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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.

 

 

The SportsTalk Shop: The End of the Innocence

July 15, 2014 By Chris Michael Leave a Comment

The End of the Innocence
Remember when the days were long
And rolled beneath a deep blue sky
Didn’t have a care in the world….

But “Happily ever after” fails
And we’ve been poisoned by these fairy tales
The lawyers dwell on small details
Since daddy had to fly

We’ll sit and watch the clouds roll by
And the tall grass wave in the wind
You can lay your head back on the ground
And let your hair fall all around me
Offer up your best defense
But this is the end
This is the end of the innocence

–Don Henley, “The End of the Innocence”

This song came to mind the other day following a conversation I was having with some of our RCN-TV crew members about, strangely enough, the Philadelphia 76ers. At that time, there were rumors about potential deals the Sixers could make, and one of the more prominent ones discussed included Jeremy Lin coming to Philly. During our debate, one person said that Lin might be the best available player to help the team this year—to which I quickly jumped in and said that they’re not looking to acquire him to help the team win this year. I explained the, uh hem, logic, behind the philosophy that the 76ers don’t want to improve this year. In fact, having a significant improvement this season could set the franchise back years. Let me explain…

For folks not familiar with the peculiarities of the NBA salary “cap,” the 76ers are trying to peel away as much money as possible to try to clear cap “space,” so that they have funds down the road (aka, 3-4 years from now) to acquire big name talent. The flip side of that is there is also a salary “floor” where the team must spend a certain amount of money to avoid paying a penalty. What the Sixers are trying to do is find the most expensive (overpaid?) player(s) they can find to help them get to the salary minimum, but make sure they don’t acquire enough “quality” players so that the team struggles again this season and has a better chance of a lottery pick next summer.

The benefit of acquiring Lin or an expensive option like him (he has since gone to the Lakers) is that they could pick up a player with a big enough contract so that they wouldn’t have to add additional players to get to the salary floor. The Sixers are looking to avoid bringing in additional “better” players because higher quality players mean the team would win more games—which is clearly not something they want to do. To put it another way, the team would rather bring in one slightly better player with a huge contract (like Lin), instead of having to bring in, say, three quality players making less money to avoid running the risk of winning more games.

To people who are not familiar with this new, ‘unique’ strategy, this approach to building a sports franchise may seem somewhat bizarre. Yet most Philly sports fans have accepted and even embrace the “together we build” mantra and are perfectly willing to be successfully bad for the near future (although I don’t think some fans realize just how long this may actually take). If successful, it will probably be the mold that other teams use for years to come.

In full disclosure, I have basically been on board with this strategy from the beginning. Sure, I did a double-take when the team traded away their only premium piece in Jrue Holiday last year. And I certainly had to catch my breath in last month’s NBA draft when the team selected injury-riddled Joel Embiid and Dario Saric, who, if he plays for the 76ers at all, won’t be available until 2016. But when I stopped to consider “the plan” the team adopted, it all seemed to make perfectly good sense.

Until I said it out loud.

Is this really what professional sports is turning into…and what exactly are we grooming the sports fans of the future to accept?

If my son was a Sixers or pro basketball fan—which he is not—how exactly do I explain this “anti-winning” strategy to someone under the age of 16, and have it make enough sense to get them interested in the sport? Should we encourage our young people to ignore badly played basketball for the next two to three seasons because we really don’t want to win anyway? Do we put the parental control lock on the Sixers for three years until they become something worth watching? Or do we follow another team and show examples of how well they play only to then “bandwagon-jump” over to the 76ers when (if) they start having a winning season? This is the Delaware Valley after all, and the proposition of the third idea disgusts me.

In the meantime, the young people in Eastern Pennsylvania will find some other things of interest to them…the Eagles, Flyers, video games or what have you. Hopefully, they’ll somehow find a way to get excited about the sport of basketball and learn about the excitement of the sport by watching some local high school and college teams. And IF the team is good by the 2017-18 NBA season, possibly the novelty of a winning pro basketball team will attract older kids back to the sport.

Or perhaps we need to start teaching kids about all the business aspects of sports before we tell them to work on their free throw shooting or teach them how to figure out players’ rebounds-per-game averages. Maybe it’s time to sit our young people down and say that, while winning is stressed, and sometimes, over-stressed, at the lower levels, there are certain situations when it’s OK if we don’t go all-out and try our best to succeed.

Perhaps we should be having more adult-type conversations on how the modern sports world is evolving, and cut back on teaching sports fundamentals, the histories of our favorite teams and simply, having fun with games.

Maybe it is the end of the innocence.

 

SportsTalk Shop: MLB Trade Deadline: Phillies Pitchers

July 9, 2014 By Chris Michael Leave a Comment

In my last blog entry, we took a look at the “tradeable” Phillies position players.  This week, we take a unique look at what Phillies pitchers could be dealt, and what the team could get in return.

