Monday, May 18, 2015

Niners' Cowboy rides off into Retirement

If there's one thing we've learned about 49er players retiring, it's that they do so in droves. At least this year they have. After the sudden retirement of linebackers Patrick Willis and Chris Borland, it was learned on Monday afternoon that the team would be without 5-time Pro Bowl defensive end Justin Smith who informed the team of his decision to retire as the Niners prepare for the 2015 season without yet another key cog on defense. Unlike the retirements of Willis and Borland which caught many by surprise considering Willis just recently celebrated his 30th birthday and Borland had only one season under his belt coming off his rookie campaign, there has been speculation regarding Smith possibly stepping away from the game of football since the start of the offseason. Smith, a former first round pick selected fourth overall out of the University of Missouri in 2001, even gave the team a date which he would announce his decision by. The front-office allowed the 35-year old Smith to take as much time as he needed and while it wasn't the answer they were hoping to hear, it was one they had anticipated. 

That proof lies in the team's draft habits which saw the 49ers select 10 defensive linemen in the draft since 2011, including 2015 first round pick Arik Armstead out of Oregon. Not to mention the signing of free-agent Darnell Dockett this offseason. Though it was an injury which ultimately led to Smith's decision to hang 'em up, describing his left shoulder as unresponsive, Smith brought his lunch pail and tools to the yard every day and came ready to play while missing only three games throughout a 14 year career split between the 49ers and Cincinnati Bengals. Like Willis, Smith was a defensive leader for the 49er defense which has ranked among the top defenses in the league over the past several seasons. First year head coach Jim Tomsula who built quite the relationship with Smith while serving as the team's defensive line coach for all of Smith's seven seasons with the team, hopes the rebuilding process will be a swift one now that a number of the team's key contributors on defense from the past few years are gone. Something that may be worth keeping an eye on with Smith now out the door, is how his absence will effect Aldon Smith. 
When on the field playing side by side, the tandem of Aldon and Justin who were often referred to as "the Smith brothers" were a dominant force in San Francisco's D-Line. Their productivity often depended on one another and with the elder Smith no longer in the picture, it'll be interesting to see if there's any drop off in Aldon's numbers. Defensive coordinator Eric Mangini who's in his first year at the helm of the defense, surely hopes that won't be the case. Smith joins the ever-expanding list of players from last year's 49er defense which won't be back with the team in 2015. Among those players are -- Perrish Cox, Ray McDonald, Chris Culliver, Dan Skuta, the aforementioned Chris Borland and Patrick Willis and now the one they call "Cowboy." And like any cowboy, this one will ride off into the sunset, bidding a farewell to the game he loved and the game we all enjoyed watching him play, even if his helmet and pads were two sizes too small.

Smith was a 5-time Pro Bowler who totaled 880 tackles and 87 career sacks while being named an All-Pro three times over an impressive 14-year career. Whether or not he'll garner enough votes to be enshrined into the Football Hall of Fame is a crapshoot at this point, but I won't be surprised in the least bit if the 49ers honor him this upcoming season, albeit a banner or plaque with his name and number on it to hang at the team's shiny new home of Levi's Stadium.

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Thursday, May 7, 2015

Red Birds red-hot despite key Injury

Since the 2010 MLB Postseason, the San Francisco Giants and St. Louis Cardinals have flip flopped representing the National League in the World Series with the Giants making their appearance in each of the past three even numbered years and St. Louis going during the odd numbered years. Though the 2015 season is still very young, the Cardinals are off to an amazing start as they look to continue that pattern. The formula took a major hit just two weeks ago, however, when it was learned that Cardinals ace Adam Wainwright would miss the remainder of the season with a torn Achilles tendon, suffered during an at-bat on April 25.  

