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Maza's Musings

Unsolicited sports opinion and insight

Month

July 2011

Patriots’ additions raise eyebrows, hopes and questions

Those who have been frustrated in recent years with Bill Belichick’s penchant for hoarding draft picks can now rejoice. The New England Patriots head coach has taken some of his picks and made them work for him, something critics have chastised him for not doing enough.

But even more interesting are the players those draft picks were able to yield on the trade market. Reports on New England sports pages seemed more like big box store back-to-school advertisements. Brand names at low, low prices.

In Albert Haynesworth and Chad Ochocinco the Patriots acquired two immensely talented veterans who can make immediate impacts on their respective units. They also come with baggage.

A lot has been made of Belichick’s supposed ability to tame the otherwise untamable with Corey Dillon and Randy Moss being the two pieces of evidence those drinking the Kool-Aid point to. First, let’s examine this.

Dillon was hardly a bad apple when he came to New England. He was branded as a cancer and a malcontent by the Bengals after he made several statements about his displeasure with the team’s inability or unwillingness to get better. He went so far as to say the Bengals could never win so long as the Brown family owns the team. He wasn’t wrong then. He still isn’t. Speaking out publicly when you are living up to everything you signed on for and the team refuses to do anything to improve itself may make you disgruntled, but it hardly makes you a deviant the way the Bengals portrayed him. And funny that while Dillon was so hard to deal with the organization still required a second-round pick for him.

Moss came in with plenty of history and many fans swore off rooting for the Patriots so long as he was on the team. That mood changed when the Patriots were on their way to a perfect regular season and a Super Bowl appearance. Everyone thought Belichick had cured Moss. However, Moss proved that he was only following his typical pattern. So long as the team kept him happy, he would be a good soldier. As soon as he felt he wasn’t going to get the contract he felt he deserved, out came the good old Randy of old, talking about being disrespected and people hoping he would fail and eventually Belichick jettisoned him. If he was cured, apparently he relapsed badly.

Now that the notion that Belichick is a miracle worker is out, the question that remains prominent in everyone’s mind is how these two troublemakers will fit on the field, in the no-nonsense Patriots locker room and in a community that examines everything under a microscope.

Let’s look at Ochocinco first. While he doesn’t have the speed to burn he once had now that he’s 33, he remains one of the game’s top route runners and on top of that, he’s clearly smart. Belichick proved last season how much he valued both of those qualities by trading for Deion Branch, who supplanted Brandon Tate as the receiver opposite Wes Welker.

Ochocinco opens up options for the Patriots by spreading the field not vertically, but horizontally. Even teams with two Pro Bowl corners could find their hands full with Tom Brady with the likes of Ochocinco, Welker and Branch at wide receiver as well as versatile tight ends Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski, both of whom enjoyed breakout rookie seasons. Brandon Tate still holds a spot serving as the vertical threat the team may need from time to time while Danny Woodhead and rookie Shane Vereen are both very competent pass catchers out of the backfield.

Questions revolve around Ochocinco’s headline stealing antics and how those will be tolerated by the Patriots’ brass. He’s always been about establishing his brand and at times could be accused of putting the name on the back of the jersey ahead of the one on the front. Clearly, that won’t fly in New England. However,  Ochocinco is presented with an opportunity he never really had in Cincinnati – the chance to play for a winner. It’s possible that given his perceived intelligence and his reported admiration of Belichick, he will recognize what his role on the team is. Also, number 85’s antics rarely have been to the detriment of his team. He’s more of a clown or a side show than a locker room bully or a degenerate.

The same cannot be said for the other marquee player brought in by the Patriots for essentially the equivalent of a baloney sandwich. Haynesworth brings with him excessive amounts of risk. Granted, he cost next to nothing to bring in and has no guaranteed money in his contract, so he would be easy to let go if need be. Ideally, he will provide a tremendous inside pass rush, especially in nickel and dime packages when Vince Wilfork is next to him occupying two bodies.

Of course, that will happen only if he is properly motivated, in shape, healthy and out of prison. Haynesworths’ clashes with the Redskins ownership are well-documented and clearly there was a disconnect there that was unrepairable. In that respect, a fresh start could do him good. However, the fact of the matter is Haynesworth’s issues go well beyond disputes with his coaches.

His wrap sheet is long and distinguished with violations including assaulting teammates and waitresses alike, stomping on an opposing player’s head after pulling off his helmet (he missed the first time and went back and tried again) and paralyzing a motorist while driving his Ferrari in excess of 100 miles per hour. To this day he refuses to help pay that man’s bills. I’m no psychiatrist, but I’ve been around people long enough and have logged enough hours watching Law and Order: SVU to recognize a borderline sociopath when I see one.

The odds of Haynesworth working out in New England might be less than 50-50. The odds of Ochocinco working out are much higher. That said, in either case, Belichick believed the upside was far to great  to turn his back on them, given the asking price.

Now the great experiment begins. Will Belichick the alchemist be able to turn these ingredients into gold, or will their volatility cause the whole thing to blow up in his face?

Beltran sexy, but not what Sox need right now

There has been a lot of that kind of talk going around.

