Cincinnati Reds 2018 MLB Draft

Cincinnati Reds: Potential pitching draft picks

The MLB Draft does not receive the same amount of fanfare as the NBA or NFL. Small market teams like the Reds, however, live or die by how their first-round picks turn out. The last two years have given the Reds a shot at elite talent, drafting Nick Senzel in 2016 and Hunter Greene in 2017. 2018 should be no different, as the talent pool at the top of the draft has a ton of upside. This Reds draft may be the most important, as it could be the final piece to the World Series puzzle.

This year’s draft is anybody’s guess as to how it will unfold. The latest reports have Casey Mize out of Auburn as the consensus first pick, with conflicting reports for every pick after that. Mize’s latest start was not too strong though, so he may be picked second or third behind a couple college bats. College arms will help the major league team sooner, whereas high schoolers fit the high-risk, high-reward mantra.

Today, we will outline the most commonly seen pitchers floating at the top of MLB mock drafts from industry experts. Each expert has their own ranking for the pitching talent, so any of these names could be selected by the Reds at pick No. 5.

High School Pitchers

Cincinnati Reds 2018 MLB Draft

Will the Reds take left-handed ace Matthew Liberatore with the No. 5 pick in the draft? (Photo from azcentral.com)

The high-risk gamble of prep arms has made MLB evaluators weary, with less being drafted in the first-round annually since 2014. Kyle Glaser of Baseball America wrote an article detailing this. It is a good read if you want to make yourself scared of high school pitchers.

In 2017, there were only two high school pitchers taken in the first round. There is a lot of talent in this year’s class, which could push down some of the high school pitchers.

Carter Stewart is the top high school arm in this draft class. He couples a mid-90s fastball with an exceptional curveball. For the advanced analytic folks, Stewart’s curveball’s spin rate is truly amazing. Stewart has a changeup as well that grades to be just an average offering in the future. The Florida native’s two above-average pitches and a velocity increase this spring has Carter sitting firmly in the top 10. Stewart has similar upside as Hunter Greene, but with a slower fastball.

Matthew Liberatore is the best left-handed high school arm in the class. His profile is the polar opposite of somebody like Greene. Liberatore has four pitches, all of them well developed for a high schooler. His fastball sits low 90s, hitting as high as 96 in one start and falling as low as 88 from the stretch.

The downside with Liberatore, however, is that none of these pitches grade elite in the long run. Liberatore is one of the safest high school pitchers to enter the draft in a long time. Is a top 5 pick worth spending on a pitcher who will never be an ace, but potentially a solid mid-rotation arm?

Honorable mention goes to Ryan Weathers (yes, son of former Reds closer David “Stormy” Weathers), Ethan Hankins, Kumar Rocker and Cole Winn, who are just some of the other high schoolers to keep an eye on as the draft looms closer. Each player would have been first-rounders 10 years ago, but could wind up as second-rounders due to the aforementioned prep school weariness.

College Arms

Cincinnati Reds 2018 MLB Draft

Brady Singer has been dominating the SEC for three years now. Could he be doing the same to the NL Central in a couple years? (Photo from gatorsports.com)

College pitchers have been all the rage lately in drafts. Top college players only require two to three years in the minors. Couple that with being cheaper since they do not have leverage and better competition than high schoolers, and it is easy to see why college arms have been more frequently drafted as of late.

This year’s crop is no different, as there are a plethora of names surfacing near the top of draft boards. Casey Mize is the consensus No. 1 pick at this time, but there are still other players the Reds could focus on instead.

Brady Singer was a little inconsistent to start the 2018 college season, but outdueled Mize when they played. He was the ace of the Florida rotation and could be a stellar selection for the Reds at No. 5 this draft.

Singer has had three injury-free seasons of strong production for an elite college program. Singer has three above-average offerings, including a fastball that hovers around the mid-90s. The Florida ace should move quickly in the farm and will look good accompanying Luis Castillo and Tyler Mahle.

Shane McClanahan has the elite fastball Reds scouts drool over (see Hunter Greene and Tony Santillan). The lefty is the ace of the University of South Florida’s staff and has thrived in that role. His fastball has brushed triple digits several times this season and has a changeup with great movement on it. Some scouts have gone so far to compare him to Chris Sale, especially if his slider comes around.

Shane’s K/9 is crazy, reaching double-digit strikeouts in 50 percent of his starts (six out of 12). He has also had five walks in four of his 12 starts, hence his biggest negative. If Reds scouting thinks they can fix the walk issue, McClanahan’s upside is insane. Unfortunately that is easier said than done though.

Conclusion

This should be the last season the Reds have a top-five pick anytime soon. Hitting on these picks is what turns a Wild Card contender into a perennial playoff team. The Reds have plenty of offense already between all levels of the system, but only have a couple pitchers who are expected to make any major league impact.

Grabbing a college pitcher to join the Reds when the theoretical playoff window is open seems like the smart choice. The hardest part is deciding which one.

Make sure to check in next week as the hitters the Reds could take in the first round are outlined.

 

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Cincinnati Reds: Minor leaguers to watch

The Reds Opening Day has come and gone, but there is still another on the horizon. Minor League games officially begin today, April 5th. Going to minor league games gives Reds fans a chance to see some of the Reds best players before they actually play in the majors. Joey Votto, Homer Bailey, and Tucker Barnhart are just a few of the names to start in Dayton and work their way up to the Reds. The Reds minor leaguers this season are some of the best in baseball, as their farm is considered Top 10 in the MLB.

This article will give Reds fans a couple names of players to watch on each team. Some of the names will be more heralded than others. Each player outlined has a future shot to make the Reds, whether as a career starter or just as a role player. So without further ado, let’s begin with the Dayton Dragons.

 

Dayton Dragons

 

Reds minor leaguers

Packy Naughton pitched very well in rookie ball for Billings. Can he carry that momentum into his first full season in Dayton? Photo courtesy of Stephen Smith of Four Seam Images

The Dragons were the first team from the Reds organization to release their roster for the 2018 season. Early analysis is that the team is stacked with hitting talent up the middle and throughout the outfield. Recent drafts have had the Reds prioritize hit tool in their hitters, choosing contact over high upside power. This is not more prevalent than in the hitters that fill out the Dragons roster.

Jeter Downs (MI), Stuart Fairchild (OF), and Miles Gordon (OF) are some of the more heralded hitters to keep your eyes on through Dayton’s 2018. Jose Israel Garcia (MI), on the other hand, is more of an unknown quantity. Scouting reports vary on Garcia’s hit tool, ranging from above average to slightly below average. Gap power is prevalent now, which can turn into home run power as he matures (20 years old). What scouts can agree on, is the above average arm and speed that is prevalent. The Cuban infielder has the potential to be a 5 tool shortstop. He also could flame out without a major league start. Winning these kinds of lottery tickets pushes a team from wild card battlers to World Series champions.

The pitching staff has its share of unheralded studs, along with the most hyped prospect in the system, Hunter Greene. Every MLB fan has heard of Hunter Greene, so the focus here will be on Packy Naughton (LHP). A 9th round pick in 2017, the numbers do not impress from the Virginia Tech days. The numbers that do impress were the stints from his Cape Cod League days. Seven starts in 2016 led to a 1.67 ERA, 0.95 WHIP, and a K/9 just a tick south of nine. Packy possesses three off-speed pitches to go with his fastball (curve, slider, and changeup) and increased command of them all as he got to Billings last summer. He may not move as fast through the system as some college pitchers, but he has back half of the rotation upside at least if the command sticks around.

 

Daytona Tortugas

 

Reds minor leaguer

Trammell certainly has a bright future in the Reds organization. It will be up to him to prove it is warranted. Photo courtesy of Sam Greene of the Cincinnati Enquirer.

