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The SportsTalk Shop: Previewing the “Classic”

September 23, 2014 By Chris Michael Leave a Comment

I have many fond memories of the Celtic Classic and really enjoy when this time of year comes around. I am not a direct descendent of any Irish or Gaelic ancestry as far as I’m aware, nor have ever held any desires of wearing a kilt. But the entire festival is a really enjoyable experience and there’s always great entertainment venues and plenty of displays to check out throughout the entire weekend.

My first trip to the Celtic Classic was a bit of an adventure. I was to interview people at different sections of the grounds for a feature on a show called, “Time Out! Lehigh Valley.” While going from different stands asking people about their areas of expertise, I came across the late, great RCN personality Craig Borst, who was supposed to be handling the “play-by-play” of the highland games competition. Craig was one of the nicest and most gregarious people you would ever meet and, although he rarely wasn’t in the best of moods, I could see by his facial expressions that there was a problem. Our exchange went something like this:

Craig: “Hey, Chris. Can you do me a really big favor?”
Me: “Sure…what do you need?”
Craig: “Well, the guy who was supposed to announce the highlands events with me didn’t show up, and I really don’t know anything about these events since I was depending on him. I know it’s short notice but do you think you can be my expert for today and do the broadcast with me?”
Me: “Uh, yeah. I think I can do that. How long do I have to prepare?”
Craig: (grabbing me by the arm): “About 30 seconds.”

Needless to say things worked out fine (I didn’t even have time to even think about being nervous). In fact, even one of the most intelligent and insightful RCN viewers we have in Eastern Pennsylvania gave me kudos for the broadcast. The compliment came from RCN Sports Director Gary Laubach’s wife, Luba (did I mention she’s very intelligent and incredibly insightful?)

Fortunately, in the many years since that first broadcast, we have added a REAL expert, highland games legend Gene Flynn, to our broadcasts. Gene gives wonderful insights on the history and legacy of the games, background on all the competitors and great stories about training and participating in these extraordinary events. Just to hear Gene describe what it’s like to participate and to see just how difficult the competition is, is reason enough to tune in and see what these athletes put themselves through for the competition.

This year, we’ll be broadcasting the latter five events and the awards ceremony this Sunday on RCN-TV. The games itself are a ton of fun to watch—especially if you have never seen the events before. The competitors are incredibly focused when the events are going on, but also love to have a good time and put on a great show for the audience. This year’s rundown of athletes include:
Daniel McKim
Michael Zolkiewicz
Matt Vincent (current World Champion)
Sean Betz
Eric Frasure
Nathan Burchett
John Piling
Jeremy Gillingham
Jake Sullivan
Spencer Tyler

Many of these athletes have appeared at the Celtic Classic previously, but there are also some new names that will be competing in Bethlehem for the first time ever.

The Celtic Classic is more than just sports, and I’m proud to say that we have a great sampling of the many experiences from the Celtic Classic on RCN-TV once again this year. One of my favorite performers over the years includes the O’Grady Quinlan Irish Dancers (one year they ask me to perform with them…let’s just say I did a better job announcing the highland games). Other must-see performers include the Glengarry Bhoys, Burning Bridge Clearly and the Town Pants. And, of course, to see the Liberty and Freedom High School bands alone make the “Tartan Parade” something you have to check out.

There really is something for everyone and I invite you to check out all that the Celtic Classic has to offer. Don’t forget, whether you watch the events in person or on RCN-TV, you can relive all the memories for the next two months by watching these events, for free, through RCN On-Demand.

 

The SportsTalk Shop: Three H.S. Football Surprises…”

September 16, 2014 By Chris Michael Leave a Comment

Actually, I had another, perhaps more fitting title, but I felt it was a little too long. Something along the lines of:

“Three Phrases I’ve Heard Repeated By Fans And Media Members This Football Season Expressing A Revelation or Shocking Fact That We Probably Should Not Have Been Surprised About in the First Place”

(Probably best we went with the former headline).

I know I always dread making predictions when it comes to high school sports. It sometimes put unnecessary pressure on kids and quite often creates hard feelings. However, because of the success and popularity of scholastic sports programs in this area, we in the media are constantly questioned to make “educated” guesses about teams, players and possible results. Local fans are also very opinionated and most often very knowledgeable about the local sports landscape. Predictions encourage debate among the fandom—and publicity for our local athletes and communities. While becoming a foregone conclusion for everyone to make pre-season predictions, it sometimes leads to rash or incongruent opinions evolving on certain teams and players. Here are three phrases echoed by local residents claiming shock, when really, we all should have taken a closer look.

Myth #1: “Where Did All This Central Catholic Offense Come From?”
Central Catholic scored 41 points in each of its first two games this season, and was able to move the ball against arguably the best defense in the area this past weekend (several ill-timed penalties killed drives—two were deep in enemy territory).

Many people looked at the Vikings’ 2013 record (2-8) and saw many of the same offensive players returning with few additions and assumed that they would once again struggle to score points this fall. However, if you looked back to last season, you’ll notice that moving the chains was not an issue at all. ACCHS ranked right in the middle of the pack in a number of offensive categories. Failure to execute in the red zone and penalty-killing drives (as was the case vs. Parkland) were the big culprits in several of the team’s losses. Central battled in nearly all of their ball games that ended in defeat.

Look deeper and you’ll find that returning QB Mason Kholi has continued to post very impressive numbers (501 yards passing, a 4 to 1 touchdown/interception ratio and over 200 yards rushing—despite being sacked at least six times). The Vikings also have several talented, skilled guys (among them Dallas Kassis, Deionte Wilson, Pat McKellick and others) and have a solid line anchored by Max Ebert and Marc-Antony Ocascio (both 6-3, 245 lbs).

