Wednesday, March 31, 2021

2021 MLB Season Predictions

 Major League Baseball begins its 2021 season on time this year, and will attempt to play as close to 162 as they possibly can. A full season, or something close to it, will be welcome with the impending labor doom on the horizon. Half of the Majors are intent to do as little as possible in fielding a team this year, about one third are legitimately going for it, and the others are stuck in the malaise of a CBA that is clearly outdated and is in desperate need of an overhaul. What does that mean for the season to come? It feels fairly easy to predict, even though we know that doesn't mean the eventual outcomes will be predictable.

NL East:

1. Atlanta

2. NY Mets

3. Washington

4. Philadelphia

5. Miami

The NL East is the only division where all five teams are conceivably going for it, or at least attempting to. Any of these teams could win the division or win a Wild Card spot, though some are more likely than others. The Braves have annual playoff heartbreak, but that means they get there, and they should have enough to win the division this year. The Mets are now spending like a New York team, but they still have the traditional Mets front office dysfunction and bullpen woes which will likely keep them from winning the pennant, but the playoffs are more than possible. Washington is not the team that won the 2019 World Series, but with the high end talent in Soto/Scherzer et al, they will be competitive all year. Philly's bullpen last year was so bad that it legitimately cost them a playoff spot, and while it'll be better this year, will it be good enough to not cost them a chance? It was fun to watch the Marlins take advantage of the shortened season last year, but that seems like a fluke of the pandemic more than anything else.

AL East:

1. NY Yankees

2. Toronto

3. Tampa Bay

4. Boston

5. Baltimore

Last year's shortened season cost the Yankees a chance at the division because their recent injury woes never relented. This year's team is deeper, and therefore should outlast the somewhat lesser opposition behind them to win the AL East again. It's nice to see the Blue Jays, who still can't play in Canada, spending on players like George Springer as they build back up to contending status again after their relatively surprising playoff appearance last year. They're young and fun and growing all the time. Tampa once again traded away its best player for prospects as only they can do after throwing away a World Series that was very winnable, but they have their system and process down to a tee. It will keep them competitive. The Red Sox are at the very least not tearing everything down to the studs anymore, and the O's... well that 0% playoff prediction on Fangraphs doesn't lie.

NL Central:

1. St. Louis

2. Milwaukee

3. Chicago Cubs

4. Cincinnati

5. Pittsburgh

Nolan Arenado is now a Cardinal because his old team is cheap and doesn't know how to rebuild (or build) properly. His presence buoys an already solid team to the top of a division in transition. Milwaukee struggled in the shortened season, but if Christian Yelich finds his 2018 form again, the Brewers should challenge for this division. The Cubs are also in the process of going cheaper now minus Yu Darvish among other 2016 heroes, and so their 2020 short season division win feels relatively hollow. The Reds no longer have their former ace Trevor Bauer, and a team that tried to go for it doesn't feel like it wants to do that anymore, as there's a drive into deep left field from Castellanos. As for the Pirates... PNC Park is nice!

AL Central:

1. Chicago White Sox

2. Minnesota

3. Cleveland

4. Kansas City 

5. Detroit

Hiring Tony La Russa in 2021 baseball was and still is extremely weird. He doesn't mesh well with a young and fun group of players like the sadly injured Eloy Jimenez, Luis Robert, Tim Anderson among others. But there is a school of thought that suggests talent can overcome coaching deficiencies in some circumstances, and in spite of the Jimenez injury, it seems like the White Sox should have enough to win this division. The Twins will continue to bash home runs for fun and try to outslug everyone else to make the postseason, which if they get there, will crash down to earth as it always does for the Twins in the postseason. It's a shame the Indians had to trade Francisco Lindor because it's impossible to spend money in baseball now, but they still have the pitching to stay competitive. That World Series winning Royals team is firmly a distant memory now, but Whit Merrifield is fun and could be a major piece at the trade deadline. The Tigers rebuild is ongoing, and some of those players will play for AJ Hinch this year, but that's about all there is in Detroit.

NL West:

1. LA Dodgers

2. San Diego

3. San Francisco 

4. Arizona

5. Colorado

There's a real chance the Dodgers just steamroll everyone this year after finally winning the World Series. They're even deeper than they were with Trevor Bauer, and have multiple legit starters coming out of the bullpen. But this year, unlike recent years, will have actual competition in the division in the form of the amazingly fun and amazingly going for it San Diego Padres. There will be a real and fascinating rivalry between these two teams this season. Adding Blake Snell and Yu Darvish to a group with Fernando Tatis Jr., Manny Machado and a number of exciting prospects is legitimately rare in today's baseball, and it's so much fun to see. The Giants rebuild is humming along smoothly, and while they won't be competitive this year, there's a chance they flex their muscle soon with prospects maturing and money to spend. Arizona's attempt to go for it last year with Madison Bumgarner failed spectacularly, and so they're now stuck in neutral, and the Rockies can't even put on a proper fire sale.

AL West:

1. Houston

2. Oakland

3. Anaheim

4. Seattle

5. Texas

Somehow, the Astros after their cheating scandals and poor form from stars made it to Game 7 of the ALCS after being down 3-0 in that series. Most of that group returns, sans George Springer, and it feels like this may be a last chance for this group to push at the top of the American League. At some point, will the A's run out of the magic they always have as they compete at a decently high level while spending little to no money on players? Don't count them out. Until the Angels prove they can be what they should be with Mike Trout, Shohei Ohtani and Anthony Rendon, most should be inclined to not buy it from them. Outside of Jarred Kelenic, the most entertaining 2021 Seattle Mariners thing is this extended look at their history courtesy of Secret Base, and it's amazing. As for the Rangers, even though the pandemic is still ongoing, their new ballpark will be allowed to open at full capacity to watch a team tearing it down to the studs.