Daytona is home to the Reds High-A team, the Tortugas. The roster assembled has many awesome hitters and top prospects including Taylor Trammell, Tyler Stephenson (assuming healthy) and Dilson Herrera. The pitching staff will be headlined by Texan fireballer Tony Santillan and is filled out with less heralded but productive pitchers.

Two unheralded pitchers to check for in the box scores are Jesse Adams (LHP) and Scott Moss (LHP). Adams was an elite reliever for the Dragons last year, racking up 83 K’s in 70 IP’s. Ohio born, Adams kept a WHIP below one, a tool that could see him fit into a major league bullpen if the command keeps up each level in a couple years.

Moss did not put up a lot of stats in college due to being injured his first two years. The Dragons used him as a starter last season and all he did was strikeout 156 batters in 135 innings. Moss led the Reds system in wins (13) and was sixth in ERA (3.45). The Reds are taking it slow with Moss, despite him being 23 years old already because of the injuries. If Moss builds on his successful 2017, then there will be a rotation spot in the future for him.

The hitter to keep your eye on in Daytona is Taylor Trammell (OF). A two-sport athlete in high school, Trammell started slowly in Dayton but as the season wore on he put on a hitting clinic. Trammell finished the season with a .281/.368/.450 slash line, 13 home runs, and 41 SBs. If Trammell carries that momentum forward this season, he has the potential to be a 20 home run 30 stolen base threat from centerfield. Fantasy baseball players salivate over Trammell’s tantalizing upside and Reds fans should be no different. Already sitting in top 100 prospect lists, Trammell is the heir apparent to centerfield in the not too distant future.

 

Pensacola Blue Wahoos

 

Reds minor leaguer

Shed Long has already hit his way onto one all star team. Will he be able to replicate that success in 2018? Photo courtesy of Mike Janes of the AP

Double-A is often where prospects prove if they truly have the skills to make the MLB. College players tend to face their first true competition, as the major baseball conferences compare to playing in High-A. High schoolers who are prominent in the system tend to make Double-A around their age 22 season. This year is no different as the Reds have a fair number of players looking to take the next step and prove they have what it takes to not be written off.

The pitcher Reds fandom should keep their eye on is Vladimir Gutierrez (RHP). Another Cuban prospect, Gutierrez spent his first year in the system pitching at Daytona. Vladimir’s time may be described as inconsistent from start to start. The pitch mix consists of an above average fastball and curveball, with an average changeup to complement those two pitches. Gutierrez conjured up an 8.2 K/9 last year, with his fastball peaking at 98 mph.

Gutierrez was shut down in August last season as fatigue led to an innings limit. The Reds will give him every opportunity to become a starter with a devastating fastball. The more likely outcome, however, would be the chance to be the Reds’ second Cuban missile as a high upside closer.

Shed Long (2B) is a name Reds fans may start getting really excited about in the short term. A catcher turned second baseman, Long raked in Dayton in 2016 before moving up to Pensacola by the end of the 2017 season. Looking at his batting average for Pensacola last season, one would assume that Long struggled mightily in his first go around. In reality, Long increased his walk rate to an insane 11.9% and decreased his strikeout rate to below 20%. The argument can be made that Long was more unlucky than anything, as his BABIP was almost 100 points lower than it had been in both Dayton and Daytona.

Shed Long can be a cornerstone 2B, who regularly puts up 2017 Scooter Gennett numbers and ten steals to boot. The downside is he may be a surplus prospect depending on where Nick Senzel ends up in the Reds infield. Shed Long will be a major league regular, it is just a matter of whether it is on the Reds, or on another team via trade.

If you would like to know more about Shed Long, C. Trent Rosencrans wrote a nice long piece detailing Shed’s childhood and minor league career to date.

 

Louisville Bats

 

Reds minor leaguer

Jimmy Herget has already pitched for Team USA in the Futures Game. The only uniform left to don is a Reds one. Photo courtesy of Rob Carr of Getty Images North America

The Reds Triple-A team is loaded up with role players and Nick Senzel. Most of the players on the team do not expect to make major contributions to the Reds roster in the foreseeable future. The best pitchers on the squad are three relievers and Robert Stephenson. The rest of the rotation is just there as depth in the event of injury a la 2017. The same thing could be said for the hitters not named Senzel.

There are still players to highlight on this team though, starting with Brandon Dixon (INF). Dixon arrived and was put in Pensacola after the 3-team trade that sent Todd Frazier to the Dodgers. Very unheralded and unknown, Dixon was considered a throw in to accompany Jose Peraza and Scott Schebler. Ever since the trade, all Dixon has done is hit.

Between 2016 and 2017, Dixon has averaged 16 HR’s, 16.5 SB’s, and a .262 AVG. Dixon will strike out, there is no doubting that, as his K% has been above 25% both seasons. The man can slot into left field, third base, first base, and second base with relative ease. Reds fans will be ecstatic to have Dixon be a utility defender and the first bat off the bench in the near future.

Pitching-wise, the Bats rotation leaves much to be desired. Instead, this article will focus on Jimmy Herget (RHP), who has quietly become the Reds best relief pitcher prospect. Herget’s pro comparison is Steve Cishek and that is pretty apt. Herget has a funky sidearm delivery, with an arm slot that Herget changes ever so slightly each pitch. Herget will also incorporate different shimmies and hold his leg longer to try and throw off a hitter’s timing. The fastball-slider combo delivered a 13.35 K/9 in Double-A for Herget before dropping down to 7.79 K/9 in Triple A.

Herget will need a little more seasoning as the Bats closer. Keep an eye on his K/9 at the beginning of 2018, because if he gets that back to elite levels, then he will have hitters scared. The ceiling is high for him, as he could be groomed into a future Reds setup man. Reds fans got a taste of Herget during spring training, where he showed he could hold his own. It is only a matter of time before Herget makes his major league debut in the Reds bullpen this season.

 

Sam Auricchio Twitter: @SamAuricchio

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Billy Hamilton Spring Training

Reds’ Spring Training week 1

Spring Training is both a blessing and a curse for baseball fans. Spring training brings back the first “competitive” baseball of the new year for most baseball fans. The games also give fans untrustworthy ammo to back up hot takes on certain players. Some of the best players slump in the spring, causing articles of concern and worry. Bench players hit like MVPs and rocket up fantasy baseball draft boards, only to bust within the first month. Reds Spring Training is no different.

The Reds will have a couple career minor leaguers look good this spring, only to fade into obscurity as the regular season rolls around. The Reds will have some of their more prominent pitchers get hit around early on in the spring, leading to the ever prominent Cincinnati professional sports pessimism. Joey Votto may not even hit above .300 this spring.

The first week of Reds spring training is notable in that not a lot of notable stuff happens as players only play two or three innings every couple of days. This spring seems different, however, as there is a healthy mix of young players looking to make good impressions and veterans fighting for MLB spots. The Game Haus will have weekly updates of Reds camp. These updates will not be hot takes on hot or cold starts however, but instead will be sharing some of the notable insights from each week.

 

Nick Senzel Looks Like a Shortstop

Reds Spring Training

Could Nick Senzel be the shortstop Reds fans never knew they wanted? Photo courtesy of Kareem Elgazzar of the USA Today Sports

Nick Senzel (as of writing) has played ten innings of baseball this spring, six at 3B and four at SS. The most notable thing for Reds fans is that everything looks normal. Senzel has looked comfortable with the grounders he has taken at shortstop, but there is more to short than grounders. The versatility of playing SS will give Senzel just another position to make the MLB roster at some point this summer.

All of the focus has been on Senzel’s defense and rightly so. Shortstop is the second hardest defensive position behind catcher. His offense has not lagged behind too much yet this spring with the focus on learning a new position. Senzel is 2 for 7 so far, with one of his hits being a RBI single.

