Monday, December 28, 2009

Big Ten Championship Game is Perilous

The Big Ten is actively pursuing a 12th team for the purpose of becoming eligible for a conference championship game. Whether Joe Paterno and Barry Alvarez are pushing for a conference championship game because of the expected financial windfall it would bring, or because they’re actually concerned with the “perception” of the Big Ten as both have claimed remains to be seen. Either way, if the Big Ten adds a member, then a conference championship game is coming to the Big Ten.

The trouble is that I don’t think anyone knows whether that’s a good idea or not. I’ve always been happy with the fact that while the SEC and Big XII lose out on BCS bids because of their conference championship games, the Big Ten gains BCS bids because it doesn’t have one. Despite its reputation as a mediocre conference—a reputation that has often been earned—no other conference has produced more BCS bids than the Big Ten. It’s not a coincidence that the conference without a championship game leads the country in BCS bids. Ironically, Joe Paterno and Barry Alvarez are advocating a Big Ten Championship game because they believe the Big Ten is falling behind in "perception" compared to other conference when, in fact, not having a championship game is the only thing keeping the Big Ten's perception from becoming even worse. The other side of the argument is that the SEC and Big XII bring in enough revenue from their conference championship games that each of their member institutions get roughly a $1 million payout every year that Big Ten schools don’t get.

The default setting for most fans is idealistic rather than materialistic. Fans care a whole lot more about the Big Ten’s reputation—which relies heavily on National Championships, BCS bids, and bowl performance—than they do about how much money the Big Ten rakes in. According to Stewart Mandel, each Big Ten school brings in roughly $22.6 million per year. The additional million that could be added via a Big Ten Championship game seems like “small potatoes” compared to that. Certainly, I wouldn’t think it would be worth losing out on extra BCS bids and National Championship Game appearances. I feel that way, though, because I am a fan and it doesn’t cost me any money to feel that way. If I were a President of a Big Ten school, I might be able to forget about “reputation” for an extra million bucks. So, whether a conference championship game is good for the Big Ten depends entirely on your viewpoint.

I’ve been against a Big Ten Championship game because of the obvious advantage the conference has received by not having one. However, it's hard to deny that strictly financially speaking, it is worth losing a BCS bid every other year if it means an additional $12-$14 million for the conference (which is an estimate of what SEC and Big XII Championship Games bring in annually). A second BCS-bid is worth $4.5 million. So, even if the Big Ten loses a second BCS-bid every year due to a championship game, having the game would still net $9-10 million annually. Obviously, a Big Ten Championship Game would not cause the conference to lose a 2nd BCS bid every year. In fact, it would be much less than that. In the 12 years of the BCS, the SEC has lost just two bids as a result of its championship game and the Big XII hasn’t lost a single bid. That means while the SEC has likely brought in over $100 million from its conference championship game over the last 12 years, it has only lost roughly $9 million due to lost BCS bids. The Big XII—while also likely bringing in over $100+ million over that time—hasn’t lose a single dime from lost BCS bids. Financial people will tell you that’s a pretty good argument for having a conference championship.

I’m not convinced that the Big Ten would be as immune to losing bids as the SEC has been. The Big Ten has received two BCS bids in nine of the twelve years since the BCS was implemented. Of those nine two-bid years, the Big Ten did not have a 3rd team strong enough to factor into the BCS discussion in six of those years. The SEC has been so successful at placing two teams into the BCS despite its conference championship game because it often has more than just two elite teams and/or teams that would still receive a bid even with a loss. #2 Tennessee lost in the SEC Championship Game in 2001 and the SEC still garnered two BCS bids. Alabama and Florida—losers of the last two SEC Championship Games—both received bids despite the losses. Depending on how the Big Ten would’ve been divided up, a Big Ten Championship Game could’ve cost the conference as many as six bids since the BCS began. That would’ve been frustrating from a fan’s perspective, no doubt, but that still only would’ve netted a loss of roughly $27 million which is paltry compared to the $100+ million that would’ve resulted from having the championship game in the first place. So, the Big Ten would almost assuredly lose BCS bids as a result of a championship game and likely at a higher rate than the SEC. However, like the SEC has proven, there is substantial money to be made in the process.

*Since the BCS began in 1998

Although “second” BCS bids are certainly important for bragging purposes, they pale in comparison to being selected to play in a National Championship game. Losing out on that opportunity is much more harmful to a conference’s reputation than losing out on a second BCS bid (although the financial loss is the same, believe it or not). Since the BCS was formed in 1998, the SEC and Big XII have lost a total of five National Championship Game participants. In the SEC’s case, it has lost two guaranteed National Championship scenarios. In 2008, Florida and Alabama played in the SEC Championship Game meaning both could not play in the National Championship Game. Otherwise, two SEC teams would’ve played for the National Championship. The exact same scenario unfolded this season. Meanwhile, the Big Ten hasn’t lost a single BCS bid or National Championship Game participant over the history of the BCS. That is an advantage that has allowed the Big Ten to “save face” during a stretch of disappointing football.

