Change this so we don’t have to change that

Would shifts have reduced Ty Cobb from .366 lifetime hitter to a quad-A type? Unlikely.

If you’ve been a baseball fan for longer than, oh, 17 seconds, you probably know there’s one thing baseball does worse than just about any other sport: handle change.

It’s not just baseball’s terrible reluctance to change things that makes it so bad, it’s baseball’s uncanny ability to change the wrong thing in an effort to prevent making the change that’s really needed.

Tuesday, Sports Illustrated’s Tom Verducci outlined the latest example. The article says there’s growing interest within MLB to explore a rules change which would make defensive shifts an illegal defence–in an effort to reverse a trend of declining offense.

While boosting offense is probably a good idea, the shifts alone aren’t the culprit. Sure, busted old guys like Curtis Granderson, Mark Teixeira and Ryan Howard have seen their batting averages and power number drop off the charts. And sure, guys like Shin-Soo Choo and Chris Davis saw their (possibly outlier 2013) power numbers bottom out as well.

Verducci cites a few other power-hitting lefties as examples, about a dozen in total. All of whom are no longer slugging, thus causing run scoring to dip to pre-DH levels.

Nevermind that even without shifts, more defensive players have superior range today than they did 10 years ago. Nevermind that average fastball velocity is way up from 10 years ago. Nevermind that other major storyline from 10 years ago that may have helped boost offenses.

Instead, because a dozen or so players can no longer find success as one-dimensional hitters, coinciding with a rise in the use of defensive shifts, the shifts must go. MLB Logic at its finest.

Rather than forcing players to become better hitters (it was just a few weeks ago that we reminisced about Tony Gwynn’s greatness) to neutralize shifts, to evolve or be left behind by the game, baseball wants to let them have a cop-out. Anthony Gose can’t recognize pitches below his knees aren’t strikes. He’ll be left behind unless he figures it out. Nobody’s making a case to change the rules for him. Nobody’s weeping for him. Can’t hit a curveball? Enjoy the International League. Nobody’s going to outlaw curveballs.*

*Although, considering curveballs have been labelled a potential culprit for the increase in Tommy John surgery over the past few years, outlawing the curveball–in the name of player safety–arguably has a better case than this illegal defence crap.

It should be no different for guys who can’t figure out how to stop hitting into shifts. During Edwin Encarnacion’s invincible May, he was regularly lauded for his willingness and ability to hit away from defensive shifts. He evolved as a batter inside of about a month, so I’m not buying the article’s–or Rays manager Joe Maddon’s–assertion it’ll take years for batters to come around to hitting around shifts. Teams need to encourage their players to look for opposite field opportunities, or to lay down bunts to beat the shift the way Colby Rasmus did last weekend.

So please, spare us your tears over the demise of crappy hitters with power (looking at you, Adam Dunn) who should never have risen to prominence, and instead call for more hitters to be able to punish defences that leave half the field open for them.

2014 Draft First Round Recap

2014 NHL Draft first overall selection Aaron Ekblad

The first round of the NHL Draft is in the books, and for draft-crazed fans like myself that means it’s almost time to start looking ahead to the 2015 draft. Before that though, let’s take a look at some of Friday night’s results.

For most of the last year, this draft has been knocked for a lack of high-end talent at the top and lack of overall depth. While the 2014 class didn’t tout a Nathan MacKinnon at the top, I wouldn’t be surprised to see each of the top three picks in the NHL this fall. Let’s start there.

Aaron Ekblad, First, Florida Panthers
If I had to guess, I’d guess Ekblad was the top player on most NHL teams’ draft boards. I didn’t see a lot of him this season–just the World Junior Championship and the Top Prospects Game. In those games, it was clear he was head and shoulders ahead of the rest of this draft class. He could have played second-pair minutes in the NHL this past season. At worst, Ekblad projects as a top pair defenceman, if not a true number one. He’s strong, agile, has a heavy shot, off-the-charts hockey sense, and the sort of mean streak everyone assumes players with his size should have. It’s inconceivable to me that Ekblad won’t be a star in the NHL very soon.

(It’s also worth mentioning Tyler Myers’ current lack of stardom was inconceivable to 2011 me)

Sam Reinhart, Second, Buffalo Sabres
Because he’s a late ’95 birthdate, Sam Reinhart’s been around the WHL a year longer than most of the other players in this year’s draft class. And even though he wasn’t even 16 when he joined the Kootenay Ice, he went straight to work dominating the much-older competition. Reinhart scored 62 points in 67 games as a rookie, then tallied another 190 over the next two seasons. He takes all of Kootenay’s big face-offs, he was arguably Canada’s best forward as an underager at the WJC. He looks smaller than the 6’1″ he’s listed at, but plays bigger, so although he’s not the prototypical 1C size, he does everything else you could ever ask for in one. If he can withstand the physical rigours of the first nine games of next season, there’s no good reason to ever see him in a WHL jersey again.