Senzel has one of the safest offensive floors of any prospect in baseball, Senzel’s shift to shortstop and his current offensive profile would make him an elite offensive shortstop. Senzel’s offensive stats could mirror the likes of Corey Seager or Alex Bregman. That thought should have Reds fans salivating, which is why fans should be tuning in and focusing on Senzel’s defense the rest of this spring.

 

Billy Hamilton Still Hasn’t Learned

Hamilton’s value has always been in his wheels and defense. The fury of Reds fandom stems from the fact that he cannot get on base to utilize his speed. Blind optimism led me to believe that maybe, just maybe, Billy would take a page out of Votto’s book and learn some patience this offseason. Hamilton has yet to accumulate a base hit this spring, though he was unfairly called out bunting against Milwaukee.

If Billy cannot get on base by putting the bat on the ball, he could still walk. Hamilton does have two walks this spring, but he would need a lot more this spring to prove some newfound plate discipline. Just an OBP north of .330 would be a start to satisfy Reds fans. There are other options for CF, including a cheap veteran in Ben Revere, or shifting Scott Schebler over from right. Hamilton’s (should be gold) glove is what keeps him in the lineup, providing a boon for the Reds young pitching. Reds fans will be watching closely to see if Billy can improve getting on base the rest of this spring.

 

Joey Votto is Still Joey Votto

Reds Spring Training

Another year goes by, but same old Votto shenanigans. Photo courtesy of Sam Greene of the Cincinnati Enquirer.

Votto is the perfect example of a star who never shines in spring training (By Votto standards at least). Instead, Votto focuses on one or two things to work on each spring and only works on those. What Votto lacks in batting average most springs, he makes up for in Votto antics.

Votto started the spring meeting the MLB Network guys, revealing secrets and advice for the young ballplayers out there on hitting. Joey then was interviewed by Jim Day a couple days later and provided a new hashtag, #GymDayWithJimDay. Votto proposes setting up a segment where Reds players work out with Jim Day. The workouts would show some of the lifts and stretches that keep Reds players healthy and bulked up. Do not let Reds fans down Fox Sports Ohio!

Reds fans have not had a whole lot to look forward during the season over the past couple of years. Joey Votto being a menace to opposing fans and teams has been one of those lone bright spots. The future looks bright now for Reds fans though, as players like Nick Senzel are finally on the brink of pushing the Reds into playoff contention in the near future.

 

Check back March 9th to see the Reds second week in review, with a focus on the Reds pitchers.

Sam Auricchio

Twitter:@SamAuricchio

Featured image courtesy of Sam Greene of the Cincinnati Enquirer

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Cincinnati Reds: Spring Training pitching battle

The 2018 Cincinnati Reds spring training has an air of optimism surrounding the camp. The primary weakness of the Reds 2017 season was their starting pitching. Injuries depleted the rotation, with the top three starters in the Reds rotation combining for 20 starts the whole season.

Blue-chip prospects and career minor leaguers were given opportunities to succeed, with 16 different players each receiving the nod on the mound throughout the season. The most telling stat is that it was actually a reliever who led the team in wins last season (Michael Lorenzen with eight wins).

2018 portrays a different story for the Reds, especially in regards to their rotation. Anthony DeSclafani and Homer Bailey are both healthy (knock on wood) and have secure spots at the top of the Reds rotation. Luis Castillo impressed immensely in his 15 starts at the end of the season, being tabbed by baseball media as a future frontline starter.

That leaves two spots in the rotation for Brandon Finnegan, Vance Worley, Robert Stephenson, Sal Romano, Amir Garrett, Rookie Davis, Tyler Mahle, Jackson Stephens, Cody Reed and Michael Lorenzen. I outlined three candidates below who have the best shot at cracking the rotation to start the season with the Reds, followed by a longshot candidate that could creep in unexpectedly as well.

 

Candidate #1 Brandon Finnegan

Cincinnati Reds spring training

Brandon Finnegan hopes to cement his spot in the Reds rotation for the 2018 season and beyond. Photo courtesy of Sam Greene at Cincinnati.com

Brandon Finnegan just needs to show that he can throw the innings and the job is his to lose for the fourth spot in the rotation. In 2016, Finnegan went 10-11 with a 3.98 ERA to go along with a 2.3 WAR. What was most exciting, however, was Finnegan’s second half splits from 2016.

In the last 70 innings of 2016, Finnegan had an ERA of 2.93 and 72 strikeouts (he had 73 strikeouts in 101 innings in the first half of the season). The increase in strikeouts increased his K/9 from 6.48 (1st half) to 9.17, effectively becoming a pitcher who would strikeout a batter an inning per start. Couple that with reducing his walk rate from an ugly 4.71 BB/9 to a 3.95 BB/9 in the second half, and you can see that Finnegan had started to attack the strike zone more as the season wore on.

All signs are pointing to Finnegan being healthy after surgery on his right torn labrum last season. Finnegan just needs to prove that the shoulder can sustain a starter’s workload and pitch like it is 2016 again and the rotation spot is his to lose. If Finnegan struggles, however, there are other candidates waiting to take his spot.

 

 

Candidate #2 Robert Stephenson

Robert Stephenson was a highly lauded prospect with immense upside, but only if he could control it. Bob was in the same situation at spring training last year, but could not secure a consistent starting spot. He spent time in the Reds bullpen, which destroyed his confidence and led to a demotion. Stephenson regained a starting spot in the beginning of August and gave the Reds a strong finish.

He made 10 starts over August and September and looked like he truly belonged during that time. In his last ten starts, Bob had a 2.51 ERA (only had one start where he had more than 3 earned runs), 9.1 K/9, and managed an AVG against below .200 in 50 1/3 innings. The thing to watch with Bob this spring training is his walks, which has held him back in the minors. He overcame them the last two months of the season by increasing his K% to above average levels. If Bob lowers his BB% down below 10%, while maintaining a K%>20 (something he did both the first and second half of the season), Bob may live up to his early career hype.

 

 

Candidate #3 Sal Romano

Cincinnati Reds Spring Training

Sal Romano proved he could hold his own in the majors. Can he carry that over to the Reds’ rotation in 2018? Photo courtesy of Gene J Puskar of the AP.

Sal Romano was a 2011 high school draft pick gained helium on Reds’ prospect lists in the 2017 preseason. Romano pitched well in his 2016 stint in Double-A, seemingly just a year or two away from the majors. Romano was lower on the shortlist for rotation spots relative to the other pitching prospects early on. Sal received his crack at the rotation July 6th and ran with it the rest of the season.

Romano had an interesting first run in the majors. Sal had six starts in a row (August 18th to September 16th) that he gave up three earned runs or less. This stint was highlighted by an eight inning, six strikeout shutout of the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Unfortunately, the three starts before and two starts after that stretch combined for 23 earned runs (a 7.76 ERA in those 5 starts). Romano will probably start the season in AAA until the inevitable injury to somebody in the rotation. If Romano puts together a strong spring, it may be enough to earn him the final rotation spot.

 

 

Longshot Candidate: Vance Worley

Vance Worley is definitely more of a longshot opportunity. He was impressive in his rookie and sophomore seasons for the Phillies in 2011 and 2012. Worley made 43 starts for a Phillies rotation that consisted of legends like Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee. Vance Worley did not hold that rotation back though, as he put up 4.2 WAR combined in those two seasons.

Worley rose back to prominence in 2014, logging 17 starts for a 2.85 ERA. In 2016, Worley bounced over to the Orioles and put up decent stats as a starter and reliever. The advanced stats suggest otherwise, however, as Worley’s FIP and BB/9 preceded a 2017 downfall. Worley has shown brief glimpses into a MLB caliber pitcher, but his inconsistency has held him back to this point.