“Take My Pitchers, Please”
Jonathan Papelbon
Antonio Bastardo
Mike Adams
Jeff Manship

Neither Papelbon nor Bastardo have been model teammates while in Philadelphia.

After trying to deal Papelbon last year and finding no suitable takers, the Phillies closer has increased his trading value with his lights-out performance this season.  There are several teams that would love to upgrade their back-of-the bullpen and a few of them (think American League teams) have some quality young pieces that the Phils could seek in return.  With several young Phillies’ arms now having success in the Majors, albeit some on a very small sample size, Papelbon is now expendable and will probably be one of 3-5 stoppers dealt by the deadline.  Bastardo has pitched well now that Ryne Sandberg has taken him out of big-game situations and is using him in more long-relief, pitching-when-trailing-roles, which hopefully potential trade partners have not noticed.  Numbers-wise, he’s been stellar and would make a nice pickup for a team needing a second-lefty out of their pen.  Unfortunately, I don’t think he brings much in return (a number of teams in the Phillies division have expressed interest, but will not give you a big chip that will come back to haunt them in return).  Given his inconsistency and drug-suspension, Bastardo has probably worn out his welcome in Philly anyway and shipping him this month would enable the Phillies to take a flier at a former prospect needing a change of scenery.

As far as Adams and Manship, they both were pitching well before going down with injuries and won’t be back until August at the earliest.  Only Adams has a chance of making a miraculously fast recovery, pitch well enough to show teams he’s healthy, and still do it all in time to make himself attractive to a contending team … all before the waiver deadline in August.  Even then, you probably won’t get much in return.  In the end, both of these pitchers will probably not return anyway once this season concludes.

“Pitchers On The Bubble”
A. J. Burnett
Kyle Kendrick
Roberto Hernandez

All of these pitchers could be dealt.  At the same time, all of these pitchers could be pieces for next year’s Phillies rotation.  Remember, the team has said multiple times this spring and summer that the intent is to compete again in 2015 and you need to keep some reliable pieces in your rotation for next season.  Burnett will clearly be the most attractive of these three names to potential trade partners, given his success and his contract.  He would also be the most beneficial to the Phillies going forward to help lead the rotation, especially if Cliff Lee or Cole Hamels is dealt.   Kendrick will most probably command another price increase this offseason.  The Phillies would love to turn the page on this inconsistent pitcher and have a younger arm with more potential (once they acquire one) to take his spot in the rotation for ’15.  But since “KK” will be a free agent this off-season and everyone knows the Phillies want to unload him, they won’t get very much in return.  Hernandez is in the same boat with less up-side.  He’s been inconsistent this season and will not bring much in a trade, except for some salary relief.

“Only for a King’s Ransom”
Cole Hamels
Cliff Lee

I know people have been anxious for the Phillies to trade Cliff Lee and, to a lesser extent, Cole Hamels for some time in order to capture several “big name” up-and-coming prospects.  To them I say this:  Be careful what you wish for!

Remember, this is the front office who traded Lee for two prospects no longer in the organization (and a third likely to be dealt or released by next year).  Also, remember the team wants to compete in the near future and Lee, albeit with some injury baggage this year, has been a durable ace in many big games.  Lee is also younger than Burnett and more likely to help the Phillies when they return to contention.  Plus, Lee will not bring back as much as he would have if not for his elbow problems.  Unless the Phillies get blown away for either pitcher, I think it’s more likely that Lee is dealt this offseason—if at all—and Hamels stays put for the long-term.  Top tier pitchers are a rare commodity and the Phillies had to sell their souls (aka, their farm system) to acquire top aces in Lee, Roy Halladay and Roy Oswald.  It’s not easy to pick up a big name, and the organization must be absolutely sure of the players they would get in return if they entertain serious talks about these two players.

“You Can’t Touch This”
Ken Giles
Jake Diekman
Justin DeFratus
Ethan Martin
Mario Hollands

Earlier this year on “RCN SportsTalk” and here on this blog, I predicted that the Phillies young bullpen arms would surprise people and be one of the highlights of this year’s team.  While that prophecy did not look too good after the first month of the season, the Phillies have built a solid stable of young relievers that the team can build around for many seasons.  These players are much more valuable than anything you could see by just looking at their statistics.  Young, controllable and inexpensive talent is the most glaring need in the Phillies organization.  In fact, most of the names above won’t even be arbitration eligible until 2016 at the earliest, so it is imperative that the team does not move more than any one of these young pitchers.  The only way I would part with one of the relievers in this category would be if it’s a deal-breaker that includes a package to unload some of the “untradeable” and expensive position players AND would be part of getting you quality pieces (ie., offensive upgrades) in return.