Furthermore, Head Coach John Cupples has shown the innate ability to come up with impressive game plans against the top teams in the LVC—now EPC—during his tenure. Despite being heavy underdogs and incredibly outnumbered in terms of depth, his team has put together very strong performances over the last year against Parkland, Easton and Whitehall…until those teams eventually wore down the Vikings, as those bigger schools frequently do to everyone. Our panel on ‘RCN SportsTalk’ a few weeks back thought it would be an extreme reach for Central Catholic to make the post-season this year, and that may be the case. But to be shocked if the Vikings do pick up five wins and reach the playoffs, and continue to score a ton of points in the process, would not be an educated assumption.

Myth #2: “For A 4-A School, Bangor Should Be Winning More Games By Now”
Now, the facts.

First, Bangor is NOT a 4-A school. According to the District XI classifications, they are a 3-A school with similar male enrollments of Central Catholic, Jim Thorpe, Lehighton, Pottsville, East Stroudsburg-North, Bethlehem Catholic, Saucon Valley, Southern Lehigh and Blue Mountain. Bangor is like many schools across the country now that have fewer athletes participating in sports and coaches have had to share students in order to avoid program cuts.

Also, in case people haven’t noticed, there is an incredible amount of parity in the Colonial League again this season (see last week’s blog). Southern Lehigh, a team many thought could go undefeated, already has picked up an “L.” Notre Dame and Pen Argyl, two teams predicted to be no worse than sixth, are both winless. Wilson, despite being 0-3, has played well this fall and might have fared better if not for a rash of turnovers.

Look even closer at Bangor’s competition. The Slaters have played two undefeated teams that have outscored their opponents 214 to 44. Bangor won its third contest easily, 31-19, against a Catasauqua team that easily handled the Crusaders—the consensus #3 preseason team. Second-year Head Coach Donnie Hawk had tremendous success as an assistant at Pen Argyl and needs to be given an opportunity. If Bangor beats Salisbury Friday, they could jump as high as 4th place in both the Colonial League and District XI standings. It is FAR too early to make assumptions or outlandish statements about the Slaters’ program.

Myth #3: “Boy, Where Did This Saucon Valley Team Come From?”
The smart-guy commentator might answer this by saying “Hellertown,” but in reality we should have seen the Panthers’ undefeated start to the season coming—at least to some extent.

First, Head Coach Matt Evancho is an defensive whiz and has created a number of schemes over the years to slow down even the stoutest of offenses. His win over the Spartans last Friday was legitimate and his defense did a tremendous job in frustrating some of the most talented offensive players in the league (this game is available to watch on RCN On-Demand right now).

Secondly, Saucon came into this season with a ton of momentum, winning its last four games last fall and being one of the few teams in the region to win its final playoff game (an Eastern Conference Division-3 title) last November.

If there was any surprise to this team, it’s the rapid overall development of its younger players. An accomplished running quarterback one year ago (and another 225 rushing yards so far this season), junior Zach Thatcher has become an equally lethal throwing option, passing for 370 yards with a ridiculously good eight touchdowns to just one pick. The dearth of underclass talent doesn’t stop there, with Mike Kane, Evan Culver, Devin Fontanez and Mike Paolini among a number of skilled-position players. Many fans (and media members) assumed the Northwestern/Southern Lehigh matchup in October would be the only game needed to decide who’s winning this year’s Colonial League title. But the Panthers have forced high school football fans to pay more attention to them this fall, and their upcoming games against the Bombers, Tigers and Pirates will be factors in determining this year’s champion.

What are some of the other surprising facts about this current fall sports season? What other teams and players do you feel are flying under the radar? Email you comments to us at RCNSportsTalk@rcn.com and join us each Thursday live from 6-7 pm to talk about local issues.

 

The SportsTalk Shop: Four Teams to Watch: Colonial League

September 9, 2014 By Chris Michael Leave a Comment

Recently we discussed four East Penn Conference squads with interesting storylines to follow this fall. Today we look at some of the Colonial League teams to follow this football season.

NORTHWESTERN
A friend of mine who covers the Tigers told me in the summer of 2013 that the Northwestern football team had some really good talent, but that they were probably a year away from “making some noise” (aka. being considered one of the league’s top teams). He called me back last October and said he underestimated those kids and proclaimed them ready for prime time. Two weeks later they became the only Colonial League team in two years to beat Catasauqua in a regular season match-up.

Most of those same players who pulled off that monumental win against the Rough Riders have returned, and very few people who have seen them so far this year have been anywhere close to disappointed by their performance in this young season.

Individually, they have some amazingly talented players littering the roster. Among them are Cam Richardson (2 TDs against Bangor), Frank D’Angello (3-6 passing for 52 yards and a touchdown), Dylan Snyder (interception returned for a touchdown) and Harry Hall (also scored two touchdowns vs. Slaters).

The biggest general comment about the entire squad is the overall team speed. It’s going to be hard for any team to play a ‘shoot-out’ game with them, but former sports writer Bruce Buratti made a great observation on last week’s “RCN SportsTalk” show. Bruce pointed out that the weather conditions on a grass surface might be the only thing to stand in their way of winning a 2A District Championship. If the Tigers have to play a quality opponent in a rain-soaked game on a muddy surface, it might be their greatest weakness. But even then you’re talking about a number of “what ifs” that would have to happen, and it seems pretty clear after two impressive showings so far this year, that the Tigers are in great shape to win one—if not two—titles this fall.

SOUTHERN LEHIGH
Excuse me for 10 seconds while I play a few notes on my own horn. A few years ago and despite naysayers, I predicted Southern Lehigh would bounce back from an 0-3 start to win at least seven more games and reach the playoffs—they responded by winning eight games and a playoff contest. Last year on “SportsTalk’s” high school football preview show, I said the Spartans would win at least one championship. I was unanimously told by the experts on that show’s panel that I was wrong—only to see Southern Lehigh get within a half-a-yard of winning TWO titles. This year, I think they have the ability to go one step further. I think Southern Lehigh fans should believe they have a reasonable chance of winning the 3A District Championship.

