December 27, 2011

Bringing 'em all back home.

The Philadelphia Eagles will close out the 2011 season with a win over the Washington Redskins on Sunday, and Andy Reid will return as head coach in 2012.

These may not be certainties, but I feel pretty comfortable in making both assumptions.

The real question will be what to do with the rest of the team in 2012. Resign DeSean Jackson? Trade Asante Samuel? Buy into the maturation of Kurt Coleman and Brian Rolle?

And, of course, bring back Juan Castillo as defensive coordinator?

The facts are these: The Eagles are now eighth in yards allowed and tied for 12th in points allowed. Back on November 28th, the Eagles were 15th in yards allowed and 21st in points allowed. Pretty big jump. They've allowed only 67 points over the last four weeks, and that's including the debacle in Seattle.

They're first in sacks with 49. They've given up the sixth-most touchdowns through the air (26) despite holding teams to only 210 passing yards per game (eighth overall). Their 23 takeaways (14 picks, 9 fumbles) are middle of the pack, while their 36 giveaways on offense are tied with Tampa Bay for worst in the NFL.

This tells me a few things: The Eagles' defense -- despite early-season, late-in-game struggles and some poor work in the red zone -- is above average. You could even argue that it's good. The offense, on the other hand, which was supposed to be the team's strength, has faltered at key times. More than faltered, even; they've given the ball back to the opposition more than anyone else in the league, creating a strain that'd crush even the best teams.

Simply put, Juan Castillo seems to be running a damn fine defense these days. And maybe the Eagles should give him the chance to prove that the last few weeks are no fluke.

There are a few intelligent arguments against this idea. My dad and I got in one such debate recently; his take is that a easy late-season schedule has made Castillo's defense look better than it really is. A mirage, so to speak. But Miami was on a roll when the Eagles came to town (27.8 PPG over their last five games), and the biggest non-New England defensive hiccup of the last two months was the result of Seattle feasting on Vince Young's mistakes (two TDs off interceptions, another returned for a touchdown).

And now the inevitable Steve Spagnuolo talk has begun. In a vacuum, no one with a brain would argue for Juan Castillo over Steve Spagnuolo. In fact, Spags seems like the perfect candidate: history with Andy Reid and the Eagles, Super Bowl ring, etc. But you have to admit that Juan's defense has improved in pretty much every aspect of the game. If Spagnuolo is looking to strip down and start over, is it worth suffering through another bout of growing pains for a former head coach who's probably not looking to settle down in Philly too long? Not sure if going with a hired gun, even one that's a known quantity, is wise in what very well may be Reid's last season.

Unless, of course, upper management would consider Spagnuolo a possible replacement for Reid down the line. But that's a whole other can of worms that we'll have the pleasure of opening if/when the time is right.

Honestly, I didn't want to bring Juan Castillo back. I thought it was a fun experiment that had flopped in embarrassing fashion. But if you believe in the strides that the team's been making, if you buy that Juan's finally earned the trust of his defense, if you think Jim Washburn's pass-rushing strategy is doing its job, then don't blow it up. Don't bring in another coordinator who might want something totally different, even if he does come with a link to the glory days of Jim Johnson.

Give Andy and Juan a short leash; one more season to show what they've got. Juan was Andy's call; let him make or break Reid's tenure. I don't want to see another maddeningly inconsistent year of football, but I like what I've seen over the last few weeks. I think it's for real.

I was all ready to go cold turkey on this team after the Seattle game, but they haven't quit on themselves. With a few smart personnel moves, some continued improvement from young players and seriously cutting down on turnovers, there's no reason the Eagles won't bounce back in 2012. Don't throw out the baby with the bathwater until you're damn sure it can't be cleaned.

December 20, 2011

In praise of The Tobolowsky Files.

Until recently, I wasn't much of a podcast listener. And I'm not sure why The Tobolowsky Files became my gateway into the world of long-form digital chatter.

My only guess is that I love character actors. Harry Dean Stanton, James Rebhorn, Fred Ward, Richard Jenkins. Some are a little more well-known than others, but they're all adept at making even the smallest part seem important. Casting Frank Vincent as a mobster can give the role a little more gravitas than going with some unknown Italian guy. In many ways, they end up having far more interesting, and lengthier, careers than big-time blockbuster stars.

Stephen Tobolowsky, of course, is quite the character actor; one of the most prolific of all time. I knew him chiefly from memorable roles in Memento and Groundhog Day, but also from guest spots on Seinfeld, Heroes and Deadwood. He's one of those performers who always looks happy to be there, even in a do-nothing part or a lame children's movie.

And that's probably because he is pleased to be there, pleased to be working, no matter what thankless task he's assigned. Stephen Tobolowsky isn't quite rich, and he's only mildly famous. He's not exactly handsome or dashing. He's a professional actor, yes, and a successful one, but he's also very much a human being. He's not disengaged from reality, and he suffers from the same kind of loss and heartache as we do, the kind that we don't always associate with Hollywood folk.

Even though I don't know the man personally, I can say all this with certainty because I'm 38 episodes deep into his wonderful and illuminating podcast series. In it, Tobolowsky talks candidly, sometimes remarkably so, about his ups and downs in "life, love and the entertainment industry." Listeners who're just starting out may only know him from a movie here or there, but Tobolowsky does not hesitate in welcoming you into his own little world.

Every episode is a new story from Stephen's life. Some are pleasant and occasionally eye-opening tales from his many films and TV shows: the complications of guest starring on a melting-down Heroes, the antics of Bill Murray on the set of Groundhog Day, the joy that comes with being cast on a future hit show like Glee.

But it's not all about the work. Stephen also discusses lost loves, the deaths of friends and family, those dark moments when you can barely get out of bed, let alone go star in movies. He's not afraid to delve into his previous problems with drugs and alcohol, the difficulty of finding a job in an industry built on saying "no," the horrors of having your dreams nearly dashed by a vengeful peer or superior. He's an expert storyteller with tremendous skill at relaying roller-coaster-like tales of the past, and the podcast is a perfect vehicle for these kind of 40-minute, multi-part narratives.

What's most impressive, however, is the clarity with which he describes the events of his life. One of his stories touches on how Jane Lynch, star of Glee, has a supernatural ability to detach herself from personal disasters when relaying them in anecdotes. Tobolowsky's certainly not emotionally detached from his past -- he's been known to break down a bit when relaying a particularly heartbreaking tale -- but he seems to have figured out how each of his life's major moments fits into the giant puzzle of human existence. He can find lessons in both the good and the bad, and illustrate to his listeners how they made him, if not a better person, at least a more complete and satisfied one. At age 60 Tobolowsky boasts a pretty firm, and rare, grasp of the big picture, and an understanding of how each of his many years helped to paint it.

Not only is Tobolowsky still hard at work on The Tobolowsky Files (the latest episode dropped in late November), but he's also writing books, giving live performances and using pretty much every available medium to bring his stories to life. It's been a pleasure to see this truly charming actor -- a classically trained thespian with more range than people give him credit for (here's hoping some talented indie director crafts a Tobo-based lead role in the near future, a la Jenkins in The Visitor) -- tap into yet another creative outlet at this point in his career. The world is a better place for it.

If you're interested in breaking into The Tobolowsky Files, start with The Voice from Another Room. Or check out Stephen Tobolowsky's Birthday Party, which is the feature film that sparked the podcast. Since you've taken the time to read this blog post about a podcast in the first place, I suspect you won't be disappointed.

December 7, 2011

A buncha movie reviews.

As my esteemed life partner Kat Devlin pointed out to me last night, writing up a batch of movie reviews only a month before my top 10 list comes out might be a bit repetitive. But I've seen four movies lately that have piqued my interest and deserve some attention. Plus, I don't have much else to write about (unless Ruben Amaro trades for Gio Gonzalez later today), so here we go.

Shame - The film I've seen most recently, and the one I was most excited for. I loved Steve McQueen's feature debut Hunger, about the hunger strike of IRA member Bobby Sands, and I was extremely excited to see what the great Michael Fassbender could do with the role of a New York City sex addict.

Well, Fassbender did not disappoint. By following up his scene-stealing performance in Inglourious Basterds with both X-Men: First Class and now Shame, he's shown an ability to throw himself into any performance, even if it involves wearing a big anti-telepathy helmet. Not only is Fassbender asked to perform a series of degrading, shocking acts in this movie, he's also forced to keep those tensions, that inescapable desire for filth, bubbling just below the surface while his character inhabits the real world. His disconnected demeanor may seem intriguing to some, but to an audience that has just seen him masturbating in the work bathroom, it betrays a twisted individual within who needs help.

But McQueen, in only his second feature film, comes up a little short. I loved how narrow and dark he made New York seem; every storefront Fassbender walks by seems barren; every bright light is either in the distance or obscured by a window. The movie, and the world of the movie itself, is unquestionably Fassbender's alone. But for all of his visual acumen, McQueen sets a very slow pace. Scenes and conversations are drawn out, ostensibly to heighten tension or increase intensity, but they tend to drag on a bit too long in the process.

And most of these lengthy moments are surprisingly limiting, offering little-to-no character development or plot detail. I usually enjoy when a filmmaker offers the viewer an opportunity to fill in a few of the blanks, but you have to present the blanks in the first place. Sometimes this movie felt aloof for the sake of being aloof, as if providing no backstory was a necessary part of making a provocative independent film.

Shame looks great and its lead performance is dynamite, but in the end it was more of a vehicle for those excellent elements than a complete work of art.

Martha Marcy May Marlene - Another movie, like Shame, that could have greatly benefited from a bit more backstory.