Leon Draisaitl, Third, Edmonton Oilers
It’s interesting to see how expectations can warp our impressions of a player. Coming into the season, Leon Draisaitl appeared to be the definition of a power forward: he’s big, bordering on hulking. He scores. He makes his linemates better. The knock against him was that his skating was merely passable. As the season moved along, and his Prince Albert Raiders struggled to meet expectations, and his German team at the WJC (which was basically him and 20 tier 2 guys) flopped, and Draisaitl didn’t turn any heads at the Top Prospects Game, his stock plummeted. His “compete level” was questioned, his skating was downgraded from passable to poor, and he slid down rankings and mock draft boards. But somewhere along the way, scouts and teams remembered last season, when he ousted Mark McNeill as PA’s top centre at 16, and scored 105 points for a really bad PA team this season. His skating may still hold him back, but if he improves that area of his game, he may end up leaving all three of Edmonton’s first overall picks in his dust.

Now, a look at how the Canadian teams fared. Along with the belief about the lack of high-end talent at the top, this draft was also saddled with a belief about a lack of depth. Nobody’s going to confuse this with the 2003 draft, but the first round was littered with gems waiting to be unearthed. Most of the players in this next section have a couple of elite skills, but lack well-rounded games. For many of these players to reach their potential, they’ll need strong support from their new teams’ development staffs.

Sam Bennett, Fourth, Calgary Flames
After Calgary struck gold with Sean Monahan in last year’s draft, Flames fans were hoping for a repeat this time around and they may have it in Bennett. I haven’t seen Bennett in person at all this season, so I’m going mostly from reports about his ability. I have some concerns about his rapid rise to the top of rankings, but by all accounts he’s a pretty complete player. Much was made of his inability to do pull-ups at the Combine, but considering Brian Burke signed off on new GM Brad Treliving picking him, we can probably safely bury that story. I’m excited to see what he can do when he comes to Calgary and to see whether or not he’ll stick at centre. If he can, the Flames have a nice trio in him, Monahan, and Joe Colborne to rebuild around.

Jake Virtanen, Sixth, Vancouver Canucks
I’ve been watching Virtanen for the last two seasons, hoping he’d develop into a top pick. By the end of this season, I was convinced Virtanen would be a mid-round player at best. The big winger has a pro-ready shot–heavy with a lightning quick release, and he can skate like the wind. But after that, there are questions about his hockey sense (45 goals and just 26 assists last season), his two-way game, and his ability to take his game to the next level. There won’t be much room for interpretation with this pick. He’ll either put it all together and become a high-end scorer in the NHL, or he’ll be considered a bust. I’ll be very surprised to see him stick with Vancouver this season; 2015-16 seems more realistic for him to join the club full-time. If you’re a Canucks fan who can’t wait to see more of Virtanen, he figures to have a prominent role with Canada’s WJC team this winter–especially if Sam Reinhart and Sam Bennett stick with Buffalo and Calgary.

William Nylander, Eighth, Toronto Maple Leafs
Entering the season, William Nylander was considered the top European skater in the draft, and a player who could challenge for first overall. By all accounts, Nylander is a complete player–but is undersized at just 5’9″, which may have helped him fall to the Leafs. It’s unlikely he joins the Leafs this season, and I don’t want to fill Leafs fans’ heads with false hope or anything here, but considering Nylander fell mostly because of his size (and a little because he wasn’t great in Sweden’s top league this season), there’s a chance he’ll be considered the “steal” of this draft several years from now.

Nikolaj Ehlers, Ninth, Winnipeg Jets
Ehlers epitomizes my belief many of the players taken Friday night are great at one or two things, and need to round out their games. Ehlers is a tremendous skater and has an unbelievable nose for the net. He was by far one of the most electrifying players at the Top Prospects game, and helped the Halifax Mooseheads fill the void left by Nathan MacKinnon’s departure. Among the players I’ve seen in person, Ehlers is the second or third-best pure scorer in this draft.

Jared McCann, 24th, Vancouver Canucks
Having two first round picks in one draft will give a boost to any team’s prospect pool, and few teams need that boost the way the rebuilding Canucks do. McCann’s been all over the rankings this season, looking to scouts and evaluators like a potential All-Star some nights, and a potential AHLer others. If the consistency comes, Canucks fans will be pretty happy with this selection (even though he’ll always be the guy they got for Ryan Kesler).

Nikita Scherbak, 26th, Montreal Canadiens
All Nikita Scherbak does is score. He skates a little too, but mostly he scores. Highlight reel goals, garbage goals, and everything in between. He led all WHL rookies last season, piling up 78 points and making Saskatoon a must-watch team. He’s got great hockey sense, gets my vote as the best pure scorer in the draft, and is an electrifying player. As a fan watching, you rarely have to look for Scherbak–he’ll announce himself when he gets onto the ice. If the Habs are planning to continue to let their dynamic guys be dynamic (as this pick would suggest), this has the potential to be a match made in heaven. If everyone’s going to play boring grinding hockey like LA, Scherbak probably won’t find a home in the NHL.