While an injury of this magnitude to a player as significant to his team as Waino is would normally crumble a franchise for the season moving forward, it's almost as if the injury inspired the ball club. Since the injury to their ace occurred, the Cardinals have gone 9-3 and are coming off their first nine-win homestand since 2002, helping them jump out to a 6 1/2 game lead in the NL Central standings. After posting a record of 19-6 which set a mark for the best start in franchise history through the first 25 games of the season, the Red Birds now stand at a league-best record of 21-7 following Thursday's 5-1 win over the archrival Chicago Cubs. Since 2009, Wainwright has been one of the premier pitchers in all of baseball, placing in the top three of NL Cy Young voting four times in his career. And through his first four starts of 2015, Wainwright was off to another stellar start to the season, boasting a record of 2-1 and an ERA of 1.44.
With the game of baseball now without one of its best pitchers for the remainder of the season, it's that time of year to bring up the annual discussion of, "should the National League adopt the designated-hitter rule" like their American League counterpart. Any time a pitcher gets injured either at the plate or on the base paths by way of a freak injury as was the case with Wainwright, you can bet your bottom dollar those in favor of the DH will come out of the woodwork with lit torches and pitchforks in hand in support of the National League adopting the designated-hitter. While most teams are afraid to lose their multi-million dollar pitching investment to an injury while at the plate which doesn't quite pertain to what they were initially signed for, the small-ball strategy which goes into the National League's game is the last remaining component separating the two leagues. 

But in the meantime, NL pitcher's continue to hit and the Cardinals continue to win. Prior to Wainwright's injury, St. Louis was struggling on offense as runs were at a minimum. But since then, the Cardinals have averaged nearly six runs per game as the bats have awoken, backed by some stout pitching from veteran pitcher John Lackey who has registered several gems this season as well as a bullpen which has been nails during their most recent homestand which saw a combined ERA of 1.01 over 44 1/3 innings. If there's one team in all of baseball who can overcome the absence of a 3-time All-Star like Wainwright and still contend for a title as we've learned over the years, it's the Red Birds. After all, this isn't their first go-around without their workhorse as the Cardinals went on to win the 2011 World Series with Wainwright sidelined for the entire season. The only surprise this time around would be if St. Louis can continue at their current pace all season long in an NL Central division which features two teams that are young and hungry in the Chicago Cubs and Pittsburgh Pirates, both of whom weren't even a blip on the radar in 2011.

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Sunday, May 3, 2015

Giants Month in Review: April

With baseball season officially in full swing as the San Francisco Giants kiss the opening month of April goodbye, the reigning World Series champs haven't quite resembled a team that had just won it all several months prior. Last year the Giants got off to one of the hottest starts in franchise history through the first two months when they won 32 of their first 50 games. And while the G-Men still have another month to go to determine whether or not they can match last year's blazing start, duplicating or surpassing that mark is unlikely given the slow start they got off to in April.

Following a 3-1 start to the season after taking two of three in Arizona and the first of four games in San Diego, the Giants ran into a brick wall, dropping 8 straight including a three game sweep at the hands of the Colorado Rockies in San Francisco's home opening series. They wouldn't fair much better in their second series at AT&T as the D-Backs came in to take three of four in the city by the bay. The Giants would finally see their 8-game skid come to an end as the team celebrated their 2014 Championship run with a victory on the night in which the team was awarded their championship bling prior the team's Ring Ceremony game, only to lose the following day. The homestand wasn't all negative, however, as the Giants benefited from a much needed day off with a three-game sweep of the archrival Los Angeles Dodgers at Home which included walk-off wins in games two and three.
The Giants then took to the road where they split two games in Denver before the series finale at Coors Field was postponed due to inclement weather. A three game set at Dodger Stadium would witness one of the classic pitchers duels between the two hated rivals when World Series MVP Madison Bumgarner out-dueled 2014 NL MVP Clayton Kershaw in a 2-1 victory. However, the Dodgers would wind up winning the series finale the following day to take the series win, two games to one. The highlight of the month, though, has to be the surprising contribution of rookie pitcher Chris Heston who has done everything and then some since being asked to fill in for the injured Matt Cain. Called up from Triple-A Sacramento prior to his start on April 8, to fill the void of Cain who was placed on the DL with a flexor tendon strain in his right forearm, Heston dazzled in his season debut, pitching six innings in which he gave up 2 runs (both unearned), while allowing three hits, walking a pair and striking out five to earn the win. Aside from a minor bump in the road at the hitter-friendly Coors Field in Denver in which he was tagged for 11 hits and 6 earned runs in 5.1 innings pitched, Heston hasn't skipped a beat, allowing 1 or 0 runs in each of his other four starts.