Elizabeth Olsen, the youngest (and by far the most talented) of the Olsen children, plays a young girl who's just escaped from a cult (run by the quietly creepy John Hawkes). She moves in with her sister, who's married a well-to-do businessman from the city and vacations in a home not far from the cult's headquarters. And, of course, scary dreams and mental breakdowns ensue.

I don't mean to shortchange the film too much; it's the first feature from director Sean Durkin, and Olsen should get an Oscar nomination for displaying such a healthy mix of both helplessness and combativeness.

But if Durkin had provided a bit more clarity, maybe Olsen's distraught behavior would carry more weight. Instead, in the end, we're left with the memories (or nightmares) of an untrustworthy narrator. While this comes with an implied sense of curiosity and dread, it also leaves the door a bit too wide open for my tastes. Was it all exaggerated, or even imagined? Is she going to live the rest of her life in fear of something that isn't even there? The possibilities offered up are intriguing but not enthralling. I was left wondering what more was there; how much impact a few more defining scenes would have added to the movie.

Martha Marcy May Marlene is a damn fine debut for a young filmmaker and actress, but it feels incomplete and lacking the follow-through on what felt like an incoming knockout punch.

The Descendants - And now we get to the crowd-pleaser.

Even though George Clooney's movies don't gross as much as everyone thinks, he's one of our most beloved actors. Which is weird, when you look at his track record. I love Fantastic Mr. Fox, Burn After Reading, Michael Clayton and Good Night, and Good Luck as much as anybody, but they're not exactly moneymaking hits. In fact, minus Up in the Air and the Ocean's movies, Clooney's been practically an indie darling for the last decade.

But I'm not arguing with the guy's choices, especially his increasingly obvious desire to snare roles that aren't right in his wheelhouse. After supposedly campaigning hard to play Thomas Haden Church's character in Sideways, Clooney finally gets his leading gig in an Alexander Payne movie. And he knocks it out of the park.

This is frumpy, conflicted Clooney, not dashing spy Clooney. This is the kind of Clooney whose wife cheats on him with Matthew Lillard, as inconceivable as that may be. This is the Clooney who runs around corners at full speed in flip flops, the kind of Clooney who's best buddies with Mary Birdsong and Rob Huebel. He's still charming and smooth-talking, but you can see the handful of hardships he's suffered in his face.

What at first confused me and now interests me about this film was its relative lack of narrative structure. Things don't exactly fit together. There are emotional moments and the story flows along, but no one really learns anything. No characters go through big internal changes. They find out a little more about each other, and then they all eat ice cream together.

This threw me for a loop at first, mostly because I was expecting a conventional film with a beginning and an end. But it did feel more real, how a family might actually react to tragedy and controlled chaos. People are who they are, and in The Descendants, said people are a well-to-do "Hawaiian" family with issues like internal communication and not enough attention being paid to certain details. In this neat little slice of their lives captured on screen, they figure it all out well enough to function as a slightly tweaked version of their same selves.

I'm still not sure why this is garnering so much award show praise, but it is probably Payne's least quirky and most accessible film to date. Add in a little Robert Forster and a pinch of Judy Greer and you've got a somewhat perplexingly enjoyable movie.

Take Shelter - The first film I saw starring Michael Shannon was Bug, William Friedkin's adaptation of a play in which two people slowly go insane in a motel room. My brother loved it; I did not, but I was definitely intrigued by Shannon and his increasingly unstable performance. He played an excellent psycho.

And now here we are, after Revolutionary Road, Boardwalk Empire and a handful of other career-propelling roles, and Michael Shannon's finally a "leading man." Perhaps surprisingly, after so many movies where he's unquestionably mad, Take Shelter offers a nuanced take on Shannon's onset of mental illness and how it affects his family and the people around him.

In Shame, Michael Fassbender's character is developed through brief glimpses into his private life, offhand gestures and snippets of information. His dialogue is minimal and his backstory is basically nonexistent. As I said, this can be a fine way to make a movie: allowing an intelligent audience to fill in the holes as they see fit. But it doesn't always hold up when you're also asking us to emotionally invest. It makes it easy to detach.

In contrast, Take Shelter offers numerous scenes with Michael Shannon's wife and child, scenes where you can see how much he cares about them and how his descent into madness is tearing them apart. It makes what's happening onscreen less clinical and more affecting. Conversations with his coworker (Eli from Boardwalk Empire!) and his brother (the reverend from Deadwood!) make Shannon's character more than just another psycho, and they make his illness more than just a plot point that gives Shannon free reign to scream and flip over tables. This is a person with connections, and those might be taken away by forces out of his control. That's some heartbreaking stuff right there.

Maybe the point of Shame was to make Fassbender's character unreachable, to keep his twisted desires away from the audience and induce either pity or disgust. He had no connections, because he couldn't emotionally form them in the first place. No matter the case, I preferred Take Shelter's method. I cared about what I saw on screen, and when the movie ended with a curious final scene, I was compelled to discuss it with my friends and work out its meaning. As either a metaphor or reality, it captured the hell that his family would continue going through.

Take Shelter was an unexpectedly moving look at a simple man combating demons brought about by genetics and bad luck. Shannon's face and features have been long associated with a dignified sort of creepiness, but hopefully this movie will make it clear that his range extends beyond the neatly tortured souls he's specialized in up to this point.

November 28, 2011

Coming apart at the seams.

A college friend of mine used to have a saying that we all loved. Maybe it was the way he said it (or the frequency of use) more than the saying itself, but every time something would go awry or someone would get a little too graphic with a story, he'd yell, "That shit is gross!"

Those words kept ringing in my head throughout yesterday's Eagles game.

I've alternately cast the Eagles aside and believed in their potential to bounce back, but now we know for sure. This is a bad football team, one that's coming apart at the seams.

I don't think the Eagles will fire Andy Reid. He's got two years left on his contract, and the players still seem to have his back. Plus, there would have to be a sterling replacement lined up: Jon Gruden, Jeff Fisher, Bill Cowher. No matter what you think about Reid and his 2011 season, he's proven himself many times over as a successful head coach; it wouldn't make sense to replace him with anyone less qualified.

But if Jeffrey Lurie and Joe Banner come to a lesser conclusion -- that Juan Castillo must go -- I don't see how they can relieve him of his defensive coordinator duties and keep Reid onboard. Castillo is Reid's guy. Andy stuck his neck out for Juan, and so far, Juan has not delivered.

Maybe Reid and Howie Roseman didn't supply Castillo with the defensive personnel necessary for success; he didn't have much to choose from in the linebacker and safety department. But the facts are the facts: After 11 games, the Eagles have given up 251 points (21st in the NFL) and 344.6 yards per game (15th in the league). Sean McDermott's defense allowed 321.1 yards per game in 2009 and 327.2 yards per game in 2010. And that got him fired.

You don't need numbers, only eyes, to know that Tom Brady picked the Eagles defense apart last night. They're not the first team he's torched, nor will they be the last, but the disorganized mess that spent three hours chasing after Deion Branch and Wes Welker did not inspire any sort of confidence or hope for the future. This wasn't another blown fourth-quarter lead, but it was the worst home loss since 2009 and the fourth-most points allowed at home in 13 years under Andy Reid.

And now the fans are calling for not only Juan's head but Andy's, too. Will that sway Lurie at all? Will the sight of thousands of  ticket holders streaming out of Lincoln Financial Field in the third quarter have any impact on the owner's state of mind regarding his floundering franchise?

Eagles fans have always been both passionate and reactionary -- present company included -- but an adjective no one's ever used to describe them is "apathetic." Yet I suspect that's how most fans will feel in the weeks to come; the season is cooked, the coach has all but worn out his welcome, every player not named LeSean McCoy (and maybe Jason Peters) has underwhelmed in one way or another. Perhaps an abundance of apathy, not rancor, will inspire change.

At this point, it's all but impossible to argue with the growing disinterest. This was, and I guess still is, one of the more overhyped, disastrous seasons in recent sports history, Philly-based or otherwise. There's no easy way to right the ship; the talent is (arguably) there but the results are nowhere to be found. Maybe the only real question going forward is, massive overhaul or tweak and pray? Either way, the skies over Philadelphia football seem to keep on getting darker.

November 12, 2011

The value of value.

Every fantasy league has that guy who's constantly trying to one-up everyone else.

You know who I'm talking about. The dude (or dudette) who needs to come out on top, no matter what. He'll open negotiations by offering LeGarrette Blount for Ryan Mathews and Greg Jennings, and then call you names when you counter with something reasonable. He doesn't just want to help his team; he wants to squeeze you dry, and he wants everyone in the league to know just how smart and savvy he is in the process.

Lately, many Philadelphia Phillies fans have become that kind of guy. It's not enough for the team to make noise, sign some good players and compete for a championship year after year, which they do. To them, the Phillies need to win every trade; they need to get maximum value from every signing; they need to be the most well-oiled, smoothly operated machine in the history of baseball. Some folks make it seem like treason to expect any less.

And yet, it used to be that the Phillies didn't sign anyone of consequence. Once upon a time, they gave Rheal Cormier three years and $8.75 million; players like him were the best they could do. They operated on the periphery, occasionally thinking big with guys like Gregg Jefferies and Andy Ashby, only to see these attempted forays into respectability blow up in their faces.

