Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Cano and Cooperstown just got complicated

Has there been a better second baseman in Major League Baseball from the time Robinson Cano arrived in 2005? Probably not.  At the end of each calendar year, baseball writers submit their Hall of Fame ballots for the following year and we hear the results in the middle of January. Names that appear on at least 75 percent of ballots earn election to the Hall. On Monday, if those same writers casted ballots of up to ten active players, the current limit on how many players they can vote for, Robinson Cano’s name would almost certainly appear on at least 75 percent of them.

What a difference 24 hours can make. Yesterday, news broke that Cano will be suspended 80 games for violating Major League Baseball’s joint drug agreement. The Seattle second baseman reportedly tested positive for furosemide, which is essentially a water pill that created a diluted sample to remove excess water and salt from the body. Cano’s explanation in a statement he released yesterday was that the substance was given to him by a licensed doctor in the Dominican Republic and he was unaware that it was banned. However, speculation grew instantly that such a diuretic could be used as a means of masking something bigger and that Cano was taking it to avoid testing positive for a performance-enhancing drug, which explains why said diuretic would be banned in the first place.

Immediately, questions arose as to what yesterday’s news does for Cano’s Hall of Fame chances. Should Cano return in August as the same player he’s been his entire career, and continues to be that player in 2019 and beyond, this may be easier to overlook for some voters when Cano is eligible for the Hall. Let’s assume that Cano calls it quits when his massive contract with Seattle expires in 2023 following his age 40 season. That may be on the conservative side too given Cano’s been a durable player in his career having appeared in at least 122 games in each of his previous 13 years and at least 150 games in the last 11 seasons. However, under that assumption, Cano would play the remainder of 2018 after he returns, and then another five full seasons. Sitting at 2,417 hits right now, that would seem to be plenty of time for him to reach 3,000 hits. Since Cano’s rookie season in 2005, only Adrian Beltre and Albert Pujols rank better in Wins Above Replacement than Cano, as Brian Kenny referenced on MLB Now yesterday.

                                                Jeffrey Becker/USA Today Sports
Beltre and Pujols are first ballot locks and there’s no doubt that Cano’s performance credentials are worthy of entry. But, imagine what the discussions will be about the Hall of Fame and drug users if Cano is elected? While it’s possible this is the only black mark for the Dominican second baseman, by the time Cano is or is not elected, the list of potential Hall of Famers with checkered pasts concerning drug tests will only be longer. There are already several that have dropped off the ballot by failing to earn five percent of the vote and there’s another wave that gets just enough to stay on each year but will never get close to the necessary 75 percent. Ivan Rodriguez’s induction last year was the latest in terms of players who entered Cooperstown despite a cloud of doubt surrounding steroid usage.

If we’re continuing to operate under the assumption that 2023 will be Cano’s final season in the big leagues, that means he would not be eligible for the Hall of Fame until 2029. That gives us at least 11 years of waiting before we know how this will impact Cano’s candidacy. I’m of the belief that if he does avoid any further violations and returns at the same level he was performing at before the suspension, he will reach 3,000 hits and earn election. But, that will only further the never-ending debate regarding performance-enhancing drugs and the Hall of Fame. While there’s over a decade until this question is answered, don’t think the discussion is going away.

Sunday, April 29, 2018

Flyers and Hextall entering pivotal offseason

At this time one week ago, Flyers fans were buzzing in Wells Fargo Center for game six of the team’s first round playoff series with the hated Pittsburgh Penguins. After a promising start that saw Flyers hold a 4-2 lead in the second period, a game 7 back in Pittsburgh was looking more like a reality than a dream. But, a dreadful end to the second period followed by an equally as dreadful start to the third period resulted in five unanswered goals for the Penguins to lead 7-4. Pittsburgh would go on to win 8-5 and the season was over.

