Thursday, March 16, 2006

Practice Portions

Sox or C's, Sox or C's? Which to discuss? Both so interesting. Let's have a practice portion of each...

- The Celtics are actually beginning to show the promise Danny Ainge has been talking about since, well, the Cold War. The way they've done it is, somewhat disheartingly, the only way to improve in today's NBA: luck. A trade of Wally Szczerbiak and bad contracts for Ricky Davis and bad players has done a good deal of the work, miraculously yielding better ball movement and a simpler player rotation. It's hard to believe that trading a great scorer for a decent one would improve your team offense, but that's exactly what's happened in Boston. Paul Pierce is now the unquestioned leader of the club -- all posessions go through him. This was not so with Ricky Davis in town. There was a time in fact that Ricky was the go-to man for a needed hoop, something that is now unfathomable with the display Pierce has put on this month. Szczerbiak is a far more deferential player than Davis, and although it has cost Boston a legitimate second option to Paul, his willingness to take what's offered has made the Celtics better. I'm not sure Ainge knew this was going to happen. The Ninth believes that Danny wanted rid of Banks and Blount (rightfully), and was willing to spend Ricky to make that happen. Then, it turned out, Wally was just what he needed. As Dick Vitale would say, Serendipity Baby. The other great stroke of luck for the C's has been Ryan Gomes. While the games of 30-10 may be in the permanent rear view for Ryan, there is no arguing that he is a player. He can rebound, he has a rare in-between game, and he almost never makes a poor decision. Gomes could realistically be a 18-8-5 guy for many years. Ainge has said he knew he was drafting this halfway through the second round, The Ninth says he knew nothing. If he did, why was Mr. Gomes riding cushy bench chair for half a season? No, the Celtics have been just as surprised in Ryan Gomes as you or I (you've been watching, right?), they just won't admit it. Then someone might reasonably ask why they would spend 15 million on Brian Scalabrine, who plays the same position as Gomes but without all the, you know, ability and skill. Gomes and Szczerbiak have made Boston into a real team, believe it or not. Maybe things go their way and they sneak into playoffs this year, but more likely they continue to improve, get a nice draft pick, and contend - like, really contend - in the next two years. The problem with the NBA is that they had to stumble into it. The Ninth laughs when he hears basketball GM's talk of their rebuiling "plans" or their "three-year system". Doesn't work. You can't plan on Tim Duncan happening upon you or Shaquille O'Neal deciding he prefers the night life in your city. You can't decide that Chauncey Billups will turn his career around or that Steve Nash will magically become an MVP. And that's the only way teams turn things around in the NBA. Here's are the rebuilding plans that have proven to succeed: Get Lucky in the Draft OR Get Lucky in Free Agency. If those fail, you can try the fallback of Get Lucky in a Trade. Name a team that effectively rebuilt itself in the last 15 years through reasonable decisions, wise contracts, and old-fashioned good business? Nothing? Yeah, me neither. An NBA club can only get good, I mean really good, by something falling into their lap. A high-schooler that puts it together, a veteran who finds another gear, a rare player who actually did just need a change of scenery. Otherwise, you are what you are. Great players get max contracted, trades only involve players that neither team wants, and youngster are too hard to predict. Even if you tank a season and get the number one pick, you are entirely subject to the ping pong balls and the quality of that year's draft. Just ask Rick Pitino. A good GM can turn a good team into a great one, but the big pieces have to be there first. Unfortunately for the NBA, there's not much you can do about those. So you wait, just as the Celtics have done, and hope it comes back to you. A few years ago Boston had nothing. Now it has a solid point guard who was an under-sized two in college, a young power forward and center who never went to college, a power forward who several teams passed on TWICE, and an unathletic shooter who's most helpful when he doesn't shoot. Lucky finds all. And why does this work? Because they all support Pierce, who might be in the top 5 of NBA players right now. A guy who, incidentally, they were lucky enough to get, after Olowokandi, Robert Traylor, and Jason Williams were all off the board. Put that in your plan and smoke it.