On a school-to-school basis, the idea of a conference championship game will appeal much more to the Indiana and Northwestern’s of the Big Ten. They are unlikely to ever be adversely affected as a result of a conference championship game. They’ll simply cash their $1 million checks and say, “Thank you.” Ohio State, Michigan, and Penn St, however, are the teams that will likely have their roads to a BCS game or the National Championship game made more difficult by the adoption of a championship game despite the foolhardy suggestion to the contrary by the Barry Alvarezes and Joe Paternos of the world. For those schools, the $1 million payout may not be worth it. So, while the money brought in would benefit the conference as a whole, it would unlikely benefit the elite programs of the conference nearly as much. That’s why there might be a divide in opinion of a championship game based on the various fanbases. It’s likely that Ohio St, Michigan, and Penn St., fans will look less favorably on it than fans from other schools. As you can imagine, I’m not happy about the fact that Michigan will probably have to beat Ohio State twice in the same season before it can even play in a National Championship game. The extra $1 million that the Michigan Athletic Department would pocket isn’t nearly worth making that theoretical situation a reality. Considering adding a 12th team would also significantly weaken the Michigan-Ohio State game, make it more difficult for the conference to receive multiple BCS bids, and make it harder for a Big Ten team to get to the National Championship game, the Big Ten better make this a "Notre Dame or bust" situation. Otherwise, Big Ten football is about to change forever and, other than a few lousy bucks, it won't be for the better.

Note: This post assumes that any school that is added would bring $22.6 million (Mandel’s estimate of a break even point) annually to the conference via renegotiated TV contracts and nothing significantly more or less.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Big Ten Division Projections

Given the financial uncertainty that any non-Notre Dame addition would bring to the conference, there is no guarantee that this query into expansion will have a different result than the last two. While certain outspoken figureheads within the conference—most notably Barry Alvarez and Joe Paterno—have expressed a desire to expand, expansion is, by no means, a sure thing especially considering those likely to be at least somewhat opposed are Michigan, Ohio State, and the Big Ten Commissioner. So, any speculation of a non-Notre Dame addition needs to be taken with a grain of salt.

There has been much consternation on the interwebs about the difficulty of breaking the conference into two divisions should a 12th team be added. Nobody wants to see a repeat of the Big XII mess that has resulted in two disproportionate football divisions. The Big Ten needs to learn from the Big XII’s mistakes and make sure that forming two evenly matched divisions is the #1 priority.

Fortunately, I think that will prove to be a fairly easy endeavor if the Big Ten does it right. In fact, it doesn’t even matter which university the Big Ten adds. The dynamics are already in place to form divisions that make sense by virtually every measure. Before I get into what those divisional breakdowns should be, I want to identify some of the elements that need to be considered.

1). In my opinion, the key to perfecting the divisional breakdowns is to put Michigan and Ohio State into separate divisions. If the Big Ten adds a 12th team and moves to the two divisions/championship game format, then the Michigan-Ohio State game will suffer no matter how the divisions are broken up. If they are in the same division, then they can’t play for the championship. If they are in opposite divisions then that presents the very likely possibility of rematches in back to back weeks or, even worse, moving “The Game” to October. The Big Ten does not want a situation like the Big XII where Texas and Oklahoma are in the same division making it impossible for divisional competitiveness and for the two best teams in the conference to play for the championship. As for wanting to avoid the possibility of two Michigan-Ohio State games in one season, I’m not sure why that should even be a consideration. Any time a conference plays a championship game, the possibility of rematches are unavoidable whether it’s Michigan-Ohio State or Illinois-Northwestern.

2). Two equally competitive divisions should be a primary goal.

3). Traditional rivalries should be protected as much as possible.

4). Although it is certainly possible to simply put together competitive divisions irrespective of geography, the goal for a number of reasons should be to accomplish competitiveness with two distinct geographic regions.

If having geographically meaningful divisions is a priority, then there is really only two ways to do it. The Big Ten can opt for a North/South breakdown like the Big XII, or an East/West breakdown like the SEC. The only way to see if either works geographically and competitively is to write it out. I’ll be using Pittsburgh as the 12th team in the following scenarios. It’s pretty obvious right away that an East/West breakdown won’t work. Ohio St., Michigan, Penn St., Michigan St., Pittsburgh and Indiana would be the “East Division” and Wisconsin, Iowa, Minnesota, Illinois, Purdue and Northwestern would be the “West Division.” That would present an even more egregious talent discrepancy between divisions than what the Big XII faces. So, East/West is out.

The other option is North/South. The six northern most schools—all north of the 41st parallel—are Michigan, Michigan State, Wisconsin, Iowa, Minnesota, and Northwestern. The six southern most schools—all south of the 41st parallel— would be Ohio State, Penn State, Illinois, Purdue, Indiana, and Pittsburgh. Since all of the likely 12th-team candidates are south of the 41st parallel, this layout works for any addition whether it be Pittsburgh, Nebraska, Missouri, Rutgers or another school.

A North/South breakdown would be a “slam dunk” competitively. Michigan and Ohio State—historically speaking—are the two best football programs in the conference. Northwestern and Indiana—historically speaking—are the two worst football programs in the conference. Wisconsin, Michigan State, Iowa, and Minnesota are very similar to Penn State, Pittsburgh, Purdue, and Illinois, respectively. By sheer coincidence, I don’t think it’s possible to breakdown the conference more evenly. Geographically and competitively, a North/South divisional breakdown works very well.