(“What was that?” shouts the Becahi contingent. “What about the Golden Hawks?”)

Yes, I am aware the Spartans are in the same classification as Bethlehem Catholic—a team I recently predicted would go undefeated during their EPC schedule. And I am fully aware that, because of the new league alignments, the Hawks will probably hold the number-one seed and have home field advantage through districts. I also realized that the Spartans are without their star defensive player, and one of the area’s top middle linebackers from a year ago. But I was very impressed by quarterback Travis Edmond’s ability to run the offense and to pass the ball last season. They also return key players on the D-line and in the secondary, and I think the new players will be able to improve and gain experience as the year goes on (a huge test will be October 10th when they face Northwestern). I was also impressed by the way Solehi hung with the Hawks last year, after falling behind 14-0 (nearly 21-0) early in the title game and persevered to push the game into overtime. They’ve been scrimmaging against larger schools and their kids have an idea of what it takes to be successful on bigger stages and with higher stakes. On paper Becahi is still the best team in the division, but I see no reason why Spartans’ faithful should expect anything less than a district championship in the near future.

SAUCON VALLEY
Some football fans may forget, but Saucon Valley is also coming off a championship season, in which they captured the Eastern Conference Division-3 title. They won their final four games in a 9-3 season last fall, but have to fill the shoes of last year’s Express-Times player of the year — Nick Savant, who rushed for a school record 2-thousand plus yards and 28 touchdowns. There was also some pre-season concern how the teachers’ contract-situation might affect the athletes, which the players have appeared to put behind them. While the Panthers have a number of juniors and seniors on the varsity roster, they didn’t come into the season with a wealth of playing experience—especially on offense. However, first year starting quarterback Zach Thatcher is coming off an ultra-impressive game over Northern Lehigh (8-9 passing for 132 yards and 4 touchdowns, plus 63 yards rushing) and the Panther flat-out dominated the Bulldogs in every aspect last Friday. While the rivalry is not as publicized as an Easton/P’burg or Liberty/Freedom battle, there is no love-loss between Saucon and Southern Lehigh. Only one of these two 2-0 teams will remain in first place as they square off against each other Friday (10pm, RCN-TV).

As for the fourth team to watch…?

Wow. This is a tough one. Coming into this past weekend, I was expecting both Pen Argyl and Notre Dame to bounce back with a “W” and keep themselves right in the middle of the huge conglomerate of solid teams. However, not only did both the Knights and the Crusaders lose a second game last Friday (the season is still young), but a few teams really pushed themselves into the spotlight and have caught people’s attention. Everyone was counting out Catasauqua after they graduated nearly every starting player from a season ago, but the Rough Riders posted an impressive win Friday. Palmerton was a team no one was talking about in August, and now they’re undefeated through two weeks. Both Bangor and Palisades scored an impressive win each, and don’t forget about Northern Lehigh looking very strong in their week one victory. Even some of the teams that are 0-2 have had some good moments. So who is the next best team in the Colonial League this fall? I may have to leave that to you, the reader, and of course, the teams themselves, to figure that out.

What Colonial League teams do you think will step-up and remain in the upper half of the standings after this weekend? Who are some of the league’s top athletes and who are some younger players to watch? Send your opinions to RCNSportsTalk@rcn.com or post a comment below and tune in to “RCN SportsTalk” every Thursday night at 6pm on RCN-TV.

 

The SportsTalk Shop: A Non-Football Sports Event This Weekend

September 2, 2014 By Chris Michael Leave a Comment

While high school football is now in full swing and the Philadelphia Eagles—and the NFL—will be kicking off its season, there’s a rather important non-football event taking place within the RCN viewing area. The 2014 U.S. Mid-Amateur Championship will be held at the Saucon Valley Country Club in Hellertown.

Here are some golf experts’ thoughts on the course, SVCG’s history of big-time events and thoughts on this year’s tournament.

Just for the record, these guys know their golf. Gene Marrate is the General Manager and Director of Golf Operations at Saucon Valley Country Club. Robin McCool is not only SVCG’s Greens Committee Chairman, but a 15-time USGA Champion Qualifier, 7-time U.S. Mid-Amateur participant and a 10-time champ at SVCG. Both are in the Lehigh Valley Golf Hall of Fame. Barry Treadwell is the Mid-Am Chairperson and has accepted a massive undertaking in handling the challenging role of operations at the national Mid-Amateur Championship which is spread out over two courses. When they say this event is going to be unlike most golf tournaments many have ever seen, you can believe it to be true.

But this is not the first time that Saucon Valley has gained national attention. Here are some of the country club’s highlighted events, which include bringing in huge names in the world of golf like Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Paula Cramer to name a few:

1951 US Amateur Championship
1983 US Jr. Amateur Championship
1987 US Sr. Amateur Championship
1992 US Sr. Open Championship
2000 US Sr. Open Championship
2009 US Women’s Open Championship
2014 US Mid-Amateur Championship

As for this year’s amateur event, there’s one big enticement for people who want to see some high-quality golf action…and to be right up-close-and-personal with some of the country’s best golfers:

This year’s event is absolutely free.

There is no charge for any of this year’s action, which gives you a golden opportunity to walk around one of the most majestic golf courses and country clubs, and for free, experience a world-class event within a short drive for many Lehigh Valley residents. The Championship actually starts September 4-5 when you can watch the golfers participate in practice rounds. Then the action kicks into high gear on September 6 with the first round. Here is the championship’s schedule and which courses will be used:

Sept. 6 & 7 – Stroke Play Rounds (The “Old Course” & Weyhill)
Sept. 8, 9 & 10 – Match Play Rounds (Old Course)
Sept. 11 – 36-hole Final (Old Course)

High school football will be in full swing again this weekend, but if you want to take a quick break from the pigskin action and check out something unique to this area, check out this major sports event happening at Saucon Valley.