NL Playoff Teams:

1. LA Dodgers

2. Atlanta

3. St. Louis

4. San Diego

5. NY Mets

AL Playoff Teams:

1. NY Yankees

2. Houston

3. Chicago White Sox

4. Minnesota

5. Toronto

NL Postseason:

NL Wild Card: Padres over Mets

NLDS: Dodgers over Padres in 5 & Braves over Cardinals in 4

NLCS: Dodgers over Braves in 6

AL Postseason:

AL Wild Card: Blue Jays over Twins

ALDS: Yankees over Blue Jays in 4 & Astros over White Sox in 5

ALCS: Yankees over Astros in 5

2021 World Series:

Dodgers over Yankees in 7 (it's boring but it seems most likely).

Awards:

NL MVP: Fernando Tatis Jr. (SD)

AL MVP: Mike Trout (ANA)

NL Cy Young: Jacob DeGrom (NYM)

AL Cy Young: Gerrit Cole (NYY)

NL ROY: Ke'Bryan Hayes (PIT)

AL ROY: Randy Arozarena (TB)

NL Manager: Jayce Tingeler (SD)

AL Manager: Charlie Montoyo (TOR)

Apologies to everyone in advance for the jinxes they have all received. 

Tuesday, January 12, 2021

2020-21 NHL Season Predictions

 After the Stanley Cup was awarded in a hermetically sealed bubble in Edmonton in September, all eyes turned immediately to what the 2020-21 season for the NHL would look like. For a not insignificant period of time, it looked like there may be no season at all, and if some owners had their way, there wouldn't be one. But the league will trudge through their billion dollar losses (and the still raging global pandemic that caused them) to play a 56 game season with teams only playing inside their own division. It's unlike any NHL season before, and for a league that's always a bit unpredictable, this season may be a new level of unpredictable. That means, these predictions may be uniquely bad. 

East:

1. Philadelphia

2. Boston

3. Washington

4. NY Islanders

5. Pittsburgh

6. NY Rangers

7. Buffalo

8. New Jersey

This division is very reminiscent of recent Big Ten basketball seasons: many good teams that will beat each other up, but no great team to separate themselves from the pack. For that reason, the team with the fewest obvious problems and the best goaltender will win the division, and that's Philly. Most notably, I have the Penguins missing out on the playoffs this year, largely because someone has to, but also because they feel the shakiest of the good batch of teams in their division, and doubting the Islanders has not been profitable for me recently.

North:

1. Toronto

2. Calgary

3. Montreal

4. Vancouver

5. Edmonton

6. Winnipeg

7. Ottawa

Toronto will finally win a playoff series this year because their division is so lopsided in favor of them. Every other team has a marked flaw that makes it difficult for them to compete on the Leafs' level. Calgary underachieved relative to their talent last year, and made a much necessary upgrade in net which should see them just ahead of Montreal, who now may have the talent to back up their wonderful style of play and underlying numbers. Vancouver gets in over Edmonton because of better goaltending and more depth outweighing McDavid and Draisaitl's brilliance.

Central:

1. Tampa Bay

2. Carolina

3. Dallas

4. Columbus

5. Florida

6. Nashville

7. Chicago

8. Detroit

Even without Nikita Kucherov, the Lightning will coast to a division title this season. Their biggest challenge will be Carolina, who are beloved by the analytics community and rightly so, since their style of play now has the great talent to back it up, but their weak links in net and in some depth areas keep them from winning the division. Dallas will be inconsistent to start the season thanks to their COVID and injury issues, but they're too talented to miss the postseason. Columbus gets in to the final playoff spot over Florida and Nashville thanks to the Islanders principle, but any one of those three could have a reasonable argument to get in. 

West:

1. Colorado

2. Vegas

3. St. Louis

4. Minnesota

5. Anaheim

6. San Jose

7. Arizona

8. Los Angeles

The gap between the three best teams in the division is wider than any gap in any division this year. All three are legitimate Cup contenders, the rest will scrap for fourth and none would have any chance in any other division to get into the playoffs. Minnesota is the least flawed out of all of them, therefore they sneak in ahead of Anaheim, who with their young talent and underappreciated goalie could be the surprise team of the season. San Jose could also have one last gallant ride at success after their annus horribilis last year.

Playoffs:

East:

1. PHI over NYI in 7

2. BOS over WSH in 6

1. PHI over 2. BOS in 7

North:

1. TOR over 4. VAN in 5

3. MTL over 2. CGY in 7

1. TOR over 3. MTL in 6

Central:

1. TB over 4. CBJ in 6

2. CAR over 3. DAL in 7

1. TB over 2. CAR in 6

West:

1. COL over 4. MIN in 5

2. VGK over 3. STL in 6

1. COL over 2. VGK in 7

Final 4:

Colorado over Philadelphia in 6 (1 vs. 4)

Tampa Bay over Toronto in 6 (2 vs. 3)

Colorado over Tampa Bay in 6

Awards:

Hart: Nathan MacKinnon (COL)

Art Ross: Connor McDavid (EDM)

Calder: Tim Stueztle (OTT)

Norris: Cale Makar (COL)

Rocket Richard: Auston Matthews (TOR)

Selke: Mark Stone (VGK)

Vezina: Carter Hart (PHI)

Jack Adams: Jared Bednar (COL)

Apologies in advance for the jinxes I have caused. Happy hockey season!


Friday, January 8, 2021

2020 NFL Season Predictions in Review + Postseason Predictions

 Well that was a mess. Games on Wednesday afternoons because of the Rockefeller Center tree lighting ceremony, a game featuring a team with no rostered QB's and an overall sense of uneasiness defined the 2020 NFL season. Somehow, thanks to COVID-19 taking Sunday off like only God could have asked for, the NFL completed a 256 game regular season and moves onto a postseason in which already, a team won't have its head coach thanks to him testing positive for COVID-19. But nothing will stop the Shield, and nothing will stop me from filling this husk of a blog with the dying embers of content known as: looking back on terrible preseason predictions!