So now that we know that Worley is an inconsistent journeyman pitcher, why could he make the Reds’ rotation? It really comes down to how well he pitches in the spring. Worley’s best shot comes if one or more of the Reds’ starters are hampered by injuries this spring. Worley could eat innings for the Reds’ rotation early on, giving the Reds flexibility to leave their prospects in Triple-A. Vance is not on the Reds’ 40 man roster, but the Reds could clear space if the team deems necessary.

Brandon Finnegan, Robert Stephenson and Sal Romano have the best shots of earning spots in the Reds rotation for 2018. Bryan Price, however, is not afraid to give starts to somebody he thinks deserves it based on spring training numbers. Just last year, Rookie Davis won a rotation spot over more well-known peers due to being effective throughout spring training. Price may not follow conventional wisdom, but Finnegan, Stephenson and Romano have the best stuff among the current candidates. Two of them should be in the backend of the Reds rotation by March 29th when the regular season commences.

 

Sam Auricchio

Twitter: @SamAuricchio

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NCAA preliminary bracket winners and losers

Winners and losers from the NCAA preliminary bracket

The NCAA Tournament selection committee, for the second straight year, revealed who the top 16 seeds would be if the season ended this past Saturday. The committee deemed Virginia as the top seed of the Tournament despite its home loss to Virginia Tech. Villanova, Purdue and Xavier rounded out the remaining No. 1 seeds.

South: 1. Virginia, 2. Cincinnati, 3. Michigan State and 4. Tennessee.

East: 1. Villanova, 2. Duke, 3. Texas Tech and 4. Ohio State.

West: 1. Purdue, 2. Kansas, 3. North Carolina and 4. Arizona.

Midwest: 1. Xavier, 2. Auburn, 3. Clemson and 4. Oklahoma.

Let’s take a look at who the winners and losers of the committee’s judgement were this year.

Winner: Cincinnati

NCAA preliminary bracket winners and losers

Junior guard Jacob Evans III looks to lead the Cincinnati Bearcats to a strong finish. (Photo by Laurence Kesterson/AP).

The Bearcats are sitting at 23-2 and in first place in the American Athletic Conference. While this record is impressive, Cincinnati has played a weak schedule thus far.

The Bearcats dropped both of their premier non-conference matchups against Xavier and Florida back in December. They defeated UCLA, Temple and Houston, but none of those teams are considered legitimate contenders come March.

The fact that the committee already has Cincinnati as a No. 2 seed shows that they are high on the Bearcats moving forward. Coach Mick Cronin’s squad has a huge opportunity to further bolster its stock with upcoming matchups against Wichita State and Houston.

If Cincinnati can continue its winning ways and another No. 1 team crumbles down the stretch (possibly either Villanova or Xavier), the Bearcats could steal a No. 1 seed in the tournament.

Loser: Texas tech

The Red Raiders are poised to capture their first Big 12 regular season championship ever, yet they are only ranked as a No. 3 seed. Coach Chris Beard probably feels somewhat disrespected by this choice, and he has every right to feel that way. The Big 12 is the deepest conference in college basketball this season, sporting four teams in the AP top 25 rankings and three in the top 16 above.

Texas Tech sports an impressive 9-3 Big 12 record that includes a one-point victory over West Virginia (back when the Mountaineers were No. 2 in the nation) and a 12-point win at Kansas. What hurt the Red Raiders was their weak non-conference schedule (their only impressive victory coming against Nevada) coupled with a stretch of Big 12 conference play where they lost three of four.

Regardless of their spot at the moment, Beard’s upstart team has ample opportunities to move up to a No. 2 seed and possibly even a No. 1 if they win out. However, this is easier said than done as Tech has rematches against Kansas, Oklahoma and West Virginia lined up in the future.

WINNER: THE BIG EAST

While the Big East only has two teams in the top 16, those two teams each captured a No. 1 seed. Villanova and Xavier have slowly developed a fun rivalry this season and have a highly anticipated rematch in Ohio slated for this Saturday. Even more important is that both squads have a significant chance to maintain their spot in the tournament over the next few weeks, especially if Xavier can knock off Villanova this weekend.

The revamped Big East has failed to live up the hype and intensity of the old school conference that featured schools like Syracuse, Louisville, UConn, Pittsburgh and Georgetown. However, the Big East has been fairly competitive this season, both in and out of conference.

Competitive teams will not return the Big East to its former glory, but sending two teams into the tournament this season would be a significant step.

LOSER: THE PAC-12

Last season, the conference of champions (as Bill Walton would put it) had three teams vying for top seeds in the tournament at this point in the season. The season resulted in Arizona, Oregon and UCLA going to the Sweet 16 and Oregon making it to the Final Four.

This season has been much less kind to the Pac-12. Arizona entered the season as a national champion contender with top recruit Deandre Ayton coming to town. Coach Sean Miller also hauled in three other top 100 recruits per ESPN in Ira Lee, Emmanuel Akot and Brandon Randolph. Now the Wildcats might be the most disappointing team in the nation up to this point.

Neither UCLA or Oregon have the depth or firepower compared to their respective teams last season. USC entered the season as a dark horse contender for the Final Four, but have seemingly failed to recover from the offseason’s FBI investigation. Needless to say, Arizona is the Pac-12’s best shot at back-to-back Final Four appearances.

 

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Angelique Kerber

Endless Intrigue: 2017 U.S. Open Women’s Preview

The U.S. Open draws are out. An astonishing eight women could leave New York as World No.1. Throw in the return of Maria Sharapova, to Grand Slam play after nearly two years and this is one of the most intriguing events in recent memory. Here are some opening round matches to watch.

(2) Simona Halep vs. Maria Sharapova- Holy smokes folks. Everyone in tennis had to hit the floor when they saw this first round pairing. The Romanian second seed has had a very good year and Sharapova’s much publicized comeback has yet to really get out of the blocks.

On that alone, this should be fairly routine for Halep, but dig deeper. All six of their previous meetings have gone the embattled Russian’s way, including a classic in the 2014 French Open final. Sharapova has always managed to eventually overpower Halep.

Simona Halep

photo: onetennis.com

There are many questions about Sharapova right now. However, her mental toughness is never in doubt. She has had loads of adversity over the years, some of it self-inflicted. She easily could have called it a career during her recent doping suspension, but she keeps coming back.

These moments are what get Sharapova out of bed in the morning. Even though this is just an opening rounder, winning matches like this are what has made her a five-time Grand Slam champion. The same cannot be said of Halep who has had plenty of heartbreak this year. She blew a huge lead in the French Open final and has failed to take over the top ranking despite having three separate opportunities.

Something tells me Sharapova will find a way if she can stay close early, but it is a coin flip. Whoever wins this one has a very manageable path to the final weekend of the tournament. Regardless, the world cannot wait to watch this one.

(31) Magdaléna Rybáriková vs. Camila Giorgi- The Slovakian used her surprise run to the semifinals of Wimbledon to snag a seed here. Her streaky Italian opponent is on a good stretch this summer. Giorgi has also developed a reputation for knocking off seeded players over the years. Her power will be an interesting test for the finesse of Rybáriková.

(21) Ana Konjuh vs. Ashleigh Barty- Konjuh made a name for herself by reaching the last eight at this event last year. She is one of a precious few teenagers inside the world’s top 100.

Barty possesses a funky but good all-around game, she is not afraid to come into the net and is very capable of pulling a minor upset here. 2017 has been a year of comeback for the Aussie who returned to the tour this year after taking a hiatus to pursue professional cricket. She scored her biggest win yet by beating Venus Williams in Cincinnati.

Roberta Vinci vs. Sloane Stephens- The veteran Italian is still plugging away during her final year on tour after her Cinderella run to the finals at this event two years ago. She will have to deal with playing an American on home soil.