And lastly, some quick thoughts on the other WHLers taken in the first round.

Haydn Fleury, Seventh, Carolina Hurricanes
I’ve been watching Fleury for two years with Red Deer, and I’ve yet to see what all the fuss is about. He’s fast, and he moves the puck quickly, but I’ve yet to see him make a “WOW” play that shows he’s got the sort of off-the-charts hockey sense that would justify taking him this high. His work in his own end is… we’ll call it a work in progress. A very interesting selection for Carolina, a franchise that doesn’t have much history in developing their d-men the way he’ll need.

Julius Honka, 14th, Dallas Stars
Honka started the season on a tear, and never really cooled off, collecting 56 points in 62 games from the blue line. He is diminutive, like Ryan Ellis sized, but he can do it all. And he could have a much worse role model in Dallas than Trevor Daley.

Travis Sanheim, 17th, Philadelphia Flyers
Now here’s a meteoric rise. Sanheim wasn’t even on Central Scouting’s “watch list” to start the season, but his stellar play with the Hitmen moved him up their depth chart, up the scouting rankings, onto Canada’s Ivan Hlinka roster, and into the first round of the draft. Sanheim had three points before the WJC tournament, but took off after scoring his first WHL goal in January, and posted 26 points in the second half of the season. He’s got outstanding mobility, makes great reads, and is pretty competent in his own end. If his development continues at the rate it did in the second half of this season, look out world.

Conner Bleackley, 23rd, Colorado Avalanche
Nothing to see here folks, just the Avs picking up yet another very good centre. Bleackley’s production didn’t quite meet expectations this season, and his Rebels didn’t succeed the way some thought they might. He became something of an afterthought among this strong WHL crop. He plays a simple, hard game, has good hands and a nose for the net. Don’t be surprised if he’s anchoring Colorado’s third line two years from now, and running their PK two years after that, and getting a lot of nods as the league’s most underrated player.

John Quenneville, 30th, New Jersey Devils
I didn’t see him at all this season. First time I’ve missed out on every Brandon game. I’ve seen him described as a no-nonsense kind of player. He goes out there, does his work and does it well. He’s perhaps a bit unheralded because of it. Brandon has designs on returning to the contenders ranks next season, and Quenneville is expected to be the centrepiece of those plans.

Converted, maybe

Kyle Lowry is the perfect leader for the Raptors

For most of the last three seasons, I’ve been of the mind it’s time for the NBA to scrap it’s little Canadian experiment and fold the Toronto Raptors. They’ve been an utterly awful and unlikable franchise for, well, pretty much forever other than that brief, nearly-amazing period known as Vinsanity.

In his end of season column Sunday, Bruce Arthur noted the Raptors drew just 50,000 viewers for their season-opener last fall. In relative obscurity, overshadowed in Toronto by the hot-out-of-the-gate Maple Leafs, ignored by a western half of the country wrapped up in a thrilling CFL stretch drive, and seemingly on the verge of an epic tankfest, the Raps were barely on the radar.

As the season moved along though, names like Kyle Lowry and Demar DeRozan kept popping up in my Twitter feed. To even the most casual of observers, it was clear the Raps had a pair of good players in these two guys. As the regular season came to an end, a curiosity brewed inside me. I figured I’d just keep tabs on the team via twitter until the ride ended.

Then:

Hard to ignore that. So I tuned in. Again and again. And so did a lot of other people. After attracting just 50,000 viewers for their first game of the season, the Raps had 10,000 outside the Air Canada Centre to watch the game in Maple Leaf Square, which had been re-christened for the team that was actually playing–Jurassic Park. Games 5 thru 7 averaged around a million viewers each (with much higher peaks).

With the Leafs out of the playoffs, no other Canadian-based NHL team folks are willing to cheer for still in, and the Toronto Blue Jays hitting the skids all at once, well it was just logical to check out these plucky Raptors. Game to game, their legends grew. By the end of Game 7, even the 950,000 of us that ignored the team all winter knew the last possession was Lowry’s.

Game to game, we hockey fans saw guys playing hurt (basically the whole team), guys giving and taking hard contact, and a seven-game series over 16 days that felt a lot like a Game 7 from the opening tip. That idiotic (and false) “I/we, LeBron/Toews” meme from last spring quickly faded from memory, as we saw Lowry and Co playing like the warriors we demand our hockey heroes to be.

A lot of diehards had their hearts broken Sunday afternoon, but even more diehards were made. I don’t know if I’m there yet, but next fall I won’t be actively ignoring or calling for the end of the team’s existence. I’ll be cheering for them. “Fuck Brooklyn” may have been the hook I needed, but I’ll happily shift to “Go Raps!”