Despite the lone shaky outing, the 27-year old has been a glowing bright spot for the Giants in the early going, boasting an ERA of 2.51 in 5 starts and a record of 2-2. With Matt Cain and Jake Peavy serving time on the disabled-list, manager Bruce Bochy is going to have a difficult decision to make regarding his pitching rotation if Heston's success continues. With little help from the injury bug in April as Brandon Belt, Casey McGehee and the aforementioned Matt Cain and Jake Peavy all saw time missed, the month of May figures to be bit brighter for the Giants as their offense looks to get a boost from 2014 All-Star outfielder Hunter Pence. The Giants' lanky outfielder suffered a left forearm fracture during Spring Training which has caused him to watch from the dugout. With Pence absent from the lineup, it's been shortstop Brandon Crawford who's led the team in home runs (5) and RBI's (14) thus far, two categories Pence will surely help out in when he makes his return later this month following a Minor League rehab assignment. 
With a 9-12 record in the month of April, things are already looking up for the Giants in the month of May as they flipped the page on their calendar with a three game sweep of the visiting Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim over the weekend to improve to 12-13 on the year, inching closer to the .500 mark. San Francisco completed the sweep thanks to a superb outing from hurler Tim Lincecum who registered his best performance of the season by scattering three hits (all singles) over 8 scoreless frames as the Giants awarded him with the 5-0 victory. The home team wasted no time to back their starting pitcher with some run support as Nori Aoki and Joe Panik led the game off with back-to-back home runs in the first inning, something the Giants haven't done since 1964. Next up, the Giants will host the San Diego Padres for a three game set before closing out their 10-game home stand with a four-game series versus Giancarlo Stanton and the Miami Marlins. 

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Monday, April 27, 2015

Homecoming for Hamilton

During the 2012 Winter Meetings, baseball saw the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim land the most coveted player on the free agent market for the second consecutive year. One year after signing Albert Pujols to the second wealthiest contract in MLB history, the Halos inked a 5-year, $125 Million deal with outfielder Josh Hamilton which on paper gave the Angels one of the most formidable lineups in all of baseball and was thought to be a World Series contender. In the five seasons Hamilton spent with the Texas Rangers before becoming a free-agent, he was named to the American League All-Star team all five years and won the AL batting title while being awarded AL MVP in 2010. The man who was once touted among the best prospects in all of baseball before injuries and drug abuse threatened his career, had finally developed into the player scouts knew he was destined to be. After earning the recognition of one of the game's best players, Hamilton helped lead the Rangers to back-to-back World Series appearances including the first in franchise history in 2010. So it came as no surprise that Hamilton garnered a hefty payday when he hit the free-agent market just two seasons later.