What events will you be watching this weekend? Have you experienced one of the major golf tournaments at a course in the Eastern Pennsylvania region? Post your golfing thoughts on our site or email us at RCNSportsTalk@rcn.com.

 

 

The SportsTalk Shop: Four Teams to Watch: EPC

August 27, 2014 By Chris Michael Leave a Comment

The high school football season is nearly upon us! Before it kicks into high gear (our first two RCN broadcasts will be this Friday and Saturday nights), I wanted to take a look at four East Penn Conference teams that have some interesting storylines for the upcoming season. Please note, these are NOT the teams that I think will necessarily be the top four teams in the league but rather schools that may not be on your radar and/or squads that have some unique issues. We’ll also take a look at key Colonial League teams to keep an eye on in the very near future.

EASTON
Local football fans may not have noticed (and critics probably don’t want to), but Easton football has changed over the last several seasons, with Head Coach Steve Shiffert opening up the playbook and including more passing plays than previous years. They look to continue that more open style in 2014, but will have some incredibly tough graduated pieces to fill, especially on the offensive line—a strength from a season ago. They will, however, feature arguably the best offensive weapon in the area in Shane Simpson and have a number of strong defenders returning. They are one of the few schools in the area that have two quality quarterback candidates (E.J. Roeder and Trey Durrah). The Rovers will again incorporate a number of two-way players, something that may work against them playing a team like Parkland. Seeing the “new guys” adjusting to their role and keeping an eye on the Rovers’ depth will be two more things to watch as the season unfolds, and could tell how much success the team will have in the playoffs.

WHITEHALL
I have not seen them during the double sessions this month (I try to get to as many different schools as I can at this time of year, but since I’ve seen them the last two “Augusts” and in trying to be fair to other schools…).

I did, however, see a couple of their football players at this summer’s basketball league games, and also several of their linemen…and they are MUCH bigger than they were a year ago. Mind you, their offensive and defensive lines were fantastic last season. In fact, quite a number of coaches and football experts all marveled at how fundamentally-sound the Zephyrs’ linemen were. If the Zephyrs bring that same mentality with the added size, they have the offensive capabilities led once again by running back Sa’quon (don’t call me “Say Say”) Barkley and this year at quarterback by Gianni Sinatore—a very talented multi-sport athlete. That combined with several solid defenders returning will allow Whitehall to challenge Parkland and Easton through a district playoff run.

EMMAUS
The Hornets are a team I may have “snake-bit” a year ago, in anointing them as my “surprise” team of 2013. Emmaus got off to a slow start, which precluded them from making a run at the top teams in the district. However, I was extremely impressed with Randy Cuthbert, who was hired very late in the offseason a year ago, and his team when I saw them later in the season, and they have a number of quality players returning (among them QB Logan Kober, RB Wyl Miller, LB Kyle Boney and DL Eric Miller). They’ll need to make some adjustments defensively (former defensive coordinator Sam Senneca joined his son coaching at Wilson), but I think they have a favorable early season schedule—save the week two matchup against Easton—which should keep them near the top of the standings. Their other tougher matchups (Parkland, Whitehall) close out their regular season schedule, but if the team can continue to improve the way it did in 2013, those two games against the Trojans and the Zephyrs should be great battles to watch and very meaningful games in terms of the postseason positioning.

DIERUFF
There is no question in my mind that Bethlehem Catholic is the best of the “Mountain” football teams in the new EPC. In fact, a silver lining for the Golden Hawks getting “bumped” to the other division is that they will have no problem whatsoever in making the district playoffs, and should easily qualify for the number-one seed and home-field advantage in districts—something they did not have a year ago. But one of the key teams to watch among the “northern” teams are the Huskies, who are coming off a resurgent 2013 campaign. After some outsiders thought the program should be disbanded, Head Coach Kyle Beller and his squad have done a remarkable job of rebuilding the program. Not only did they win five games one year ago, but had legitimate chances to win at least two more games and qualify for the post-season—a thought no one outside of East Allentown would have thought possible last August. Because of the new league, they will face some much tougher competition (Parkland this Friday, Becahi on 9/26, Freedom on 10/3), and even if they equal the win total this year, one could argue the team is still moving in the right direction. But with two of the most talented (and definitely two of the most underrated) skill-position players in the league in Shakur Lester and Chris Marks, it is entirely possible the Huskies once again exceed fans’ expectations this fall. (FYI: for Husky fans, Dieruff Athletic Director Melvin Riddick will be one of our guests on our Sept. 11th “SportsTalk” show).

For the record, I do believe that Parkland is the best EPC team on paper, and have heavy odds on winning another District XI title this year. Last August, a very knowledgeable football guru told me that if QB DeVante Cross would develop his passing abilities, that the Trojans offense would be deadly. Cross has not only has improved ALL facets of his game, but the team added a quality football mind in Jim Terwilliger as a quarterbacks coach, to its already super-qualified staff. Even their kicking game is far above average, probably closer to the “superior” category, with perhaps the best leg in the area in Jake Bissell. I’m hard pressed to find anyone who can point out glaring weaknesses on this team, and see only two or three Lehigh Valley squads on their regular season schedule that will be able to challenge Parkland this fall. How far can they go this season? Keep watching “RCN SportsTalk” and our local football coverage to find out!

How do you feel about the new East Penn Conference? Which EPC teams do you feel will be the most interesting teams to watch this season, or give us your first impressions ahead of our “Colonial League” blog entry. Send us an email at RCNSportsTalk@rcn.com, and join us for our “High School Football Preview Show” broadcasting this Thursday from 6-7pm from the Great Allentown Fair.

 

The SportsTalk Shop: The Case for Trading Cole

August 18, 2014 By Chris Michael Leave a Comment

Although I was deeply disappointed the Phillies made zero non-waiver trades before the Major League Baseball “deadline” and have since dispatched only Roberto Hernandez for just a couple low-level minor leagues (or cash considerations), I am not one of those people who think they should simply jettison any or all marquee names off their roster without due cause.