Which pitchers would you like to see the Phillies trade and which should stay?  What areas of need must the Phillies look to fix in the month’s going forward? Email us at RCNSportsTalk@rcn.com or post a comment below and join us this Thursday as we talk about baseball of all sorts with former baseball coaches and managers on ‘RCN SportsTalk.’

The SportsTalk Shop: Trade Deadline Countdown: Position Players

July 1, 2014 By Chris Michael Leave a Comment

We’re under a month away from the Major League Baseball trading deadline.  The Phillies, after a brief five game win streak, have fallen once again into the NL East basement.  With the lack of life shown in the team’s most recent series again the Braves, the speculation over what possible moves the Phillies could/should/might make are reaching a fevered pitch (forgive the pun).  Today, I break down the latest news and insights and throw in my own one-and-a-half cents’ worth on the “tradeability” of the Phillies position players (pitchers will follow in my next blog entry).  Players are rated on a scale of 1 (least likely) to 10 (most likely) in three categories: how easily they could be traded, chances they will be dealt and, in my humble opinion, SHOULD they be shipped away.

CHASE UTLEY
After a torrid start, Utley has rather quickly slumped badly over the last several weeks (his batting average over the last month is lower than Ben Revere’s).  He’s also made several glaring physical and mental errors in the field that have hurt the team.  Is there something wrong with him?  Utley–being Utley–is remaining tight-lipped.  Should this be the time to unload the team’s most popular player and gain arguably the biggest return of any position player?
TRADEABILITY:  8 (even at his age, his ability, track record and team-friendly contract make him an ideal pickup for several bigger market teams).
WILL THEY: 2 (the Phillies organization has resisted trading away its core and highly marketable players, and Utley’s departure would be met with the most resistance from the fan base).
SHOULD THEY: 1 (the Phillies insist they will not rebuild, and Utley is an ideal player who can lead newer players–whoever they are–over the next two to three seasons).

JIMMY ROLLINS
Now that he has captured the Phillies all-time hit record, there have been several stories written about whether or not Rollins would waive his no-trade clause–opinions seemed tied directly to whether the team is winning or losing.
TRADEABILITY: 5 (he’s nearly achieved his easy goals, which would activate another guaranteed contract, which makes him harder to deal, along with his advanced age and declining numbers in recent years–although his batting average is up from where it was a year ago).
WILL THEY: 5 (the team has to move someone, and there will be several teams in larger markets who could use a proven infielder who has a history of big hits and leading his team to a championship, which adds to his trade value).
SHOULD THEY: 2  (the Phillies “shortstop of the future” –J.P. Crawford–is at least two years away and currently playing Class-A ball in Clearwater.  Plus, the team would miss Rollins’ underrated defensive ability, which has continued to be stellar throughout his career, regardless of any offensive slumps).

CARLOS RUIZ
As has happened several times this year, when a player is about to be a factor in the 2014 season, he gets hurt (see Darin Ruf, Jeff Manship, Mike Adams, Reid Brignac, et al).
TRADEABILITY: 3 (his concussion makes him a liability, and there are very few teams in need of catching help that could afford his player-friendly contract).
WILL THEY: 4 (less likely than Rollins to be dealt, although if a playoff-chasing team loses a starting catcher during the season’s second half…).
SHOULD THEY: 6 (his defense and ability to handle pitchers have made him a valuable part of this team even when he’s not hitting, but he’s getting older at a difficult position and will become even more injury prone, and unloading his contract would help free up money for the “retooling” efforts).

DARIN RUF
Seems to constantly be in someone’s doghouse in the organization (and no one knows why for certain), and Ruf’s pair of injuries have not helped his cause to stay on the big league roster this season, although, when healthy, he could be the team’s left fielder if Dom Brown continues to struggle.
TRADEABILITY: 9 (he’s shown flashes of power and, in the right situation, could boost a team’s offense for a club needing a designated hitter, a solid first basemen or average left fielder on defense).
WILL THEY: 7 (the organization has stated often they don’t seem him as an everyday player, and given Ryan Howard’s situation–see below–there may not be a full-time place for him under the team’s current front office).
SHOULD THEY: 4  (I can’t help thinking a power-hitting right-handed hitter who could spell Howard and at least platoon in left would help an offensively-starved team, but he could be packaged to bring back some value, and another injury or poor showing the rest of this year could drastically reduce his trade value).