Taking the fall

Torts offering his opinion on how many years it’ll be before the Canucks are good again

Fine, fine work on display right now by the Vancouver Canucks. Folks say the NHL is a copycat league, so just like their division rivals in Edmonton, the Canucks are opting for the Three Coaches In Three Years option.

In taking that option, the Canucks seem to have missed the part where it usually also leads to three piss-poor seasons. And where they’ll be tying up a lot of money in former staffers.

I was on your side during the 2011 Cup run, Canucks fans. I wanted it to work out for you. So know this comes from a place of love: you’re in for a bad stretch. Your farm is barren. The NHL roster is aging. And the front office is in flux. I feel for you, I really do.

Just like Roberto Luongo before him, John Tortorella’s the latest fall guy, and just like Luongo, Torts wasn’t the problem.

On Deck, April 1

We’re jumping to the end for today’s pick. It was everything M’s fans could have hoped for last night. Mike Trout hit a homer, but King Felix was otherwise excellent. And the offence exploded for 10 runs–most coming late in an otherwise close game.

Mariners @ Angels 10:05pm
Ramirez (0-0) v Wilson (0-0)
Treat yoself–stay up late to watch this one. Last night’s game got a little wild as the Halos fell apart late. And the Mariners offence lived up to its billing. They just might score five runs a game all year long.

Dodgers @ Padres 6:40pm
Greinke (0-0) v Kennedy (0-0)
Great news. Zack Greinke’s recovered from the mysterious ankle ailment that prevented him from playing in Australia. Tune in to see if the Dodgers can E their way to another loss.

Best reason to watch the Padres in 2014: You saw him Sunday night, Seth Smith Andrew Cashner

Rockies @ Marlins 7:10pm
Anderson (0-0) v Eovaldi (0-0)
Nate Eovaldi is no Jose Fernandez, but he’s very good. He could pile up a lot of K’s for a third-tier pitcher this season. He’s worth a look.

Best reason to watch the Rockies in 2014: On paper, the Rockies should be a lot better than pre-season predictions have them finishing.

Yankees @ Astros 7:10pm
Sabathia (0-0) v Feldman (0-0)
The Yankees have never lost a regular season game at Houston. And if nothing else, you can tune in to see the strange, strange sight that is Jacoby Ellsbury in pinstripes.

Best reason to watch the Astros in 2014: Chris Carter seems poised for a monster season, Jonathan Villar might swipe 50 bases, and Jarred Cosart is one of the most highly-anticipated prospects around.

Blue Jays @ Rays 7:10pm
Hutchison (0-0) v Cobb (0-0)
Drew Hutchison was just hitting his stride when the 2012 Tommy John epidemic ran through the Jays clubhouse. If his strong spring was any indication, he’s back and we should have a great pitching matchup in this one.

Best reason to watch the Blue Jays in 2014: To stay on top of injury news when the Jays you have on your fantasy team get hurt.

Phillies @ Rangers 8:05pm
Burnett (0-0) v Perez (0-0)
These teams combined of 24 runs yesterday in a wild one. Gotta figure we get 1-0 in 13 innings today.

Braves @ Brewers 8:10pm
Wood (0-0) v Lohse (0-0)
The Braves also have a Tommy John epidemic this season, but it’s hard to pin the blame on injured pitchers after they were shut out for the fifth time in their last seven games against the Brewers.

Best reson to watch the Brewers in 2014: As it’s been for several years now, Ryan Braun.

Giants @ D-backs 9:40pm
Cain (0-0) v Miley (0-1)
After striking out eight in his season debut in Australia, Wade Miley looks to continue that strong effort–and pick up a better result for his troubles. This one looks like a matchup that’ll produce a whole lot of strikeouts.

Best reason to watch the Giants in 2014: They should be a lot better than they were in 2013. And with all due respect to Pittsburgh, they have the nicest home park in the big leagues.

Indians @ Athletics 10:05pm
Kluber (0-0) v Kazmir (0-0)
A Jim Johnson meltdown in the ninth? Nobody saw that coming last night (except every O’s fan on the planet). The Corey Kulber Ascension and Scott Kazmir Redemption shows intersect tonight, and if they can keep the sewage out, fans in Oakland will be in for a treat tonight.

On Deck, March 31

With apologies to Dodgers fans, last night was a lot of fun. In case you missed it, after a couple of teaser games, Major League Baseball returns today with 13 games. And after a much-needed break in 2013, What To Watch also returns with a new name—On Deck. Throughout the week, I’ll offer reasons to add each team to your watch list, in reverse order of last year’s final standings.

Blue Jays @ Rays 4:10pm
Dickey (0-0) v Price (0-0)
The very best advice I could offer for Opening Day is to watch your favourite team. As the Jays are mine, I’ll be tuned in to what could be a tremendous pitchers’ duel between 2012’s Cy Young award winners—both of whom are looking to bounce back after disappointing 2013 seasons.

