2012 MLB Playoff Bandwagon Rankings

2012 MLB Playoff Bandwagon Rankings

Yes, the MLB playoffs start today, and no, the Phillies aren't involved. It was a close call to being a close call there for a minute, but ultimately, the Phillies fell out, and few could reasonably argue that they were one of the ten best MLB teams this year, anyway. So while we continued to keep an eye on the Phillies as they looked to the future (sort of) with the likes of Domonic Brown, Tyler Cloyd and Darin Ruf, some of us started scouting the teams that had an actual chance of playing beyond Game 162—four of whom start play today, in a pair of play-in games, with the other six that made it kicking off over the weekend.

Assuming you're not busy pretending that the reason the Phillies missed the playoffs is because of some MLB-wide agreement to just kind of take a pass on the post-season this year, you might want to pick a team to follow and root for for the remainder of October. But which? Well, we've ranked the candidates, from least to most followable:

10. St. Louis Cardinals

A friend of mine told me last night that he was rooting for the Cardinals last night for the specific, asshole-ish reason that it would make the most people unhappy to see them win. Think that's about right—outside of St. Louis, who the hell wants to see the boring-ass reigning-champion Cards win? Certainly not Phillies fans, who have yet to stop smarting from that humiliating Game 5 shutout loss in the Division Series last year. It would've been so very poetic to catch the Cards for the second wildcard spot after we allowed them to backdoor their way in last year, but failing that, the best we can do is root for anyone and everyone playing against them this post-season.

9. New York Yankees

Rooting for the Yankees is never OK.

8. Atlanta Braves

Rooting for the Braves is only slightly less never OK, only because there's an argument to be made that Chipper Jones is an OK guy and this is his last time around and all. Still, mostly fuck the Braves.

7. San Francisco Giants

The other most recent Philly-slayers, with a roster still fairly similar to that which kicked the WFCs out of the playoffs in 2010. They've switched Pat Burrell for Hunter Pence, and while we wish Hunt the best, it's still hard to root for the likes of Buster Posey, Tim Lincecum and that damn Giants bullpen with memories of that series still fresh. No Cody Ross or Juan Uribe at least, and Brian Wilson is still out with injury, otherwise they might be even lower.

6. Cincinnati Reds

No real beef with the Reds here—I'm not gonna get on 'em too much for having the temerity to get swept by the Phils in the 2010 NLDS—but they're just kind of a boring team, outside of their Nasty Boys II-esque bullpen. Joey Votto is a great player, but the most notable thing about him is how many walks he takes, and the veteran likes of Brandon Phillips and Bronson Arroyo are kinda whatever in the bandwagoning sense. Plus, the presence of Scott Rolen probably isn't going to endear this team to Phillies fans anytime soon.

5. Oakland Athletics

Not exactly a ton of big names on this roster—anyone who could actually tell Brandon Moss from Jonny Gomes from Derek Norris in a police lineup either probably lives in the Bay Area, watches baseball for a living or maybe wants to reconsider the amount of time they spend watching Extra Innings. Still, it's hard not to get swept up in the excitement of having good baseball in Oakland after six years of just absolute irrelevancy—in a year that started off as a rebuilding write-off, no less. Cool uniforms, fun memories of both the Bash Brothers and the Moneyball-era teams, great end-of-season run...you could do a lot worse than hopping on with the A's.

4. Washington Nationals

Yeah, yeah, division rivals, and they certainly didn't treat us too kind in 2012, but c'mon—rooting against the Nats is a little like rooting against the little brother you've spent a decade giving noogies and wet willies too when they finally stick up for themselves for the first time. It's cute at first, maybe even a little heartwarming—you just hope they don't end up totally flipping the script on you. So for now, we'll give the Nats a little bandwagon love in their first big moment as an actual MLB franchise, with an extra shoutout to our old guy Jayson Werth, for whom we still mostly want good things.