Stephens is really starting to build momentum again after missing nearly a year with a foot injury. She reached consecutive semifinals in Canada and Cincinnati this summer. Her forehand will be the biggest shot on the court, but Vinci’s slices are capable of irritating any opponent.

Predictions:

Top Half: World No. 1 and top seed Karolína Plíšková leads off the draw. The big serving Czech has been playing just okay this summer. Fortunately for her, she landed in the weaker half of the draw.

Defending champion Angelique Kerber, French Open champion Jelena Ostapenko, tenth seed Agnieszka Radwańska, and two time Grand Slam winner Svetlana Kuznetsova have all struggled to win matches this summer.

The biggest threats to Plíšková in this half are (4) Elina Svitolina and (15) Madison Keys. Keys hits the ball harder than many of the men. However, the most promising prospect in all of American tennis has yet to figure out how to win matches when she’s not playing her absolute best. Her time will come at a Grand Slam, but not here. Her form probably hit its peak a little too early when she won the title in Stanford and played a couple really tough matches in Cincinnati.

Unseeded American teenager CiCi Bellis may not be a legitimate threat to reach the semis, but this youngster is already well-known inside tennis circles and has a draw that could allow her to reach the second week of a Grand Slam for the first time

Svitolina is a very complete player. Nothing in her game stands out, but she does everything well. She leads the tour tournament victories this year, including her biggest title yet a few weeks ago in Canada. The only thing missing is a deep run at a Grand Slam. She has done a lot of winning this year and it feels like she is primed for it.

Elina Svitolina

Photo: eurosport.com

Semifinal prediction: Svitolina d. Plíšková

Bottom Half: The winner of Sharapova/Halep is almost certain to make a deep run. They too are surrounded by struggling seeds and not as many dangerous floaters.

Wimbledon and Cincinnati champion Garbiñe Muguruza is a popular pick to win the title.  For me though, six weeks of brilliance is not enough to erase a career of erratic play. Danish human backboard Caroline Wozniacki is surprisingly under the radar. The veteran came in to this event last year ranked outside the top 70 and reached the semifinals.

This year, she comes in leading the tour match wins, despite losing all six finals she has played. Always the bridesmaid never the bride could be Wonzniacki’s career slogan. If she is ever going to breakthrough at a major, it is now or never. Both of her Grand Slam finals came at this venue and she has had a handful of other deep runs. She has so much more experience than many of the other top contenders. It has to pay off at some point.

It would be foolish to completely discount ninth seed Venus Williams. 18th  seed Caroline Garcia is a young player who has been living off the unlimited potential label for a while. She is well-positioned to put it all together here.

Semifinal prediction: Wozniacki d. Sharapova

Championship: Wozniacki d. Svitolina

Caroline Wozniacki

Photo: nydailynews.com

The U.S. Open begins Monday at 11 AM ET on Tennis Channel with ESPN taking over coverage two hours later. I will tweet out my full brackets for each singles draw before the start of play. You can follow me on Twitter below.

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Garbine Muguruza

2017 Western and Southern Open Recap

Sunday evening marked the end of what is always this Cincinnatian’s favorite week of the year. The Western and Southern Open once again served as the final major preparation for the world’s best tennis players before they head to New York for the U.S. Open. Here is a look back at the week that was in Cincy.

Withdraws pile up:

This has been such a huge story line at so many prestigious events over the last handful of years. The withdrawal list for Cincinnati reads like a Hall of Fame ballot. Serena Williams, Novak Djokovic, Stan Wawrinka and Kei Nishikori are all focusing on the 2018 season for various reasons.

Given that, the last minute withdrawals of Maria Sharapova, Roger Federer, Victoria Azarenka and Andy Murray among others were a tough blow for the tournament. Hopefully, some of these big names will be ready to go for the big show in New York in less than a week. As for Cincy, the show must go on, and it did.

Fresh faces emerge:

Withdraws create opportunity. Rafael Nadal was the only one of the “Big Four” to answer the bell in Cincinnati. He was upset by enigmatic Aussie Nick Kyrgios in the quarterfinals. This event marked the end of 42 consecutive Masters Series events where none of the “Big Four” reached at least the semifinals.

Kyrgios and Grigor Dimitrov faced off in a final that featured two players who had not yet lived up to their immense potential on a consistent basis. Dimitrov prevailed in two relatively tight sets. The Bulgarian was once given the nickname “Baby Fed,” a nod to his playing style that mimics that of the greatest player who ever lived. He struggled with handling the hype and expectations for a while. Something clicked for him this year. He reached the semifinals in Australia and won his biggest title yet this past week in Cincinnati.

Much like his opponent in the final, it was never a question of talent with Kyrgios either, it was the mental game. The 22-year-old has been served with a handful of fines and suspensions over the years for poor on court behavior including lack of best effort last year at the Shanghai Masters.

Despite those issues, he still managed to pick up big wins and become a solid top 30 player. Anyone who can do what he did to Nadal this week is capable of so much more than being a solid top 30 player.

Neither Kyrgios nor Dimitrov have any real weakness in their game. They possess every shot and can hit winners from anywhere on the court. The questions are all between the ears.  Hopefully this week showed them what they are capable of. This has the potential to be the next great rivalry in tennis.

grigor dimitrov

Photo: eurosport.com

Muguruza solidifies herself:

After winning her first major at the 2016 French Open, Garbiñe Muguruza really struggled to back up that result. The big hitting Spaniard did not reach a singles final of any kind until her surprise win at Wimbledon this year.

She clearly learned something from her first post major victory slump. She reached at least the quarterfinals of all three hardcourt events she played this summer. This culminated in Cincinnati when she absolutely obliterated World No. 2 Simona Halep in Sunday’s final, dropping just a single game.

The women’s game has been too unpredictable for the last two years to call anyone a clear favorite heading into a Grand Slam. However, in Cincinnati, Muguruza certainly proved that she is on the big stage to stay this time around. She also put herself on the short list of contenders to raise the U.S. Open trophy on September 9th.

Looking Ahead:

While going to the Cincinnati event every year is a blast for me, focus now shifts the U.S. Open draws that will be made Friday. Assuming he is healthy, Federer will be tough to beat. There is serious question as to whether Murray will play at all. So, conditions may be right for a young gun to step up again.

Maria Sharapova

Photo: twitter.com

For the women, the draw will be centered around one question. Where will controversial wildcard Maria Sharapova land? While it is difficult to see the 2006 champion making a deep run, she and her peers know what she is capable of. No one wants to play her.

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U.S Open Series

They’re coming to (North) America: U.S. Open Series storylines

The dust from Wimbledon has settled and the next big stretch of the tennis calendar is upon us. The world’s best will spend the next month or so tearing up the hardcourts of North America in preparation for the U.S. Open which begins in New York on August 29th. Unfortunately, when looking at story-lines, we are forced yet again to start with another megastar who will not be present.

Djokovic done in 2017

In a move eerily similar to what Roger Federer did last year, 12 time Grand Slam champion Novak Djokovic announced he would not play again in 2017 on Wednesday. The Serb cited an elbow injury that has apparently lingered for some time. Djokovic’s dip in performance over the last year is well-documented and perhaps now makes more sense. The U.S. Open and its lead up events will not feel quite right without one of the “Big 4”. Djokovic had played every Grand Slam dating back to 2005.

Novak Djokovic

Photo: foxsports.au

The good news is the current World No. 4 is keeping his coaching team together, hopes to avoid surgery and fully intends to return in 2018. In the short term though, all this does is open the door for Federer and Rafael Nadal to continue to dominate 2017. They will have a pretty good crack at the World No. 1 ranking as the summer rolls on. Speaking of the World No. 1…

Is Murray healthy?  