However, since signing with the Halos, Hamilton has been a shadow of his former self while spending numerous stints on the disabled-list and producing nowhere near the numbers he did while with the Rangers. And then came his relapse with cocaine and alcohol in February which he admitted to. After news broke of Hamilton's relapse, Angels owner Arte Moreno ordered all of Hamilton's merchandise to be removed from the shelves at the team store inside Angels Stadium. Moreno and company was well aware of the risk that came with the now 33-year old slugger the moment they signed him and after the league chose not to suspend Hamilton following his most recent relapse which Moreno was hoping for, the front-office began searching for a team interested in his services. And on Monday, the Angels brought that proposal to fruition by agreeing to trade the highly paid, struggling star to the Rangers. The deal which will end the rocky relationship between Hamilton and the Angels is an expensive one for Anaheim as they will now pay all but around $7 Million of the $83 Million Hamilton is still owed, while shipping him to a division rival and getting nearly nothing in return aside from cleaning their hands of the problematic outfielder.
Although the Rangers will be getting a bargain considering how much Hamilton is owed and how little of the portion they'll have to pay him while hoping to find a solution to their struggling outfield, it won't all be bouquets and hugs for Hamilton when he makes his return to the field for the Rangers. Hamilton will have to regain some of the respect and admiration fans in Arlington once had for their beloved MVP. Upon leaving the franchise he resurrected his baseball career with, Hamilton called Dallas a football town on his way out which although true, rubbed some fans the wrong way. Currently on the disabled-list while recovering from offseason shoulder surgery, Hamilton is expected to be ready to join the team come mid-May following a Minor League stint according to Rangers GM  Jon Daniels. Hamilton who was no stranger to the Angels organization before he signed with them having faced them multiple times a year while a member of the Rangers, will once again be on the opposing side and my guess is he won't be getting a standing ovation from Halo fans when he's introduced in the batters box. 

Three years removed from clubbing a career-high 43 home runs in his last season with the Rangers, 12 more than he hit in his two seasons combined with the Angels, Hamilton is hoping a change of scenery to a very familiar franchise will help him reclaim the star power he once possessed. With his story and struggles with drugs and alcohol well documented, you can't help but root for the guy and hope he turns it around. And when he makes his return to Arlington, I'll be doing just that.

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Sunday, April 19, 2015

Tebow Time in Philly

If there's one thing we've learned about the Philadelphia Eagles, it's that coach Chip Kelly has an interesting way of doing things. See his busy and unpredictable offseason for example. The offensive mastermind has raised quite a few eyebrows on his way to making the Eagles the talk of the offseason after dealing 3-time Pro Bowl running back LeSean McCoy to the Buffalo Bills in exchange for former Oregon Duck -- Kiko Alonso, who missed all of last season with a torn ACL. Kelly then looked to fill the void left by McCoy with the acquisition of Frank Gore who after agreeing to terms with Philadelphia, chose to sign with the Indianapolis Colts instead. Kelly didn't panic, however, and instead countered by finding his man in the much younger DeMarco Murray who he managed to snag from the rival Cowboys with the help of a college teammate. However, the biggest head-scratcher is what Kelly has done with the Eagles' quarterback position. 

Two days after re-signing Mark Sanchez who won over the Eagles' starting QB job following an injury to Nick Foles midway through the season, Philly shipped Foles to the St. Louis Rams in return for the often injured Sam Bradford. Murray and Bradford spent three seasons together at the University of Oklahoma which played a role in Murray jumping ship in Dallas to sign with the Eagles. Not to mention the 5-year, $42 Million contract offer that Philadelphia proposed to the league's top rusher in 2014 which had to have made the decision a bit easier. But just when you thought Kelly's madness had come to an end, he makes yet another questionable decision. The latest reports have the Eagles expected to sign 27-year old QB Tim Tebow to a deal just in time for the start of the team's offseason program which begins on Monday. The former Heisman Trophy winner at the University of Florida is more than two years removed from appearing in his last regular season game with the New York Jets after spending a brief and unsuccessful stint with the New England Patriots who cut him after the 2013 preseason. After being asked by coach Kelly to workout for the team in March, Tebow will now join a crowded QB roster which includes Matt Barkley as well as the aforementioned Bradford and Sanchez. 
For Tebow, who is still in search of the respect of an NFL quarterback with a playoff win under his belt while a member of the Denver Broncos, teaming up with an offensive genius in Kelly could very well benefit him and help revive his career in the same way it did for his former Jets teammate Mark Sanchez a season ago. That's assuming Tebow can make the squad of course, something his deal does not guarantee. The signing of Tebow is one of low risk and high reward as Kelly hopes to groom one of college's most decorated QB's into a more well-rounded player at the professional level. But after speculation began to swirl regarding the Eagles reportedly being interested in moving up in this month's NFL Draft to land another former Duck, could Kelly's latest move be an indication that he's throwing in the towel on trying to acquire the reigning Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota whom he recruited at the University of Oregon? While it doesn't exactly shoot down the possibility, it has to at least put a dent in those chances.