AFC Playoff teams (correct order):

1. KC 12-4 (KC 14-2)

2. BAL 12-4 (BUF 13-3)

3. IND 11-5 (PIT 12-4)

4. NE10-6 (TEN 11-5)

5. PIT 10-6 (BAL 11-5)

6. BUF 9-7 (CLE 11-5)

7. TEN 9-7 (IND 11-5)

Getting six out of seven AFC teams right in the postseason is not a bad return, though I didn't get them in the right order. Thinking the Patriots had one last kick at the can was a mistake many made, and not buying the Browns was another. Personal held skepticism of the Bills and Titans are most certainly gone now.

NFC Playoff teams (correct order);

1. NO 12-4 (GB 13-3)

2. DAL 11-5 (NO 12-4)

3. SF 11-5 (SEA 12-4)

4. MIN 10-6 (WSH 7-9)

5. TB 10-6 (TB 11-5)

6. GB 9-7 (LAR 10-6)

7. SEA 9-7 (CHI 8-8)

Now the NFC on the other hand was a bit of a disaster. San Francisco, Dallas and Minnesota all completely fell apart due to injuries, incompetence or a combination of both, and I wasn't buying into the Packers and Seahawks in the preseason but I probably should have, since they may be the two favorites to make the NFC Title game once again. 

Awards:

MVP: Patrick Mahomes

He could be MVP every year, but Aaron Rodgers will win it this year, seemingly turning back time once again.

OPOY: Lamar Jackson

He took some unfair criticism at times this year, though he wasn't quite what he was a year ago. This will end up being the MVP runner up award, and this year, that likely goes to Derrick Henry for being the bulldozer he always is. Stefon Diggs and Davante Adams are other worthy contenders.

DPOY: Aaron Donald

Picking him for this award is pretty easy as he is one of the best players in the league year in and year out. He has stiff competition from TJ Watt, and if the Rams missed the playoffs, it might be easy to slide in Watt for this award. Either could win, but this prediction wasn't off base.

OROY: Joe Burrow

If he stayed healthy all season, he probably would have won, but even then he would have had major competition. Justin Herbert was way better than anyone could have ever imagined and will be the favorite for this award as he is a QB, but Justin Jefferson should also get the love he deserves. One man who deserves way more credit it than he got: James Robinson, the UDFA for Jacksonville who was the entire offense for the worst team in the league and was a revelation. 

DROY: Chase Young

Dominant beyond dominant. There's almost no other contender for this award.

Coach: Mike McCarthy

Whoops. Kevin Stefanski probably gets it for ending the longest active playoff drought in the NFL, but Sean McDermott should get love for turning the Bills into a juggernaut. I also think Matt LaFleur should get credit for reviving what seemed to be a flagging Packers team before he arrived and giving a jolt to that team.

Comeback: Cam Newton

Nope. Alex Smith wins this without any debate.

Here are my 2020 NFL Playoff Predictions:

AFC:

Wild Card Round:

Bills over Colts

Titans over Ravens

Steelers over Browns

Divisional Round:

Chiefs over Titans

Bills over Steelers

AFC Title Game:

Chiefs over Bills

NFC:

Wild Card Round:

Saints over Bears

Seahawks over Rams

Bucs over Washington

Divisional Round:

Packers over Bucs

Seahawks over Saints

NFC Title Game:

Packers over Seahawks

Super Bowl 55:

Chiefs over Packers

Yes, I changed from my preseason prediction of KC/NO. That prediction was made seven years ago, or so it feels like. Enjoy the playoffs. 


Friday, September 11, 2020

2020-21 Premier League Predictions

Two prediction pieces in three days? Must mean the writer is getting lazy and wants to shill for content. That's definitely true, but it's a strange 2020 coincidence that the Premier League and NFL seasons start so close to one another that two prediction pieces are needed. Perhaps this should wait until the transfer window closes in October, but these games still matter. So here are the sure-to-go-wrong as always predictions for the Premier League:

Standings predicted from worst to first.

20. Fulham

When Fulham was promoted a few years ago, they spent wildly and all that got them was three managers, 26 points and an immediate return to the Championship. After winning the promotion playoffs, they're back, with considerably more financial restraint and a squad that doesn't look nearly as enticing on paper. That might mean better for the balance sheet but not form the performance on the pitch. They won't be as bad defensively as they were two years ago, but they may also not be as good going forward either. Staying up is a success, and that success looks hard to come by.

19. West Bromwich Albion

West Brom stumbled out of the Premier League just like Fulham did two years ago, and spent largely on their manager to get them back to the top flight. Slaven Bilic proved to be right the man, and with a few shrewd signings (and dumb luck at the end of last year), they won promotion. Most of their money spent this window was re-signing players who were on loan, and that can only be part of the equation. They need a striker as a focal point to be the line leader, which every promoted club needs, and as of now they don't have that. Bilic has the managerial chops, but the squad is lacking in some key areas, which will prove to be fatal.

18. Burnley

At some point, this club is going to go down because they will get outstripped by clubs with more resources. Sean Dyche is a miracle worker keeping this club in the Premier League as long as he has, but even he might not be able to do much with a squad that rapidly thinned out and has made no additions this window outside of a reserve goalie. Somehow, even through Dyche openly feuding with management about money invested in the squad, he's back, and he might be enough to keep them up again, and safely. But at some point, predicting Burnley to go down will be correct, and this year may be just weird enough that even miracle workers can't pull another rabbit out of their hat.

17. Aston Villa

For most of last season, it looked like Villa would go the way of Fulham: big spenders whose transfer outlay barely papered over the cracks of a squad that was barely Premier League quality. But, they found a great escape last year, perhaps solely because of an incident against Sheffield United when Hawkeye failed to give a clear goal that almost assuredly would have sent them down. They still have Jack Grealish, who could and probably should be at a bigger club right now, and they spent lavishly on a new striker from Brentford in Ollie Watkins. They need to get those goals from one of their forwards if they're going to stay up, and it would help if their defense settled a bit. Will they be bitten by second season syndrome? 

16. West Ham United

This club, for all its faults, has no business being in relegation battles. They've spent and spent on countless players with potential who failed to meet it, which has meant a mid table club has ended up here. Now, they can't spend without selling, and David Moyes, for all of his faults, needs players to work with and doesn't really have a squad to do the job. However, they haven't sold Michail Antonio, Declan Rice or other key cogs, meaning that they should have enough quality to scrape by once again. But for this club, scraping by should never be good enough.