First of all, trading players like Jonathan Papelbon, Ryan Howard, Antonio Bastardo and Kyle Kendrick right now won’t get you much more than Hernandez did (unless you agree to pay most or all of Howard’s and Papelbon’s remaining salaries). Even a team as desperate for bullpen help as the Tigers haven’t offered enough to whet the Phillies’ appetite. Secondly, the Phillies have gone out of their way to retain older, yet fan-adored players who do have trade value—Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins, Carlos Ruiz—and there wasn’t even a whiff of a trade rumor involving any of these veterans. That leaves just one player…and perhaps only one player…that can be used to obtain players to kickstart the Phillies’ woeful offense and help fill major gaps in the starting rotation.

Colbert Michael Hamels.

I do not take this option lightly. I covered the Phillies beat when there was a rush to trade Curt Shilling—and the team obliged—only to be completely disappointed with the four players they got in return. Shilling went on to lead two different teams to three World Series championships and was a Cy Young runner-up three times. Only Vicente Padilla really flourished with the Phils—and even then it was a little touch-and-go with the fiery right-hander on what you’d actually get out of him on a given day. The other three players (Omar Daal, Nelson Figueroa, Travis Lee) never lived up to their billing, and the team went years before they found a bona fide, “takes us to the promised land” ace, which happened to be—Cole Hamels.

A true number-one pitcher is one of the hardest commodities to groom, and only a handful of teams have the financial resources to even get in the running to buy an ace through free agency. Decades go by before some teams are lucky enough to possess a dominating, lights-out type of pitcher for more than a couple of seasons. But with the Phillies floundering in last place and only a handful of gleaming, yet distant prospects in the team’s organization, trading Hamels has to be something the team is willing to do for the right price, and word is there will be options available this winter.

There have been recent rumors about the Red Sox supposedly offering some of their young players (including Christian Vasquez, Jackie Bradley, Jr. and the once-coveted prospect Xander Bogaerts) to Philadelphia in an off-season deal. I think the Phillies would need to hold out for a team like the Cubs or the Dodgers, who each have at least four young players/blue-chip prospects, to get involved in any trade-Hamels sweepstakes. All three of those teams have cash and the need to pick up a front-line starter, but if you deal a player like Cole, you need to get back at least three players who MUST contribute on the big league level (no need to think too hard to remember the Cliff Lee to Seattle deal).

If you can help solve issues the Phillies’ need to address this off-season (eg., starting pitching depth, improving your defense, improving your offense, adding an everyday outfielder et al), then you need to pull the trigger and deal Hamels.

But Phillies president David Montgomery—whether he believes what he’s been saying or not—has continued to insist the team will not rebuild and wants to remain a playoff contender every year. If they trade Hamels this off-season, doesn’t it mean that they can flush any hope of a post-season appearance down the proverbial toilet for three or four seasons?

Enter free agent-to be, Max Scherzer.

(Wait a minute, Chris…you’re telling me the Phillies would add ANOTHER multi-millionaire, 30-something player to their current projected 2015 salary, which is in excess of $140-million–and that’s just for 17 players?)

Yes, the Phillies would still have to unload a player, or two, from its multi-mega-million dollar core. They would have to ship Howard to an American League team and get next to nothing in return. They might have to pay a team to take Papelbon off their hands. Perhaps you have to throw in one of your weighty contract guys in a Hamels deal (and therefore forfeit a fourth young prospect in return). But Scherzer, a 30-year old who, unlike Roy Halladay or Lee (the second time he was acquired) would be right in the middle of his prime when he arrives in Philly. In effect, you’re flipping Hamels for Scherzer AND three or four quality players that will help your offense and starting pitching.

Consider the following roster minus Howard and Papelbon when you start to look ahead to the 2015 Phillies team—keeping in mind this does NOT include adding the three meaningful bats and/or starting pitchers to your staff along with Scherzer, which could augment/improve what you already have/are stuck with.

SP – Scherzer
SP – Lee
SP – Another mid-level/cheaper option pitcher like Ryan Vogelson, Jason Hammels, Jorge De La Rosa or Edinson Volquez SP – Dave Buchanan SP – Aaron Nola / Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez

Closer: Ken Giles
Set-up: Jake Diekman
RHP Long Relief: Justin DeFratus, Ethan Martin, Gonzalez
LHP Long Relief: Mario Hollands, Bastardo

Catchers: Carlos Ruiz, Wil Nieves / Cameron Rupp

Infielders: Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins, Mikael Franco, Cody Asche, Freddy Galvis/Cesar Hernandez/Andres Blanco/Reid Brignac (utility guys)

Outfield: Marlon Byrd, Grady Sizemore, Ben Revere, Dom Brown, Darin Ruf and either Rusney Castillo (who may accept a team’s offer as early as this week) or—don’t forget about my ‘surprise signing’ for next year (mentioned in my 8/4/14 blog entry)–Yasmani Tomas.

Would this be enough to get you to re-mortgage your house in lieu of buying 2015 World Series tickets? No. But this might help turn the Phillies in the right direction, while still giving the budget-minded people in the Phillies’ front office reason to expect more fans will come out to Citizens Bank Park in 2015. Plus, with the money the team will be getting in their new TV deal after the following season, mixed with the Phillies own prospects like Roman Quinn, J.P. Crawford and others currently progressing in the lower minors, the future might not be as far away as it feels right now. Even if you have to wait a few years for things to come together, Scherzer would only be 32 for Opening Day 2017, and signing him to a likely six-year contract would mean he would finished his deal by age 36 (which will be Lee’s age next week—and he still has up to two more years on his current pact).