Cubs @ Pirates 1:05pm
Samardzija (0-0) v Liriano (0-0)
Well, it’s the first game of the day, so that’s the best reason to watch this one. But if you need more, you’ve got beautiful PNC park as a backdrop, reigning NL MVP Andrew McCutchen due to bat right around the time you’d normally make an afternoon coffee run, and all that against a Cubs team that appears poised for great entertainment value, if not a great record.

Best reason to watch the Cubs in 2014: To see which players you’d like your favourite team to trade for. Even the best young players this season seem far from untouchable as their rebuild continues.

Royals @ Tigers 1:08pm
Shields (0-0) v Verlander (0-0)
Probably the very best pitching match-up of the day, assuming 2009-2013 Justin Verlander isn’t gone forever. If you like strikeouts, this’ll be the game for you.

Nationals @ Mets 1:10pm
Strasburg (0-0) v Gee (0-0)
With an easy-to-feast-on Mets lineup, Stephen Strasburg may give us the first OMG pitching performance of the year.

Phillies @ Rangers 2:05pm
Lee (0-0) v Scheppers (0-0)
The Tanner Scheppers, Starting Pitcher experiment is one that seems like it could go either way, and is a storyline worth watching its impact on the AL West race.

Best reason to watch the Phillies in 2014: They’re still technically a major league baseball team.

Braves @ Brewers 2:10pm
Teheran (0-0) v Gallardo (0-0)
All eyes will be on Khris Davis, who’s hoping to make it two years in a row a superstar by that name hammers home runs for all to enjoy.

Red Sox @ Orioles 3:05pm
Lester (0-0) v Tillman (0-0)
If Jon Lester’s not already in your plans every fifth day, I don’t know what else to tell you.

Twins @ White Sox 4:10pm
Nolasco (0-0) v Sale (0-0)
Thank goodness for Chris Sale.

Best reason to watch the Twins in 2014: Figure out fly ball angles ahead of the Home Run Derby.
Best reason to watch the White Sox in 2014: There’s something about the ChiSox that gives them the sleeper vibe.

Cardinals @ Reds 4:10pm
Wainwright (0-0) v Cueto (0-0)
The Cards and Reds have been the principals in one of baseball’s hottest rivalries the last couple of years, and this one should be a treat right out of the gate. Just for fun, add Waino and Cueto—a pair of Cy Young hopefuls—to the mix.

Rockies @ Marlins 7:05pm
De La Rosa (0-0) v Fernandez (0-0)
It’s just awful that the Marlins get to have nice things like Jose Fernandez, but it’s great for fans. If his 2014 performance is anything like last year’s, he’s on the must-watch list every fifth day.

Best reason to watch the Marlins in 2014: Other than Fernandez, Giancarlo Stanton’s a good pick. Garrett Jones and Jarrod Saltalamacchia join Stanton to make up a pretty powerful heart of the order. Could be a lot of fireworks.

Giants @ D-backs 9:40pm
Bumgarner (0-0) v McCarthy (0-0)
If you spent half as much money on Paul Goldschmidt in your fantasy draft as I assume you did, you’re going to want to watch him often.

Indians @ Athletics 10:05pm
Masterson (0-0) v Gray (0-0)
Sonny Gray’s been a highly-touted prospect since the moment he was drafted, and his 13th Major League appearance is today’s Opening Day start against the media-darling Tribe. This one is worth staying up late for.

Mariners @ Angels 10:05pm
Hernandez (0-0) v Weaver (0-0)
Mike Trout, Mike Trout. Mike Trout, Mike Trout, Mike Trout, Mike Trout.

Best reason to watch the Mariners in 2014: The new-look Mariners, featuring Robinson Cano, Logan Morrison, a handful of power-hitting holdovers, and shortened outfield fences, are suddenly worth a look even when King Felix isn’t pitching.

In defense of the five-year policy

It's ruffled a lot of feathers this week, but is it possible the Jays' so-called five-year max policy is a good thing?

It’s ruffled a lot of feathers this week, but is it possible the Jays’ so-called five-year max policy is a good thing?

Hey guys, have you heard? The Blue Jays have a totally bullshit policy of not signing free agents to deals longer than five years? It’s a pretty under-the-radar thing, and it certainly hasn’t been clogging up my damn Twitter feed all damn week, so I figured I should let you know it’s a thing.

But I should probably also let you know I don’t really think the policy is bullshit. I did a little digging at ESPN’s free agent tracker page, which handily has historical info going back to 2006-07 off-season. Let’s see if we can find some long-term (five years or more) deals that hadn’t turned to utter shit before the end of year three.

The 2006-07 off-season was particularly ripe with god-awful long-term deals. Leading the charge was Barry Zito’s big pay day with the San Francisco Giants, worth $126 million over seven years. Zito’s deal is arguably worthwhile. The Giants won two World Series during his time. He was a key part of their 2012 World Series win, but was left off their 2010 postseason roster. That $126 million also led to exactly zero All-Star appearances or major post-season awards.