15. Crystal Palace

Crystal Palace were basically safe by March, when last season was suspended due to the pandemic. It became obvious after the restart that they knew they were safe, since their run of form, particularly towards the end of project restart, was horrific. Roy Hodgson knows this and always manages to get more out of a squad that is in a desperate need of a major refresh, but after last season when the squad was even more stale, he was still able to get results. Bringing back Michi Batshuayi on loan from Chelsea is a move that should do plenty to ease those concerns, at least temporarily. Wilfried Zaha, as of this writing, is still at Palace, and that bodes well as he's still their best player through all the transfer turmoil. This club will have its ebbs, but should be relatively safe come the end of the year.

14. Brighton & Hove Albion

Graham Potter's team at times looks absolutely overawed when they play the Premiership's big boys, but at times, they pull off amazing results, like against Spurs and Arsenal at home last year. Potter was able to get Brighton to play better looking soccer last year, which worked well against teams at their level. They were always a bit wasteful with their chances, but they made their chances count when they needed to. They were also relatively poor defensively, but adding Joel Veltman from Ajax and bringing back a star from Leeds' promotion campaign in Ben White should help solidify things somewhat. They also are developing some young players with promise. The Seagulls should be a good neutral watch this season, and a club that looks to be sticking around, too.

13. Sheffield United

Overlapping centerbacks. That sounds off, but the tactics worked, because Sheffield United spent no time in the relegation zone and conceded the fewest goals of any promoted side in Premier League history. Part of that has to do with Dean Henderson, the Manchester United loanee that is now back with his parent club, but the team buy in to the tactics and approach was truly amazing to see. While they didn't generate many chances, when they did, they finished them. That combination made the Blades much tougher than anyone saw coming. No player stands out above the rest, and that's what makes them unique. There's almost no way they compete for Europe this season, but there's little reason to see them going down, either.

12. Leeds United

If you have never watched a second of Premier League soccer, watch Leeds United this year and you'll be hooked for life. Leeds are a gigantic club that once made a Champions League semifinal, but was mismanaged into the dirt and only just returned to the Premier League this season. Their manager, Marcelo Bielsa, is nicknamed "El Loco" for a reason. His teams run, and run, and run. Bielsa's inspiration on managers like Pep Guardiola, Mauricio Pochettino and others cannot be overstated, and now the man himself gets to tackle the Premier League challenge. Last year, they were even better than their points haul indicated because they wasted so many good chances; according to Sky Sports, they underperformed their xG by 11 last year. You can't have that in the top flight. But this team is a little like Wolves; they're not any real threat to go down and could become a top half team in short order. And most importantly, they're going to be fun as hell.

11. Newcastle United

No club in this league has squandered more potential than Newcastle. They are a gigantic club that too often flirts with outright disaster. They were to be taken over by a group with ties to the Saudi Arabian government, which fell through in spectacular fashion, so the loathed Mike Ashley is still around. There are concerns, as always with this club. Their preseason has been dour, and goalkeeper Martin Dubravka could be out for months. But this club has quality, or at least enough of it, to stay away from relegation. Miguel Almiron is still special, Allan Saint-Maximin has been a bright spark and bringing in Jeff Hendrick and Ryan Fraser on free transfers is worth the risk. There is always something going on with Newcastle, and if they survived last season in tact, they'll probably do well enough again.

10. Southampton

Southampton have been a staging post for some of the greats in the Premier League in the last decade to launch. Players and managers alike have found their careers taking off on the South Coast, though there were moments where that looked almost impossible. They flirted with relegation a few too many times, and they lost 9-0 to Leicester at home last season when the whole project was on the verge of falling apart. But Ralph Hassenhuttl survived, and his team started to play a high pressing, high energy style that lead to success. Last season, Saints were absolutely terrible at home, which makes basically no sense. Should that turn around, they could and should challenge for Europe.

9. Everton

Carlo Ancelotti is one of the best managers in recent time, so to see him managing Everton is quite a shock, even now. It's even more of a shock to see players like James Rodriguez in Toffee blue as well. Their squad features players with so much potential: Richarlison, Allan, Dominic Calvert-Lewin, etc. They now need to reach it, which has been a problem for Everton in recent years. This manager has achieved so much, but this is his biggest challenge yet. Can they break the Sky Six hammerlock? They have the grit, but now they need the guile.

8. Leicester City

Watching Leicester lay waste to the league in the fall of last season was truly impressive, which makes it even more stunning to see them finish fifth when it looked like they had a Champions League spot in the bag. They really did collapse towards the end of last season in spectacular fashion. Key players like Jamie Vardy and James Maddison aren't leaving, but not many new players are coming. Their exquisite transfer business from the past also doesn't look to be continuing into the Brendan Rogers era. Add the Europa League to the mix and you get a club destined to slide down the table a little. It's now a matter to see whether they've hit their ceiling.

7. Wolves

An aside: Wolves apparently spent 40 million Euros on a young player from Porto who has played less than a dozen games, whose agent happens to be an adviser to Wolves ownership and also has direct ties to the manager and much of the squad. Hmmm... if you're not a Jorge Mendes fan, Wolves is not the club for you. But if Jorge Mendes FC doesn't turn you off, you'll find that they're still a fun team to watch that plays great soccer and has impressive talent that clubs around them envy. Raul Jimenez is one of the best strikers in the league, Adama Traore is a bulldozer on the wing with great skill and intelligence to boot, but their squad is extremely thin. With so many games in such a short period of time, even with the additions of young players from Jorge Mendes rolodex, at some point that's going to bite them. No Europe this year helps a tad, but it seems like this team found its ceiling last year and is now butting up against it. Maybe turning outside the Mendes sphere of influence would be worth it.