The knee-jerk reaction was a lot of “same old Flyers” in reference to the franchise’s inconsistent goaltending and defensive woes that plagued them in all four of their losses in the six-game series. But, it’s easy to see that the Flyers are ready to turn the corner. General Manager Ron Hextall inherited an old and flawed roster in the spring of 2014 when he took over. The organization had an abundance of burdensome contracts on the books to go with a shallow prospect pool. Losing in the first round to the New York Rangers felt like the ceiling of the 2013-14 team. External options to improve the team in free agency were limited thanks to the dead weight that any cap-strapped team had to deal with getting rid of first. They weren’t deep enough to shake things up with a trade and expect better results. There weren’t many internal options either as the team lacked young blood to promote to the NHL roster.

                                                       David Maialetti/
Hextall has gotten the Flyers out of salary cap hell.
Now he must get them into cup contention.
In short, the Flyers were stuck. It’s what lead to Hextall taking over for Paul Holmgren in the first place. For years, the organization always had an ultra-aggressive approach to each season and it wasn’t leading to better results, save for a magical run to the Stanley Cup Final in 2010 in a season in which it took a shootout in the final game of the regular season just to make the playoffs. Hextall logically decided to peel the bandage off. The focus became finding takers for bad contracts, even if it meant retaining salary, accumulating draft picks and building up a legitimate core of prospects. It’s difficult to do all of that, and also remain competitive. Naturally, the Flyers missed the playoffs in 2014-15 and coach Craig Berube was let go.

This led to Hextall hiring Dave Hakstol out of the University of North Dakota to stand behind the bench. It was an outside-the-box hire but it was easy to see Hextall’s thought process. There was an obvious emphasis placed on player development and getting younger, so why not bring in a coach who dealt with young players on a regular basis given his experience was in the college ranks? In a mild surprise, the Flyers returned to the playoffs in 2015-16, Hakstol’s first year. But, the team was clearly outmatched by the Washington Capitals and still in the middle of a transition.

The following season was as disappointing as 2015-16 was surprising. In 2016-17, the Flyers became the first team in NHL history to win 10 games in a row and miss the playoffs. However, this ended up being a blessing in disguise for the franchise as the team got some lottery luck after the season and jumped up 11 spots in the 2017 NHL Draft order and ultimately drafted Nolan Patrick second overall last year. With Patrick making the NHL roster last fall, 2016 is now the only draft out of Hextall’s four as GM, that at least one player does not have NHL experience. One of Hextall’s picks in 2016, was goalie Carter Hart in the second round. After two years in the WHL, Hart will graduate from junior hockey and will likely be in the AHL with the Lehigh Valley Phantoms come fall. Many believe he is the long-awaited answer to the organization’s goaltending problems.

Even without Hart, who seems destined for Lehigh Valley barring a miraculous training camp, the Flyers can take a step forward in 2018-19 with the right moves this summer. Thanks to Hextall’s wheeling and dealing, the Flyers finally have some serious cap space to play with in the offseason. Regardless of how good he drafts and develops talent, there will almost certainly come a time when an outside acquisition will be necessary to push the team into contention. One of several advantages to having prospects and draft picks is the flexibility to explore trades that would improve the NHL roster, since there's not going to be space for all the prospects anyway. After a 98-point season that saw the Flyers finish third in the Metropolitan division behind only the two-time defending Stanley Cup Champion Pittsburgh Penguins and regular season juggernaut Washington Capitals, this summer would appear to be a good time to attempt to narrow the gap.

Captain Claude Giroux just posted a 102-point season. Jakub Voracek produced at a point per game level. These two players are some of the veterans that have stuck around through Hextall’s rebuild and this season proved they are not yet coming out of their primes after down seasons last year. We haven’t seen Hextall as an aggressive executive looking to add to the roster in an offseason or as a buyer at the trade deadline. For as warranted as some of the concerns with Hakstol’s coaching ability can be, in three years, the team has performed to expectations for the most part. In all three seasons under Hakstol, the Flyers have been that borderline playoff team many pundits expected them to be and they got in the playoffs in two of those three seasons.