The signing of Tebow would give the Eagles two Heisman Trophy winning quarterbacks and three QBs taken in the first round. Unfortunately, it would also give them three of the five worst QBs in the league over the last five years from a Quarterback Rating standpoint with a minimum of 30 games at the position. Lets see if Chip Kelly can work his magic with this new batch of Quarterbacks as the Eagles look to rebound from a disappointing season in which they failed to make the playoffs after a 7-2 start before ultimately finishing the year with a record of 10-6.

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Monday, April 6, 2015

Never too late for a Blockbuster

First year general manager of the San Diego Padres A.J. Preller proved on Sunday that there's never a bad time to make a blockbuster trade in the MLB. After a very busy offseason which saw the Padres steal the headlines at baseball's winter meetings in December by making acquisition after acquisition to remodel the outfield with such names as Matt Kemp, Justin Upton and Wil Myers as well as Derek Norris behind the dish and Will Middlebrooks in the infield, only to add the cherry on top a month and a half later in the form of pitching ace James Shields, Preller has helped morph the Padres from the doormat of the NL West to a potential contender. And on the eve of Major League Baseball's Opening Day, San Diego made yet another deal to revamp the franchise. 

As if Padre fans weren't already ecstatic to turn a new leaf and witness a team with the potential to send the franchise to the postseason for the first time since 2006, they were given one final gift from their new general manager before the start of the season in the form of All-Star closer Craig Kimbrel. Preller made a deal to land Kimbrel and outfielder Melvin Upton Jr. aka BJ Upton from the rebuilding Atlanta Braves. The Friars managed to kill two birds with one stone with the trade as it helped solve their crowded outfield problem by sending outfielders Cameron Maybin and Carlos Quentin to Atlanta and also helped them add some extra depth to the back end of the bullpen with the acquisition of one of the best closers in the game. The Braves also landed right-handed pitcher Matt Wisler in the trade, who is one of San Diego's top prospects as well as Minor Leaguer Jordan Paroubeck and a Draft pick. 
Taking on the hefty contract of the struggling Melvin Upton Jr. was less than ideal for the Padres who are now looking at an Opening Day payroll near the $109 Million mark which is a franchise record, but chances are they wouldn't have been able to land Kimbrel without it being a package deal and taking Upton as well. Unlike his brother Justin who is due to be a free-agent after the season, the 30-year old Melvin Upton is under contract until 2018 and is owed over $45 Million over the next three seasons. As for Kimbrel, the 26-year old fire-baller is owed $46 Million over the next four seasons with a club option to buy out in '18. But if the All-Star reliever can continue to duplicate the numbers he's produced in each of his first four seasons, there's little doubt the club would choose to part ways. Since being called up to the bigs in 2010, Kimbrel owns the lowest ERA in all of baseball at 1.43 with a minimum of 250 innings pitched and his 186 saves over the last four seasons are the most in the Majors during that span. With four consecutive seasons of 40 saves, a feat reached only three other times, Kimbrel will have a chance this year to become the first pitcher in MLB history to make it five straight seasons of 40 saves.