Now, they're able to sign respected veterans like Raul Ibanez, Placido Polanco, Cliff Lee and Jonathan Papelbon at the drop of a hat. It's no big thing to spend $120 million on an ace or $50 million on a closer; it's what a competitive team in a big market does. You'd think that long-time Phillies fans would be ecstatic; look at all the money they're spending! And almost all of it on talented players who, in one way or another, can help the team. But you'd be wrong; every signing (sans Lee, of course) is nitpicked to no end. It's not just about bringing in good players anymore; it's about getting fan-approved value.

Is this justified? With all this cash being thrown around, is the team consistently getting its money's worth? There is a way to calculate this sort of thing, at least when it comes to numbers. According to FanGraphs, Raul Ibanez returned $18.1 million of "value" in his three years with the Phillies (compared to his $30 million salary) but that was lowered considerably by the left-fielder actually "costing" the team $6 million with his disappointing 2011 season. But he did return $17.4 million in 2009 alone, when the poor play of Brad Lidge and Cole Hamels, not Ibanez, cost the team its second championship in a row. If Raul had ended up being a key cog in another title run, do we really care how much he "lives up" to his deal?

Contracts in sports are based on performance, sure, but in the end they're all business decisions. The Ryan Howard extension might end up being a mess in terms of value on the field, but if they get a few more years of Howard's recognizable presence at first base, along with 30+ dingers a year and some mashing of right-handed pitching, maybe the bucks all even out. And hopefully, the other perks of employing Howard and Roy Halladay and Papelbon -- name players who'll sell jerseys, ticket packages and other revenue-generating goodies  -- mean that the team around them will continue to improve. Even if Howard isn't worth $25 million on the field, the money can be made up elsewhere. And if the Phillies recognize Howard's on-field limitations and allocate the rest of the payroll wisely, the team stays competitive.

I'm not saying we need to agree with every move Ruben Amaro Jr. makes, and I don't think we should rationalize each signing by saying, "But think of how many tickets he'll sell!" But I am saying that the team won 102 games last year and will almost certainly contend for a title again in 2012 and 2013. And there's no way Amaro thinks Papelbon is the last piece of the puzzle; he wouldn't blow his last $12.5 million on a closer. In the end, will Jonathan Papelbon earn his inflated salary? Probably not. But will he increase the team's chances of winning in the near future? Yes.

The Phillies don't have to win every move they make; that's short-sighted. They need to bring in veteran personnel that can help them compete for a championship while also developing (and eventually, relying on) cheap young talent like Antonio Bastardo, Dom Brown and Trevor May. A solid mix of both is key, along with ensuring that the big contracts you do offer up aren't back-breaking. Is blowing $50 million on a closer smart? I'd say there are better uses for the money, but if Amaro still has a big chunk of cash to spend on the Michael Cuddyers and Jimmy Rollinses of the world, why not?

In the end, I respect his give-to-get, rolling-the-dice style of aggressiveness, and I remember the days when that kind of fire, and especially the kind of dough to bankroll said fire, weren't a part of baseball in Philadelphia.

November 10, 2011

Blind faith in Happy Valley.

From 2004 to 2008, I attended Boston University. Many of my fellow students fell in love with the oft-competitive hockey team, and a few even got into Terrier basketball. But college athletics have never been my bag, and that didn't change just because I was now in college. I went to maybe three hockey games in four years and never really regretted a thing.

So I don't understand how the students of Penn State University, past and present, feel about Joe Paterno and the Nittany Lions football program.

And frankly, I don't want to understand.

I get that this scandal is swirling up boatloads of emotions -- mostly anger at the accused perpetrator and compassion towards the victims -- and I know that many of the people who care the most are those who have attended, taught at or otherwise supported Penn State and the school's football program.

But when Joe Paterno was fired last night, an uncomfortable amount of emphasis was placed on his legacy, his own personal struggles over the past week, his previous battles with PSU's Board of Trustees and other matters that have nothing to do with the current situation.

Even if Paterno is innocent of all legal wrongdoing, even if he followed procedure to the letter when dealing with rumors of Jerry Sandusky's foul play, the fact remains that a pedophile spent years in a position of power, legitimate or implied, on the Penn State campus, many of them coming after investigations were launched into his wrongdoings with young children. If that shouldn't be rectified with a complete ousting of all of the university's leading personnel, football or otherwise, then I don't know what should.

I tweeted earlier this week that Joe Paterno, like Jon Arryn of Game of Thrones, has been Lord of the Eyrie for far too long. For those non-nerds out there, the Eyrie is an impregnable fortress on top of a mountain, one that often chooses not to get involved in matters of worldwide importance. And quaint little State College, Pennsylvania, while not perched high in the sky, is equally as isolated from the rest of college athletics. Once a bastion of respectability and honor, we now see that foul play at Penn State was not only prevalent, it was swept under the rug when deemed inconvenient by coaches and administrators alike.

Since his promotion to head coach in 1966, Joe Paterno rose to become king of Happy Valley. He was beloved by the students and revered by former players. Did all this power cloud his judgment when it came to Sandusky's transgressions? Did it lead to Sandusky's abrupt "retirement" in 1999, an event that many have linked to an investigation into his behavior in 1998, a sort of "out of sight, out of mind" policy that may have saved the university the "trouble" of increased snooping and, eventually, legal liability?

Either way, Joe Paterno has been relieved of his abilities to directly influence matters at Penn State. He's now an unemployed, disgraced old man, one who has made at least a few dubious ethical decisions over the last decade; decisions that may have led to the continued molestation of numerous young children. And to look upon that with anything but scorn and dismay blows my mind.

To anyone with common sense, Joe Paterno's time as a respected leader of young men is at an end. And good riddance. For some, though, he's still their coach, one who won a bunch of football games, donated a bunch of money, and then was caught up in a whirlwind that only included him tangentially and therefore shouldn't land on his plate.

But as Bruce Springsteen once said, "Blind faith in your leaders, or in anything, will get you killed." Sandusky may be innocent until proven guilty, but the facts have been pretty neatly laid out: He did wrong, and Paterno was aware. Blind faith in a football coach may not get you killed, but it will make you truly blind to what really matters.

November 4, 2011

Andy's adaptation abilities.

Andy Reid has his flaws. Extremely frustrating failings that'll make you want to rip your eyes out or, more reasonably, flip to another game.

Clock management is one. Stubbornness is another.

Like the time he assigned the completely untested Greg Lewis and J.R. Reed to return punts. It cost the Eagles the game and forced the hopelessly mediocre Reno Mahe back into our lives.

Like his refusal to spend on linebackers and safeties. Maybe we shouldn't lament the loss of Stewart Bradley, but I wonder how the Eagles defense would have looked earlier this season with Quintin Mikell in the defensive backfield instead of Jarrad Page.

A few weeks ago, I would have also added "like the time he hired offensive line coach Juan Castillo to be the new defensive coordinator." But a funny thing happened along the way; the Eagles defense started to improve.

They've allowed only 127 rushing yards over the last two games. Nnamdi Asomugha looks increasingly comfortable in Castillo's schemes. The wide nine has apparently been tweaked (or maybe better grasped by the players), rookie Casey Matthews has been banished from the starting lineup, and the Brian Rolle/Jamar Chaney/Moise Fokou trio has shored up a previously detrimental linebacking core.

And therein lies Andy Reid's genius: His ability to adapt. He's one of the best coaches in the league, maybe in the history of the game, at rolling with the punches.

He's 13-0 after the bye, and he's 62-33-1 in the second half of the season. Take out 2005, which turned into a lost season, and the handful of late-December losses that came after the Eagles had already locked up a playoff spot, and you've got an almost-immaculate record from November on.

Some coaches wither and die after being dealt a bad hand. To his credit, Andy Reid is not one of them.

His in-game decision-making isn't always top-notch, but give him a bye week -- or even sometimes just an intermission -- to get situated and you'll often see the play-calling or the scheme do a complete 180° flip. The team that destroyed Dallas on Sunday night was not the team that pissed away wins in Atlanta and Buffalo. That's Andy Reid out-coaching Jason Garrett and Rob Ryan, that's coaches flip-flopping starters and building up the confidence and capabilities of rookies like Danny Watkins.

Unfortunately, making midseason changes isn't always enough; despite two very strong games in a row (and the promise of more to come) the Eagles remain two wins behind the New York Giants with only one head-to-head match-up remaining. They'll have to take at least 6 of their last 9 games to have any chance at the playoffs. Luckily, they have the personnel to pull it off.

I really thought this might be Andy Reid's last hurrah. Turnovers abounded, and the defense and offensive line took some time to get going. But Castillo's straightened his boys out, and Howard Mudd looks to be every bit the Hall of Fame line coach they said he was.

With the NFL's leading rush attack, a healthy Michael Vick and a boatload of everyone's favorite intangible, momentum, the pieces are there for another dominant season-ending stretch. If the Eagles are able to rebound from 1-4 and live up to the preseason hype after all, this just might be Andy Reid's masterpiece.

November 1, 2011

Jimmy Rollins or Ryan Madson?

In roughly 34 hours, Major League Baseball free agents will be allowed to sign with whichever team they please.

For the Philadelphia Phillies, this'll require saying goodbye to players like Raul Ibanez, Brian Schneider, Roy Oswalt and Ross Gload. For the most part -- or, in Oswalt's case, for the money it'd probably take to keep him around -- they won't be missed.

And then we come to Ryan Madson and Jimmy Rollins. The general consensus is that one of these two guys will be back for 2012 and beyond; figuring out which one it'll be has been the tough part.

I've advocated resigning both of them in the past, but I also recognize that doing so might be a financial stretch. The Phillies are a big market team, one that shouldn't have to cut too many corners, but even the richest teams have a breaking point.