6. Spurs

Going from Mauricio Pochettino to Jose Mourinho was one of the biggest managerial shocks in recent years, especially for a club that seemed so in love with its manager for the first time in decades. Mourinho was able to scratch a European finish out of last season, benefited morbidly by the pandemic shutting down the season when most of his squad was on the training table. During the restart, Harry Kane recovered lost form which helped Spurs only lose once during that period. They've also signed players prior to deadline day in Matt Doherty and Pierre-Emile Hojberg in two spots of need, which is a welcome change. They will play a ton of games this season thanks to the Europa League, and the demands for Mourinho are what they were when he came in: Champions League and/or a trophy. It feels long past due that this Spurs team will get the latter, but they haven't yet. Is this the year, or is this the year the Mourinho shtick starts to wear thin?

5. Arsenal

Arsenal supporters are almost never optimistic, and that's with good reason: the club has frayed in recent years during the latter tenure of Arsene Wenger and the failure of Unai Emery. He's already won  a FA Cup and Community Shield, so some of the worries about his tenure have already been soothed, at least temporarily. They were able to beat Liverpool, City and Chelsea in that run of form too. Can Arteta fix Arsenal's chronic, ever-lasting problems in central defense and central midfield? Gabriel from Lille and William Saliba should help the former, but they're not the first centerbacks to come to Arsenal with hype and not meet it. Having one of the best strikers in the world in Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang certainly helps paper over those cracks. They're developing a distinct identity and playing style, which has been lacking for a few years. Making the Champions League doesn't seem so far fetched now, nor does finishing ahead of Spurs for the first time since 2016 either, but there's still a noticeable gap between them and the top four for a reason.

4. Manchester United

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is the right manager for this club that has been looking for far too long to find their true next man up after Sir Alex's retirement seven years ago. He's getting the most out of young players and those already there, and with additions like Bruno Fernandes, Harry McGuire and Donny Van De Beek, There was no silverware to back up the distinct progress made, but returning to the Champions League is an important milestone. If United sign Jadon Sancho, which is oft rumored but doesn't seem likely to happen, that could push them up a step or two. Clubs in their position see incremental progress, and incremental might not be good enough at United considering who and what is ahead of them. But for the first time in a long time, they're on the right path, and for good this time.

3. Chelsea

Roman Abramovich apparently has no idea that the world is in the grips of a global pandemic/financial crisis the likes of which we haven't seen in generations, because he's spending money like a drunken sailor. These are splashy signings too in Hakim Ziyech, Timo Werner and Kai Havertz. They're exciting additions to a group of young players and holdovers that Frank Lampard melded together into a great attacking force after a transfer ban and losing players like Eden Hazard. They'll score goals, no doubt, but they might give up a ton too, especially when their big addition to central defense is 35 year old Thiago Silva, which may help steadying the ship, but not raising it above the water line. They're better than last year's team that finished third for sure, but how much better? Are they still a cut below City and Liverpool? Oh, and we can't forget Kepa. Don't forget about Kepa. 

2. Liverpool

Jurgen Klopp's methodical build finally brought Anfield a title, and they did so in such spectacular fashion that the wait was worth it. But repeating as Champions is going to be extremely difficult, as City and others learned the hard way. This task is made harder since the only new signing they've made is a back up left back. That's not to say that their squad has suddenly begun to fall apart, but more is needed to keep up the pace with those around them. Will some of these hyped young players from the academy fill in the gaps? There's no doubt Liverpool are going to have a great chance to retain the title, but repeating will be harder than winning it the first time.

1. Manchester City

For all of Pep's spectacular collapses late in the Champions League, his teams know how to win trophies at home. And it's not like City were that "bad" last year either; in most other years, they'd have won the title. But they set such a standard that Liverpool did so well to beat that at some point, they were inevitably going to have to step aside. They're in transition away from the era of David Silva, Sergio Aguero, Vincent Kompany to younger players like Phil Foden and others. Last year, the surprise for City was not that their attack wilted, but the defense didn't play up to standards. Signing Nathan Ake from Bournemouth should help a little in that regard. Winning the title might not even be the biggest goal for City this season considering their European misadventures, but they are currently favorites to do it, simply because they might be less flawed than everyone else around them.

So those are the predictions for 2020-21, sure to be wrong in May or whenever the season ends if the pandemic flares up again, which is more than possible, and might be the surest bet in all these words. 

Wednesday, September 9, 2020

2020 NFL Season Predictions

 It doesn't seem real that there's going to be a full NFL season during a global pandemic still killing on average 1,000 Americans, but in a typical headstrong, stubborn American way, our true national pastime will soldier on. In many places, cheering fans will be replaced by awkward fake crowd noise and overbearing ads, but in a normal world, NFL games still featured plenty of that. With no preseason, it's hard to know what these games will even look like, but for many, sloppy football is still better than no football. These predictions are bad even in years with certainty, so these picks may end up even worse than usual. At least these won't be the only ones.

AFC East:

1. New England 10-6

2. Buffalo 9-7

3. Miami 7-9

4. NY Jets 4-12

2020 is so strange that the Patriots are still predicted to win the AFC East even though they'll have their first non-Tom Brady opening day starter since 2001 and many of their good players opted out thanks to the pandemic. But Cam Newton with a chip on his shoulder is scary, even though the rest of the Patriots are decidedly not that scary anymore. On paper, the Bills have the most talent in the division, but when the lasting memory of them from last year is Josh Allen not knowing which way was up during the Wild Card game, they end up getting a handicap. If the simplest question is which QB do you trust more, Newton or Allen, the answer is simple. Tua does not start the season for Miami as their QB but he'll end it under center, and the Dolphins will be competitive in every game since they now have the talent to go with the coaching from last season. The Jets had their best player opt out due to COVID-19, and Frank Gore might be starting over Le'Veon Bell even though he's old enough to have a child currently playing college football.

NFC East:

1. Dallas 11-5

2. Philadelphia 9-7

3. NY Giants 5-11

4. Washington 3-13

Somehow, Dallas conspired to throw the NFC East away last year, and that finally cost Jason Garrett his job. With better coaching this year, and small but necessary upgrades across the board, they should finally be able to put away this listless division. Philly's success this year will come largely if they stay healthy, but with history as a reference, that's nowhere near certain. They can win the division, but they're not as deep as Dallas, especially on defense. Daniel Jones has a new coach and a new offense, but his team still doesn't have the defense to back him up. And as for the team with no name, Ron Rivera has a massive clean up job to do, and that's more hoping the mess above him becomes slightly less messy. Is Dwayne Haskins the answer? Is he still the starter by the end of the year?