- Peter Gammons posted on his blog yesterday (follower) about the problems with the Red Sox. You can find it here, but it's an insider article, and you folks are cheap, so I'll summarize. Peter's concerns were five-fold: 1) Curt Schilling and the starting rotation. Is he healthy, what's up with David Wells, how good is their depth anyway? 2) Keith Foulke, is he still a good closer? What are their back-up plans? 3) Does Mike Lowell stink? 4) Does Josh Bard stink? 5) Where's the lefty relief?

It's a little silly to go through someone's article point by point, or, rather, vindictive, but I think Gammons has voiced the concerns of many Sox fans, so we'll go for it. We'll start at the top. Is Curt healthy? The Ninth's response, having seen his recent televised start, is probably. He's certainly doing better than he was any of last season, and he seems to have more control of his performance than he has in a long while. Is he 100%? Not sure. You know why? It's March 16th. Spring training has endured an entirety of two weeks. Let's give these guys the tiniest bit of a break, can't we? Peter wonders why he hasn't been getting a swings and misses, even against minor leaguers. Well sir, The Ninth will answer your question with another question: how many splitters has he thrown? In the start I witnessed, very few. I saw a lot of fastballs, a fair amount of cutters, and I believe a change or two. That's not going to get guys flailing. Does Boston know exactly what to expect from Big Schill in '06? Nope, but that's what happens when you try to evaluate guys on the ides of March. And David Wells is at least a week behind everyone else, how can you possibly evaluate him? Probably the simplest answer to Peter's question is this: how many teams in MLB would trade rotations with the Red Sox tomorrow? Not Oakland, maybe not the Yankees, possibly the White Sox. That's it kids.

Gammo's second question is Keith Foulke. The Ninth agrees, this is a problem. But it's nothing new, and nothing the Red Sox can do anything about. They've got to wait until April and see what they've got. One could argue however that they're in pretty good shape should the worst occur. Timlin is as good a second option as most teams have, and Hansen and Papelbon are both extremely viable alternatives. That's three options. Not a lot more you can do. And hey, why don't we let Foulke pitch to a batter before we wet our hankies.

Problem #3 is also a non-starter: Mike Lowell. He hasn't looked good. A little slow. And that's important because he's had jeez, at least 30 AB's. And they're his first of the season. Those are really the most revealing ones you know. Let's get the trade talk started. But wait, he had two hits today. Now he's hitting .275. He's back! Lowell is back! He was terrible and now he isn't! What a relief. I'm glad we're through with the jumping to conclusions. The Ninth has an idea - let's get the guy 100 at bats. Thanks.

Now we get to the big stuff, the back-up catcher. Are we really concerned about this? Should Josh Bard start every Wakefield game, he'll probably play about 35 times this season. During that astronomically large amount of contests, he will be batting ninth and having to catch a knuckler. Something many many gentleman have done before. Yeah, it's hard. The guy has one responsibility, I think he can handle it. And if he has a little trouble here and there, it'll probably be ok because hey, he won't be on the field for 80% of the games. Relax.

And finally we have the absence of a lefty reliever. This is a concern only because Francona seems to like having one around. The reality of good pitching however is that it tends to get out good hitting. If Boston's relievers are pitching well, they'll get the Giambi's and Matsui's of the world just fine. If not, then the Red Sox will have much bigger problems than the occasional left-handed power hitter. And yes, late in the season, when one at-bat can mean a lot more, Boston will want a southpaw to go to, and smart money says they'll have one. But not beginning the season with an extremely specialized player is hardly a catastrophe. It's a little like wondering who they're going to use to pinch run in the 8th inning. It's not that it doesn't matter, it's that it doesn't matter much.

Here's the thing about the Red Sox: they're better. They had a solid club last season, and now they've improved at first, second, possibly short, in the rotation and certainly in the bullpen. No, they're not perfect, but that's why you play the games. Let's see what they've got in their hand before we fold eh? If you're biggest problems are your seven man rotation and your back-up catcher then life will be pretty good this summer.