Of course, competitiveness and geographic structure aren’t the only considerations. Maintaining existing rivalries is equally important. Fortunately, it looks like a North/South breakdown does a pretty good job of preserving rivalries. There are 11 “permanent” rivalry games acknowledged by the Big Ten. A North/South divisional breakdown would preserve all but four of those games (and since Northwestern-Purdue is a rivalry in name only, it really ends up being all but three).

(games in “green” are inherent to a North/South breakdown; games in “red” are not)

Clearly, Michigan-Ohio State, Michigan State-Penn State, and Illinois-Northwestern are games that absolutely need to be played. Fortunately, the Big Ten would simply need to follow the precedent set by other 12-team conferences which allow for interdivisional games to be protected. For instance, Florida plays LSU every year despite being in different divisions in the SEC. With such a large number of rivalries that would be inherent to a North/South breakdown, it would be very easy for the Big Ten to protect the handful that wouldn’t be.

It seems pretty apparent that having “North” and “South” regions would result in two competitively balanced divisions that make sense geographically while maintaining most existing rivalries. If Pittsburgh is extended an invitation, it would seamlessly transition into a division with longtime rival, Penn State. If it happens to be Notre Dame, then Iowa would move to the “South” division and Notre Dame would play in the “North” where it would maintain existing rivalries with Michigan and Michigan State. Virtually any addition would easily fit into the North/South template.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Big ?

The Big Ten came through with a whopper of an announcement on Tuesday. Nineteen years after adding an 11th team, it will seek out a 12th. Obviously, this decision has huge ramifications for the conference. It foreshadows a huge break from tradition by separating the conference into two divisions with a conference championship game to decide the Big Ten Championship. I will be devoting my next four posts—including this one—to various issues related to the expansion. This post will attempt to identify the best candidate(s). The following three will be about the divisional breakdown, a Big Ten Championship Game, and Notre Dame, respectively.

The last time the conference expanded, it was with Penn State. Although Penn State probably hasn’t fared as well as it would have liked in both football and basketball, I don’t think anyone is unhappy with the addition. In fact, it has been a “perfect fit.” It’s doubtful that this search will yield such an outstanding result simply because the Big Ten didn’t put out a mandate in 1990 looking for an 11th team, or at least not to my knowledge. Penn State wasn’t just an attractive option among a pool of candidates; it was the option. It was added only because it was an obvious match. This attempt at expansion is fueled by a different motive. The Big Ten is actively looking for a 12th team which, like a recent well-known coaching search, could get pretty ugly with offers, denials, and turndowns. With money seemingly a driving motive (not sure expansion even makes sense financially without Notre Dame, however) it’s likely that the Big Ten would “lower its standards” just to get a 12th team in the conference. Still, there are a few attractive options among a number of possible candidates. I would hope that the goal would be to find a school that would make the conference stronger and not just make it eligible to have a conference championship game since that would be a misguided endeavor, in my opinion (more on this next week).

There are a number of teams that have had rumored interest in joining the Big Ten as well as a team or two that the Big Ten has been rumored to have interest in. Some of the names are “marquee” while others are “mediocre.” Here is a list of 13 schools (in alphabetical order) that—for one reason or another—have been discussed as possible options: (in alphabetical order) Cincinnati, Iowa St., Maryland, Missouri, Navy, Nebraska, Notre Dame, Pittsburgh, Rutgers, Syracuse, Texas, Vanderbilt, and Virginia. There have been other names brought up but I eliminated schools that have little to offer beyond being located in the Northern Hemisphere. It’s pretty easy to throw together a list of preferences based on attractiveness. However, in the interest of credibility, I’ve rated the 13 schools using a formula based on six weighted factors…

1). Strength of the Football Program (1/4)

Football is the reason we’re having this discussion in the first place so it would make sense to heavily factor the strength of the football program when discussing candidates. Additionally, football is the most visible sport in the Big Ten—as it is in virtually every I-A conference—so finding a team that will fit in with the conference’s rich football tradition is paramount. Four of the six metrics are based on rankings by outside sources (meaning: not me). The “Football” and “Basketball” metrics are based on my opinion albeit a well-informed one. Please forgive the inherit subjectivity in those metrics. Although, I’m not sure using other arbitrary metrics like “all-time wins”, “bowl wins”, “wins in 2008” or any other inflexible measure would be any less subjective.

2). Academics (1/4)

The Big Ten prides itself on academic achievement. Every school in the conference is rated among the top 75 academic institutions in the US News and World Report’s list of top-ranked schools. An addition to the conference would have to live up to that standard. This metric is based on the 2008 US News and World Report’s rankings.

3).Basketball (1/8)

Although football is #1 in the Big Ten, men’s basketball is well ahead of any other sport. It would be nice to add an institution that would strengthen the Big Ten’s basketball reputation but Penn St. proved that isn't a necessity. It would be nice to avoid two consecutive mediocre basketball additions but, competitively speaking, the conference is in good shape regardless.