MARLON BYRD
Maybe the brightest highlight of this team’s position players…he now leads the team in home runs.
TRADEABILITY: 8 (could help multiple teams as a outfielder, DH or a right-hand pinch-hitter/spot starter; a smaller market team would have to be in dire need to soak up his contract or get the Phillies to eat some dollars).
WILL THEY: 7 (it wouldn’t be the first time the Phillies left themselves offensively-barren in the outfield).
SHOULD THEY: 5 (he’s the team’s only proven right-handed power bat and the organization insists they want to remain competitive; plus, when the Mets traded him they didn’t exactly obtain a young Jeff Bagwell-type in return, and he was a year younger and under a more team-friendly contract, so I don’t think he can bring back much to help the team’s future).

RYAN HOWARD, DOM BROWN, BEN REVERE, JOHN MAYBERRY
These players, along with most of the reserves on the roster, are either untradeable because of their contract (Howard), or would get you so little in return, there would be very little point in dealing them, unless you get lucky with a “change of scenery” type of player.  It’s doubtful any high-level minor league player–save Mikael Franco–would get you too much in return individually and only a skilled trader could bundle several of these players to get you anything significant in return.  Only a team desperate for a “some power but little average” bat like Howard could get you some value in return, but even then you’d have to suck up a lion’s share of Howard’s remaining money-owed on his weighty contract.

Which players do you think will stay with the team after the trading deadline?  Which players should the team look to acquire in return?  Send us your comments and keep an eye out in the coming days for my next blog entry taking a look at the latest news on the possible Phillies pitchers who could be on the move.  And don’t forget to join us on “RCN SportsTalk,” Thursdays live from 6-7 pm to talk baseball with us!

The SportsTalk Shop: All-Star Football Preview

June 25, 2014 By Chris Michael Leave a Comment

This Thursday marks the official end to the 2013-14 scholastic sports calendar year—the McDonald’s All-Star High School Football Game–played each year at Nazareth’s Andrew Leh Stadium. It is a special time as we honor our local gridiron stars one final time (for those not playing at the collegiate level) and the event raises money for a great cause.

While football is extremely competitive in the Eastern Pennsylvania region, this game is special because it showcases talented athletes one more time and, in many cases, makes long-time rivals, teammates. The one reoccurring comment that I hear year after year about this game is the memories that are created by playing in this contest. By combining one team’s great players with another’s great players, they have an opportunity to truly admire each other’s talents, can talk about how they gained their skills and share stories from their high school careers. There are many friendships forged during the weeks leading up to this game, and many student-athletes enjoy the on-field banter that takes place with new teammates. Friendships also develop with the players they are playing against for this game—sometimes facing athletes they have never had a chance to see up-close-and-personal during their careers.

For many athletes, it can be a sacrifice…giving up your first few weeks of summer vacation or summer college prep classes, practicing in pads and equipment in 90-degree heat, getting yelled at by coaches (although not nearly as loud as in the fall) when you run the wrong play in practice, et al. But to a man, I’ve never heard any athlete say that he did not enjoy participating in this event.

Here are a few thoughts from the participating coaches and players on how they’ll approach this year’s contest, and then I have a few areas to concentrate on for the game itself.

As far as the actual game, keep an eye on the quarterbacks in this year’s contest. I remember two years ago when a group of talented QBs like Nosovitch, Harding and the like all graduated, there was one sports columnist who said that the passing ability would dip a bit. But I remember seeing young players, then sophomores, with amazing potential and a number of those athletes developed into outstanding quarterbacks in their own right. The All-Star game’s rules usually lend themselves to helping a passing attack, but I think some of these signal-callers have something to prove and will want to air it out one more time on a local stage.

Also, keep an eye on the center of both team’s defenses. While sometimes undermentioned by us in the media, there were some outstanding defensive tackles, middle linebackers and safeties this past football season—and not just at the big schools. Palisades, Southern Lehigh and Catty, to name a few, had some of their top defensive players—EVER—in the school’s history. While the smaller schools sometimes get outshined in terms of publicity, this Thursday will be an excellent time to showcase all the tremendous defensive players in the Eastern Pennsylvania region.

What other players and positions will you be watching for Thursday’s game? Who do you think will win? Send us your comments to RCNSportsTalk@rcn.com and tune in Thursday’s live at 6pm as we talk local sports issues with you!

 

The SportsTalk Shop: The New “EPC”

June 19, 2014 By Chris Michael Leave a Comment

I would like to put in my one-and-a-half cents on the biggest high school sports story this month in the Lehigh Valley area. The merger between the “Lehigh Valley Conference” and the “Mountain Valley” conference to form the new “Eastern Pennsylvania Conference” or “EPC 18” for short, is a major accomplishment. I present in today’s blog a few opinions of my own, along with reactions from the new league’s administrators and local sports personalities.