AFC North:

1. Baltimore 12-4

2. Pittsburgh 10-6

3. Cleveland 7-9

4. Cincinnati 5-11

The Ravens have the best QB and best player in the division, and though they won't win 14 like they did a year ago, having the best player and best QB be one and the same will tilt this division towards them again, though they'll have far more stiff competition this year than last. With Big Ben healthy, an offense with great potential could be back to their strength from the Killer B's era, and the defense might be starting to look somewhat like Steelers' defenses of old again. They're for sure a playoff team, and a sneaky Super Bowl contender in a top heavy AFC. Everyone thought this time last year that the Browns would finally turn the corner, and predictably, they didn't. They have the talent to finally make the postseason, but do you trust them? Joe Burrow will win the Bengals some games they shouldn't win, but this roster overall is still talent deficient, but the arrow is at least firmly pointing up.

NFC North:

1. Minnesota 10-6

2. Green Bay 9-7

3. Detroit 7-9

4. Chicago 6-10

Minnesota lost twice to Green Bay last year which cost them a division title, but they still pulled off a great upset at New Orleans in the Wild Card round. With Dalvin Cook and just enough on offense, even though they traded away Stefon Diggs for some reason, they should be the favorites in the division though they are more flawed than in recent years. Green Bay's 13-3 record last year was a fluke and everyone knows it, and after some bizarre moves this offseason, particularly in the draft, many are starting to wonder what the future of this team looks like. Their defense will be better than their offense again, which is strange to write. Matt Patricia looks to be another in a line of failed Bill Belichick disciples to have success as head coaches elsewhere, even though he's got a renewed Matthew Stafford throwing the ball around easily. And the Bears QB competition between Nick Foles and Mitch Trubisky tells you everything about where this team is heading: straight to the basement of this division.

AFC South:

1. Indianapolis 11-5

2. Tennessee 9-7

3. Houston 7-9

4. Jacksonville 4-12

If Andrew Luck didn't stunningly retire during the preseason last year, they would have been a contender for the Super Bowl. To finish 7-9 after that even with mediocre QB play, shows the talent on this roster that will carry them forward this year now that they've upgraded at that position. Late stage Philip Rivers will be enough with this roster construction to get the Colts where they need to go. Teams that play like Tennessee; run heavy with just enough QB play to get by are not bets for long term success, and the Titans are perpetually 7-9/8-8/9-7, but with the expanded postseason that might be enough to get them in again. When you trade away your best non-QB player for peanuts, your team isn't destined for success, and the Texans, beneficiaries of being in a terrible division for so long, are finally going to see that catch up to them. The Jaguars aren't tanking, that requires a plan which they don't have, but they're not the automatic worst team in the league that so many are saying they are. Not only do they have competition for it, but they're not as talent bereft as you think, just extremely young, which isn't a formula for success in a year with a giant global pandemic.

NFC South:

1. New Orleans 12-4

2. Tampa Bay 10-6

3. Atlanta 8-8

4. Carolina 6-10

This might be the last kick at the can for the Saints as currently constructed, which is a shame. They've been one of the most fun and fascinating teams in the NFL in recent years, only to be eliminated from the postseason in excrutiating fashion each time. It's not a matter of what they do in the regular season, it's a matter of getting over those mental hurdles in the playoffs. Tampa has the stars, and has the pieces, but can they put it all together in a year without a preseason? They are the Bucs, a team that has made the playoffs only twice since winning the Super Bowl in 2002. Atlanta feels like a team that is distinctly stuck in the messy middle; not good enough to contend for the playoffs but not bad enough for the bottom to fall out, which is evidenced by two consecutive 7-9 finishes, and it seems they're not budging from that. Carolina is going all out on the college model of success, and while that will benefit Christian McCaffrey's fantasy owners, what else do they have around him?

AFC West:

1. Kansas City 12-4

2. LA Chargers 7-9

3. Las Vegas (still weird) 6-10

4. Denver 6-10

No team has repeated as Super Bowl champ since the Patriots in 2004, but it feels like if any team in recent history is going to do it, it would be these Chiefs. Though hit by a few notable COVID-19 opt outs, they still have the best player in football and have the depth to overcome those losses. It also helps they play in a mediocre division. The Chargers will go with Tyrod Taylor instead of rookie Justin Herbert, probably wise since Herbert is such a divisive prospect and nowhere near polished yet, but this team always confounds and conspires to be worse than the sum of its parts. They could have the DPOY in Nick Bosa, a talented offense with Keenan Allen and Austin Ekeler, and yet they don't have the look and feel of a playoff team. Derwin James being out is tough. A new city beckons for the Raiders, yet Vegas won't singlehandedly change this team's luck. Derek Carr might be on the last of his seemingly nine lives, and ever since that great 2016 run, he hasn't been able to recapture that form. The Broncos may have just lost Von Miller for the season, Bradley Chubb isn't healthy yet either, and the offensive line might well be a sieve. Not a great combination for a team that hasn't won in five years and a young QB with plenty of question marks.

NFC West:

1. San Francisco 11-5

2. Seattle 9-7

3. LA Rams 8-8

4. Arizona 7-9

10 years ago, the NFC West's division winner finished with a below .500 record, yet for most of the decade after, it was the best division in football by far. That's again the case in 2020, where a convincing argument can be made that all teams finish above .500. Though the 49ers are going to have a Super Bowl hangover of some kind, they're still a cut above everyone else in the division, even with perhaps the third best QB in the division. They're already a little banged up, but especially at WR, and thinner on the OL than last year, but every other team has a more fatal flaw than theirs. Seattle was also extremely flukey with their record since they won so many close games, and that is not replicable in 2020. They also don't have a good pass rush, or much of a running game to speak of. Relying on Russell Wilson to do absolutely everything is great in principle, not so in practice. Jared Goff is a perfectly acceptable QB making top 5 QB money, which is a bad combination on a roster that has become pretty lopsided and uneven even with superstars like Aaron Donald. If the Cardinals were in any other division, they'd probably make the playoffs considering Kyler Murray now has the best receiver in football to throw to. They're definitely going to be fun, but they may not be quite ready yet.