Bothered by a hip injury, Andy Murray barely moved in the final two sets of his Wimbledon loss. Even so, Murray’s injury outlook appears a bit more positive than that of Djokovic.

The Brit is lightly hitting balls again according to his Instagram page. As of now, he remains on the entry list at the Canadian Open and in Cincinnati. Movement is the foundation of Murray’s game. If that is hindered in any way, Murray becomes an ordinary player.

Keeping the top ranking away from Federer or Nadal over the summer will require a Herculean effort from Murray. The fact that he is carrying an injury makes it all the tougher and is certainly worth keeping an eye on.

Federer and Nadal are in their own stratosphere this year. However, with half of the “Big 4” dealing with uncertainty, younger players like Alexander Zverev could be contenders on a week in week out basis this summer.

 Sharapova and Azarenka continue comebacks

Over on  the ladies tour, the summer is set to be dominated by one story, the ongoing comebacks of Maria Sharapova and Victoria Azarenka.

Despite the controversy surrounding Sharapova and Azarenka’s post pregnancy rust, having two big stars ready to go for the summer is a great thing, especially with Serena Williams on maternity leave.

The Russian and Belarussian will follow the same schedule leading into the U.S. Open. Starting next week, they will play as wildcard entrants for three straight weeks in Stanford, Toronto, and Cincinnati respectively. As a ticket holder in Cincinnati, I hope three straight weeks is not too much for them.

Before their lengthy absences, Sharapova and Azarenka racked up seven majors and three Olympic medals between them. They were clearly the second and third best players in the world behind Serena when healthy.  When clicking, their return games can break opponents almost at will. The unpredictable nature of the ladies’ game recently is staggering.

2012 Olympics

Photo: the42

After winning two Grand Slams and finishing the year with the top ranking in 2016, Angelique Kerber has fallen off the face of the Earth in 2017. New World No. 1 Karolina Plíšková just lost in the second round of Wimbledon.

Jelena Ostapenko and Garbiñe Muguruza are the latest surprise major winners at the French Open and Wimbledon respectively. The week before their breakthroughs, Ostapenko was ranked outside of the top 30, while Muguruza lost in the second round of the grass court event in Eastbourne, winning just one game in the process.

Given the details of the last two paragraphs, can Sharapova and Azarenka renew their fierce personal rivalry and compete for all the big trophies this summer? Absolutely. They may be rusty, but they know how to win. More importantly, neither is afraid to do so.

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The Need for an Eight Team Playoff

(USA Today)

(USA Today)

There must be an eight team playoff in college football. This college football season has been the best of any in recent history. There is constant rhetoric on who should have been in the playoffs and who shouldn’t.  There is constant questions on who is capable of challenging the unbeatable Alabama Crimson Tide.

Alabama has clearly looked like the best team in the country, but games are not won on paper and anything can happen once the ball is kicked off. There are upsets every week and Week 11 showed it more than ever. For the first time since 1985, the second, third and fourth ranked teams all lost on the same day. It was madness and chaotic and we all loved it! College football still has a little guy, Western Michigan, that went undefeated and gets absolutely no love at all. Their schedule is blamed for their low rankings at the end and throughout the year. There is an issue with the current format of a four team playoff.

College football is exciting and a four team playoff system was a great start, but we want, no, we need more. There needs to be an eight team college playoff. Part of the reason the college game went to a playoff system was because the BCS system didn’t allow the nation to see a true champion. There was rarely a year in which the third ranked team in the BCS didn’t have a case to be in the national championship. This year is no different. As mentioned previously, Western Michigan went undefeated and has to settle for playing in the Cotton Bowl. This isn’t the first time a small school had been disrespected by the polls.

The Little Guy

(Photo: Steve Grayson/WireImage)

(Photo: Steve Grayson/WireImage)

Why can’t the little guy get a chance to upset Goliath? There are plenty examples of teams who did not have a snowball’s chance in Hell to win against a college football giant, but somehow found a way. In 2006, Boise State won one of the greatest games in college football history.

The 2006 Boise State team was a member of the Western Athletic Conference, which is now extinct in football. It was a conference that was considered one of the worst in the country.  Boise State had two big non-conference wins that season. The Broncos beat Oregon State 42-12 and they also won at Utah 36-3. Boise finished the season undefeated, but the BCS only ranked Boise at eighth. Boise State was never considered for the national championship because of their weak conference. They had to settle for playing number 10 ranked Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl which became an instant classic.

To sum up the game, with a 1:02 left in a 28-28 tie, Boise State quarterback Jared Zabransky threw an interception to Marcus Walker who ran the interception back 34 yards for a touchdown to give Oklahoma a 35-28 lead. Fast forward to Boise State’s next possession with 18 seconds remaining. It was fourth and 18. Boise State ran the famous hook and lateral that worked for a touchdown. The game was tied at 35 with just seven seconds remaining.

Oklahoma got the ball first in overtime and Adrian Peterson ran it in for a 25 yard touchdown to give Oklahoma a 42-35 lead. Boise was able to answer with a touchdown and head coach Chris Petersen decided to go for two. Boise State ran the statue of liberty in for the two-point conversion and the win, 43-42. The Broncos finished the season with a perfect 13-0 record and the only team left undefeated that season.

Continuing with the theme of small conference schools being snubbed, the next example is the 2008 Utah Utes who were in the Mountain West. Utah won at (24) Michigan, then beat (11) TCU and (14) BYU at home. They finished ranked sixth in the final BCS rankings and had to settle for playing in the Sugar Bowl against (4) Alabama. Utah easily won the Sugar Bowl 31-17 even though they were 10 point underdogs. They finished the year as the only undefeated team in the country, but were not the national champions.

(ESPN/The Associated Press)

(ESPN/The Associated Press)

That same year Boise State finished the regular season undefeated as well, and was ranked ninth in the BCS. The Broncos only had one impressive win that season in which they won at Oregon 37-32. It was the famous LeGarrette Blount punch game. That year Boise didn’t even get to play in a BCS Bowl game. They played TCU in the Poinsettia Bowl and lost 17-16.

2009 left the BCS in chaos at the end of the year as there were five undefeated teams: Alabama, Texas, Cincinnati, TCU and Boise State. The national championship game ended up being Alabama versus Texas. The other three undefeated teams were not given the chance to play for a national championship.

Texas had gone 3-0 against the top 25 with only one of those wins coming on the road. Cincinnati had gone 4-0 against the top 25 with three of those wins coming on the road. Texas was chosen because of their name. The small schools always get the short end of the stick when being listed with the best of the best.

(https://www.reddit.com/r/CFB/comments/3ucxld/week_13_trash_talk_thursday_trashgiving/)

(https://www.reddit.com/r/CFB/comments/3ucxld/week_13_trash_talk_thursday_trashgiving/)

The last example of small schools from small conferences comes from 2010 from TCU. TCU won at (24) Oregon State to open the season. The Horned Frogs only had one other ranked game which came on the road against (6) Utah. TCU demolished the Utes 47-7. In the end their wins weren’t impressive enough as they finished the season in the BCS ranked third. The two teams that finished ahead of them, Auburn and Oregon, were both undefeated as well. TCU ended up in the Rose Bowl against (4) Wisconsin and won 21-19 to finish the season undefeated.

They Can’t Beat The Big Boys. Or Can They?

(http://www.bendbulletin.com/slideShows?layout=2&storyId=1430295)

(http://www.bendbulletin.com/slideShows?layout=2&storyId=1430295)

There is a common theme with all these undefeated small schools. Utah, TCU and Boise State were almost always involved. Utah has had two undefeated seasons in the past 13 seasons and accomplished both of their undefeated seasons in the Mountain West Conference. The Utes ended up leaving for the Pac-12 because it is a power five conference. TCU finished with their only undefeated season in the Mountain West as well, but left for the Big 12, a power five conference. They left because of the disrespect year in and year out towards the Mountain West Conference. The last of these three teams, Boise State, has had three undefeated regular seasons in their last 11 seasons.