Here are a few of the highlights of the EPC 18:
• 3 divisions for “most” sports (one division with teams from the old MVC, a 2nd division with Allen, Dieruff, Becahi, Freedom, Liberty and Easton and a 3rd division with the remaining “LVC” teams)
• 8 teams qualifying for “most” sports’ playoffs (3 division winners & next 5 teams w/best div. records). Seeding for these playoffs will be based solely on best division records (ie, a division winner is not guaranteed one of the top three “seeds”)
• Football is split into 2 divisions (one is the old MVC schools, plus Allen, Dieruff, Becahi) with two “cross-over” games with the other division
• Football will have 2 winners (one from each division); there will be no “conference champion”
• Wrestling with have a “three-tier” system and teams’ status will be recalculated each year based on the previous year’s success
• Sports with fewer participating schools will have adjusted divisions, playoff schedules and formats

First a few of the positives.
There is clearly no perfect way to align all the schools and their sports teams together, but the league organizers have been successful in many ways trying to balance the league as much as possible. I am encouraged by some of the non-athletic programs, among them one spearheaded by Nazareth’s Rusty Amato, to be included in the new league. Since the MVC was facing an uncertain future with just six teams potentially entering the 2014 school year, this merger definitely helps those schools maintain a solid sports schedule going forward. And, contrary to some people’s views in the Lehigh Valley area, there are a number of high quality sports programs from the Poconos and it will not be a ‘cake walk’ to play against all the teams from the former-MVC. I think the Pocono schools that have struggled against the Lehigh Valley teams in the past will benefit and continue to improve by being a member of this conference.

My biggest concern is that the attendance at high school sporting events–which appears to be declining in some districts in recent years–may suffer. There’s no question a Whitehall/Becahi football game or a Nazareth/Easton baseball contest (which will not happen in 2015) would draw more interest than, say Becahi’s football team playing East Stroudsburg-North. For “big games” or come playoff time, it may be harder for parents and fans to travel from one extreme area—geographically speaking—to attend the event at the opposite end of the conference’s territory. Also, and this pertains mostly to football, you lose the option of playing a school from outside the district during the regular season. Coaches would use this opportunity to travel to a different venue or give players a chance to see a different style of play—something that would help a program that has state playoff aspirations.

Plus, I don’t see how prior concerns of an “uneven playing field”–justified or not–will be solved solely based on the new league concept. However, with the dawn of the new era and a regenerated feeling of good-will in the sports community, one can hope past issues will not resurface.

League scheduler and long time sports administrator Mike Schneider told me that he feels the griping over the travel concerns is overrated and I trust he’ll be correct. After all, it is true that many Lehigh Valley schools already play teams from the Poconos as part of their non-conference schedule. I do feel there could be some issues because of the weather. While games scheduled in the southern, slightly warmer regions have a better chance to get played, the games to be played up north are more likely to be postponed, which may force a tougher playing schedule for some teams. Also, many Mountain Valley schools are going until June 25th or later for their school year, which could cause scheduling nightmares for athletic directors. However, the officials in our area have done tremendous work coordinating events around postponements (this past year is an excellent example) and I’m confident they’ll overcome any logistical issues that may arise due to postponements.

Here are some additional thoughts and reactions about the EPC 18 from local personalities (additional interviews and details are available by viewing our June 5th edition of “RCN SportsTalk” through Video-on-Demand):

There have been a long line of bad feelings expressed between certain sports programs and school districts…wounds I am hopeful that will heal in time. I am cautious, but very optimistic about the new EPC. I am excited for the opportunity to become more familiar with all the players, coaches and administrators from our neighboring schools to the north and am anxious for the fall 2014 sports season to get underway. I also wish all involved a very pleasant and restful summer season. I think the region’s athletic directors certainly deserve one!

What are your thoughts on the “new” EPC? What do you feel are the positives and negatives of the merger? Post a comment here or email us at RCNSportsTalk@rcn.com and we’ll be sure to talk about the new league throughout the 2014-15 school year.

 

The SportsTalk Shop: Ways to Fix the Phillies

June 9, 2014 By Chris Michael Leave a Comment

Last week I gave my trimester grades on a season-gone-wrong for the Phillies through the first two months of the season. Today we take a look at how the team should proceed from here:

1) Trade AT LEAST one of the core players
I know this will be extremely painful to the Phillies front office to part ways with one of their most marketable players, but it has to happen. The Phillies have to change the mentality and the look of this franchise and show everyone – the fans, the community and the players themselves – that no one is untouchable. The debate over trading Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins, Cole Hamels, Ryan Howard, Cliff Lee, Marlon Byrd and others is gaining the momentum of a runaway freight train. The Phillies should be open to seeing which of these players would bring you the greatest return value for next year and pull the trigger on a deal. You need to improve this team in multiple ways, and with very few minor league options on the horizon, the only way to start accomplishing this is by dealing a major piece NOW.