The other big payday after the 2006 season went to Alfonso Soriano, who signed with the Chicago Cubs for eight years and $136 million. In 2007, the deal looked great. Soriano collected 173 hits in 135 games, was an All-Star, and nearly cracked the top 10 in MVP voting. But by 2008, injuries started taking their toll, and it became more and more clear Soriano was among the worst defenders in the big leagues. In 2009, Soriano’s batting average dropped 39 points from his near-career average .280 in 2008 to .241. In each of 2010, 11, 12 and 13, Soriano batted below his career average and the Cubs finally unloaded him to the desperate Yankees late last season. The Cubs were swept out of the Division Series in 2007 and 08 and haven’t been back since.

Also from 2006: the Houston Astros gave Carlos Lee $100 million over six years. He weighed more than that hundred mil before the end of the deal in 2012, and the slugger failed to hit 30 homers in each of the last five years of the deal. The Astros didn’t make the playoffs during the deal. Kansas City gave Gil Meche 5/$55MM, which was laughable at the time, and just sad when Meche didn’t even play five more years. The Red Sox looked like they had a steal in Daisuke Matsuzaka during his first two years of his 6/$52MM deal. But he pitched just 296 innings over the last four years of the deal and spent most of 2013 in the minors. The New York Yankees also dove into the Japanese market, signing Kei Igawa to a five-year deal worth $20 million. Igawa played one full season in New York. The Angels gave Gary Matthews Jr 5/$50MM that winter, which might be among the worst contracts ever. Matthews hit .252, .242, and .250 in three seasons with the Halos before being traded to the Mets where he’d play just 36 more games before leaving baseball before the end of the contract. The Dodgers gave Juan Pierre 5/$44MM. Even though he put up good numbers in the first three years of the deal, and he helped the Dodgers to back-to-back NLCS berths, he was shipped out to the White Sox before the 2010 season.

If Pierre and Zito were two maybe-worth-it deals, JD Drew and Aramis Ramirez stand out as two deals that mostly worked out. The Red Sox gave JD Drew five years/$70MM. For their money, the Red Sox got one All-Star appearance and two 20+ home run seasons plus a World Series win in 2007. Aramis Ramirez re-signed with the Cubs for 5/$75MM and was actually pretty good, winning a Silver Slugger in 2011, getting an All-Star nod in 2008, and landing in the top 15 of MVP voting in 2007 and 2008. He posted a .292 batting average over the life of the deal, and averaged 30 doubles and 24 homers per season.

The other six five-or-more-years deals were pretty dreadful.

Despite the earlier success enjoyed by many of those players, the 2007 off-season was quiet with just three long-term deals handed out. Torii Hunter’s five-year, $90 million deal with the Angels worked out alright. Hunter was an All-Star twice, won two Gold Gloves and a Silver Slugger, and the Halos made the playoffs twice. The 10-year deal the Yankees gave Alex Rodriguez is nothing but shades of grey and turmoil. Rodriguez landed in the MVP voting in each of the first three years of the deal and the Yankees won the World Series in 2009, though he came nowhere near reaching career-highs in any stats. Years four thru six were injury-plagued and year seven will be spent serving a season-long suspension for being MLB’s PED Kingpin. The last long-term deal was a five-year, $60 million pact between Aaron Rowand–whom the Internet assured me was a Major League baseball player–and the Giants. Rowand played just four of the five years, and was a part-time player during the Giants’ World Series win in 2010.

The last off-season for which we can see the full result of five-year deals is the 2008 off-season. Like 2007, there were just three long-term deals–and they were all signed by the Yankees. They inked Mark Teixeira, CC Sabathia and AJ Burnett to eight, seven, and five-year deals, respectively. Much like A-Rod, the first three years for Tex and Sabathia were great. They won the World Series in 2009, and both players were legitimate candidates for post-season hardware. Teixeira’s battled injuries in 2012 and 2013 though, and Sabathia also slipped in 2013–posting an ERA over 4.00 for the first time since 2004. AJ Burnett never got his ERA below 4.00 with the Yankees and after three seasons they paid Pittsburgh to take him off their hands.

That’s 16 contracts, and by my count just two of them still looked good after three seasons. So hate on this Jays policy all you want, it’s probably actually a good policy. The worst part of it is the fact it’s become awfully public.

It seems this week to have cost the Jays a chance at signing Masahiro Tanaka, but there’s a 7-in-8 chance we’ll all be pretty glad about that once the 2017 season rolls around.

Top Prospects Game and CSS Update

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Wednesday night I took in the 2014 BMO Top Prospects Game at the Saddledome. It was my first time seeing the game live, and before I offer any thoughts about the players involved, I must urge you to check this game out if it’s ever in a town near you. It was an exceptionally entertaining game, and a nice way to get a read on several top prospects in relation to one another.