So if it comes down to one or the other, bring back Jimmy Rollins.

I know that Ruben Amaro Jr. has already expressed his desire for a "proven closer," and Madson certainly fits that bill after last year's 32 saves and 2.37 ERA. But I think bringing back Madson -- or blowing a bunch of bucks on a name guy like Heath Bell or Jonathan Papelbon --  would be a poor allocation of resources.

Is it really wise to go big (and long) for a closer? The Phillies locked up Brad Lidge after his epic 2008 season and were rewarded with a disastrous 2009 and only 65 innings in 2010-2011. Maybe if they had made the smart business decision and turned to Madson in 2009, Amaro wouldn't have been forced to trade Cliff Lee in December of that same year for quick salary relief and (as of right now) a bunch of prospect-shaped doorstops.

Granted, there's no Madson-esque arm-in-waiting for 2012. Antonio Bastardo's numbers might suggest that he's ready, but the way he faltered down the stretch (and his left-handedness) probably convinced Amaro to look elsewhere. Phillippe Aumont is a fun name to throw around, if only to prove that the aforementioned Lee trade wasn't a total disaster, but he have to perform at the Major League level before they hand him any important innings.

If the Phillies insist on signing a veteran, I pray that they think old and cheap. Joe Nathan and Francisco Cordero are long-time closers, and their age (37) would, presumably, increase their interest in a shorter, simpler contract. Guys like Jon Rauch and Frank Francisco have closed before -- albeit relatively unimpressively -- and they can also slot into a setup role if one of the young guys decides to step up after all. And if you really want to roll the dice, the bloated corpse of Jonathan Broxton is also available. Just keep him away from Matt Stairs.

Meanwhile, there are two Type A shortstops on the market this offseason: Jose Reyes and Rollins. And although it would be a sportswriter's dream, the Phillies are unlikely to spend the nine figures necessary to snare the 29-year-old Reyes.

So if not Rollins or Reyes, then who? Rafael Furcal? Alex Gonzalez? Of all the names on this list, they're the only two even remotely "worthy" of starting on a legitimate contender. I'm really not interested in either one, and I highly doubt they tickle Amaro's fancy.

The solution could end up being Freddy Galvis, the 21-year-old prospect with the supposedly dazzling glove. But, as more than a few commenters on Beerleaguer have noted, a team with World Series aspirations and a league-average offense probably shouldn't turn to an unproven rookie with a weak bat.

Plus, there's the intangibles-oriented argument: Jimmy Rollins is the Phillies, he's meant so much to this organization, etc. I don't know how you'd quantify that, but I do agree with the idea that the devil you know is better than the devil you don't. I'm not sure Jimmy "deserves" one more big contract from the Phillies, but I'm not sure I'd want to roll the dice with anyone but him.

Some fans are probably (justifiably) nervous that Rollins will break down by the end of any deal (he's 33), and I know that there's a lot of rumbling about whether players can truly "live up" to extravagant deals like the ones Rollins and Madson are sure to sign.

But most free agents (or players in their 30s that choose extensions over free agency) rarely perform at the level, or for the length, of their new deals. The key, especially if you're a team with a massive payroll, is to limit your mistakes. Organizations like the Phillies and the Red Sox can survive a Geoff Jenkins, a J.D. Drew, even a John Lackey or (gulp) a Ryan Howard. But bury yourself under too many massive deals (like the Yankees may have done in a few years, as Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira and CC Sabathia continue to age) and you might find your window of championship opportunity has suddenly slammed shut.

The Phillies aren't even close to in trouble. Whether it's Dom Brown or John Mayberry in left field next year, the end result will (finally) be a cheap, young, competent bat to go with the old, expensive ones. As for their long-term financial interests, the only Phillies signed beyond 2012 are Howard, Lee, Roy Halladay and Chase Utley. And even after the Hunter Pence trade, the team's farm system should still be ranked as (at least) average.

Simply put, signing Jimmy Rollins won't cripple the Phillies. Neither will bringing back Ryan Madson. But when it comes to what they need, what they should really be willing to spend for, the stud shortstop trumps the stud closer.

October 25, 2011

The Walking Dead is not as good as you think.

If you're a male between the ages of 18 and 45, you probably spend an hour every Sunday night watching The Walking Dead on AMC. This is not the worst way to end your weekend, as it prominently features gratuitous zombie killing. But is The Walking Dead "good television"? Is it deserving of all the attention it's gotten?

In my opinion, it's actually pretty darn mediocre. Borderline bad. The concept's top-notch, it's beautifully filmed and the zombie makeup deserves a boatload of awards. But once you get past all that, the gore and the occasional moment of well-plotted tension, there's not a lot of substance there.

Ostensibly, the show is about a group of people attempting to band together in a post-apocalyptic, zombie-infested world, but you wouldn't know that they're banding together or that the world has ended by listening to some of the petty arguments between assorted characters.

The writers have focused on how human interaction -- the "core" of society -- continually frays under the pressure of the end of the world, but the characters aren't constantly hovering at the edge of sanity, like you or I might be. Instead, they blindly trudge through a desolated landscape, wasting precious minutes deliberating about the most inane things.

For example, Shane drunkenly tried to rape Rick's wife near the end of last season, but instead of it being a horrific moment that defines their relationship going forward, she mostly ends up perturbed that Shane has begun treating Carl poorly. He tried to rape you! Who cares if he's also being cold towards your son? (For more wonderfully apt observations like these, consult the mockery-heavy weekly reviews at videogum.com.)

They extend discussions for twice the reasonable amount of time, usually just enough to fill out an episode, while continually refusing to respond like actual human beings up against such a terrible, mind-shattering scenario. One of the things my dad hated about Lost was that no one ever asked the right questions; the writers had everyone dance around the real issues to keep the mystique of the island alive. Well, on Walking Dead, no one ever does the right thing, which is "stop blathering, gather weapons and run like hell, the zombie army is all around you." This may keep the show on track, but at what cost?

So the characters are poorly written; they're also not particularly memorable. I think we all know Rick, Shane and Carl (may he, hopefully, rest in peace), but what is Rick's wife's name? I only found out two days ago that it's Lori. What about the old guy who drives the RV? The black guy? The racist hick with the crossbow? The attractive blonde girl who wants to die? The mom with the lesbian haircut? The stupid daughter who has gone missing?

I have no idea who any of them are. And this isn't because the show is overly complicated like The Wire; it's because they're all bland, stereotypical, and irrelevant. You don't need to learn their names because it's not worth the effort; most of them are only interesting when they're running away from undead creatures, and even then it's fleeting.

The old man is given a few good lines an episode, but he's mostly there to be wise and offer counsel. The daughter disappearing was meant to create tension, but I don't think anyone's overly concerned with her survival. Carl getting shot was mildly interesting, but after the original shock it was just another plot-forwarding element.

Basically, the show works when the characters are encountering/evading zombie attacks. Or when they're learning more about the zombies. Or when someone's stabbing a zombie in the head with a screwdriver. Moments like that make The Walking Dead a fun show to watch.

But when characters are talking, or arguing, or engaging in a drawn-out love triangle that'll seemingly never end, The Walking Dead's flaws are exposed. And they are ample.

This isn't to say that people shouldn't watch the show; just don't pretend like it's God's gift to television. There are plenty of wonderful shows on TV nowadays, but The Walking Dead isn't one of them.

October 19, 2011

Bill Simmons went to a hockey game and a basketball lockout broke out.

Bill Simmons is now a hockey fan. Hooray?

For all of Simmons's flaws, he's a very knowledgeable basketball fan and an excellent writer on the sport and its inner workings. But hockey? Him? I don't see it.

So let's examine Bill's first "hockey-oriented" piece of the season. Join me, if you will, for yet another Fire Joe Morgan-esque adventure on King Myno's Court.

During the NBA's latest "crucial" labor meeting in New York City yesterday, I was attending the home opener for the Los Angeles Kings 3,000 miles away.

Only a true hockey fan would skip out on, uh, tweeting about a labor meeting for the first regular season game of the year. Good start, Bill.

Let's leave the idiocy of the lockout aside for a second.

Oh, wonderful. Simmons and his lockout rants are certainly entertaining, but it'll be nice to read his opinion on a different subject, one that he can really sink his teeth into. The Kings are certainly an interesting team to write about: studmuffin Anze Kopitar, the trade that brought former Flyers captain Mike Richards to LA, Dustin Penner's struggles, Drew Doughty's post-holdout injury...

(one paragraph later)

Of course, I never would have bought Kings tickets without a lockout. And that's the part these NBA numbskulls are missing.

Fuck. Let's fast-forward a little here, as you probably know the drill by now:

(strained reference to new favorite television drama)

(attempt to speak for a sport's entire fanbase)

(brief anecdote involving chat with super plugged-in source)

...you know how in hockey when two guys screw up the faceoff - either they keep jumping the gun, or they keep hitting each other's sticks - and the official finally gets pissed off and kicks them out of the faceoff? That should have happened with this lockout weeks ago.

And there we are, back to hockey. Sort of. It's actually just a brief comparison that immediately leads into almost 1,000 more words on the lockout. This piece is entirely about the goddamn NBA lockout!

The fact of the matter is, he's probably right on all points. The leadership of both the NBA and the NBPA sound like they're being shortsighted and idiotic; there are no winners when a professional sports league cancels games; and only the NFL could survive a drawn-out work stoppage, because they're that big and powerful.

But if you say you're gonna write about hockey, Bill, write about fucking hockey. I bet a decent amount of people were intrigued by how you'd respond to being forced into a chilly arena, attempting to enjoy a sport that you've publicly sworn off in the past, but you spent maybe two sentences on the game itself.