4). Location (1/8)

Airplanes exist for a reason so “travel” shouldn’t be a deal-breaker. However, 10 of the 11 current Big Ten schools are located in the Midwest with Penn St. just a few hundred miles to the east. The conference is synonymous with the Great Lakes region. It’s unlikely that a school too far outside of the region would add much in the name of interest on either side. Candidates shouldn’t be entirely excluded based on location but it is a factor that should be considered. The schools in this metric are ranked based on their distance from Chicago. While it may seem like an arbitrary location, Chicago is in the middle of the Big Ten footprint and, not coincidentally, is the location of Big Ten Headquarters.

5). Athletics (1/8)

While football and basketball might be the most visible sports, the Big Ten is competitive in virtually every collegiate sport which is reflected in the Sears Cup Standings. Indiana—at a respectable 55th—is the lowest Big Ten school in the standings. The addition of Penn State was a boon in this respect as it has been one of the top athletic programs in the country. The schools in this metric are rated by their place in the 2008-09 Sears Cup Standings.

6). Marketability (1/8)

There is no universal definition for this but the Big Ten certainly needs a school that will bring interest to the conference. “Interest” affects the bottom line which affects everything. In this metric, teams are rated by combining three measures into one. I averaged the Collegiate Licensing Company’s Sales ranking, average home football attendance, and DMA rank (TV market size). This metric should at least roughly estimate the “interest” that the school would bring to the Big Ten.

Rating scale: Schools were rated 1-13 in each category. First place was worth 13 points, second place worth 12 points, and third place worth 11 points and so on. Values were doubled for “Football” and “Academics.”

The results…

Unsurprisingly, Notre Dame is, far and away, the most attractive option ranking at or near the top in every category. Texas—clearly an ideal fit in terms of athletics and academics—trails Notre Dame due solely to its poor “location” score. All things being equal, Texas is the more attractive option of the group. However, Notre Dame is smack dab in the middle of Big Ten country. All of Texas’s athletic might can’t make up for that. Unfortunately, neither Notre Dame nor Texas appear interested in joining the Big Ten. Once we get beyond Notre Dame and Texas, there is a huge drop-off in relative attractiveness. The difference between Texas and the #3 team—Pittsburgh—is greater than the difference between Pittsburgh and the #9 team (Missouri). Pittsburgh has a comfortable margin over the rest of the field making it the most attractive realistic option. After Pittsburgh, the list gets pretty cluttered with a bunch of “meh” options.

Contrary to what some media types think, Rutgers would be a very poor choice. In fact, non-traditional options like Navy and Vanderbilt appear to be better “fits.” Navy, of course, has a horrendous basketball program and that wouldn’t change with a move to the Big Ten. There is no way the Big Ten would accept a school—even one of Navy’s academic and athletic prowess—with such a moribund basketball program. Vanderbilt boasts a poor football program which would also seem to eliminate it as a viable choice. The take away here isn’t where Navy and Vanderbilt rank; rather it’s that Rutgers ranks below both. I would expect/hope that the Big Ten would avoid handing out an invitation to Rutgers at all costs. Missouri—somewhat surprisingly—also loses out to two schools that would never receive an invitation (Navy and Vanderbilt) because of the aforementioned disqualifying factors. According to various sources, Missouri has interest in joining the Big Ten. Mizzou also happens to be one of the schools often linked to Big Ten expansion. However, it would be a far worse choice than most realize. It would immediately become the Big Ten’s weakest academic school by a significant margin. Iowa is currently the lowest rated Big Ten school in US News and World Report’s rankings at #71. Missouri comes in at #102. Although Missouri doesn’t rank particularly low in any category with the exception of “academics”, its overall score is low because it doesn’t rank particularly high in any one category, either. It would do very little to strengthen the conference.

On a personal level, if it’s not Pittsburgh, then I would vote for Nebraska. If not Nebraska, I would vote to cancel the expansion idea. I realize Maryland and Virginia actually rate higher than Nebraska but all three come in with virtually the same score. Maryland and Virginia are too far east to “fit” with the rest of the Big Ten. Plus, neither have attractive football programs and that’s really the driving force behind all of this. The choices should be Notre Dame, Texas, Pittsburgh, and Nebraska in that order. Anything beyond that would be a major disappointment, in my opinion.

So, barring a significant development, it looks like the best realistic choice is Pittsburgh. The only drawback that Pittsburgh would bring besides “not being Notre Dame” is its subpar performance in athletics as a whole. It rated second worst of the 13 teams in the 2009 Sears Cup Final standings—well behind Iowa State, Vanderbilt, and Navy. Still, being uncompetitive in non-revenue sports when the other requisite criteria is met would hardly be a deal breaker. The addition of Pittsburgh would also give Penn State a natural rival which would only bolster the conference. First, though, is a token call to Notre Dame.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

So long, Curtis Granderson (and E-Jax)

It’s rare that I find myself unable to throw support behind one side of an argument or another. Yet, that’s where I am after the Tigers parted with Curtis Granderson and Edwin Jackson. This trade has paralyzed my ability to be supportive or critical. It’s not a familiar feeling. I would be lying if I didn’t say I am a little troubled by the fact that—to this point—I have been unable to defend or lament this trade. I do take comfort in the notion of “grey areas.” Life is full of them and “baseball” is just a part of life. It’s doubtful that I’m going to come out strongly for one position by the end of this post, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth discussing. Who knows, maybe a little analysis will jar loose an opinion.