Conveniently, NHL Central Scouting released their January rankings Monday, giving us a handy list of players to watch. Unfortunately for us, their newly-minted top pick Sam Bennett wasn’t able to play in the event. Let’s take a look at some of the guys that did.

Leon Draisaitl, ranked second by Central Scouting was on hand. I’ve seen him a couple times when his Prince Albert Raiders have been to town, and we all got a good look at him playing for Germany at the World Juniors. Scouts seem to be in love with Draisaitl’s size and vision. They’re right to be. His vision is elite, and he’s nearly impossible to knock off the puck. But I’m not sure where this number two ranking comes from. His skating seems to be average at best, and after a very good performance in the first period last night, he was pretty invisible in the second and third. After last night, I’m not convinced he’s the second best prospect in the WHL this season, never mind all of North America.

Aaron Ekblad, who you may remember from his role anchoring Canada’s blue line at the WJC, captained Team Orr and didn’t have his best night. Despite that, the third-ranked North American was one of the best players on the ice most of the time. It was interesting to see in person how physically imposing Ekblad is. He often played the role of policeman whenever there was a little scrum or chippiness after a whistle–and sometimes instigated it, almost as if he were trying to prove he has a mean streak.

Coming in fourth in the CSS ranking is Ekblad’s WJC teammate, and opposing captain last night, Sam Reinhart. I wrote earlier in the season that Reinhart was potentially the only NHL-ready forward in the draft. He may have company in that regard, but his play last night and at the WJC made it clear he’s still the best forward I’ve seen, and the best in the WHL. He’s not big, but he’s strong. He has better vision that Draisaitl, controls the puck with shocking ease, and has a nose for the net. He’s also nearly unbeatable in the face-off circle.

Michael Dal Colle of the Oshawa Generals is fifth on Central Scouting’s list, and spent most of last night showing off his elite shot and high-end skating ability. He was overshadowed by a few of his Team Cherry teammates, but showed good hockey sense to go along with the shot. He’s a very well-rounded player.

Sixth on Central Scouting’s list is Red Deer defenseman Haydn Fleury. I’ve seen Fleury and his Rebels a few times; I’ve never really seen what others see in him. He’s big and mobile, there’s no doubt about that. But most nights I’ve seen him, he’s not done much with that size and speed, and the knock on his is his defensive zone play. I don’t think he’s the best draft-eligible defenseman in the WHL this season.

Nick Ritchie suited up alongside Reinhart, Dal Colle, and Fleury for Team Cherry and spent most of the night trying to pick fights. He’s seventh on the CSS list but didn’t leave a lasting impression last night.

Niagara’s Brandon Perlini played on a line with Jared McCann most of the game, and wasn’t able to stand out much since McCann was perhaps the best player in the game. Perlini did show some good hockey sense and good speed but had any thunder he may have generated stolen.

Ninth on Central Scouting’s list is Calgary’s Jake Virtanen. Virtanen has elite speed and skating. He’s unreal. He’s always looked much faster than his WHL opponents, but to see him use his speed in this context was something else. The crowd wanted nothing more than to see our “Virtsy” pot one, and he came close a few times–even ringing one off the post that must have dented it. A very strong showing by Virtanen.

Sarnia’s Anthony DeAngelo rounds out the top 10, and it’s easy to see what scouts like about him. I’d describe him as an offense-first player, but worry that might imply he has any sort of defensive game. Team Cherry got stuck in their own zone a few times while DeAngelo was on the ice. He’s a guy that could be worth the defensive risk for the right NHL club.

So that’s a look at the top 10. I’ll have more on these guys and other participants in the future. Let’s wrap up with the top guys, in my opinion, the Dub has to offer this June.

Top 5 WHL forwards
1. Sam Reinhart, Kootenay
2. Jake Virtanen, Calgary
3. Nikita Sherbak, Saskatoon
4. Leon Draisaitl, Prince Albert
5. Conner Bleackley, Red Deer

Top 5 WHL defensemen
1. Julius Honka, Swift Current
2. Brycen Martin, Swift Current
3. Haydn Fleury, Red Deer
4. Ben Thomas, Calgary
5. Dysin Mayo, Edmonton

Hockey Canada’s lesson

By now, if you follow the World Juniors, you’ve seen Brent Sutter’s quote above. You’ve probably read or heard echoed sentiments and counter-arguments. To me, he starts on a high note. His belief that winning and losing are too important at grassroots levels is bang on. In fact, I’d argue it goes even further up the chain from grassroots to major midget to major junior and into the pro leagues.

But it sure rings hollow when Sutter starts to lament a lack of skill in Canadian players. Sutter, in concert with Hockey Canada’s leadership, decided against holding a 40-player camp with a full tryout process. Sutter, along with Hockey Canada, decided the highly-skilled Darnell Nurse was too risky a player to bring. Same for Max Domi. And Hunter Shinkaruk.