Fans adapt. Habits change. People like me say, "Screw it, I'll give hockey a real chance."

You wouldn't be able to tell by reading these last 2,000 words.

Right now? The door has swung wide-open for the Kings.

It may have, for the Kings and every other prominent NHL team. Not since 1994 has the league had this kind of moment in the spotlight. Hockey leadership seems to finally understand how to market the sport; the rule changes post-lockout emphasis offense and talent; stars like Alex Ovechkin, Ryan Miller and Sidney Crosby (if he ever plays again) are ones that every sports fan now knows.

But, by using hockey mostly to talk about basketball, Simmons offers up the real issue: People won't start watching and discussing hockey, they'll just talk about how the possibility of watching and discussing hockey. For whatever reason, hockey isn't for everyone. Even if the NBA shuts down forever, I imagine hockey would get the same solid ratings on the same mediocre cable channel and draw the same 18,000 fans every single night.

This doesn't bother anyone who truly likes hockey; the sport and all its major teams aren't going anywhere. But to act like its about to explode, that America is going to embrace hockey, is just silly. I'm glad that it'll have a little more time on SportsCenter, and maybe a handful of fans will be quicker to recognize names like Henrik Lundqvist and Claude Giroux. For now, though, it'll remain more a talking point and less a surging enterprise.

Keep up the good work, Bill. Your first hockey piece was everything we expected and more.

October 10, 2011

There's gonna be no dancing.

Honestly, it's been three days and I'm still not sure what to say. So I'll just ramble, which is pretty much what I do anyway.

I imagine this is how some of the more levelheaded Boston Red Sox fans felt after their team crapped the bed in the last game of this year's regular season: A grim realization that, even if they'd made it to the dance, they weren't staying out too late.

Because at the end of the day, even if Raul Ibanez's shot in the fourth inning gets over the outfield fence and Roy Halladay helps to steal a win, the Philadelphia Phillies weren't getting by Zack Greinke, Shawn Marcum, Yovani Gallardo and the Milwaukee Brewers in the NLCS. Blame it on injuries, bad approaches at the plate or just a general, team-wide awfulness; this pitiful, beaten-down Phillies offense was out of gas.

Six runs in the final 34 innings of the series, three of those on an out-of-nowhere Ben Francisco pinch-hit home-run. That's not gonna beat the hapless San Diego Padres in spacious Petco Park, let alone the Cardinals, a team that led the National League in runs scored.

And, to a lesser but still valid extent, let's not ignore Cliff Lee and Roy Oswalt coming up very small in Games 2 and 4, respectively. This team won plenty of 1-0 or 2-1 suckfests in the regular season, but only Halladay and Cole Hamels threw like the aces we expected -- and desperately needed -- in the playoffs. This, unfortunately, will be Roy Oswalt's legacy in Philadelphia: "Not quite good enough anymore."

As always, the Phillies will remain competitive next year. Halladay, Lee and Hamels remain the most talented starting pitcher trio in baseball, and the always-aggressive Ruben Amaro Jr. saw, just like the rest of us, that sometimes "veteran hitter" is just code for "old guy with slow bat." He has to know that trotting this same offense back out there in 2012 isn't going to work.

But how much magic can he really perform? The team's already got an extremely high payroll; how flexible will ownership be when it comes to upgrading this increasingly elderly group of bats?

Since 2007, the year of their first National League East title, Jimmy Rollins, Shane Victorino, Ryan Howard, Chase Utley and Carlos Ruiz have been the cornerstones of the Phillies offense. All of them are now at least 30 years old, and considering that Victorino just wrapped up a career year that he'll probably never match, all of them have seen better days.

Does the offense need an injection of youth? A better approach at the plate? Or just more talented hitters in general?

Is Howard, the renowned slugger whom Tony La Russa and his pitchers challenged without fear after Game 1 of the series, as replaceable as certain sabermetricians would have you believe? (I say no, but for the sake of argument...) Considering that he'll probably be out until at least the summer with a torn Achilles tendon, I guess we'll find out once and for all.

Is Placido Polanco finished as an every-day player? His defense at third base remains sterling, but his bat has worn down almost to a nub by the end of the last two seasons. If Amaro chooses being realistic over counting dollars and cents, Polly should probably act as the most expensive ($6 million in 2012) utility man in baseball next year.

Bring back Rollins? Resign Ryan Madson? I'm onboard with both, if the years are right and if Amaro has no better use for the money. Bring in a stud third baseman somehow and I'm suddenly OK with the two guys walking.

Start Dom Brown every day in left field? Start Dom Brown every day in left field. Or trade him for Logan Morrison. Either way, lower the age of this starting lineup and start trusting in some young players.

It's a lot of questions for a 102-win team to answer. But all I know is that I spent all of Friday night screaming at the never-ending stream of ground balls weakly hit to the right side -- I'll have nightmares about those softly rolling baseballs for years to come -- so just imagine how nuts they must've driven Amaro and Charlie Manuel. It's one thing to lose; it's another thing to come up unspeakably feeble against a team you could've easily beaten. To paraphrase Harry Doyle, "one goddamn run." That's all they needed.

I believed in this team; I told everyone not to worry a boatload of times. But it turned out that a Halladay gem couldn't save them after all; it turns out everyone else was right. Maybe for the wrong reasons, but in the playoffs, a win's a win and a loss is a loss. I never expected to say this, but the Phillies really and truly choked on Friday night; only the goodwill left over from 2008 kept us all from going mad in the process. Let's hope we don't suffer the same fate in 2012.

October 7, 2011

This one's on you, Doc.

Why did the Philadelphia Phillies battle for 102 wins and home-field advantage throughout the postseason?

For a game like tonight; to host a deciding showdown at Citizens Bank Park with their ace on the mound.

Am I nervous? Absolutely. All of a sudden it's do or die, and I'd hate to see a team this skilled (not to mention beloved by me) go out so early.

But am I worried? No. Roy Halladay's on the mound. 43,000 screaming fans will have his back. It's the best-case scenario for the Phillies.

Sure, they could lose, and that would be disappointing. But the Major League Baseball playoffs often turn out to be a crapshoot. Maybe you run into a scalding-hot team, like the San Francisco Giants last year. Maybe you burn out after a grueling regular season, like the Phillies in 2007.

Only eight teams out of 32 make it to the big dance, which is awesome, and so much unlike how basketball and hockey do it. The regular season holds purpose; you can't sneak in as an eight seed with a record under .500. After 162 games, any franchise that makes the postseason should pat themselves on the back for a successful year.

Obviously, you'd love to win it all. Unfortunately, only one team gets that privilege, and it's not always the most talented one. Should Cody Ross and Edgar Renteria have carried the Giants past the Phillies and Cliff Lee's Rangers last year? Not on paper, but they did. And at the end of the day, they deserved it.

The teams that don't take it home, however, are often unfairly and derogatorily labeled as losers by fans and the media. As an astute commenter put it on Beerleaguer early this morning, the slogan for the MLB postseason might as well be "8 TEAMS-7 CHOKERS-1 LUCKY SURVIVOR." When Alex Rodriguez and Ryan Howard end a playoff run by striking out, it doesn't matter that they've each brought their teams a World Series trophy and hit hundreds upon hundreds of home runs. They blew the big game, and that's the narrative that sticks.

In a sense, I understand; the 2011 season won't be a true success unless the Phillies win the World Series. But after making the playoffs five years in a row and winning only one championship, I think most Philadelphia fans realize how hard it really is.

So then we come back to Roy Halladay. I've thought a lot about how I'd love for the Phillies to "win one for Doc" or "win one for Cliffy," but it's only recently, after watching the starters struggle through a few games of this series, that I realized the team isn't gonna win one for them. They need to win for the team.

Roy Halladay's getting paid a lot of money, mostly to win Philadelphia at least one more title. Cy Young awards are nice, 20-win seasons are neato, but championships are the ultimate goal. Halladay and Lee and Cole Hamels and Roy Oswalt are here to out-pitch the other team's best starters, whether the Phillies offense puts up zero runs or a hundred. So far, Halladay and Hamels are the only ones living up to their end of the bargain.

With that in mind, tonight is Halladay's chance to add one more notch to his lengthy belt of a career. I can't tell you whether the Phillies offense will wake up and hit Chris Carpenter again, but I do know that another gem from Doc will make moving onto the next round that much easier. The Cardinals are a pesky offensive team, but that didn't stop Harry Leroy Halladay from mowing them down six days ago.

If he can do it once more, and give Lee a chance to redeem himself in the NLCS, maybe baseball's most talented team can live up to the promise, and the hype, that they earned with those 102 wins.

October 5, 2011

The haphazardness of Anytober.

I'd like to extend Major League Baseball a rare "thank you" for scheduling its postseason games so haphazardly.

For most people, the random start times bring nothing but consternation and frustration. But for me, it offers up a bit of strategizing that's been severely lacking since fantasy baseball ended.

"Alright, the game's at 5," I'll think. "That means I need to get out of work precisely on time, grab food, maybe pick up some beer -- if I can fit it in -- and get onto the couch by at least five past five." Because it's the playoffs, you guys, and missing something crazy like a leadoff homer might mean missing the game's most crucial play.

Luckily, yesterday unfolded just as I hoped. I busted out of work at 4:28 PM (cushy life, I know) and the race was on. A quick walk to Subway for a footlong (it's Anytober!), a dash to the Metro when I spotted my train pulling into the station, a very brief stop at the market attached to my apartment complex for a six-pack of beer, and bam. Home at 5:05 PM on the nose, ready for the game.