Dave Dombrowski has said repeatedly that this trade was not the result of a fire sale. I believe him. Granderson makes next to nothing for an all-star centerfielder. If he were trying for a fire sale, then he’d start with Miguel Cabrera. Plus, close to $55 million comes off the payroll after this season. I doubt the Tigers are in such economic disarray that they can’t wait one season for a windfall of financial flexibility. So, if DD isn’t looking to shave off vast amounts of payroll, then why trade a player who isn’t just an under-30 all-star, but perhaps one of the most likable players in all of sports? A large part my indifference to this trade is the lack of a clear motive.

I’m assuming that DD’s motive has at least two parts. First, and probably the lesser of the two, is that the Tigers clearly have chemistry issues. They orchestrated one of the biggest collapses in baseball history by choking away a 7-game lead in September. At various points of the season, both the pitching and hitting could be described as horrendous. Without the ability to make any meaningful upgrades via free agency in the offseason, I doubt even DD could foresee a successful season from an aging team saddled with dead money. So, the idea that “this team needs a change” surely crept into DD’s thought process. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a scenario in which that line of thinking was strong enough to ship away a player of Granderson’s age and value. Surely, that couldn’t have been the only motive. Teams don’t generally part with a young, inexpensive all-star just to “make a change.”

The other part—and I think this is why the trade could never be described as a huge loss from a Tigers perspective—is that, relatively speaking, Granderson isn’t that good. Sure he’s an All-Star but his splits also produce some frightening numbers. He is a career .210 hitter against lefties. That number is so poor that it has become increasingly difficult to describe Grandy without mentioning the word, “platoon.” Additionally, he's also a less-than-ideal leadoff hitter. To no fault of his own, Granderson was forced into the leadoff role. The problem is that his OBP is woeful. It was just .327 this past season. As productive as he has been at times, he is a baseball player with undeniable faults. If DD felt that Grandy was at his peak value, then getting a team to overpay while simultaneously ridding his team of those faults probably sounded like a good proposition.

DD’s rationale for getting rid of Granderson has to lie somewhere within the above two paragraphs. From purely a baseball perspective, I can understand wanting to improve the team’s ability to get on base. What makes this whole thing so interesting and weird, though, is how little Granderson is going to make over the next four years ($5.5 million in '10, $8.25 million in '11, $10 million in '12, and $13 million in '13). Faults or not, I don’t think there is a team in the league that wouldn’t gladly pay Granderson that much money over the next four years. I give DD a ton of credit for being willing to buck conventional wisdom and make an atypical move while managing to attract rave reviews by doing so.

Interestingly, I’ve spent five paragraphs trying to figure out whether this trade was a good idea or not and haven’t once mentioned what the Tigers got in return. The “return” tends to be the most important aspect of a trade but that takes a backseat in this deal. Granderson’s value around the league is so high that he was going to fetch a fair return regardless of the trade partner. The first question on my mind—before even considering what the Tigers got in return—was whether it makes sense to trade Granderson in the first place considering his production and cost. Although I admit it's unconventional, I think it does make sense.

I’m much less confused by Edwin Jackson’s departure. He was a pleasant surprise in 2009—or at least the first half—and was probably the most responsible for how much better the Tigers were in ’09 than in ‘08. However, his second half numbers were brutal (5.00+ ERA and a 1.50+ WHIP). The psyche of a pitcher is so fickle that there is no guarantee that Jackson will bounce back from his poor second half; especially since he just recently found success for the first time. Look no further than the mental/control issues that Tigers pitchers have gone through over the last few seasons. Jeremy Bonderman, Armando Galarraga, Dontrelle Willis and even to some extent Justin Verlander have all paired good years with bad years. Odds are Jackson will thrive in the National League but cashing him in at a time when his value is at an all-time high is something I cannot criticize. He’ll probably get a $3 million raise via arbitration this season and then command $10-12 million per year as a free agent after the season. That’s a pretty big commitment to a guy with such a short history of success.

Now that I’ve argued that giving up Granderson and Jackson—despite their age and production—isn’t crazy, I suppose it might make some sense to discuss what the Tigers got in return. Baseball analysts were nearly universal in their praise of the package the Tigers received from the D-Backs and Yankees. Despite the praise, the jury will be out on this trade for quite a while. Three of the four players—Austin Jackson, Daniel Schlereth, and Phil Coke—are of the dreaded “prospect” variety. The most seasoned of the three is Coke who has played just one unremarkable season. Coke and Diet Coke Schlereth are expected to provide depth to the bullpen. What’s puzzling about DD’s insistence on getting two green relievers in return is that he spent nearly the entire 2008 draft on relievers. I hope this isn’t a sign that he’s not happy with the return on that investment. Jackson might be the most lauded player in the deal considering he was the #1 rated player in the Yankees farm system. His repertoire and production are very similar to Granderson’s. However, DD obviously didn’t sweat parting with Granderson so even at his absolute ceiling, Jackson would develop into a guy that DD just sent away in his prime. All three are top-ten organizational prospects but I’m not convinced that any of the three will achieve anything more than marginal success.

