My best advice to you: Don't let a magazine sabotage your draft and turn you into your league's favorite punch line. Fantasy football has evolved, and you need to keep pace.

If you're not tweeting, you're not trying. Say what you will about Twitter, but it's quickly become the premier source for up-to-the-second fantasy football information. It's here that you gain access to the "experts," and more importantly, the nerds. It's a place for informed debates and priceless links. Furthermore, it's by far your best bet for pre-game updates during the season. In my favorite Twitter moment of last season, I shamelessly asked Kurt Warner about his availability for the Week 13 Sunday night showdown with the Vikings, as he was listed as a "Game Time Decision" due to a concussion. To my surprise, he replied that he was playing, so I left him in my lineup (I'd added Leinart as an emergency play, of course). He proceeded to carve up the Purple for 285 and 3 TD's, and I was rewarded with a slim, playoff-clinching victory. Admittedly, Kurt Warner might have been the only honest, god-fearing man in the NFL. So get started with these guys, and cash in on more dependable information: http://tweepml.org/?t=40430.

Listen up. Podcasts are free and versatile. Listen at work. Listen in the yard. Listen in the car. There is no excuse not to get plugged in. There are two podcasts that are staples in my fantasy diet. I listen daily to ESPN's Fantasy Focus Football, where Matthew Berry and Nate Ravitz regularly fight like a married couple. Highlights of the show include the "Name Game" player vs. player debate, and Stephania Bell's top notch injury analysis. They're getting it warmed up already with a weekly show: http://tinyurl.com/6ehkh7. We're also very fortunate, in the MPLS/St. Paul area, to have the industry's best fantasy show in our own back yard. KFAN 1130's Fantasy Football Weekly airs Saturday mornings starting in late July, and is hosted by nationally regarded industry gurus Paul Charchian, John Tuvey, and Bo Mitchell. The show includes fantastic segments of caller questions and matchup breakdowns, as well as "Five Tough Questions," "Take a Chance on Me," "Lightning Round," and the "Todd Heap Memorial Injury Report." Nobody works harder to provide fact-based analysis and speculation than these guys. It's free money: http://tinyurl.com/yeby2qr.

Fake it 'til you make it. Mock drafts give you the insight into how the fantasy community is valuing players. They also prepare you for those unpredictable, sink-or-swim moments of your draft. With mocking, you'll become familiar with ADP's (Average Draft Positions). This could be the single most important piece of ammo for traditional drafts. It's the difference between reaching and value. If you haven't done a handful of mocks before your draft, you deserve the inevitable embarrassment that will ensue. ESPN's Mock Draft Lobby is great: http://tinyurl.com/d2jo7a. I also mix in mocks at www.mockdraftcentral.com and www.fantasyfootballcalculator.com.

Do the legwork. Get out and socialize with other members of the fantasy community. Don't be too proud to tag along to a pal's draft. Observe how certain players are perceived locally vs. nationally. Learn from others' mistakes. Find the smartest guy in the room (hint: he won't be thumbing through a magazine), and take note of his (or her) moves. Hit up the spread and snag a couple free beers. There's no hiding behind the computer; experiencing a live draft gets you dialed into reality, and more focused than ever. Another great opportunity for the MPLS/St. Paul crowd is the Fantasy Football Weekly crew's Fantasy Training Camp, held late summer at Treasure Island Casino in Red Wing. This is as "insider" as it gets. From slideshows of statistical gold, to an expert mock play-by-play, you will leave this event with a decided advantage over the rest of your league. And, like the rest of these new age fantasy tools, it's free.

Follow this advice, and you'll go from an ordinary fantasy participant to a feared power player in your league. Do you utilize other non-traditional resources? Feel free to share and discuss.