AFC Playoff teams:

1. Kansas City 12-4

2. Baltimore 12-4

3. Indianapolis 11-5

4. New England 10-6

5. Pittsburgh 10-6

6. Buffalo 9-7

7. Tennessee 9-7

NFC Playoff teams:

1. New Orleans 12-4

2. Dallas 11-5

3. San Francisco 11-5

4. Minnesota 10-6

5. Tampa Bay 10-6

6. Green Bay 9-7

7. Seattle 9-7

AFC Playoff Predictions:

Wild Card Round:

2. Baltimore over 7. Tennessee

3. Indianapolis over 6. Buffalo

5. Pittsburgh over 4. New England

Divisional Round:

1. Kansas City over 5. Pittsburgh

2. Baltimore over 3. Indianapolis

AFC Championship Game:

1. Kansas City over 2. Baltimore

NFC Playoff Predictions:

Wild Card Round:

2. Dallas over 7. Seattle

3. San Francisco over 6. Green Bay

5. Tampa Bay over 4. Minnesota

Divisional Round:

1. New Orleans over 5. Tampa Bay

3. San Francisco over 2. Dallas

NFC Championship Game:

1. New Orleans over 3. San Francisco

Super Bowl 55:

Kansas City over New Orleans 35-24

Award Predictions:

MVP: Patrick Mahomes (KC)

OPOY: Lamar Jackson (BAL)

DPOY: Aaron Donald (LAR)

OROY: Joe Burrow (CIN)

DROY: Chase Young (WSH)

Coach: Mike McCarthy (DAL)

Comeback: Cam Newton (NE)

Will there be a full season finishing on time? There will be a hiccup or two along the way considering the unprecedented nature of the season, but the NFL will have a full season either way. Whether it finishes on time is another matter, but surprisingly there haven't been any major disruptions yet. It seems more plausible than ever that the season will chart a normal course with regards to the calendar.

Apologies to anyone I jinxed with these predictions.

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

How should we view the return of sports during the Coronavirus pandemic?

Four months ago, when the shock of almost all sports globally being shut down still very fresh, I wrote that "we didn't know what we had with sports until they were gone, but even through the dark times without them, I can't wait to see what life is like with them again." It was a positive, hopeful thought in a time where there was far more uncertainty and fear than hope.

On the eve baseball, basketball and hockey returning to play, my comment about not being able to wait to see what life is like with sports again seems hollow. The pandemic that shut down sports is in many ways even worse than it was when they were shut down in March, particularly in this country. Famous athletes, like everyone else, have contracted COVID-19 and in many cases were hit very hard by it. There are testing shortages across the country for those who need it the most, and delays for those lucky enough to get their tests, and yet leagues have been able to accumulate tests, use them daily and get almost instant results. 

Sean Doolittle of the Washington Nationals put it pretty bluntly:
So what are we to make of sports returning to our lives when so much is still not normal, and might not be for some time yet?

Sean Doolittle among others have asked an important question: should sports be returning with the virus still very much out of control? When there are distinct ethical questions about whether sports leagues should take up the testing capacity needed for essential workers and the general population, society isn't functioning as it should. There is the real risk that when some athletes catch COVID-19, they may suffer long lasting and permanent damage, not just to living a healthy life but keeping their high standards as a professional athlete, and hundreds of athletes have already caught the virus in the course of living normal life during the pandemic. Some have pre-existing conditions that make contracting the virus even more concerning, and many have opted out of playing. Should they even be asked to put themselves on the line in circumstances like this, healthy or not?

However, thanks to the money on the line, some leagues have gone to great extents to restart play even when the outside world isn't conducive to it. MLS, NWSL, the NBA, WNBA and NHL have all constructed bubbles to keep players insulated from potential infection, and the early returns are somewhat positive. NWSL has had no positive tests inside their bubble, though Orlando Pride had to withdraw before the tournament because of positives they picked up at home, and though two teams had to withdraw from the MLS is Back tournament because of the number of positive tests, the league has had five straight reports of no positive tests inside the bubble as of July 22. The NBA's bubble is also off to a good start with no players testing positive during their first week. Ethics about testing aside, the bubbles seem to be a cohesive strategy that gets play resumed and keeps players and staff safe, and one with the least amount of concern for the public at large.

But not every league can operate in a bubble. Are the ethical and moral concerns greater for MLB, who will be traveling from city to city, though playing in empty stadiums? Are they greater for the NFL, who will be doing the same, though with more players to test, no preseason and highly limited capacity for fans in stadiums if that? And what of college football and college sports in general, whose scatterbrain, scattershot philosophy on play has left conferences on their own, lost in the dark looking for direction that isn't coming? These leagues and sports have had immense trouble just agreeing on testing protocols, let alone what return to play functionally looks like. Should college athletes, amateurs according to the NCAA, be even forced to play in a situation like this when large events are almost entirely banned and they don't have the same control over their own destiny as pro athletes in unions have?

Even with the large ethical, moral and health questions looming over sports' return, plenty of sports fans are eager to have them back. 78% of self-claimed sports fans are excited about their return in spite of the raging pandemic, which is up from 65% in April. Many seem perfectly content with the idea of bubbles, and playing in empty stadiums if it means sports returning. Plenty will watch in spite of the concerns, and will be happy to have them back even if they themselves may have moral quandaries about it. Sports have an outsized role in American culture, and people are craving some sort of normalcy which is a distant memory even four months after the pandemic began to rage. Perhaps sports are the perfect place to scratch that itch, since going to concerts, museums, plays, movies are still not possible.