The last piece—and perhaps the most important—is Max Scherzer. He has the highest ceiling of the four players, IMO. He is a 25-year old power arm who fits the mold of the classic DD pitcher. With Casey Crosby, Jacob Turner, and Andrew Oliver not ready for the majors and Jeremy Bonderman, Nate Robertson, and Dontrelle Willis as unreliable as my Pontiac Grand Am, the Tigers will need Scherzer to mirror Edwin Jackson’s production from last season. He isn’t just important to Detroit’s long-term success, he’ll go a long way in determining whether the Tigers can contend for the division next season.

In the end, I don’t mind that DD traded away Granderson and Jackson. I don’t believe either is irreplaceable. However, despite what the baseball community seems to think, I don’t think there is a whole lot of “upside” in the players the Tigers got in return. Granderson and Jackson were under-30 all-stars. I don’t see two under-30 all-stars in this group. Predictably, I’m ending this post where it started: with ambivalence.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Why Texas?

Thanks to the convenient and uneven allocation of “clock stoppage” rules by Big XII referees, Texas narrowly escaped Nebraska in the Big XII Championship Game. It was Texas’s worst showing of the season in its most important game. Unfortunately, “how Texas played” was always going to be irrelevant. It was preordained 100+ years ago that even a sloppy win would put Texas in the BCS Championship Game over Cincinnati, TCU, and Boise State. The latter three programs are up-starts. Before it ever got to a resume-comparison, the scrutinizing stopped at the name, “Texas.”

College football needs a playoff. It has always needed a playoff. It is the only major sport dumb enough to avoid the most exciting part of any athletic calendar. The result has been paper champions and insufferable controversy. This season has been no different. Since only two teams can play for the National Championship, non-BCS schools—or schools from the Big East that are often treated as non-BCS schools—are usually overlooked because they simply can’t match the average strength of schedule of a BCS school. Weighing schedule strength seems to be the fairest methodology to an unfair system. What isn’t fair, though, is coming to a decision based on “traditionism,” or simply assuming that the bigger name has the better resume. Sure, in most cases, an undefeated team from a major BCS conference will have a more impressive resume than an undefeated team from a weaker conference. The problem is that “most cases” doesn’t equal “all cases.” Voters still need to do their due diligence by actually comparing resumes. Simply assuming that Texas deserves to be in the BCS Title Game over TCU, Boise State and Cincinnati because it’s “Texas” is lazy and ignorant. It only takes a few seconds to compare resumes and come to the conclusion that, yes, despite a marquee win or two and an impressive average margin of victory, TCU and Boise State do not have schedules that compare to Texas’s. In these instances, conventional wisdom holds true.

What about Cincinnati? I’m not sure “people” (voters, fans, coaches, Ginny Sack, whoever) understand just how weak Texas’s resume is. The Big XII was arguably the best conference in college football last season. This season? Not so much. Oklahoma without Sam Bradford has been mediocre. Kansas spiraled to a fiery death. Texas Tech and Missouri took giant steps back. Oklahoma State was slightly disappointing. It wasn’t until the Big XII Championship Game that Texas met any resistance and that was against an offensively-challenged Nebraska-team. It’s difficult to point to any victory on Texas’s resume as “overly impressive” with the possible exception of its 27-point win over an Oklahoma State team that also lost to Oklahoma by 27-points and Houston. I don’t think there is a “signature win” on the entire schedule. It doesn’t help that the non-conference slate featured UCF, Wyoming, Louisiana Monroe, and UTEP. Without a marquee non-conference opponent, Texas didn’t really even have an opportunity for a “signature win.”

Cincinnati wasn’t any more impressive than Texas but I’m not sure it was less impressive, either. The Bearcats had two impressive road wins over Oregon State and Pittsburgh. They had three victories over the RPI 20 and seven over the RPI 55. Texas had two and six, respectively. Cincy had three wins in the BCS top 25 (#16, #17, and #18). Texas had just two (#19 and #22). Despite playing in a conference that is often criticized and/or dismissed entirely, Cincinnati managed to put together a pretty damn good collection of wins. In fact, Cincinnati actually had a higher “computer score” in the BCS rankings than Texas. I realize that “margin of victory” does play a part in a resume-comparison but whatever small advantage Texas has in that metric is offset by Cincy’s slight advantage in quality wins.

*Margin of victory in parenthesis

**RPI from here.

I’m not suggesting that Cincinnati is better than Texas or that Texas doesn’t deserve to be in the BCS Championship Game. After being famously stonewalled from the Championship Game last season, it’s tough to argue that Texas doesn’t deserve to be there this season. I’m just saying that Cincinnati has every right to be there, too, and not in a “every undefeated team deserves a shot at the championship” kind of way. The Bearcats were unfairly clumped with TCU and Boise State as “feel good” stories. They were never given serious consideration by the “powers that be” because everyone just assumed that Texas had a stronger resume. Few are complaining because who really wants to see Cincinnati in the BCS Championship Game over Texas? Obviously, the idiocy of the BCS necessitates the selection of one undefeated team over another. This is usually done by assumptions. In the case of TCU and Boise State, those assumptions turned out to be correct. For Cincinnati, though, they might be playing for a National Championship if anyone bothered to look at their resume. Hopefully, this will be the last time this happens.