Hey, there’s not many people currently on the Phillies payroll who could honestly dispute that the team right now is anything other than a disaster. You have to start somewhere, and right now, one of the most viable options would see Hamels, a Phillies World Series MVP, pitching his final game in Philadelphia pinstripes this September.

What do you think the Phillies’ next moves should be? Do you think they should trade Hamels…and what should they get in return? Email your opinions to us at RCNSportsTalk@rcn.com and join us this Thursday as we talk about the Phillies, their minor league options and Major League baseball on ‘RCN SportsTalk’ live from 6-7 pm.

 

The SportsTalk Shop: Technology in Baseball

August 12, 2014 By Chris Michael Leave a Comment

Technology is all around us, and the sports world is no different. But one may be surprised to know to what extent modern day electronics—whether good, bad or indifferent—are impacting high school sports today.

I have to admit I am certainly on the fence with using so much technology when it comes to sports. I think there are definite advantages when used correctly (television graphics, instant replays, a certain amount of statistical information). I also think graphics, replays, statistics should have its limits and frequently feel bombarded with national networks trying to overplay all their toys, often taking away from the game itself.

But on a local level, there are quite a few advancements that people may not be aware of, and some benefits that local baseball fans may find quite appealing.

Here are some local great baseball minds talking about the advancement of technology in baseball on both the local and collegiate levels, and then we have a few more ‘tech tips’ you might find interesting.

A few other items concerning technology in baseball:

• HS coaches can now stand on the field (many managers are third-base coaches) and, with a click of their fingers, can input data, trends or unique facts that can be used later in the game (e.g., there are programs that track pitching trends what can tell you watch pitch a pitcher is more likely to throw in certain situations, and where he is going to throw it)

• Coaches—again while on the field of play—can look up histories or past tendencies of a given player and, even if they’ve never seen him before, notices an opposing player’s strengths and weaknesses

• Parents and other family members who normally work during baseball games (most high school and college games start between 2 and 4 pm) can follow along with in-game statistics, scores and highlight updates, thereby getting real time results, which is especially helpful if he/she wants to get to the game in-progress

It is a bit bizarre to occasionally see coaches or even players glancing down at their cell phone in the heat of the action. There are also a few old school coaches that still ban cell phone use entirely when they are on the field of play and insist that it is more of a distraction for young people, which far outweighs any positives from using technology.

What are your thoughts on technology in baseball? Is it good for the game, or does it distract you from enjoying America’s Pastime? Share your thoughts with us via email (RCNSportsTalk@rcn.com) and tune in to talk sports with us every Thursday live at 6pm on RCN-TV.

 

The SportsTalk Shop: Eagles Camp & Phillies Thoughts

August 4, 2014 By Chris Michael Leave a Comment

While I was taking a few vacation days last week, two of the bigger summer sports happenings took place in the Delaware Valley: the opening and first week of Eagles training camp and the passing of the Major League Baseball trade deadline. I thought I’d share this week’s blog to touch on both topics.

First, the Eagles. Here’s a look at insights and predictions from Eagles beat writers and our RCN TV football analysts on the Birds’ first week of camp plus their thoughts on the 2014 squad.

Now, a recap of everything the Phillies did at this year’s MLB trade deadline…

Oh, wait they didn’t do a thing, did they?

Alright, since “you-know-who” let us down again and did not make any deals…let’s try a different approach in analyzing the Phillies’ second straight year of accomplishing NOTHING prior to the non-waiver deadline. And since I’ve been getting hit with emails saying that I’ve been too negative in regards to the Phillies this season (it’s called being realistic, folks), let’s try to be ultra-positive here and see just how the Phillies could actually have a chance at a playoff berth in 2015.

(Before reading further, please note that, even with the extremely high pollen count this summer, I have not exceeded my allergy medication and am of sound mind and body. This is a possible—albeit not probable—way the “Phightins” can have a shot at a playoff next season. So let’s hold hands, think happy thoughts, hum a few bars from Pharrell Williams’s hit, and begin).

1) They have in-house “pieces” that can help.
While I am not over-evaluating most of the current players like GM Ruben Amaro, Jr. has apparently done, I think there are some quality players in the organization who, if matched-up correctly, can help the team contend. Remember the 1993 Phillies? They used role players in the right spots (including three platoons and a couple offensive/defensive switches) that made for one of the greatest rides in Philadelphia sports history. Neither Dom Brown nor Ben Revere look like solid, everyday MLB players. But a combination of Revere/Darin Ruf, or, say Brown/Cam Perkins might be a serviceable combination to use in left field. They would still have to improve center field, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Cody Asche can play third, second and left field. Chase Utley (if Ryan Howard is moved) could play first. Maikel Franco could be an everyday first or third baseman or he could complement Asche and Howard at the corners. Grady Sizemore looks like he can contribute at least 75% of the time. What’s needed the rest of the 2014 season are some evaluations of all these players, some tough decisions on which players can help and which need to move on, and a clear plan on a couple of positions that must be effectively upgraded in the offseason.

Still with me? Alright, sing a quick verse of “Kumbaya” and let’s continue.

2) The bullpen is solid—with room to spare.
People desperately wanted the Phillies to part ways with Jonathan Papelbon, including Papelbon, at the trade deadline. It still might happen, but let’s just look at what the Phillies now have in their bullpen.

“Pap” is now on the books for one more year at $13-million with a vesting option, and appears to be on the top of his game. Ken Giles has been stellar and looks to fill out the 8-inning setup role vacated by Mike Adams, who comes off the books after this season. Jake Diekman and Mario Hollands have struggled at times, but still look like legitimate lefty options and combine with Justin DeFratus to form an above-average bridge to the later innings. This allows Antonio Bastardo to look tremendous used solely in a long-relief role (since he seems to lose sight of the strike zone every time he comes into a meaningful game with a small lead). Plus, Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez, Ethan Martin and/or a couple relievers from the mid-level minors add even more depth. If you catch a break and another young reliever steps up (remember Giles started last year in Class-A ball), you actually have a surplus of young, controllable pitchers—a need nearly every other team has—and could use a young arm to help improve your offense. No need to spend a few million on Chad Qualls or Chad Durbin this offseason…the Phillies can concentrate whatever financial flexibility they have elsewhere.