3. Texas Rangers

They're only a step or two away from being Yankees south, and any underdog follow-along potential the Rangers might have had a couple years ago has long since dissipated with their incredible run of prosperity since. That said, the Rangers are still a sympathetic team by virtue of their two consecutive Series losses—already halfway to becoming baseball's Buffalo Bills—with the last one being a particularly heart-rending choke job. Plus, some exciting players on both offense and defense, endless cutaways to a crotchety Nolan Ryan in the audience, warm thoughts in Arlington...who'd root against them getting a third-straight chance at the brass ring?

2. Detroit Tigers

Not a sexy pick, perhaps, but they've got arguably both the game's best hitter and pitcher, an insane closer, the league's most likeable old-timey manager (not counting the one in our own dugout anyway) some very classy uniforms, a terminally depressed city and nearly three decades since their last win. Assuming that FOX and TBS don't beat the Bob Seger and Kid Rock jams to death during their games, nothing wrong with a deep run for the Tigers.

1. Baltimore Orioles

Possible former hometown bias here, as the Orioles were the first team I ever rooted for, but if you're not going to root for the Orioles this year, you might not get another chance for a long, long time. It was among the flukiest of flukes that the O's even got here—they had a negative run differential for nearly the entire season, and won an absolutely unconscionable number of one-run and extra-inning games—and beyond regular All-Stars Adam Jones and Matt Wieters, their core of players (Chris David, Mark Reynolds, Jason Hammel...uhh, Chris Tillman? Nate McLouth?) doesn't exactly scream Future Dynasty.

For a team that's been bad just about ever since Jeffrey Maier comped Derek Jeter a home run in the '96 playoffs, this might be their one shot. They'll have a tough out in the play-in game tonight against Texas, and no one would begrudge them if the Rangers—a fairly obviously superior team, despite the identical records—ended up dispatching them. But unless you're old enough to still be holding a grudge against Baltimore for their '83 World Series victory, may as well give rooting for them a shot, no?

With rotation gone, Mychal Kendricks preparing for comeback season

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With rotation gone, Mychal Kendricks preparing for comeback season

Getting in a rhythm, getting in a flow, is important for Eagles linebacker Mychal Kendricks. 

Really important. 

“That’s everything,” Kendricks said after Tuesday’s OTA practice. “It truly is.”

That’s why last season was so tough on the veteran linebacker. Under former defensive coordinator Bill Davis and head coach Chip Kelly, Kendricks was forced into a rotation with DeMeco Ryans, Kiko Alonso, and later Jordan Hicks. 

In a year when he did nurse a hamstring injury for a few weeks, Kendricks played just 52 percent of defensive snaps in 2015. After playing all 77 snaps in the opener, Kendricks never got above 90 percent again and didn’t play more than 70 percent of snaps in any of the last five games of the season. 

That’s quite a departure for someone who is widely considered to be a three-down linebacker. In 2014, Kendricks played 100 percent of his team’s defensive snaps in seven games. 

“I just feel like it was too much hot and cold, with all the players rotating in and out and whatnot,” Kendricks said about his 2015 season. “No one was able to get in the flow. It was odd. But I didn’t feel like I played as good or as much. For the time that I was in, I feel that my numbers were OK. But it’s hard to be a force or something to reckon with when you’re not on the field.”

Kendricks admitted the rotation was tough on him, but did what he was told. 

This season, he’s not expected to be in a rotation. For now, he’s the team’s starting weakside linebacker, while Jordan Hicks is in the middle with Nigel Bradham on the strongside. All three, however, are versatile and could be moved around. 

“All of those guys are pretty much interchangeable,” defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz said. “And you have to be now.”

Aside from the rotation at inside linebacker a year ago, Kendricks also dealt with another injury. He basically missed a total of four weeks in 2015 with a lingering hamstring injury. In 2014, Kendricks missed four games with a calf injury. 

While Kendricks has never made a Pro Bowl, before last season, when healthy, he has played to that level. In fact, making the Pro Bowl is a personal goal for Kendricks this season. 

“I feel like if I stay healthy, you’ll see me in the Pro Bowl,” he said. “Those are things that you can’t control. Unfortunately, a couple times, I’ve fallen short of my personal goal because of an injury. No one wants that. I’m not making any excuses or anything, that’s just what it is. 