And what a game. Jaime Garcia mowed the Phillies down, just like everyone expected, but Cole Hamels battled through 117 pitches and kept the game at zeros until Ben Francisco's miraculous homer. Cole had a bit of trouble putting some Cardinals hitters away, but so have a lot of the pitchers in this series. The most important thing was limiting the damage; giving the Cardinals a lead, with Garcia rolling and the ballpark going wild, might have crushed any team's spirit. Luckily, the battle-tested playoff ace gave them no such chance.

But he did only go six innings, which the Phillies need to avoid as much as possible throughout this postseason run. Vance Worley, Antonio Bastardo and Brad Lidge don't inspire much confidence; Worley's stuff isn't exactly perfect for the bullpen, Bastardo still looks a little shaky, and Lidge walks that tightrope every single time he steps onto the field. One day, all those runners won't end up stranded.

I don't want any of the three on the mound for any more than one inning with anything less than a two-run lead, and they're our best non-Madson bullpen guys by far. Luckily, the Phillies have enough stud starters to limit that concern.

Tonight, that "pitch long and well" responsibility falls on Roy Oswalt, who is gonna be asked to give the Phillies at least seven innings. And you know what? I think he will. I know his numbers against Albert Pujols are pretty darn awful (26 for 86 with 5 homers, a more-than-reasonable sample size), but I doubt many pitchers could force one by big Albert at this point. His slash line for the series, .538/.571/.769, is "Manny Ramirez in the 2008 NLCS" all over again.

The key is controlling Allen Craig before him and Lance Berkman/David Freese after him. In 2008, Manny was smashing doubles off the wall and dingers into the seats with nearly every at-bat, but he never had anyone on in front of him or hitting behind him. One slugger -- unless you're Ben Francisco -- rarely wins a baseball game by himself. And while Albert is mashing, he has only two NLDS runs and one RBI to his name. If Oswalt can keep that up, he'll bring home the game and the series.

I told Phillies fans not to worry two weeks ago, I mentioned it again yesterday afternoon, and I'm telling you once more right now: Do not worry. When the Phillies get into an elimination game, I'll get a little nervous. But even the best teams don't always sweep their opponents, especially when they're as pesky and talented as St. Louis.

It shouldn't matter after tonight anyway, as the Phillies have their foot on St. Louis' throat. Every ball the Cardinals put into play drops for a hit; every ball the Phillies smoke gets snagged by a Cardinals defender; their "ace" for the series absolutely decimated the Philadelphia offense for six innings yesterday...and they still lost. Their would-be savior is Edwin Jackson, but his career xFIP isn't much better than Kyle Kendrick's (4.38 versus 4.65). He's a back-end rotation guy, and a righty to boot. He can get wild; he can be knocked around.

A good team (and the Phillies are a very good team) will smell blood in the water and feast. This isn't like facing the Giants last year, a buzzsaw of a team with a hot offense and aces on the mound. This is a solid foe that's just a little bit worse than the Phillies, and it's starting to show. I predicted the Phillies in 4, and I'm still very much expecting some champagne to be sprayed tonight in St. Louis.

October 4, 2011

Leaving the Eagles behind?

I watched the Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday at a sports bar in Boston. The bar had two giant TVs, one showing Steelers/Texans and the other showing Lions/Cowboys. The Eagles game was off to the left, on a screen one-fourth the size. But rather than ask to switch seats or change channels, I kept getting caught up in the other games, forgetting to look over and check the score. I ended up leaving with 12 minutes left in the fourth quarter to catch a flight back to DC.

Granted, it was one of the worst games of the Andy Reid era, an unmitigated disaster that has even the most level-headed Eagles fans up in arms. But as recently as a few years ago, this would have felt like an act of treason.

Late in high school and throughout college, from August to January I would live and breathe Eagles football. I was at the Vet for the Wild Card game in 2002 when the Eagles took down the Buccaneers 31-9, and I witnessed the backbreaking loss to Carolina in the 2003 NFC Championship Game with mine own two eyes.

Nowadays, though? I'd just as soon sit down with Scott Hanson and his wonderful NFL RedZone channel than suffer through a boring Eagles loss. If that makes me a traitor, well, I apologize for preferring a better form of entertainment.

For example, the Eagles melted down in the fourth quarter of a Week 3 showdown with the Giants and basically handed them a victory. Normally, this would be enough to ruin my day. But instead, my roommate and I switched over to RedZone and watched the underdog Bills battle back to defeat the hated Patriots. Rather than bitch and moan about the Eagles all afternoon, I savored the great ending of this meaningless (to me) game.

If I was watching a random football game and it stunk, I'd change the channel. I'm just now expanding that idea to include my own team.

A few years ago, I saw a guy in an NFL Starter jacket walking down the streets of Boston. No team; just NFL colors and a giant league logo on the back. I instantly texted this information to a few of my friends and we made fun of him for a while; why didn't he just pick a franchise to root for? Did he just cheer for every game to be fun and every player to have a good time? What a weirdo.

But now, I think I understand where he was coming from. For whatever reason, I can't get into the Eagles like I used to. And it's not because I'm frustrated with Andy Reid or the defense or Mike Vick or anything having to this with this particular Eagles squad; I felt this coming on way before Week 1, which was back when this year's team was still full of promise and not leaking gas at a tremendous rate. I'm just low on Eagles passion, and I don't know if it'll ever return. I must begrudgingly admit to becoming more of an NFL fan and less of an Eagles fan. Someone buy me a new jacket.

I still love the Flyers, and especially the Phillies, with all my heart. When they lose a big game, I'm crushed. But when the Eagles lose, I can just flip the channel. I won't sit through Brewers/Diamondbacks or Blue Jackets/Coyotes, but I do get a great deal of pleasure from Packers/Cardinals. And even though it sounds weird to admit, this doesn't bother me anymore. I guess I'll find out down the line whether this is really time to move on.

September 23, 2011

Don't worry about the Philadelphia Phillies.

Yes, the Philadelphia Phillies did just get swept in a four-game series by the Washington Nationals.

Yes, Beerleaguer pointed out earlier this week that over the last 10 years, "only two teams have struggled down the stretch and gone on to win the World Series."

And yes, famed Phillies blogger Zoo With Roy's (possibly incorrect) playoff calculations have John Bowker's squad being unexpected eliminated from postseason contention after last night's stinkfest. Good year, gang.

This is all causing some fans to remove their belts and set up chairs under low-hanging ceiling beams. But I'm here to tell you that, this year, late September baseball and early October baseball could not be more different, and the Phillies know that as well as anybody.

Almost everyone on this team's been to the Big Dance before; a lot of the core already took home rings in 2008. They all understand the importance, and the urgency, of every playoff game, and I can't imagine that they'll come out slacking when it's Division Series time.

So what if the hitters can't hit right now? They're running Pete Orr, Ross Gload, John Bowker and the walking, talking corpse of Chase Utley out there every night. I'm amazed the Nats didn't shut them out for the series. Meanwhile, Jimmy Rollins is (hopefully) getting his swagger back, Hunter Pence is finally enjoying some much-needed rest and Ryan Howard should be ready to go after that nice big cortisone shot was jammed into his injured ankle.

Anyway, this team is built around starting pitching. Roy Oswalt said last night was the "best he's felt all season," and Cole Hamels, Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee all appear to be healthy. With the steady Vance Worley and Kyle Kendrick strengthening Ryan Madson and his suddenly shaky bullpen cohorts, innings 1-9 should be in good shape.

Utley (.174 in September with 1 home run) and Antonio Bastardo (6 earned runs in 8 September appearances) are certainly question marks, but those are individual issues, not team ones. We can only hope that Utley's issues at the plate are mechanical, not injury-related, and that someone like Joe Savery can unexpectedly contribute in October if the previously wonderful Bastardo continues to falter.

Basically, this "slump" is being blown wildly out of proportion. As the Philadelphia Flyers have proven in the past, being talented isn't a cure-all when your team's in shambles. The Phillies aren't in shambles, though; they -- probably inspired by their manager and his "whatever" lineup choices -- are choosing not to show up for utterly meaningless regular season games. It's not exactly what we'd like to see as fans, but it's also not indicative of what this team is really all about.

Charlie Manuel apparently plans to play his starters starting Saturday, which will give them five games to get their sea legs back and five days to calm the stomachs of overreacting fans. Then they'll run into the Milwaukee Brewers or the Arizona Diamondbacks in the NLDS, two top-heavy teams that shouldn't pose too much of a challenge to the deeper, savvier boys from Philadelphia.

And if, God forbid, they do lose in the first round, it'll be because of Prince Fielder, Ryan Braun and Zack Greinke. Or Ian Kennedy, Justin Upton and Miguel Montero. Not because the Phillies backups couldn't hit Brad Peacock on a Thursday night in late September.

So far, the Phillies have spent 2011 proving that they're a veteran squad with a burning desire to win and a taste for the theatrical. If it turns out that they have somehow lost their competitive fire after scuffling through a week of irrelevant baseball, well, they didn't deserve to win a championship in the first place.

September 19, 2011

Kershaw, Halladay or Lee?

19-5, 2.30 ERA, 0.98 WHIP. 236 strikeouts. 159 ERA+, 5 complete games, 2 shutouts.

18-5, 2.34 ERA, 1.04 WHIP. 211 strikeouts. 165 ERA+, 8 complete games, 1 shutout.

16-7, 2.38 ERA, 1.02 WHIP. 223 strikeouts. 163 ERA +, 6 complete games, 6 shutouts.