Monday, December 07, 2009

Don't Feel Bad for the Nets

The Nets picked up their first win of the season over the weekend which wouldn’t be such a big deal if it was the first night or even the first month of the season. A whopping 36 days elapsed in the 2009 NBA regular season before the Nets got a “W.” Teams don’t lose 18 consecutive games on accident. The Nets are horrendous. They’ve lost by an average margin of 11.3 points per game. Six of their 18 losses have come against the 76ers (2), T-Wolves, Wizards, Pacers and the Knicks who are a combined 27-71. This team isn’t remotely close to being good this season and it will likely threaten the record futility of the ’73 76ers for fewest wins in an 82-game season (9).

Considering the Nets started the season 0-18, I’m certainly not telling you anything you didn’t already know by saying they’re dreadful. What you might not know is that New Jersey's ineptitude isn’t a fluke or even unexpected. In fact, New Jersey’s brass purposefully put the Nets in a position to be terrible this season. Clearly, they had no idea that their team would be this poor, but I think it would be a mischaracterization to suggest that anyone in the Nets organization is truly upset by what has transpired this season. They might even be happy about it.

Despite its record, New Jersey boasts two All-Star caliber players under the age of 27 along with a young and talented supporting cast. Brook Lopez (21)—in just his second season—has become a beast in the post. He is already one of the top five true centers in the NBA. Devin Harris (26) is an elite point guard (21 ppg and 7 apg in ’08) who is one of the top penetrators in the league. The Nets also have first round pick Terrance Williams (22), Chris Douglas-Roberts (22), and Courtney Lee (24). All three have been major contributors this season. It’s not the age of these players that could have New Jersey playing in the NBA Finals in the near future, however. It’s the salary. Lopez, Harris, Douglas-Roberts, Williams, and Lee will make a combined $15.8 million next season. There are 18 players in the NBA this season alone that make more than that. Oh, and did I mention that $30 million is coming off the payroll at the end of the season?

The Nets have long been rumored to be one of the leaders to land LeBron James when he becomes a free agent next summer. My guess is that will depend considerably on whether ownership can overcome opposition to their planned move to Brooklyn. It’s possible that LeBron ends up with the “Brooklyn” Nets but for the purposes of this post, I’m going to assume that doesn’t happen. While it would make winning a championship easier, the Nets don’t need to come away with LeBron next season. The “Summer of LeBron” is full of headliners including D-Wade, Dirk, Amare, Chris Bosh, Carlos Boozer, and Joe Johnson. Regardless of how the LeBron situation goes down, the Nets will be in position to add a superstar.

Earlier I mentioned that New Jersey’s front office might actually be happy with the way things have turned out this season. That’s because a "1-18 start" generally coincides with having the #1 overall pick in the draft. Assuming the Nets win the lottery, they will land a superstar. Who they choose will depend on which free agent they’re able to sign. If they come away with a big man (Dirk, Amare, Bosh etc.), to pair with Lopez, then they’ll probably take Kentucky’s John Wall who has drawn comparisons to Derrick Rose. If they land a backcourt player (LeBron, Wade, Joe Johnson), then they’ll probably take Georgia Tech’s Derrick Favors who is a dominant power forward in the mold of Chris Bosh. Either way, the Nets are going to come away from the 2010 Draft with a superstar.

Even with $30 million to burn in the “Summer of LeBron” and the likely #1 pick in the NBA Draft to go along with Lopez and Harris, the Nets aren’t guaranteed to win championship but they’d have to make some horrible decisions to not at least contend. The extent to which the Nets can challenge for a title will depend on who they’re able to sign next summer. If it’s a good-but-not-great player like Joe Johnson, then it could be a few years before we know how good this team can become. If it’s someone like Chris Bosh or Amare Stoudemire, then this team is going to be a force in the Eastern Conference. If ownership can move this team to Brooklyn and get LeBron on board, then it’s not a matter of “if” the Nets will win a championship but rather “how many?”

Thursday, December 03, 2009

The Perfect Super Bowl

Despite having two of the best offenses in the league, Indianapolis and New Orleans aren’t necessarily the most attractive markets for the NFL. Sure, die-hard fans know the deal but they make up just a small percentage of the reported billion people who watch the Super Bowl worldwide. Look no further than the moribund ratings that resulted from the Tampa Bay (Devil) Rays playing in the World Series for evidence of just how important getting the right markets into the playoffs are for our various professional franchises. While not nearly as unattractive as the Rays, the Saints and Colts aren’t likely to draw record ratings—unless, of course, there was something compelling about those two particular teams facing each other like, I don’t know, both being undefeated…

Both New Orleans and Indianapolis stand undefeated at 11-0. They’ve gotten there two very different ways—the Colts have six wins by four points or less; the Saints have zero wins by four points or less—but they’ve gotten there nonetheless. In previous seasons, teams that started off the year with a string of victories would be dismissed by the foolish notion that “it’s impossible to go undefeated.” Until 2007, nobody had done it before. The ’07 Pats changed that and now undefeated threats are viewed as just that: threats. The Saints and Colts aren’t threats to go undefeated because the Pats did it—although some people probably think this—rather they’re threats because they’re really good football teams and have really easy schedules to close out the regular season.