2) Acquire a “dirt-baller”
Think Larry Bowa, Pete Rose or more recently, a Randy Ready or an Aaron Rowand. A high-energy guy, perhaps not the greatest talent, but someone who understands the game and will play it the right way. I’m not a big fan of the “WAR” statistic (wins-above-replacement), but those numbers do have some merit. You need to bring people that will help you find ways to win ball games and the Phillies need to find players who at least have a positive number in that category (eg., Ben Revere has a -0.4 WAR as of last week, Cesar Hernandez a -0.6, Tony Gwynn Jr. is a -0.8, Dom Brown is a -1). Each season the St. Louis Cardinals have rosters littered with players who know how to play the game and execute the fundamentals. I’m hard pressed to find very many younger players on the Phillies’ current 25-man roster who have shown the ability to do the same, and someone must be brought in to start doing that.

3) Stop evaluating with rose-collared glasses
John Mayberry, Jr. last year had a WAR of -1.2 and the organization REWARDED him with a near $ 1.1 million raise. He’s had three different seasons to prove himself as a starting outfielder, a platoon outfielder, than a fourth outfielder, a capable pinch-hitter…and has not delivered in any of these roles on a consistent basis (despite a dismal first eight weeks, Mayberry fans would argue he’s deserved more money based on the red-hot June he’s having offensively). The Phillies say Darin Ruf is not an everyday player…fine, then show me a young player who is. Sticking with Revere, Brown and the like when you no longer have reasons to believe in these players is fool’s gold that the team has continued to purchase for three years now.

4) Stop tolerating mental mistakes
Jimmy Rollins made a innocent comment about preseason games being meaningless and he was benched three days IN SPRING TRAINING. If Mayberry can’t shag a fly ball against the fence, then don’t put him out there anymore until he can. If Revere doesn’t remember to tag up on a fly ball with less than two outs or isn’t taking the appropriate lead off a base, then bench ‘em, outright ‘em or option them to Triple-A. Granted, there’s not many major league available players waiting in the wings right now, but giving these guys repeated chances and watching them fail multiple times with mental lapses is not working. I’d rather see Triple-A players Steve Susdorf or Clete Thomas try to fight their way to remain on the big league roster than to see listless players (Brown) not running hard to first base.

There’s another issue to address here: Ruben Amaro, Jr. The current Phillies general manager is pretty much in a no-win scenario, of which he is responsible for creating. If he conducts a massive fire-sale over the next two months, he’s admitting that his five-year plan of sustaining what was a World Series contender has failed miserably, thereby inviting a changing of the guard to take place. If he does nothing, or next to nothing, during the next few weeks, then he could be fired for not being proactive in correcting this out-of-control team. There’s no easy road here and accomplishing the above-listed tasks will not be easily achieved mid-season, but actions must start coming…and soon.

I do believe Amaro’s hands were tied somewhat in trying to rebuild this team a few years ago. Remember that in 2011 Ruben stated that the team needed to take a different direction: produce more runs, work counts, play more fundamentally sound baseball and similar comments. The moves that have transpired since that time are mostly contrary to that belief. Like him or not (and I certainly have not agreed with very many of his decisions over the last three years), Amaro is still an intelligent man with a solid baseball background. I don’t believe he completely gutted this team without outside influence, whether it be pressure to keep popular players in town, bad advice on player evaluations, poor scouting reports, or a combination of all three.

Full disclosure: I backed Amaro when he was making the trades for Lee, Doc Halladay, Hunter Pence, et al, while ravishing what top prospects were a part of the system. I don’t believe I was the only one in the Delaware Valley that enthusiastically bought in to the ‘win now’ mantra and threw caution to the wind when making those deals. I remember the euphoria that ensued when the cash vault was opened and we woke up hearing of Lee’s triumphant return to the Phillies. We all salivated over the “Four Aces” rotation during the thrill ride that garnished 102 regular season wins, and no one back then was worried about Jonathon Singleton, Kyle Drabek and the other prospects exiled to acquire those major chips. I for one was prepared to sacrifice several years of bad baseball for one more World Series championship….a second title that never materialized.

What in-season moves to you think the Phillies should (or will) make this summer? Do you think Amaro will be retained or even make it through the 2014 season? Post a comment below or email us at RCNSportsTalk@rcn.com. We’d love to hear your thoughts on this year’s Phillies team.

The SportsTalk Shop: Phillies 1/3 Season Report Card

June 3, 2014 By Chris Michael Leave a Comment

OK, Ruben. You didn’t listen to me. Nor did you listen to most Phillies fans when it came to our free advice on how we could bring the team back to playoff contention…or even recapture our interest in the club.