Clayton Kershaw, Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee. Who's the NL Cy Young?

You could make a case for any of them. Kershaw's numbers are just a smidge better overall, but Halladay's adding yet another excellent season to his veteran resume (and holds the lead in Baseball-Reference.com's WAR for pitchers statistic) and Lee's enjoyed a few lengthy stretches where he's absolutely unhittable.

There's been a lot of talk this fall about what "most valuable" means, but -- for whatever reason -- the Cy Young award isn't handed out like the MVP. It goes to the best pitcher, not the most important to his team's success.

With that in mind, does the winner have to be Kershaw? He's allowing 6.8 hits per 9 innings, behind only Justin Verlander and Josh Beckett for tops in baseball, and he'll end up winning 20 games and taking home the National League strikeout crown. Hard to argue with numbers like that.

But will Halladay's veteran presence sway voters? He's not as flashy as Kershaw, Lee or even Cole Hamels, but he's consistently excellent every single year. There's something to be said for leading the National League in complete games at age 34, having a few Cy Young awards already on the shelf and owning unquestioned "head ace" status on baseball's best team with the best rotation, even if that kind of stature is unquantifiable.

And how about Lee's brilliance? Shutout streaks of 34 and 31 innings, not to mention his 10-0 record and 0.33 ERA in the months of June and August combined. And that all, of course, came after a rocky April that left Lee's ERA at an un-Cliff-like 4.18. It's been sinking like a stone since. Talk about a good free-agent signing.

It has to be one of the closest races in recent memory. Here are some of the statistics where Kershaw, Lee and Halladay all rank in (at least) the National League's top 5:

WAR for pitchers, ERA, wins, win-loss percentage, WHIP, innings pitched, complete games, shutouts, K/BB ratio, ERA+

And that's not even counting adjusted pitching runs, adjusted pitching wins and a boatload of other fun sabermetric statistics that I don't quite understand.

Still, at the end of the day -- and barring an epic collapse tonight versus the St. Louis Cardinals -- Roy Halladay will win his third, and probably final, Cy Young. Even if Kershaw ends up first in numerous categories, the voters won't ignore Doc's contributions to both a sterling Phillies team and baseball in general. This'll be one last hurrah for one of the best pitchers of the last two decades.

The future belongs to Kershaw, Hamels, Tim Lincecum and maybe even Ian Kennedy. They've got a bunch more award opportunities ahead. But 2011? This is one more year for the Doc.

September 1, 2011

Debating the American League MVP race.

I'm a National League man. Always have been, always will be. As a Philadelphia Phillies fan, it's pretty much the only way to go.

But I'm also extremely intrigued by this year's American League MVP race. You can make a case for a half-dozen players, and there's one horse in particular that I feel should be an out-and-out favorite. But what do I know?! I don't really watch the other league's games.

So I started up a little email exchange with my good friend Matt Kakley -- diehard Boston sports fan and award-winning reporter at the Sun Chronicle in Attleboro, Massachusetts -- to get his take on who really deserves the award. It's kinda like what Bill Simmons and Jonah Keri did on Grantland a few days ago, only...better.

King Myno: So, young Matthew, I think I can guess which direction you'll lean in this email exchange. As a Boston Red Sox fan, there's no doubt in my mind that you feel Dustin Pedroia and Jacoby Ellsbury are the leading candidates for 2011 American League MVP.

And you might not be wrong; Ellsbury and Pedroia are second and third in Baseball-Reference's WAR for AL position players. Ellsbury's second in baseball in runs, fourth in steals, fourteenth in average and fifth in hits. Meanwhile, Pedroia's .867 OPS is barely underneath the .869 OPS that won him the MVP award in 2008. In fact, his OPS+ is even higher this year (135 versus 122).

But if you're gonna choose either of them based on numbers, then it's crazy to ignore what Jose Bautista has done in Toronto. First in WAR. First in OPS (by a mile). First in homers, first in slugging percentage, first in on-base percentage.

Obviously J-Bats isn't powering a World Series contender like the Red Sox, but I don't think that should count for too much this time around. When a hitter puts up an amazing year like Bautista's, he deserves to take home the trophy.

Matt Kakley: Am I reading King Myno's Court or FanGraphs? I should have known you'd jump on WAR and the other sabermetrics statistics, but sometimes they don't tell the whole story.

Let's do a little breakdown of your boy Bautista: 31 first half homers to go with a .334 batting average. Wonderful. But since the All-Star break, his numbers have plummeted: only 8 homers and a .256 batting average. I'd like to see my MVP show a bit more consistency. He's also way behind in the RBI race, but I'll credit that more to the terribleness of the non-Bautista Jays.

Also, can it really be ignored that Bautista is doing what he does for a fourth-place team? If a tree falls in Toronto, does it make a sound? While I don't think a player should be completely hampered by the team they happen to play for, I think an MVP needs to have incredible numbers if he's going to get past that. Bautista's numbers, while very good, are simply not incredible.

I, for one, find what Adrian Gonzalez and Curtis Granderson in the heat of a pennant race much more compelling.

KM: Adrian Gonzalez is one hell of a baseball player, but is he even the best hitter on his own team? Baseball-Reference.com has him in eighth in AL Offensive WAR, tied with Alex Gordon and behind Ben Zobrist; Jacoby and Dusty are tied for for fourth. His .953 OPS is stellar, but his teammate David Ortiz is second in the American League with a .993 OPS. Speaking of which, where's all the MVP support for Big Papi?

Gonzo's been a wonderful addition to the Red Sox -- especially when held up against Carl Crawford's lost season -- but he's not the Most Valuable Player. I think others have proven far more valuable.

Such as Curtis Granderson. You're right; if anyone's going to truly compete with Bautista for the award, it's Grandy. Going from .247/.324/.468 to .273/.375/.584 is nothing short of spectacular, and the career .226 hitter versus lefties has miraculously upped that average to .278 this season. 38 homers, 24 steals, 107 runs; this is everything Yankees fans were hoping for and more. I'll step aside from my beloved sabermetrics for a moment and say that the Yankees would not be where they are without Granderson. Does that make him MVP? You can make an extremely strong case.

And as to your point on Bautista, it is a full-season award, but I think his second-half slump just accentuates how dominating the first half really was. He was literally unbeatable at the plate, like Manny Ramirez in the 2008 NLCS, and he's still going to end the season with extraordinary numbers. Toronto is in fourth place, true, but they might be the worst team in baseball without Bautista's contributions. After all, the award isn't "Most Valuable Player on a Contending Team," although sometimes people like you make that incorrect assumption.

MK: I love that you included Zobrist as a way to put Gonzo down. If anything, his placement on the list shows the fickleness of the WAR stat. Would anyone really trade Ben's season for Gonzo's? At a certain point, you have to put aside the sabers and look at the actual product on the field. Should we get into a UZR discussion?

WAR puts too much stock in the way someone compares to others at his position; first base is, and always has been, incredibly deep. But the same way you want to discount a player's team success, you also can't hold a player hostage because he plays a loaded position. Would we be having this argument if Gonzo was putting up the numbers as a shortstop?

Is Gonzo the best hitter on the Red Sox? Absolutely. In fact, I think he might be the best all-around player in baseball right now, with Pujols finally showing signs of not being a robot. But this isn't a "best baseball player" contest, it's for this year and this year only, and maybe his "value" in 2011 is slightly diminished by the success of his teammates.

It seems like we're getting towards Grandy being the guy, though I immediately throw out any comparisons to his 2010 season. This is a yearly award, not a Most Improved Odor trophy. The numbers he's put up while essentially teaming with CC Sabathia to carry the Yankees to the postseason (hopefully as a wild card) might be the most impressive thing I've seen in the AL this year. And, believe me, that's tough to say as a Sox fan.

And I assume we're just not entertaining the thought of a Verlander MVP, because that would be as silly as Shane Victorino for NL MVP.

In any event, I think it's a two-horse race between Grandy and Gonzo, with Grandy firmly in the lead and a month left to play. Plus, shouldn't it always come down to the Sox and the Yanks?

KM: The only people that want it to come down to the Sox and the Yankees are Sox and Yankees fans. The rest of us want it to come down to the Phillies...or maybe the Rangers.

I have a feeling that, in the weeks leading up to the AL MVP announcement, Jose Bautista's campaign is going to be fueled almost entirely by the white-hot fire of the Internet. Much like Felix Hernandez in 2010, new-age baseball scholars and sabermetricians are going to trumpet his achievements throughout the land and demand that he be crowned as ruler of baseball.

And hopefully, also like King Felix, it'll work and he'll win.

I thought that Sabathia would take home the Cy Young last year. In fact, you and I made a bet over that very award. Even after Zack Greinke's victory in 2009, I didn't think baseball writers had it in them to vote for a 13-12 starter over a 21-7 pitcher, no matter how dominant.

They proved me wrong, however, and I think that it'll carry over into 2011. If it's anybody from a playoff contender, it'll be Grandy -- the Red Sox will probably all cancel each other out -- but Jose Bautista and his beefy OPS deserve award recognition. Call it a "season-and-a-half" award if you must, but I think what Bautista's done to turn his career around is going to be acknowledged. And if it is Bautista, I dare any real baseball fans to complain.

But a pitcher for MVP? Come on. No one's that crazy.

August 24, 2011

Shane Victorino for MVP? Shane Victorino for MVP.

Before 2011, Shane Victorino's best on-base percentage was .358 in 2009. It's .389 this year, good for eighth in the National League. Hunter Pence's OBP, by comparison, is a mere .365. Fellow centerfielder Michael Bourn is way down at .360.