3) Nola…Franco…Castillo?
There are a few names that could (quick! grab a four-leaf clover) become major players for the Phillies in the next year or two.

This year’s first-round draft pick Aaron Nola is on the fast track to the Big Leagues. He was just promoted to Double-A Reading and will make his first start this Wednesday, and it’s very likely he will be a candidate for the Phillies’ ’15 rotation out of spring training. He projects as a #3 starter, but any warm body who can get outs will be welcome considering the team has only one of its current pitchers (Cole Hamels, although David Buchanan will probably be called up this week) under contract for next year.

I’ve seen Franco play in Triple-A quite a bit and have spoken with him three times this season, and I really think he will be a steady major league hitter. He could be one of the big power bats the team has been lacking, although I don’t think they can go into next season anointing him as their clean-up hitter. He’s a hard-working kid who respects the game and spent a lot of time in spring training talking to the veterans (especially Jimmy Rollins) about what it takes to be a successful big leaguer. At worst, he’s a platoon option at either of the corner infielder positions for 2015.

Rusney Castillo is a 27-year old Cuban outfielder that the Phillies saw work out (once publicly and once privately). Not much is known about him, but he may be a player the team must make an “all-in” push for. He’ll require mega-bucks, but if he’s as good as advertised, he could be a right-handed bat w/speed and pop who takes care of your center field dilemma.

4) The Phillies need to make three “shrewd” and perhaps, slightly dangerous, off-season additions.
(OK, here’s where we REALLY need to think warm fuzzy puppies, big, yellow-smiling faces and a line or two from a Strawberry Alarm Clock song).

The Phillies need to make at least three well-calculated additions, with at least one risky enough to make a Riverboat gambler blush. They’ll probably need to add one or two starting pitchers and one or two position upgrades to improve the offense. They’ll also probably have to move at least one core player—somewhere—to make it happen. Let’s see how next season could play out with the current players in-tow:

2015 Projections…the Starting Rotation:
SP – Cole Hamels
SP – (Free Agent #1)
SP – Cliff Lee (if healthy)
SP – A.J. Burnett (if he doesn’t retire)
SP – Buchanan / Nola / Gonzalez (and/or Roberto Hernandez, who might have earned a return to Philly based on his latest outings)

Outfield (any combination of):
Marlon Byrd (if he’s not traded), Castillo (if signed), Sizemore, Revere, Brown, Ruff …plus, a major free agent addition #2

Corner Infielders:
Howard (if he’s not released), Franco, Asche and/or a major free agent #3

Middle Infielders:
Utley, Rollins, and your utility guy

Catchers:
Carlos Ruiz, Wil Nieves, Cameron Rupp

Let’s look at the free agent position players first. Corner infield possibilities include Hanley Ramirez (a lifetime .300 hitter with current OBP of .370 and SLG of .462 this year), Pablo Sandoval (the 27-year old’s numbers are down this year which could make him more affordable) and Chase Headley (the Phillies have had rumored interest in him for years). In the outfield, Nelson Cruz (his OPS is up from a year ago) and Melky Cabrera (he could set a career high in HRs this year) will be available. Also, a player like Yasmani Tomas, who’s similar but not as polished as Jose Abreu (per mlbtraderumors.com) could help the Phillies’ offense.

Available pitchers include Max Scherzer (who is almost certain not to re-sign with Detroit since they’ve added David Price), James Shields (109 wins, 3.77 ERA and 21 complete games for his career) and Jon Lester (unless he was serious about returning to Boston with a once-removed hometown discount). With an improved offense, you don’t think a rotation of Hamels, Shields, Lee, Buchanan, Hernandez or Gonzalez and, with any luck, Nola can’t at least get you to .500—a stone’s throw away from the second wild card spot? And imagine if they could lock up Scherzer instead of Shields to anchor that rotation?

But hey, isn’t all the Phillies’ money tied up in the aging contracts of Howard, Lee, et al?

Well, hop aboard my rainbow-colored chariot and keep an eye on a few items going forward.

One, the waiver wire. A number of Phillies players will undoubtedly be placed on waivers this month, by which a team can claim a player and therefore pick up ALL remaining money on the player’s contract. Yes, you get nothing in return–unless you agree with that team to work out a trade–but even Penny Lane wasn’t built for free. If any team gets desperate and takes on a hefty contract, that’s additional bucks the Phillies have to work with to sign free agents.

Secondly, the Phillies’ new TV contract. They’ll get $2.5-billion dollars in 2016, and by the end of that season, you’ll have a number of the big-money contracts (Lee, Byrd, Rollins, Ruiz, Papelbon, Gonzalez and perhaps Utley) all expiring. If they go over the salary cap for 2015 (note: first-time cap offenders pay a much smaller penalty), then they’ll be able to afford the added expense of the higher luxury tax, if they go over it a second time in 2016.

All this is possible if the Phillies truly believe what they have been saying over the last several years…that they will not rebuild, but will only retool, and look to be competitive each season.

Of course, the first decision to make is whether or not Amaro returns as GM next year. And while 98% of fans (and this might be a conservative estimate) have been clamoring for his firing for some time, remember this: if you bring in a new general manager, you’ll pretty much have to guarantee him a “honeymoon” season, which means you can throw 2015 out the window. I’ve clearly been off the RAJ bandwagon for some time now, so I’m not clamoring for his return by any means. But if they make a front office move, I would think they’d go in a completely new direction, which means at least one year – perhaps two – of rebuilding.

OK, I’ll step off of the Magical Mystery bus now. If you think I have totally lost my mind…or if there might actually be an opinion or two you agree with, feel free to email me at RCNSportsTalk@rcn.com and join us each Thursday live at 6pm on “RCN SportsTalk” to discuss/debate in more detail.