But before the season spirals out of control even further, I’m going to offer my unsolicited critique on this year’s team to Ruben Amaro, the Phillies General Manager. Forget the mid-term grades – we need a comprehensive analysis here at the one-third mark of the regular season–before it is too late and 2014 turns into a complete waste of a baseball campaign. So today I’ll evaluate the best and worst points of the Phillies this year and have broken down the players into the following categories. Next week I’ll be back with my suggestions on where the team should go from here.

HEAD OF THE CLASS
Despite the poor record, there are several strong positives on this year’s team. Relievers Jonathan Papelbon, Mike Adams, Mario Hollands and Jake Diekman each have had a few unforgettably bad moments during this very forgettable season. Aside from that, they have been nearly as good as one could have asked. Papelbon has been lights-out as the team’s closer and looks like a shoo-in to make the All-Star team after the team spent a good chunk of time this past winter trying to unload him. Overall, Adams and Diekman have been very steady middle-to-late-inning guys, getting called in to extinguish opponents’ rallies. In addition, Diekman, along with Hollands, who most people knew nothing about at the beginning of spring training, have served as useful two-inning bridges in several Phillies’ wins in getting the team to Papelbon. Both Hollands and Diekman can be counted on as two of the few reliable young arms going forward, and Adams and Papelbon both could be used in trades if this season continues to unravel (again, more on that in next week’s blog entry).

Fans also have to be happy with what they have gotten out of Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins and Marlon Byrd. Utley has been leading the league in doubles and, as of this past weekend, was on a pace to set a new Major League record for a season. Rollins is closing in on the Phillies’ all-time hit record and has kept his on-base percentage around or above .350 all season. While most people were not impressed with the Byrd signing in December, he has been one of the most consistent bats on an incredibly inconsistent offensive team, and has certainly added respectability with his defense in right field.

VERY SOLID
A.J. Burnett was a guy I was hoping they’d sign this off-season and, although they waited until the outset of spring training to do so, has filled in the “number 3” spot quite nicely. He hasn’t been stellar nor consistent in every start this year, but has been solid enough to balance this rotation and make the starting pitching staff one of the strengths of this year’s team.

Also, for a number-five starter, I have to give solid marks to Roberto Hernandez, a player I quite honestly wasn’t expecting much out of this season. With an ERA under 4.00 and the flexibility to come out of the bullpen in a pinch, this is a move that you actually have to give Amaro and Company credit for. I’ll also put Wil Nieves in this class and give a definite “B” for his efforts. In addition to admirably filling in behind the plate and hitting over .275 so far, his greatest attribute may be that he has adequately filled in the backup catcher’s spot, deflecting attention from another trade gone south that sent previous number-two catcher Eric Kratz and a minor league reliever to Toronto for Brad Lincoln (see below).

OK BUT WAS EXPECTING MORE OUT OF…
I have to be honest – I’m a big fan of Chooch, but was frankly expecting more out of Carlos Ruiz than one home run, 10 RBIs and a slugging percentage lower than Nieves’, his backup (through June 2nd). While his on-base percentage is leading the team, I am disappointed at a number of bad pitch selections he has made this year. With all the young arms coming out of the pen, I have to place the blame on the experienced Ruiz for not taking charge and for making some questionable calls behind the dish. I had defended the Phillies signing this 35-year old catcher to a three-year deal, largely in part due to his ability to handle pitchers behind the plate. A little better offense and a few less mistakes in pitch selection might have helped the Phillies have a better shot at being closer to .500 than they are presently.

I’ll also put Kyle Kendrick, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels in this category. While they have had moderate-to-very-good success on the hill this year and each deserves a few more wins, they each have had meltdowns at inopportune times—and a team like this year’s Phillies club that needs everything to go right to contend, can’t afford to have mental lapses. I’ve seen each of these players make base running errors and/or pitiful attempts at laying down bunts which, for the money they’re making, is inexcusable.

One may put Ben Revere in a “failing” category but honestly, why would anyone expect him to be anything more than what he has shown throughout his career? He’s a slap hitter with excellent speed who will steal bases when he gets on and will provide some highlight film material with great catches in the outfield. He also has no arm, is prone to base running and route-taking mistakes and has never shown the ability to work a count or coax walks. Revere showed these traits in Minnesota and again last year in Philadelphia. This brings me to my biggest, most grating issue with the Phillies—why do you expect something from players when there’s no evidence to suggest a result different from what you’ve been getting? It’s been a reoccurring issue for three years now and, in my opinion, will continue until the team takes a more practical approach to building a team.