Shane's best slugging percentage was previously .447 in 2008. He's currently at .551, which is fifth in the NL. Better than Mike Stanton and his 30 homers; better than Michael Morse and his 30 doubles; better than Albert Pujols, Troy Tulowitzki, Joey Votto and Jay Bruce.

His 14 triples are a career-best, and he's 4 homers away from tying a career-best in that category, too.

And he's done it all in only 385 at-bats! Couple that with Gold Glove defense and, oh yeah, being the top hitter on the best team in baseball, and you have the resume of a legitimate MVP candidate.

Unfortunately, Shane won't win the award. Prince Fielder has a .300/.413/.552 slash line for another National League playoff lock, the Milwaukee Brewers, and his teammate Ryan Braun is sporting an equally impressive .328/.399/.586 line himself. Even if they split the vote, 23-year-old Justin Upton's .915 OPS for an unexpected contender in Arizona would probably win the day.

But Victorino deserves a top-5 finish and the kudos that comes with a top season, and only recently has the much-deserved, Shane-oriented groundswell begun. As this post from ESPN's SweetSpot blog shows, there's really not much difference between Shane's season and Jacoby Ellsbury's dynamic year at the plate in Boston. Yet Ellsbury is receiving boatloads of praise for his maturation into an all-around hitter, while Shane toils in obscurity. Well, as obscure as gets when you're the centerfielder for one of baseball's big three teams.

While 13 steals and 9 homers in only 294 at-bats is very impressive, there's no doubt that Chase Utley is on the decline. Ryan Howard's 96 RBIs don't exactly make up for an .820 OPS, the lowest of his career. Jimmy Rollins put up top-5 shortstop numbers for a few months before suffering another inevitable lower-body injury. Placido Polanco and Raul Ibanez are breaking down before our eyes.

But, almost out of nowhere, Shane Victorino has become a patient, smart hitter, powering an inconsistent Phillies offense and providing a rotation of studs with just enough runs to take a commanding NL East lead.

The addition of Pence and the emergence of John Mayberry Jr. have taken some of the pressure off, but the Phillies owe a great deal of whatever offensive success they've had this year to Victorino. If that's not an MVP, I don't know what is.

August 19, 2011

The utter irrelevance of the NFL preseason.

Nothing is more irrelevant than the NFL preseason.

A bunch of Phillies fans freaked out earlier this week when Charlie Manuel's long leash led to Roy Halladay blowing a lead in the 9th inning of a game with the Arizona Diamondbacks. These folks were ridiculous; Halladay had struck out the side in the 8th inning, and he's second in Major League Baseball with seven complete games. Besides, it's only one game out of 162.

But at least they were riled up by a legitimate regular season match-up, and with playoff implications to boot. People who blow a gasket over a football team's preseason outings are considerably more absurd, and we're seeing them come out of the woodwork after the Eagles' poor showing last night in Pittsburgh.

Is it heartening to see Michael Vick flounder, to see the Steelers run wild all over Juan Castillo's defense? Not at all. But does it really, truly matter? Not in the slightest.

Preseason games are glorified scrimmages. Just because the NFL turns on the cameras, charges season ticket holders full price and ships Troy Aikman and Joe Buck out to commentate doesn't make them any more legitimate. The players hate the games, the fans are bored out of their minds, most of the coaches are just going through the motions. They're a necessary evil perpetuated by a sports conglomerate intend on wringing every dollar out of our pockets...but they mean extremely little, perhaps nothing, when it comes to your team's immediate future.

If your team looks like it stinks, that's OK. Maybe they're testing out new packages, or keeping some of the better ones under wraps until the games start to matter. Or maybe they just came off a lengthy lockout, overhauled a good portion of their defense and brought in a new coordinator who's still working out the kinks. Maybe they were playing another elite team that seems to place more of an emphasis on strong preseason play. Maybe one of their best wideouts is recovering from a health scare, and maybe the team's top two run-stopping defensive tackles didn't even touch the field. There are a hundred different variables at play here, and the only assumption I would not draw from any them is "the Eagles are suddenly not a good team."

As noted many times before, preseason record doesn't reflect regular season success. If I attended a poor Vick practice at training camp in the Lehigh Valley, I'd pay it the same mind as a poor preseason outing. There's really no difference, besides playing at a fancy stadium in another city. Now, if Vick had sucked all training camp and preseason, or if, say, the offensive line had looked gross for a month straight, that's cause for concern. But don't take anything you saw last night and extrapolate that throughout the upcoming year. That's a waste of time.

The number one goal of the preseason is to survive. Limiting injuries whenever possible is key, which is why the starters never play more than a half. If a team is lucky, they'll weed out a few valuable special teams players from the bottom of the roster. Sometimes a backup might outperform a starter and move up the depth chart. But that's about it. There's no need to compete with opposing teams, no need to try anything special. Save that shit for the regular season.

Believe nothing you see in the preseason. Enjoy the fact that real football is around the corner, but don't overreact to what's happening on the field. The Eagles may not become the team we're all hoping to see, but the time to worry about that is after Week 1, not Week -3.

What's wrong with Adrian Gonzalez?

A lot is going right in Boston. Erik Bedard has pitched well, John Lackey continues to drastically improve, Jacoby Ellsbury is doing his "young Barry Bonds" impression and the Red Sox are even turning triple plays!

Yet even with these individual steps forward, it still feels like the team as a whole is taking a step back. After ending July with a 20-6 record, they are a mediocre 9-8 in August. Injuries are are sidelining or hobbling the likes of Clay Buchholz, Marco Scutaro, Kevin Youkilis and David Ortiz; Tim Wakefield has been stuck on 199 wins for weeks; and Carl Crawford apparently forgot that he is supposed to be really good. But the point of greatest concern might be Adrian Gonzalez.

Gonzo still has wonderful numbers -- he's among the American League leaders in average, hits, RBIs, on-base percentage and OPS -- but he hasn't been himself lately. From June until the middle of July, he was on an absolute tear. Pitchers would really sweat trying to get him out. And if there was a runner in scoring position? He was coming around. Adrian was the man you wanted at the dish in a key spot.

Since the Home Run Derby, however, things haven't been the same. Gonzalez has sickeningly few extra-base hits or RBIs. It's not that he isn't hitting at all; it's that he is just smacking singles with no one onboard. With other players, that wouldn't be the worst thing, but Gonzo isn't like other players: Few men in baseball are slower than him.

I'd like a dollar for every time I've heard "a long single for Gonzalez." The Red Sox have grounded into an AL-worst 110 double plays this year, and Gonzo and his lack of speed are no small part of that. Not only is he failing to slug or drive in runs, but now he's creating outs.

It's hard to say if the Derby screwed up his swing, as if often does with line drive hitters, or if an injury has been the issue. Gonzalez plays nearly every inning of the season, but he has missed a few games recently to stiffness in his neck; Terry Francona admitted that this may be sapping his power. Regardless, he doesn't look like an MVP right now; Ellsbury and Dustin Pedroia have leapt ahead of Gonzalez in the WAR rankings.

But with their recent injuries, including Youk's DL stint, the Red Sox need him to be that MVP. He's the number-three hitter, he makes the lineup work. Whatever's wrong with him needs to improve, because right now it's the offense that looks weak. And this team was built to hit; built around Adrian Gonzalez.

August 16, 2011

Would you trade Domonic Brown for Logan Morrison?

Because I sure would.

And before I get bombarded with accusations of being a "Domonic Brown hater," let me lay out some facts.

Logan Morrison's about to turn 24 years old (he's nine days older than Brown). He hit .283/.390/.447 for the Marlins in 2010; he was hitting .249/.327/.464 before last weekend's surprise demotion. His career OPS is .810; Brown's is .699. And he followed up 2010's two homers with an unexpected 17 in 2011; there could be some sneaky power developing in Mr. Morrison's bat.

He started playing left field full-time this season -- the same job Brown is presumed to snag in 2012 -- and while LoMo's not the best defensive outfielder in the game, Dom's made more than a few gaffes himself out in the field.

Simply put, Logan Morrison's proven to be a very effective big league player. Dom Brown, albeit in less than half the at-bats, has not. If the Phillies recognize that striking now trumps planning for later -- and every move they've made recently indicates that they do -- swapping Brown for a smart hitter like LoMo would make sense.

It's all but a certainty that the Marlins will move Morrison in the offseason; he's too talented to stash in AAA, and he's seemingly burned too many bridges in Miami. Hell, you might be able to get him for less than Dom. But if the opportunity arises, Ruben Amaro Jr. would be foolish not to consider moving his top prospect in a one-for-one swap.

Morrison appears to come equipped with a fiery, outspoken attitude, which is often admired in Philadelphia. His love of Twitter has been well-documented, but he wisely doesn't seem nervous about taking those thoughts beyond the Internet. LoMo's fired a few (more than justified) shots at teammate Hanley Ramirez this season, even though it's not often wise to criticize the team's star (an issue that can apparently be resolved with a demotion to AAA).

Whether he was consciously trying to get out of town or merely commenting on a loafing teammate, that kind of honesty will get you somewhere in Philly. And with a bevy of veterans in the locker room, it's doubtful that LoMo would ever get out of hand. Chase Utley's dreamy-yet-icy stare would be enough to make any ballplayer put down his iPhone and get over to the cages.

If the response to Hunter Pence's outgoing personality and skilled hitting is any indication, Logan Morrison would fit in Philadelphia like a glove. Just another thing to think about when the calendar switches over to 2012.