Typically a program this consistent would have played in a national championship, but Boise has yet to play for one. There is a bias against teams not in the power five and Western Michigan is the snub this season. The most common response from someone who argues that these teams don’t deserve the shot because of their small conferences has one of two responses.

The first is “let’s see if they do this again next year and next year if they are undefeated they should be in.” There are two problems with that reaction and the first is the team that is undefeated this year is a completely different team than they will be the next year. The second issue is that statement has proven to be false because Boise State had three undefeated regular seasons in four years and never got the chance.

(http://www.nobodywinsontheblue.com/2013/08/2013-boise-state-football-preview.html)

(http://www.nobodywinsontheblue.com/2013/08/2013-boise-state-football-preview.html)

Another common response is “Oh they would get blown out by Alabama and other big schools”. That statement is once again false as there are countless examples of smalls schools upsetting the goliath schools. Above there were examples listed, including Utah beating Alabama, and here are some more: In 2010 FCS member Jacksonville State beat Ole Miss 49-48, FCS James Madison won at (13) Virginia Tech 21-16 and perhaps the biggest upset of all time, 2007 Appalachian State beat (5) Michigan 34-32.

All these small schools pulled off what many believed to be impossible but the game is played on the field and not on paper, or by the amount of stars a recruiting class has. Western Michigan might be able to beat Alabama, Clemson, or Ohio State but everyone assumes they have no chance because of history. Yes, these programs have been national powers for decades but that doesn’t mean the little guy can’t hang, or win. An eight team playoff needs to be made with certain requirements similar to the ramifications in college basketball. These requirements are needed because of the mistakes made since the inception of the four team playoff.

Playoff Mistakes

The college football playoff started in 2014 and is only entering their third year. In 2014, college football fans were so happy to finally receive the playoff system that they had been so desperately asking for for almost a decade. Fans were so happy in fact, there was no chance it would be criticized in the first year, but they had set precedents in which would eventually make the committee look like hypocrites.

(http://www.usatoday.com/story/sports/ncaaf/2014/12/02/college-football-playoff-projection-alabama-oregon-florida-state-tcu/19748763/)

(www.reddit.com)

In 2014, heading into conference championship week the rankings were as follows: (1) Alabama 11-1, (2) Oregon 11-1, (3) TCU 11-1, (4) Florida State 12-0, (5) Ohio State 11-1, and (6) Baylor 11-1. All six teams had won their game on championship week by wide margins. The final college football rankings finished with TCU dropping to sixth and Ohio State finishing in fourth, thus knocking TCU out of the college football playoff. The reasoning given by the committee stated that TCU did not win their conference therefore Ohio State deserved to be in. TCU and Baylor were both 8-1 in conference play, but Baylor beat TCU head to head 61-58.

Fast forward to this year where the playoff committee selected Ohio State over Penn State. Ohio State had one loss on the year to Penn State. Penn State had two losses to Pittsburgh and Michigan. Two years earlier the playoff committee favored Ohio State because they won a conference championship and yet this year left Penn State out who won head to head versus Ohio State, won the division in the BIG 10 in which Ohio State is in, and won the BIG 10 Championship. The college football committee that said conference championships matter two years earlier ignored that Ohio State didn’t win their conference.

Essentially the committee is saying head to head wins mean nothing, nor do conference titles after this year’s playoff selection. Subliminally they are saying whoever can bring in the most revenue will make the playoffs if they have a good year. If revenue matters that much then push it to an eight team playoff to create even more dollars.

In the first year, the college football playoff paid out 500 billion dollars to schools which was the largest payout ever, which improved in areas of 200 million from the final BCS season. In total there was a 63 percent increase in postseason revenue. Doubling the amount of teams in the playoff could essentially double the amount of money to be made with extra games of importance.

 

What Should an 8 Team Playoff Look Like?

(AP Images)

(AP Images)

If and when college football goes to an eight team playoff, there needs to be a few rules on who can make the playoffs. In the current system a conference championship means nothing and part of what has made college football great for the past 100 years is the thrill of winning the conference. In basketball, winning your conference give you an automatic bid to the tournament. Football should follow that model to an extent. There are 10 conferences plus four independent schools so with a six team playoff not everyone can automatically get a bid. Here is how college football should handle the eight team playoff that would make everyone happy.

If you win the conference championship of a power five conference (BIG 10, Big 12, Pac-12, SEC, ACC) you are guaranteed a spot in the eight team playoff. To accommodate for small schools and give them the chance they have earned, the sixth spot goes to the highest ranked team from the group of five conferences (AAC, Conference-USA, MAC, Sun-Belt, Mountain West). There would be two spots remaining and those spots should be At-Large bids given to the best two teams remaining in the country. This is what this year’s eight team playoff would look like in this format:

(1) SEC Champion: Alabama vs. (8) Group of 5: Western Michigan

(2) ACC Champion: Clemson vs. (7) Big 12 Champion: Oklahoma

(3) At-Large Bid: Ohio State vs. (6) At-Large Bid: Michigan

(4) Pac-12 Champion: Washington vs. (5) BIG 10 Champion: Penn State

(David Dermer / Associated Press)

(David Dermer / Associated Press)

This college football playoff would have the perfect amount of teams. Aside from the two At-Large bids, nobody can argue the selection of the other six teams. There will always be that argument of bubble teams and who is the most deserving bubble team. In this format some people would be mad that USC isn’t in because of how hot they were towards the end of the year. The simple solution is to tell USC, if you win your conference and you’ll be in.

 

This format doesn’t require a team to go undefeated. An early loss in the season would allow you a second chance to bounce back and win the conference. That can’t be said now. Penn State and Oklahoma won their conference and don’t get a shot to be the national champion. Western Michigan is told good job on going undefeated but your conference is weak, and so is you’re schedule so just take this Cotton Bowl bid. The four team format was a great start, but this eight team format would be the perfect way to crown a champion.

The Greatest Game We Play

Major League Baseball once dominated televison sets and radios, now, it's a dying sport. Or is it? (MLB logo is officially licensed to Major League Baseball)

Major League Baseball once dominated televison sets and radios, now, it’s a dying sport. Or is it? (MLB logo is officially licensed to Major League Baseball)

The greatest game ever played may seem like click-bait. Maybe so. However, I’m not writing to tell you about the greatest individual game. I’m writing to inform you that we live in an age where the greatest game is underappreciated. I’m writing to tell you that you baseball- not football or basketball- is the greatest game ever to be played.

When we’re young, becoming the star of the sports world is the ultimate goal for a lot of us. Some choose football, others basketball, and even some others want to be a star at sprinting. For me, it was baseball. I wanted to play in Ballparks all around the United States. I wanted to stand on the pristine fields of green grass, the watered down infield dirt, and under the shining lights from the heaven above. That was my dream.

Game seven of a World Series, down by one, two on base. I walked through this scenario numerous times in the front yard. I was the pitcher, hitter, and voice on the radio all in one. “And the pitch on its way. Taylor swings, a deep drive to left center, and it’s out of here! A home run, touch ’em all, the Cincinnati Reds are World Champions thanks to the bat of Daniel Taylor!” Man, that was the dream. And I’m sure many of you have had that moment race through your mind. Maybe it was the game-winning touchdown pass, a shot at the buzzer, or a goal to win the Stanley Cup. Maybe it was the home run, or maybe an excellent performance on the mound. We all had those moments.

Sports flow through our blood in the United States, much like the rest of the world. But unlike most countries, baseball has been our pastime for many years. Since it’s beginnings, it’s been America’s sport. Now, as baseball grows around the world, we’ve begun turning our backs on the great game. Football now feels more like the American game. Baseball is big in Latin America, Japan, and South Korea. But in the United States, baseball has been on the decline.