All you had to do is watch the games this year to know that the Flyers bottom six forward group was not good enough and they had no defensive depth. Fixing one of both of those things will likely result in a step forward next year regardless of who is in net. Hextall must now prove he knows the time is right to improve the NHL roster and how successful he is at doing it will determine if the Flyers can launch themselves into Stanley Cup contention.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

A seminal moment for The Process

Well, here we are. After years of both pro-process and anti-process hot takes, the Sixers are about to open a playoff series with home-court advantage after winning 52 games in the regular season and closing out the season on a 16-game winning streak. As a 23-year-old who grew up with Sixers teams that were mediocre at best, that was easily the best regular season I’ve ever seen the Sixers have.

Before it all started, rooting for the Sixers in the post Larry Brown era was one big cycle of nothing really happening. A new coach would come in who you might fall for, the team would win anywhere from 30 to 40 games, they might make the playoffs, but they certainly wouldn’t get out of the first round. Acquiring high-profile players coming out of their primes like Chris Webber and Elton Brand did nothing other than tease fans. Right when it looked like the Sixers were moving out of NBA purgatory, Andrew Bynum’s knees happened. In 2009, the Sixers lost in six games against the Orlando Magic in the first round. But, Andre Iguodala hit a big jump shot in the first game of that series and for a split second, it looked like the Sixers might have a chance at pulling the upset. Lou Williams drained a jumper against the Miami Heat to stave off elimination two years later. Even though it took an injury to Derrick Rose, the Sixers finally got out of the first round in 2012. These were the highest of the highs for the Sixers from 2003-2013, which says a lot about how irrelevant they were.

                                               Jesse D. Garrabrant/Getty Images
Hinkie, the architect of "The Process" is not around anymore,
but his plan is still coming to fruition. 
For some, even after the franchise’s best win-loss record in 17 years, “The Process” is not vindicated yet. The anti-process crowd has shifted from “How can you waste so many seasons?” even though the Sixers wasted tons of seasons before Sam Hinkie took over as the team’s President of Basketball Operations and General Manager in May 2013, to “They haven’t won anything yet.” It’s a lazy take from a group of people that for whatever reason were never willing to embrace the path with the best odds of winning a championship in today’s NBA. It’s impossible against the claim that the draft is the easiest way of acquiring a franchise player in the NBA. Hinkie decided to maximize his odds at doing so. He refused to let Joel Embiid’s medical concerns, the entire reason he was available at No. 3 overall in 2014, get in the way of drafting him. Dario Saric was contractually obligated to remain in Turkey for two years after the Sixers made a trade for him later in the lottery four years ago. The whole idea was about maintaining the longest view in the room for a reward greater than anything lots of Sixers fans had ever seen.

While Hinkie was forced out by an ownership group that didn’t have the patience he thought it did, “The Process” later produced Ben Simmons with the first overall selection in the 2016 draft.  Hinkie provided his successor, Bryan Colangelo, with ample draft capital to move up in last year’s draft for Markelle Fultz. Hopefully, Colangelo can finish what Hinkie started and both men can be a part of bringing Philadelphia its first NBA championship in at least 35 years. Head coach Brett Brown is still around and is a candidate for Coach of the Year after a 24-win improvement from last season.

In the three years the Sixers tanked, they only had the worst record in the NBA for one of the three seasons. In January 2017, the Sixers appeared to be on the brink of the playoffs, until Embiid went down with a torn meniscus and their playoff push lost steam. But, Embiid played 63 games this season, more than twice as many as he played last year. Simmons played in all but one game this year and is the favorite to win Rookie of the Year after missing all of 2016-17 with a foot injury.  Embiid and Simmons are the two most talented players to have suited up for the Sixers in at least a decade. So, get ready for the Sixers to be really good for a really long time, and to be reminded for a while about how “The Process” worked.