Padres skipper Bud Black was expected to give the ball to reliever Joaquin Benoit to close out ballgames, but chances are he'll now be moved to a setup role in the eighth as Kimbrel is assigned closing duties. With some pundits predicting the Padres to snap their playoff drought the moment they signed James Shields, they've gotta be licking their chops now that San Diego's chances just got a lot better. But since they were basically being declared a wild card team before Preller's latest blockbuster trade, does this now make them a potential favorite to knock off the consensus NL Western division champion L.A. Dodgers whom they open the season against and maybe even put them in the discussion for an NL Pennant? That's a question yet to be answered, but one thing that is for certain is that A.J. Preller and the Padres will more than likely be buyers at the trade deadline and not sellers.

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Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Cubs Trade 12 days for 1 year with Top Prospect

With Major League Baseball's Opening Day just around the corner and Spring Training nearing its end, the Chicago Cubs have been all the rave up to this point. After what could very well end up being a historical off-season for the franchise which saw the signings of one of the top two free-agent pitchers on the market in Jon Lester and arguably the best skipper in the bigs in Joe Maddon, Kris Bryant who is not only Chicago's top prospect but is the number one prospect in the Majors, has been tearing the cover off of the ball this Spring. The 23-year old third baseman which has also seen some playing time in the outfield, leads the league in home runs this Spring and has Cubbie fans licking their chops looking into what should be a very bright future for an organization which hasn't won a World Series title in over a century. 

In just 14 games this Spring, Bryant, a Las Vegas native and graduate of Bonanza High School, has belted 9 home runs, while driving in 15 RBIs and logging a robust .425 batting average, the type of numbers that would usually result in a player being a lock to get the opening day nod at the hot corner. But not in this case. Monday, the Cubs made a decision that was sure to grind the gears of Bryant's agent Scott Boras and the MLB Players Association alike when Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein announced the team's plan to have Bryant start the season at the Minor League level. Though the news of the team's decision is fresh off the presses and was finally made official, sources around the ball club say Epstein and company had their minds made from the start which has caused the Cubs front-office to be the target of criticism from those on the outside looking in. But if we're talking solely from a business standpoint while keeping the future in mind, the front-office made the decision every single one of us would make if we were at the helm. 
By having Bryant start the year in the Minors, they can delay the start of his service clock and thus gain another full year of his services as he won't become eligible for free agency until after the 2021 season instead of 2020 had he made the opening day roster. To dumb it down some; if the Cubs can wait it out for the first nine games of the season (12 days), they'll have another year's worth of Bryant's services which considering his potential, is a no-brainer. Not to mention the championship drought that lingers on the north side of Chicago. If I'm a fan of the Cubs, I'm thrilled that the brain trust has their eyes focused on the bigger picture and that's the future of the franchise, opposed to the front-office giving him the green light to start the year only to watch him struggle out of the gates and send him back down to the Minors. Or worse, witness him become a free-agent and sign elsewhere a year earlier than he could have had we been patient for an additional two weeks. 

Bryant's red-hot hitting this spring is no fluke as the second overall pick of the 2013 MLB Draft also hit a league-leading 43 home runs in the Minors last year which should bring smiles to the faces of fans sitting in the bleachers at the friendly confines of Wrigley Field. With such bright young talent as Starlin Castro, Anthony Rizzo and Jorge Soler already on the big league roster and prospects Javier Baez and Addison Russell in the Minors and next in line to be the core of the franchise, the Cubs should be a fun team to watch and a contending powerhouse in the NL Central for many years to come.

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Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Rangers, Phillies bit by Injury bug

As if the odds weren't already stacked against them in their respective divisions, the Texas Rangers and Philadelphia Phillies are two teams that could ill-afford the absence of a key cog in their pitching rotation. Unfortunately, Spring Training has been none too kind to either ball club as they prepare for the regular season without the services of two of the game's most premier pitchers.  

