With the Winter Classic just around the corner, the Eye will take a quick mid-season look at both teams – but we’ll also examine the changes around baseball and who the free agency winners and losers have been so far. But first, a quick look at the bowls and particularly the outlook for the major conferences.
There have been a lot of minor bowls already, but the big conferences begin the majority of their bowl play this week. The bowl season is a big chance for conferences to measure themselves against each other, and the major football conferences close ranks and root for their in-conference rivals at this time of year. The SEC is almost always rated at the top of the conference rankings, and I think they will have a good bowl season, but I’ve been most impressed with the Big 12 – I think that is the deepest conference in the country and they will flex their collective muscles over the next two weeks. I am less sold on the Big Ten and PAC-10; both conferences appear top-heavy to me and their middle-tier teams could be exposed in the bowls. I’m not sold on the ACC or Big East at all, and think both will take some lumps this postseason. I’m sure that Chris Morelli will have more on the PSU-Florida bowl game, but very briefly, I think that the Lions have a fighting chance in this game – if I thought JoePa was still the head coach in anything but name, I’d pick them – but sadly, I think his time has passed. Urban Meyer IS leaving Florida, but he is still a good coach, and I think he will manage to pull out a close win against Penn State.
On to baseball – yes, baseball; even though pitchers and catchers do not report for eight weeks, there have been a lot of big-time moves made over the last month. The headline move was clearly the Phillies’ re-acquisition of Cliff Lee, giving Philly an all-time great rotation. Having just lost OF Jayson Werth (more on him in a sec), it seems that the Phillies have committed to a defense-and-pitching approach. Boston also appears to be a big winner in free agency, signing Carl Crawford to bolster their offense and Bobby Jenks to shore up their bullpen. I think Boston overpaid for Crawford, but it’s becoming increasingly clear that like the Yankees, they are willing to outspend the rest of MLB to win. I’ve long been a Red Sox fan – since 1986 in fact – but with the passing of George Steinbrenner, it’s hard to see a lot of difference between the Red Sox and Yankees – both are well-run, wealthy, and wildly successful – and with Big Stein’s big mouth silenced, both are also absent of major controversy.
The losers of free agency? Aside from the Yankees, who missed out on any of the prime players, the Tampa Bay Rays have to be considered the big losers. Free agency and their own unwillingness/inability to pay their players have gutted their offense. Their farm system is still productive, but it would appear that their window of contention has at least momentarily closed. The other losers are the Washington Nationals….they let Adam Dunn go, who is a prime offensive contributor, and then spend $126,000,000 on Jayson Werth. Werth is a fine player and a better defender than Dunn, but he is not nearly as explosive as Dunn with the bat and is a good bet to be in decline already at age 31. I’d bet good money that within four seasons, this contract will be a real burden to the team, and will tie up money desperately needed elsewhere.
Other losers – not so much in free agency, but KC’s trade of Zack Grienke marks the Royals as no different than the Pirates – perpetual rebuilders, and not exactly savvy team builders. They have consistently drafted well lately, which is to their credit, but their other signings and trades have been nothing short of disastrous. GM Dayton Moore is a great evaluator of amateur talent – he should stick to that, and the team should hire a true GM to build the team properly. According to most experts, the Royals traded a Cy Young talent with a friendly contract and received not one blue-chip, can’t miss prospect in return. With the Yankees desperate and other teams (most teams, actually) extremely short of starting pitching, it’s unclear why the Royals were in such a hurry. As for the Pirates, I see no immediate hope – the offense is a little better but the pitching is a complete mess and it would take a minor miracle to get even 75-80 wins in 2011. More to follow in our March preview.
On to the Winter Classic – Washington vs. Pittsburgh is a classic anytime, anywhere, as proven again last Thursday as the two teams played a thrilling game – won in OT shootout by Pittsburgh, 3-2. For me, the game is going to be great, sure, but it’s important to remember that in the scheme of things, this is but one of 82 regular season games for both teams. A win of any type will not portend postseason glory, nor will a loss doom either team, any more than beating the Red Wings or losing to the Islanders in November would. The magic of this game is the setting and the build-up, not the stakes. Also, remember that the Flyers were not a good regular-season team at all last year – they were an OT shootout in the last game from missing the playoffs entirely- and went on to win the East and almost won the Cup. All that matters is making the postseason, getting a chair at that poker table, and both of these teams are all but certain to make it. You’ll hear much talk this week about what the game means, who is favored, matchups and the like, as if this were the Super Bowl. It is a wonderful event and I cannot wait to see it on TV – but it means almost nothing compared to the Super Bowl.
For the city of Pittsburgh, however, this means plenty – there are events all week associated with the game. There’s an additional outdoor rink in the Heinz Field parking lot for public skating as well as several youth games – including teams from Nova Scotia and Russia! Thursday there’s a college-minor league doubleheader at the Consol Center, Friday there’s an alumni game at Heinz Field featuring Mario Lemieux and other greats from both teams, as well as a public practice to follow. There’s also a rally with the mayor on Thursday in support of the Pens. In short, even if you don’t get to attend the Classic itself, there are a lot of other events to partake in to be part of the action and celebration of this event. I most likely won’t review the game itself next week – again, it’s only one of 82 games – but I will be reviewing all of the NHL at the all-star break in a couple of weeks.
Happy New Year to all of you, and enjoy the bowls and the hockey! Next week, NFL playoff and BCS title game previews.
Dave Glass can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.