You know the kind. The kind of talk that involves the Red Sox going after any superstar perceived to be anywhere close to the trading block as the trade deadline approaches. The star of this year’s show? Carlos Beltran.

Beltran is very much on the market for the Mets and there have been several reports linking the Red Sox to him. Some of them are probably true. No doubt, Theo Epstein wouldn’t be doing his job as the team’s General Manager if he didn’t at least kick the tires.

It’s also true that the Red Sox have been looking for more production from the outfield – Crawford has disappointed and been hurt and J.D. Drew appears to already be enjoying retirement – and have been concerned about getting another right-handed bat in the lineup. Beltran is a switch-hitting outfielder, serving both of those needs for the Sox.

But the fact of the matter is as good a hitter Beltran is, a bat is not the team’s primary concern at this point.

Red Sox fans received some good news this week when reports out of the front office said that the team expects Clay Buchholz back and that the back issues that have kept him out will not require him to miss much more significant time. But if anyone thinks that pitching is not a concern for this team, they are sorely mistaken.

The Red Sox entered the season with a pitching staff that, in an ideal world, would have been better than almost anybody’s in baseball, and certainly in the American League. Confidence in Buchholz and Jon Lester was high. Questions surrounded John Lackey and Josh Beckett, but few anticipated the horrendous seasons they endured in 2010 to repeat themselves. Daisuke Matsuzaka, while frustrating, would still be better than the fifth starter on almost any other team.

Indeed, Lester has lived up to expectations and Beckett has drastically surpassed them. However, as a team, the Red Sox’ ERA is 3.91, good for eighth in the American League. Outside of Lester and Beckett, the rotation has been held together with bubble gum and scotch tape. Lackey sports an ERA of 6.70. Matsuzaka is out for the year. Buchholz, while very good when healthy, hasn’t pitched since June 16. Suddenly the likes of Tim Wakefield, Andrew Miller and Kyle Weiland have become necessities in the rotation.

With that said, if Buchholz returns and can stay healthy, in a short series, he, Beckett and Lester are a formidable trio that can be counted on in a short series.

In the bullpen, the Red Sox face questions. Jonathan Papelbon has been solid. His setup man Daniel Bard has been superb. However, there have been struggles beyond that. Bobby Jenks, who was expected to be a key cog for this team, has been injured and ineffective. Alfredo Aceves and Matt Albers have filled their roles well, but Aceves especially has shown signs of inconsistency. The Red Sox had appeared to have found something in former starter Rich Hill, but Tommy John surgery ended his year. Franklin Morales has been used sparingly since being acquired from the Colorado Rockies.

Clearly, pitching is a much more pressing need for the Red Sox than another bat, especially in the bullpen. Should anything happen to Papelbon or Bard, the question won’t be whether the team can close out games in the ninth, but how they will be able to get to the ninth.

In terms of bullpen help, the biggest names are most likely out of reach. Francisco Rodriguez was already traded by the Mets to the Brewers. Heath Bell is probably untouchable to the Red Sox because of the number and quality of prospects the San Diego Padres would want in return. Mike Adams has reportedly been told by San Diego that he won’t be relocating at all. It is more likely the team could take a chance on Matt Capps, should the Twins decide they are out of contention, Grant Balfour, who has had a great season for Oakland in a middle relief role, but has not fared so well when given save opportunities, or Craig Breslow, the former Red Sox farm hand who had bounced around the past couple of years before finding a niche as a left-handed specialist for the A’s.

Staring pitching talent on the trade market appears to be thin, and while the Red Sox have been linked to the Cubs’ Matt Garza in rumors, its doubtful the Red Sox will want to pay what the Cubs would be looking for in prospects. The Red Sox most likely will give Wandy Rodriguez a look, but the same principle may apply.  With such a shallow market, expect a cheaper option. Derek Lowe could be intriguing and cheaper, given the depth of Atlanta’s pitching staff and while they might not want to trade within the division, Jeremy Guthrie is a solid pitcher whose pitiful record is more the result of the team that backs him up in Baltimore than his performance on the mound.

Giving Jacoby his due

Early on in his career, I was a Jacoby Ellsbury hater. I admit it.

Ellsbury, with his soft bat and blazing speed scared me because more than anything, he reminded me of Vince Coleman, who lit the world on fire, stealing more than 100 bases in his first three seasons. But by 29, Coleman wasn’t the same. Sure, some of that was due to his personal indiscretions, but I think more of it had to do with the fact he rarely drove the ball and hardly ever walked. Once his speed wasn’t quite what it once was, he started posting sub-.700 OPS numbers.

I saw a similar approach to hitting in Jacoby Ellsbury early on and it concerned me.

Consider me concerned no more. After coming into this season with 20 career homers, Ellsbury now has 15 on the season. Include his 26 doubles and two triples and you’ve got a player in the top 10 in the league in extra base hits. Ellsbury is keeping his weight back and driving the ball rather than thinking about getting out of the batters’ box quickly and it’s paying dividends.

With this added power, his stolen base totals may be lower, but he now is a much more versatile threat and that makes him very dangerous.

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