NEAR FAILURES
Despite the fact that Ryan Howard provided one of the top moments of the season—a walk-off home-run against Colorado last week, there are 25 million reasons why he has not lived up to his weighty contract. While his defense has improved, he came into this season as the single-most important offensive player who needed to play like he did before signing the massive contract extension. Despite his team-leading home run and RBI totals, his inability to have success off of left-handed pitching is becoming alarming. Since 2011 in now more than 250 at-bats against southpaws, he strikes out a whopping 43% of the time. Mix in Howard’s paltry .301 OBP and .434 SLG versus all pitchers and you’re left with the fact that he is just not the power-hitting force he once was. Again, if there were other players around him to pick up the slack—or if other more potent bats were acquired this past offseason, his weaknesses would not be as glaring. But since so much of this season’s potential was based on Howard’s return to being one of the most powerful bats in all of baseball—rightly or wrongly—his performance this year can only be considered slightly above failure.

One more time, for the Phillies to expect miracles from the likes of Dom Brown, Antonio Bastardo, Freddy Galvis, Cesar Hernadez, John Mayberry Jr. and count on these guys doing something beyond what they’ve never consistently done before are Amaro’s biggest gaffes as the GM. For the last five years, we’ve hear it said that it’s time for guys to step up, and five years later, we’re still looking for guys to do so in right field, left field, the bullpen, the bench and now, third base. Bastardo and Galvis had quality campaigns going in 2013 before drug suspensions ended their season and called into question just how natural their successes were. None of these players has stepped in to grab the opportunities presented to them and, for most of these players, one could argue no one should count on them any longer.

OY-VEY!
Jayson Nix, Shawn Camp, Luis Garcia, Jeff Manship (prior to this past weekend’s Mets series), Brad Lincoln, Phillippe Aumont…OK I’ll stop here before you get too depressed.

INCOMPLETES
While Darin Ruf, Cody Asche, Miguel Alfredo Gonzales, Jonathan Pettibone and Ethan Martin were players looked at having key spots on the team early in spring training–and may or may not hold a larger role in the Phillies future–I don’t think you can critically analyze the performances of these players thus far because of the injuries they’ve sustained.

What areas do you think need the most improvement? What other glimmers of sunlight do you see from this disappointing season-to-date? Post your comments below or email us at RCNSportsTalk@rcn.com and check back here as I outline my plan on what I feel the next steps should be for the Phillies this season.

 

The SportsTalk Shop: Spring Volleyball Accomplishments

May 27, 2014 By Chris Michael Leave a Comment

While I know there are some wonderful aspects of sports that have changed, and not for the better, there are also tremendous improvements that have taken place. One of them is the development of high school volleyball in Pennsylvania.

I remember when I was in high school (slightly after the advent of electricity), the governing sports body in Pennsylvania, the PIAA, sanctioned volleyball as an official sport. Watching the first official volleyball games being played was exciting and fun. However, it was clearly not at the level that it’s reached today. With off-season camps, feeder systems and JV programs, and most of those being very successful in local school districts in the RCN viewing area, the quality of play is amazing. This was clearly evident last week when I attended the District XI boys volleyball semifinals.

Here are just some of the video highlights and post-match reactions from the participants (you can see more great plays and interviews on “RCN SportsTalk” through RCN’s On-Demand services).

In the first match, Northampton jumped up two games to none on the three-time defending champion Emmaus team, only to have the Hornets storm back and sting the Konkrete Kids in five sets. The final two sets were a back-and-forth struggle and featured some key saves by Greg Lind (31 digs total), who also had to bounce back from an injury sustained mid-match. The battle also featured Northampton’s Mike Holihan, who clearly showed why he was the LVC’s MVP this year, and also exhibited a dynamic and entertaining presence out on the court.

In the second match, Parkland jumped out to a 2-0 advantage themselves before Easton stepped up their game and won the third set. Loren Skinker and Tyler Phifer were just two of the Trojan players who stepped up with some big plays throughout their contest with the Red Rovers. Parkland came back strong with three different three-set runs to win the fourth and final set. Parkland would go on to beat Emmaus in the district championship match in straight sets after dropping the opening set.

The Easton volleyball program deserves some credit for its success this year as well. They rebounded from a 3-17 season a year ago and were picked in one preseason prediction to finish dead-last in their division. The Rovers showed character all season and gave Parkland a very strong battle in the semifinal nightcap.

Both Parkland and Emmaus now advance to the PIAA state playoffs, where it is no longer uncommon to see our local teams fare well on the statewide stage. In fact, there have been several local girls and boys volleyball teams winning state titles over the past decade. With so many outstanding up-and-coming volleyball players in the Eastern Pennsylvania region, it’s a trend not likely to change anytime soon.

What other aspects of sports have dramatically improved over the last 10 to 15 years? Which sports programs and athletes do you feel deserve some extra attention? Post your opinions below or email us at RCNSportsTalk@rcn.com and join us as we continue to spotlight the bright young athletes in the RCN-TV viewing area.

 

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