After being shutdown for the last seven weeks of the 2014 season with mild inflammation in his right elbow, Rangers hurler Yu Darvish was expected to be good to go at the start of spring training this year. But after pitching only one inning in his spring debut on March 5, the 28-year old Japanese sensation was pulled from his outing when he experienced tightness in his triceps muscle. An MRI would spell even worse news, however, as damage to the ulnar collateral ligament in Darvish's right elbow was revealed, resulting in Tommy John surgery which would put an end to any chance of the 3-time All-Star pitching again in 2015. Already expected to be long shots fighting to stay afloat in the AL Western division with two American League powers in the Los Angeles Angels and Oakland Athletics as well as the much improved Seattle Mariners, the news of Darvish being on the shelf for the season is devastating for fans in Arlington. Texas finished with the worst record in the American League last year at 67-95 thanks in large part to the struggles and absence of first baseman Prince Fielder and though they should finish with a higher win total than they did a season ago, anywhere ahead of a fourth place finish in the division would be a surprise for a Rangers ball club that's only four seasons removed from back-to-back World Series appearances. 
As for the Phillies, another ball club not expected to be contending for a title this year, the injury to left-handed pitcher Cliff Lee is as unfortunate as any. Not only because the 36-year old Lee is still among the best lefty's in the league when healthy, but because it ends any chances the Phils had of dealing the southpaw in return for a prospect or two to help speed up Philadelphia's rebuilding process. Since signing a 5-year, $120 Million deal with the Phillies in December of 2010 and taking less than he could have made elsewhere to return to play in Philadelphia where he helped lead the Phillies to their second consecutive World Series during in his first stint with the ball club after being acquired at the trade deadline in 2009, the franchise has been unable capture the success they achieved in Lee's first two seasons. For Lee, who last pitched on July 31 before being placed on the 60-day disabled-list after sustaining the same injury a season ago, it'll be the third attempt to rehab from a torn common flexor tendon in his left elbow while shaking off the idea of having surgery which would cause him to sit out the season.

With $37.5 Million remaining on his contract which includes a $12.5 Million club option to buyout in 2016, the former Cy Young winner hopes the third time will be a charm as his road to recovery figures to be a long one before we'll get to see if the 4-time All-Star can make a return to the mound in the city of Brotherly Love. Without Lee, the Phillies who finished last a season ago (73-89), will have their hands full in an NL Eastern division which homes a number of clubs that are expected to improve from last season as well as arguably the favorite to win it all this season in the Washington Nationals. 

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Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Willis, Borland sudden Retirement leaves gaping hole in 49er Defense

What started as a nightmare of an offseason for the San Francisco 49ers with the firing of head coach Jim Harbaugh, has now gone from bad to worse with the news of not one but two of the team's star linebackers announcing their early retirement from the game of football less than a week between one another. After learning just days ago that the 49ers would be without All-Pro linebacker Patrick Willis who has been the heartbeat of the San Francisco defense since being drafted eight years ago, news broke that the team's brightest young star on defense -- Chris Borland, is also walking away from the sport just one year into his professional career. While Willis, 30, admitted it was past injuries that led to his decision, most notably those to his feet which he explained have bothered him for years during his press conference, the 24-year old Borland cited the dangers of what could happen rather than what did as his reason to hang 'em up. 