 

The SportsTalk Shop: Baseball Trade Deadline

July 29, 2014 By Matt Kennedy Leave a Comment

With Chris Michael taking a few vacation days off this week, we ask “RCN SportsTalk” co-host Joseph Lynnwood Craig to offer his opinion on a hot issue going on in the sports world. Joe has his own 30-second segment on the TV show (in which he usually runs well-over his time limit) in which he sounds off on a local or national sports issues each week, and he’s been chomping at the bit to get an opportunity to express his views on the “SportsTalk Shop” blog.


The baseball trade deadline is this week and so far there has been no movement from the Philies. This is not surprising. The Phillies should just sit pat until the season is over. At that point, they need to make changes at the General Manager, scouting, and player development level. Once new people are in place, then player changes can take place. Trust in the present G.M. and staff is non-existent and changes in decision-makers have to take place first. And that’s Joe’s take.

What do you think of “Joe’s Take” on the plight of the Phillies and the trade deadline? Post a comment below on whether you agree or disagree with Mr. Craig’s opinion.

 

The SportsTalk Shop: BML Playoff Primer

July 21, 2014 By Chris Michael Leave a Comment

 

It has been another great season for the Blue Mountain League—especially when you consider that it is an expansion year. Entering the final week of the regular season, there are still many important games yet to be played that will determine which teams will make the 2014 playoffs.

And to be clear, even with so many teams so close together in the standings, the baseball this season has been of good quality rather than mediocrity. I believe all those fighting for the six playoff spots are strong teams who have had outstanding seasons. I honestly haven’t seen a “bad” or poorly played ball game in years (including our broadcasts, covering games for “RCN SportsTalk” and just attending games as a fan). The games are low-scoring with very few errors and good pitching each night. With that in mind, we take a closer look at all the teams that I have seen in person that are fighting for a playoff berth.

Bulls
The Bulls have ascended from the middle of the pack to recently taking over the #1 spot in the league (including two dramatic wins on RCN-TV that were part of their second half success). Player/Manager Mike Cudwadie spoke with me about the team’s approach a few weeks ago: don’t make mistakes and take advantage of every opportunity the opponent gives you. They have nine players with a batting average of .300 or better (with at least 33 plate appearances) and their pitchers collectively have a very impressive 2.65 ERA. Their key turning point this year was coming back from a 7-4 deficit with one out in the 7th inning to winning the game in extras.

Giants
I am thrilled to see Manager Ed Wandler’s team very much in the hunt for the top spot in the playoffs. No team has had more hard-luck losses over the last several seasons. Wandler has taken lumps in previous years by acquiring very young talent. However, he has groomed them through more than their share of one-run losses while building his players’ confidence and fundamentals for the game. Pat Kregeloh and Preston Koehler have two home runs each and have combined for 25 RBI this season. Ben Hammel, Justin Aungst and Darron Whitmore are the Giants’ pitchers who have the most wins heading into the regular season’s final week.

Royals
The 2012 BML champs had spent nearly the entire regular season in first place (their lead vacillated between one and three games over the last month). The team boasts some of the league’s best hitters in Ricky Rivera, Ian Burley, Logan Winchester and Dave Toth and three of the top pitchers (Ryan Amey, Jeff LaPorta and Jim Sawyer—all with ERAs under 3). Despite several tough opponents during the final week, Hellertown should qualify for the postseason and will be a very tough match-up in a short series with three great starters anchoring their pitching staff.

Dodgers
Like Northampton, the Dodgers have had some tough previous seasons and have had their share of tough losses so far this one as well. However, they have overcome adversity this season and find themselves in the heart of the playoff hunt. They feature arguably the most dangerous hitter in the league—Matt Edwards—who is hitting about 80 points lower than his career batting average and is due for a breakout week. The team overall is hitting just .227 but has seven pitchers with an ERA under 3. They will close out their regular season with another team fighting for its playoff life, the Orioles.

Orioles
This team seems to be the most volatile in that they have bounced between being anywhere between second to tenth in the standings during the season. They also could be very dangerous in the playoffs. I think Player/Manager Dave Stoudt has done a tremendous job of mixing a ton of young talent in with some of the league’s most established veterans. The Orioles also lost a few quality players from a year ago but the young guys have stepped up and will benefit now that they’ve had two turns through the schedule. They have one of the best receivers in the BML in Doc Neiman, a player capable of hitting anywhere in the lineup, and six-time All-Star Justin Jackowicz has pitched to a miniscule 1.18 ERA while leading the team in innings pitched.

Creekers
I thought Player/Manager Eric Schmitt made some great additions to his team over the last two seasons–one of them being Eric Forth, who is currently second on the team in both home runs and RBIs. But the story of Martin’s Creek season belongs to stellar southpaw C. J. Saveri, who has won eight of the team’s 11 victories so far this year, and has posted some awesome numbers, including ERA (1.72) and WHIP (1.08). The question I’ve been hearing from the long-standing BML faithfuls has been whether or not other pitchers will step up. If they do, and the bats hit the way they are capable of, the Creekers could still defend its 2013 BML crown in the postseason.

I have not seen the other teams battling for the top six playoff spots, but the team that I keep hearing about is the Yankees. They have three very good starting pitchers, which is key to winning in the postseason. They also have several impressive hitters and don’t hurt themselves defensively. With many of these teams playing each other in the regular season’s stretch run, it’s still impossible to get a solid idea of which teams will make the playoffs.

Which teams have impressed you in the Blue Mountain League? Which players also deserve some praise for having an outstanding season? Feel free to post your comments here or email us your sports opinions to RCNSportsTalk@rcn.com and be sure check out some of RCN-TV’s final broadcast on Tuesday, along with our coverage of the BML this season on RCN On-Demand.

 

 

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