For all that is concerning about the return of sports in America, there is so much that they have done in this unique and challenging moment in American history. They have brought even more attention to the systemic racism that has plagued this nation, with powerful symbols of support and solidarity. Athletes have been using their platform more than ever to speak out, which is more needed than ever. None of these leagues returned to play to solely make statements of solidarity, but their return has brought us indelible moments that will stay in memory forever, and that's before baseball, football and basketball have brought their voices to the discussion.

It's amazing that the actual play feels tertiary to these discussions, if that. How can anyone reasonably predict a 60 game MLB season with perhaps 16 playoff teams? There are certainly teams that will shine in the NBA and NHL bubbles, but these will be postseasons like no other. What can anyone glean from MLS is Back for a possible regular season resumption after it ends? Perhaps it's the wild unpredictability that adds to the eagerness for sports to return, even with everything else surrounding it.

How should we view the return of sports in the US? It's certainly not business as usual, and these leagues, teams and players have had to walk an extremely fine line just to consider returning. Perhaps the best phrase to use in this case would be "your mileage may vary". Many have internalized the moral and ethical concerns about the return of sports and while they are there, they're happy to have them back while they're there. It's fair to ask question of these leagues and their plans, it's certainly fair to ask whether American society has "earned" sports' return, and if you don't like the answers, you have every right to be nervous and worried.

For many, the return of sports is a sign of hope that better days are coming. Many know that nothing is normal right now, and won't be for a while, but they want that crumb of comfort, and a glimmer of light.

We can at least be happy that light is back, even if it's dimmer than usual. 

Thursday, March 19, 2020

You don't know what you have until it's gone: Life with sports during the Coronavirus Pandemic

When I wrote about Kobe Bryant's death in January, I wondered aloud why even though his impact on me personally wasn't great, the emptiness I felt that day was nothing like I've experienced before. I concluded that it was because he was an ever present constant beyond basketball; his presence was taken for granted. His story was the prime example of "you don't know what you have until it's gone".

In the last week, the sports world across the globe went from looking nervously at the coronavirus pandemic to being almost entirely shut down with a Thanos snap. There may be a few stragglers, but on the whole, professional and amateur sports are shut down as the world tries to fight back against this pandemic. Even at the lightest time in the sports calendar, there is more than enough going on to keep your attention. "You don't know what you have until it's gone" couldn't be a more perfect phrase to describe what sports means to us as a society; never thinking that they could ever go away like this, perhaps for months. We didn't know what we had with sports until they were gone. But without them, not have we gained a better appreciation for what they mean to us, but what they've done to get us through these difficult times.

Sports are a cultural meeting ground, an exchange of ideas, beliefs and experiences where disparate people come together to laugh, cry and scream. What happens when that meeting ground is closed? Do those people get to come together anymore? Can they come together in another way? Do these people have another outlet with their time now that their primary love has vanished? What about those people whose lives depend on sports indirectly, like those arena and stadium workers who aren't going to get their paychecks, or the bar owner down by the stadium who overnight has no business? Perhaps until now, no one ever fully grasped how wide the sports net is cast not just in this country but across the globe and how many peoples lives depend on the machine continuing to hum.

But morbidly, sports meant so little so recently. As the pandemic began to spread rapidly across North America and Europe, watching sports felt so empty. Sean Farnham of ESPN said this during halftime of a ACC tournament game after the news broke that Rudy Gobert tested positive for COVID-19: "does any of this really matter?". In one fell swoop, sports went from considering playing in empty arenas to almost entirely going silent in a matter of hours. As much as us the collective misses sports, having them go on right now would be entirely pointless. Out collective energies need to be spent fighting this pandemic, not yelling at a referee for a bad call.

A week without games of any kind should have felt emptier, lonelier and worse than it actually has. Perhaps that's the gravity of the global situation hitting home after too long of not taking it seriously. Perhaps that's the realization that sports of any kind like we took for granted for so long might not return until Memorial Day, perhaps even later, and that this week is the tip of the iceberg. Perhaps its knowing that the tangled web of those affected by this virus, from Gobert to Kevin Durant to a CAA Tournament referee would eventually affect almost everyone sooner rather than later, playing in empty stadiums or not. Could we as sports fans and human beings collectively hold that guilt that we endangered people because of our own blind devotion to "normal"?

But without sports, who knows if the world, particularly the United States, takes this as seriously as they needed to. Without Rudy Gobert testing positive, the dominoes that knocked all sports out might not have reached the corridors of power, which forced them to activate every tool in their arsenal to deal with a public health crisis like none of us have ever seen. When the history of this pandemic is written, sports will play an incalculable roll in that history. Without Rudy Gobert, sports might still be playing in full arenas and stadiums, and how many people would have been infected, hospitalized and killed because of that?

Our nation's first PSA about safe practice during the pandemic even came from a football coach:
When this pandemic is finally under control, sports will play an outsized role in bringing society back to normal. Coming together is something that puts so many people in danger during the pandemic, but when it's safe to put 19,000 people in an arena and 70,000 in a stadium, it will be a celebration of not just sports, but what life was like before social distancing and flattening the curve. That first sporting event in a full stadium will be a cathartic release for everyone, like when the Mets and Braves played at Shea Stadium right after 9/11. It will be a sign that the normal we took for granted is coming back, and that we can come together again. Our partisan allegiances will be put aside because even through the worst most bitter rivalries in sports, we're all there because we love these games, and what these games mean to us.

For most of us, sports were an ever present constant in our lives that we are all desperately yearning for in these trying times. As much as we miss them, think of this even through the horrible news of the pandemic: they might be the reason we beat it in the first place, they will be one of the first places where society can let out a collective sigh of relief when we do beat it, and our love of them will grow exponentially when they come back because we now know what life is like without them. The small collective sacrifice we made when it was needed the most will save lives, and will help us get back to the normal we all crave.

Even in their shocking absence, sports have taught us so much about the world that we didn't know or appreciate before. That might help us save lives during the pandemic, and be even better fans and people when it's done. We didn't know what we had with sports until they were gone, but even through the dark times without them, I can't wait to see what life is like with them again.