With Denver’s freefall, the only team on either schedule that appears to be a challenge record-wise is Dallas. While 8-3 is nothing to scoff at, I don’t know anyone—granted I don’t know everyone—who expects the Cowboys to go to New Orleans and stay within 10 points of the Saints let alone win. Barring a major upset, the Saints should breeze (or Brees) to the final week of the season undefeated. A better bet to challenge the Saints is Atlanta who gave Drew Brees and Co. a battle in New Orleans in Week 8. This time the game takes place in the Georgia Dome and Atlanta will be fighting for a playoff spot.

The Colts would appear to have the same easy path but due to the sheer number of close games they have played against weak teams, five more wins don’t seem as inevitable as it does for the Saints. Odds are if the Colts continue tussling with teams well into the fourth quarter, they’re eventually going to lose. Still, based on schedules alone, the Colts and Saints seem to be pretty good bets to get to 15-0.

That is where the biggest obstacle to perfection would come into play. More so than any single opponent, “week 17” could be the biggest roadblock to undefeated seasons for the Saints and Colts. Both teams would have to make the decision to either go for perfection with playoff positioning already decided, or play backups to rest starters and avoid potential injuries. In 2007, with nothing other than a “perfect season” to gain, the Patriots went for it. They beat the Giants in a game that would end up costing them more than they gained. The Pats got the perfect season but the Giants got the confidence and game-plan that allowed them to defeat the Pats in a rematch just weeks later in Super Bowl XLII. It remains to be seen whether Jim Caldwell or Sean Payton would risk postseason success for a regular season distinction. The allure of the “perfect season” isn’t as palpable as it was before the Patriots became the first team to accomplish the feat in the 16-game era back in ‘07. Even if Bill Belichick’s decision to go for the perfect record wasn’t the reason his team didn’t win the Super Bowl—I’m not convinced that it was the wrong decision since there was no way to know that he would have to face the Giants in the Super Bowl—I wouldn’t be surprised if Caldwell and Payton simply look at the fact that a perfect regular season meant nothing for the Patriots in ’07. The ultimate goal for every coach is to win the Super Bowl. It’s possible that these guys will pass on chasing after a “novelty prize” merely to avoid being second-guessed down the road.

If either chooses to rest their starters in Week 17, then the perfect marks are as good as gone. Both Carolina and Buffalo are conference rivals who would relish the opportunity to ruin a perfect season. Even more daunting for the Saints and Colts’ backups would be playing in hostile road environments. It really comes down to whether Caldwell and Payton want to go undefeated. If they do, the schedule is there for the taking. If they don’t, then they’ll rest their starters in Week 17 and, who knows, maybe they’ll accidentally win.

In the event that both “go for it” and make it, the NFL would just be five weeks from the greatest Super Bowl storyline in NFL history: the Perfect Super Bowl. I can’t even imagine the intrigue and hyperbole that would go into a game of this magnitude. The Brees vs. Manning matchup at quarterback alone would be enough ammunition for weeks of analysis and fodder. That wouldn’t even be one of the top three storylines. Those would be reserved for the rise of the Saints following Hurricane Katrina, Peyton Manning entering the discussion of G.O.A.T. with a second Super Bowl ring, and Indy’s Jim Caldwell possibly becoming the first coach in NFL history to win a Super Bowl in his first season. You’ll probably even see a sudden media obsession with importance of playing home games in domes.

Obviously, this is all a long way from happening. In fact, it won’t be a realistic possibility until halftime of the conference championship games. The odds are just not favorable. Thanks to the ’07 Patriots, we can calculate just how unfavorable the odds are for two teams going undefeated in the same regular season. Since only one team has gone 16-0 in the 30 16-game regular seasons since 1978, that puts the odds of both the Saints and Colts doing it this season at (1/30)(2) or, 1 in 900. The odds of both continuing their perfect seasons all the way through to the Super Bowl are obviously much, much lower. The Colts would have to contend with the Patriots for a second time. The Pats dominated the majority of their Week 10 tilt in Indy before letting the Colts back into the game. The Saints will have to contend with the Minnesota Vikings which might just be the best team in the NFL. If the Saints get to the playoffs undefeated, they will get the Vikings in New Orleans and should get the “W.” Interestingly, the Vikings have a very good chance of finishing 15-1. Only five teams in NFL history have equaled or beaten that mark. That makes the odds of having two undefeated teams and a 15-1 team all in the same NFL-season 1 in 5,400.

While all of this is nice to envision, the “Perfect Super Bowl” is unlikely to happen. What’s likely to happen, however, is an amazing NFL postseason. It’s probable that the conference championship games will feature the four best quarterbacks in the NFL with Indianapolis vs. New England and New Orleans vs. Minnesota. Those are games that every fan should be begging to see (I know I am). In fact, I would say that they would be pretty close to a perfect pair of championship games which is really all the perfection I'm looking for. Any more than that would just be gravy; albeit the extra succulent variety made with turkey giblets that Martha Stewart coincidentally calls, "Perfect Turkey Gravy."


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