Ask any fan that was alive during the strike years and you’ll usually find the root of the problem. Most fans turned away from the sport after the strike of 1994. That is the most popular answer. Another answer frequented by baseball detractors, it’s too long and boring. On the surface, that may be true. Baseball has a certain time commitment with most games lasting at least two hours, and that’s during a pitcher’s duel. Commercials don’t help things; the games drag on for three or four hours most nights.

Football is usually a two or three-hour commitment, but it’s much more “exciting” with the monstrous tackles and unfathomable touchdowns. Soccer is timed at 90 minutes, only a few extra minutes for extra-time, so you have a good idea of what to expect. Basketball is fast paced and the same with hockey. But baseball isn’t timed- the only of the major sports.

Baseball now consumes a large part of Japan and Latin America. Fireballers in Little League are throwing incredible speeds as the sport continues to grow. (Photo Courtesy, ESPN)

Baseball now consumes a large part of Japan and Latin America. Fireballers in Little League are throwing incredible speeds as the sport continues to grow. (Photo Courtesy, ESPN)

Nine innings with both teams taking a turn on offense. No turnovers or shortened innings, three outs for both sides, and 27 outs for both teams over the course of the afternoon. 162 times a season we do this, and then we get the playoffs. Baseball begins in March and ends in October. Pitchers and catchers report in February, so the season is nine months long. It’s not a short nine months either, days off are a rarity. The All-Star break is the only time teams will have consecutive off days for the entire season.

All of this makes it seem like a slow crawl. In the NFL things happen fast; it’s like a 100-meter dash with only 16 games. One day a week your team plays. In the NBA you have consecutive off days several times in a week – not once a season. The type of season we see in Major League Baseball is truly in a league of its own.

Much of what makes baseball so great is that sentiment. The game truly is a league of its own. Nothing is near exciting and boring, short and long, slow and fast, or interesting as baseball. It’s special.

In baseball, you have one of the most simple goals in mind. Either, throw the ball past the batter on defense. Or hit the ball safely on offense. It’s pitch and hit. See the ball, hit the ball. Easy, right? However, it’s one of the most difficult things humanly possible. Both, pitching and hitting, test the ability of the human body. Baseball stretches the human mind and body as far as possible and tries not to break- and sometimes it does break, spectacularly.

A pitcher is doing something so rare that you can’t simply practice it. Most athletes have a physical gift of some form. But pitchers have something that’s not self-taught. A fastball that touches 95, 98, or even over 100 miles per hour is something that is unthinkable. How? To rubber band your arm and throw a pitch faster than you can legally drive is simply incredible.

What’s even more incredible? Hitting that pitch. In less than 4/10’s of a second you have to decide where the pitch is going, what type of pitch it is, and if you can hit it. Then you have to do it. Your brain is working through incredible speed, computing all of these things faster than the flash of a camera. And then you swing and it. Not only is that good enough, but you also need to place it somewhere on the field that the eight players in fair territory can’t get to it. Even better, you can put it in the stands at least the MLB minimum, 325 feet away for a home run.

The human brain and body can barely keep up. There are times when it’s almost physically impossible. Aroldis Chapman threw the fastest pitch ever recorded at 105.1 MPH. Estimates have Nolan Ryan throwing pitches at over 108. Those are speeds that are nearing the physical and mental limitations of the mind and body to even compute.

Baseball, simply put, is the peak of human performance. They are some of the most physically and mentally gifted humans on this earth.

Sure, the game may be slow, but look at pitch-by-pitch. Slow the game down a little more and just marvel at what is actually happening. Before every pitch, the catcher or dugout will give signals to align the defense up. That’s not random; each player has a certain profile. Where does he hit most often? Is there a pattern? If so, the defense will align themselves up in that manner creating some weird overloads at times.

The Los Angeles Dodgers used a four-man, right side of the infield in a game against the San Diego Padres. (Photo Courtesy, MLB.com)

The Los Angeles Dodgers used a four-man, right side of the infield in a game against the San Diego Padres. (Photo Courtesy, MLB.com)

Now that the defense is aligned, we have to take into account the runner on first. The shortstop and second basemen will look at each other and signal which has the throw should a steal attempt come in. The third base coach has already given signals to the batter and runner; they now know that a hit and run is on.

The catcher, the quarterback of most teams, is computing these things. He decides he wants a fastball outside of the zone, try to get a swing and miss if the hit and run are on so he could throw the runner out. If it’s not, it’s just a waste pitch. From there, the art of pitching is on full display. The pitcher winds and uncorks a ball thrown at 98 to a precise point high and outside. The runner breaks, the second basemen moves to cover the bag, the pitch is there . . . and then you do it again.

Every play is a complex computer problem when you break it down. On the surface, it’s just pitch and catch. See the ball, hit the ball. Simple. The same way now that it was 100 years ago. That’s the beauty of it all.

Diving catches are made routine by the fielders. Home runs that tower through the dark sky look like they’re shot out of cannons. Pitches that boom across the park seem normal. The six-four-three double play just gets us to the bathroom a little sooner. A bang-bang play isn’t really exciting. All of these things are the plays that make up a baseball game. Taken on the surface, they aren’t impressive. We see them all the time. But break down what makes them happen and you see the true beauty.

Baseball is a constant dance between being too wild and out of control, and sitting on the line of impossible. Every play tests the balance of physics. Batters will sometimes describe a tight fastball thrown at 100 as rising, which is physically impossible. However, greats like Hank Aaron have said that the physicists need to put a helmet on and see it for themselves. Optical illusions occur at those speeds. Pitchers can literally fool the human brain- not an easy task.

Baseball is also one of the few sports that isn’t over until the last pitch is thrown. In football, we can usually tell who will win the game five minutes before it’s over, most of the time it’s even sooner. Same with basketball. You can deflate the ball in basketball, dribbling and taking up as much time as allowed. In football, a kneel down will end the game; but before that, a good ground game can ice huge chunks of time. In hockey, you can skate around and lob the puck around to absorb a lot of the clock. Sure, it’s still competitive to a point, but not like baseball.

In baseball, you have to give the offense a chance to win it. It’s the only sport in which you’re not in control of the offense. You don’t have the ball, the defense does. It’s played backward to a certain extent. The pitcher cannot throw around every batter to run the clock out. He has to get three more outs. Your offense could rally at any point. That is where the excitement is.

When you get behind 3-0 in the first, you know it’s not over. Just recently, on June, 5th, the Cincinnati Reds took an early 5-0 lead on the Washington Nationals. The Nats would rally to score the next 10, 10-5. The Reds would come back to make it 10-9 in the ninth. With bases loaded, no outs, and the Reds staring at a surefire tie game, Dusty Baker would’ve loved to take a knee or hold the ball. But they had to come right at the Reds.

A first pitch pop out by Adam Duvall, one out. A three-pitch strikeout against pinch hitter Zack Cozart, two out. Ivan De Jesus Jr. would fly out to centerfielder Michael Taylor to finish the game. Staring down the barrel of a loaded gun, Jonathan Papelbon got the save for the Nationals. You can’t make that up.

The game of baseball is an art form that started in America and now spreads worldwide. It’s a sport that has grown into all sorts of countries. But in the United States, we’re told it’s on the way out. I choose to believe otherwise. Maybe it’s because I’m stubborn, truth be told, that’s probably true. But I believe the love for the game of baseball will come back. We just have to show fans what the game is really about. Make fans understand what they’re watching. We should marvel, not just watch, the game.

P.S. Start taking a scorecard or scorebook to the game. Be a part of the living, breathing game of baseball and it will take hold of you unlike any game can. It’s something amazing.