Those guys were left home over the holidays in favour of players with safer games, players with “intangibles” and “character.” Nurse, who was thought unable to play a team game sat at home watching Jonathan Drouin go one-on-five nearly every shift.

Despite numerous errors in the way this team was assembled and coached, Canada had an opportunity to play for a medal thanks to the skill this team had.

But there are two potential silver linings to come from this.

One: here’s hoping Hockey Canada will stop turning to Sutter every time they need a win. In this age group, and over the course of seven games, coaching matters. Good coaches stop Drouin’s one-man-gang approach. A good coach keeps the McDavid-Reinhart-Horvat line together. A good coach makes the simple adjustment to offensive zone faceoff alignments to have a defenseman lined up closer to the centre when the centres are winning draws so cleanly the puck ends up back in the Canadian end.

Two: Hockey Canada got a really good view of what happens when you try to build the right team with the right guys in the right roles instead of sending the 25 best players. With any luck, Steve Yzerman and co. took notice and tomorrow’s Olympic team roster announcement will reflect what we should all have learned over the holidays.

Fans first, as always.

A sample schedule, from @NHL_PR

There’s something to be said for the old “dance with the one who brung ya” adage. There’s also something to be said for just throwing yourself into the arms of the highest bidder.

Very late Monday night, news spread that the NHL had gone decidedly in the latter direction. For all of TSN’s unwavering support and uncritical reporting during two lockouts, for all of TSN’s hard work turning the NHL into an honest-to-goodness golden goose, for all the work TSN does promoting World Junior Championship stars as future NHL stars, for more than 60 years of partnership with CBC… the league was unable to turn down the money.

Maybe there’s more to it than the money. Maybe Rogers has some great plans and great ideas. At the moment, though, they’re just splattering “MOAR GAMES!!!” everywhere they can. Since that’s the only promise they’ve made, let’s start there.

Let’s look at the chart above, the one the league peddled all day Tuesday.

That’s 10 games in English and six in French. I sure like the sounds of having 10 options. But where’s Rogers going to come up with 10 broadcast teams worthy of national coverage like that? CBC struggles to find four during the first round of the playoffs, and TSN doesn’t even use four–they relay American coverage for many of their games. Is relaying someone else’s production Rogers’ idea of building their NHL coverage brand? Cause that’s a bad idea.

If Rogers is going to rely on relays, that defeats the NHL’s desire to have one company carrying the load.

It was the league that wanted to put all of its rights in the hands of one media company over multiple platforms, says Pelley. “It was their decision. The NHL was proactive on that.”
Link

Of course, this article indicates Rogers platforms would only have been carrying five (four English, one French) of the games in the chart. Which CBC already does pretty regularly on Saturdays with good afternoon matchups. So let’s not get our hopes up too much about that “MOAR GAMES!!!” thing just yet.

Now that we’ve punched a hole in the only thing they’ve told us so far, some questions:

Why did the NHL want to get all of it’s content into the hands of one media company? MLB gets by just fine using Fox Sports, TBS, and ESPN for national games. The NBA’s deal with TNT and ESPN sure works out well for them. And the NFL was able to expand it’s already impressive media reach to Thursday nights by cooperating with ABC, Fox, ESPN and NBC. Insert sarcasm font: Clearly, the NHL knows something all those other leagues don’t.

What does the Wednesday, Saturday/Sunday provision mean? Will the traditional Tuesday night Habs game disappear? What games can I see on the other four days of the week? Will there be no hockey those days? How does that mean “MOAR GAMES!!!”?

As a fan of some of Sportsnet’s other properties, I’m curious. What will become of the already inconsistent Friday night CHL game? And the Subway Super Series? And the Blue Jays? If there’s a night with five NHL playoff games, what channel will I find the Blue Jays on? Will NHL games bump NBA basketball, NCAA basketball and football, and CIS football from Sportsnet 360?

Are Doug MacLean and Nick Kypreos now the broadcast face of the NHL? And how does Sportsnet plan to show all these games without cannibalizing their own audience? Since Rogers has the NHL rights for every platform, will Centre Ice go away in Canada? With no broadcast competition, how do we know Rogers will strive for excellence for the next 12 years? Any Rogers Wireless customer can tell you they certainly don’t in that field.

Speaking of which, will Rogers cable, internet, or wireless customers get perks that I don’t? I can’t even get Rogers cable where I live, and I rather enjoy using a cell provider who wasn’t sued for falsely claiming to be Canada’s most reliable network. But who’s going to stop them? (I know, I know, the CRTC’s supposed to make sure that stuff won’t happen)

This is a massive project for Rogers. I sure as shit hope they were able to answer some of these questions for the NHL before the league execs dived into the pile of money. Of course, with the league’s track record for caring about fans, it’s hard for me to imagine they ever even asked.