It's no secret that the game of football is as dangerous as any with what we know today regarding the studies of repeated head trauma that occur during tackles and after doing his research, Borland is among those well aware of the safety concerns and long-term effects it could have on ones life. But it does come as a shocker with Borland announcing his decision so early on in his career. Selected out of the University of Wisconsin in the third round of last year's NFL Draft, Borland shined and was a tackling-machine for the 49er defense after getting the starting nod in Week 7 when asked to fill in for the injured Patrick Willis. From his Week 7 start until Week 15 when he suffered an injury of his own, the rookie linebacker led the league in tackles with 98, eight more than the next closest player during that span and was awarded Defensive Rookie of the Month for the month of November. Borland led the 49ers with 108 total tackles while averaging a tackle per every 4.5 snaps played which was the best in the league. In the wake of Willis announcing his retirement plans, the expectations for Borland next season were sure to skyrocket following his impressive rookie campaign. Instead, the team will now be left searching for an alternative replacement who's unlikely to step up in the way Borland was capable of while also holding their fingers crossed that Pro Bowl linebacker NaVorro Bowman can return to full strength after missing all of last season with ACL and MCL tears in his left knee. 
As if the 49ers weren't already expected to showcase a completely different team defensively in 2015 under a new regime with former defensive coordinator Vic Fangio departing for the Chicago Bears, the franchise will virtually feature an entirely new roster with both Willis and Borland gone as well as fellow linebacker Dan Skuta, cornerbacks Chris Culliver and Perrish Cox all signing elsewhere for bigger paydays. The defense isn't the only area that was dealt a blow in the early goings of the offseason, however, as the Niners' o-line saw their 3-time Pro-Bowl guard Mike Iupati sign with the rival Arizona Cardinals. Another name that will soon follow is Michael Crabtree who's a free-agent and isn't expected to return with the team that drafted him in 2009. And then there's the franchise's all-time leading rusher in Frank Gore who inked a contract with the Indianapolis Colts over the weekend after 10 memorable seasons in San Francisco. The busy free-agent frenzy wasn't all about losing players, though, as the 49ers also made a number of acquisitions by signing 3-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle/defensive end Darnell Dockett who the team is quite familiar with having played his entire 11-year career in Arizona. Other signings include cornerback Shareece Wright formerly of the San Diego Chargers, running back Reggie Bush who gives the Niners another dimension in the running game after spending the last two seasons with Detroit and former Ravens wide-out Torrey Smith who provides the 49er offense with a deep threat they've so desperately needed. 

As for the linebacker position, the unexpected retirement of two of their top three players at the position has to throw off the team's initial plans heading into next month's NFL Draft, but it's better to have happened now rather than after the draft. It would be hard not to see the Niners address the position come Draft day, however, unless they plan to hang onto Michael Wilhoite who was recently placed on the trading block or decide to possibly kick the tires on LB Nick Moody who saw limited action on the field a season ago.

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Friday, March 6, 2015

Tough start for Defending Champion Giants

Before their title defense could even begin with the start of Major League Baseball's regular season still a month away, the defending World Series champion San Francisco Giants were dealt a sizable blow in just their third Spring Training outing of the year. Facing Corey Black of the Chicago Cubs, Giants outfielder and clubhouse ringleader Hunter Pence took a pitch high and in off of his left forearm in the sixth inning that caused him to exit the game. With everyone in the dugout from manager Bruce Bochy on down fearing for the worst, x-rays revealed a non-displaced fracture in the ulna bone which will keep Pence on the shelf for 6-8 weeks. 

Although the timing of the incident is somewhat fortunate given the injury occurred prior to the regular season, Pence will be without the benefit of working on his timing at the plate and everything else that Spring Training allows you to prep for. And while Pence expressed no ill will towards Black and even replied to his tweet which Black issued to wish the Giants outfielder a speedy recovery to which Pence replied, "It happens my friend. Thanks for the concern, it's part of the game we love." With the timetable for Pence's return out of his favor given he currently owns the longest active streak in baseball having played 383 consecutive games which will now be in jeopardy, life without their iron man won't be long for the Giants but it'll still take some getting used to, granted Pence has appeared in every single game since San Francisco acquired him midway through the 2012 season.

Since his arrival to the ball club, Pence leads the team in home runs, runs batted in and extra-base hits. But he's meant more to the team than just a statistical leader and everyday gamer, he's been the voice and soul of the ball club during two of their three title runs. The injury to Pence opens the door to a number of outfielders looking to get some playing time including Gregor Blanco, Juan Perez and non-roster invitee Justin Maxwell. The resilient Hunter Pence has plans of returning sooner than team doctors have ruled him out for but waiting out the full 6-8 weeks might be best as the Giants look to win their fourth World Series title in 6 years and put an end to the curse (if you wanna call it that) of the even numbered years.

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