“I used to beat myself up over that, but as you get older and you start understanding the game, you know that there’s some things that you just literally do not control. You can’t beat yourself up over it.”

If Kendricks does get named to the Pro Bowl this season, his production will match the four-year, $29 million contract extension he signed before the 2015 season began. 

From the outside, it seems possible that Kendricks’ new contract might have been a factor in his decline last season, but the linebacker doesn’t seem to think it played much of a role. 

“Have I thought about it? Yeah,” Kendricks said. “But then I look back at all the scenarios that could have played an effect. I got paid and I didn’t play as much as I’d like to. It could have went both ways. Who knows, maybe I wouldn’t have played at all. I don’t know. Sometimes the grass is greener; sometimes the grass isn’t greener. I’m not a fortune teller or a future teller, I just go with my gut.”

Sixers draft target: F Ben Simmons

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Sixers draft target: F Ben Simmons

Ben Simmons

Position: Forward

Height/Weight: 6-foot-10/239 pounds

School: LSU

The 19-year-old Australia native was the favorite to be the top pick in the 2016 NBA draft before he ever took the court for LSU. Here we are less than a month from the draft and that still may very well be the case.

It's hard to ignore Simmons' production in his only season with the Tigers: 19.2 points, 11.8 rebounds, 4.8 assists and two steals per game. The 6-foot-10 forward with guard skills was named SEC Freshman of the Year and was named to the conference's first team. But for all his personal accolades, Simmons' team failed to make the NCAA Tournament after taking a 71-38 whooping at the hands of Texas A&M in the SEC Tournament. He's been criticized from everything to his lack of maturity to his inability to shoot consistently from the outside.

Strengths
It's so rare to see a player of Simmons' stature with the ability to handle and see the court so well. Watching Simmons grab the ball off the rim and then go the length of the floor to either finish or find the open man is a thing of beauty. I love how smooth he is. It looks effortless for him. You almost forget he's 6-foot-10. His basketball IQ is excellent. He forces contact down low with his big body and draws fouls. His rebounding ability should translate very well to the next level.

He has the ability to guard multiple positions with his length and athleticism... if he's motivated. His size is going to be a matchup nightmare for opposing teams. A traditional four will struggle with his quickness. He'll be able to take a lot of wings down low and punish them in the post.

Weaknesses
The biggest thing is his shot. It's been well-documented. His three-point output in college: 33 percent. As much as that number reflects a weakness, he's at least self-aware. He knows his weaknesses. His free-throw percentage (67 percent) is just OK. The good news is, if you actually watched him shoot, this isn't a total rebuild.

Are the maturity and competitiveness concerns legitimate? I don't know. It's a 19-year-old kid we're talking about. The Sixers will have to decide if those concerns are something he'll outgrow or a serious red flag going forward. Playing under Brett Brown, who coached Simmons' father in Australia, would hopefully mitigate some of the concern.

How he'd fit with the Sixers
This is a really interesting question that I'm not sure anyone has the answer to yet. At 6-foot-10, he almost has to play the four, but where does that leave Nerlens Noel, Jahlil Okafor, and possibly Joel Embiid and Dario Saric? There could be nights where Brown could get away with playing Simmons on the wing given his ball skills. But it might be a struggle for Simmons defensively depending on the matchup. In any case, Simmons will need a shooter/scorer or two in the lineup to complement his skill set.

NBA comparison
This is next to impossible. How many players have there been that are built like power forwards but handle like point guards? Magic Johnson is a lofty comparison, but Lamar Odom may not be quite strong enough. Much like Simmons, Magic was not a shooter (19 percent from three in his first nine years in the NBA), but at 6-foot-9, Johnson was one of the greatest facilitators in league history. If Simmons is somewhere between Johnson and Odom, the Sixers will be just fine.

Draft projection
I'd be shocked if the Sixers don't take Simmons at No. 1. It's the right call.

Union-Orlando City SC 5 things: First-place test for Jim Curtin's club

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Union-Orlando City SC 5 things: First-place test for Jim Curtin's club

Union at Orlando City SC
7:30 p.m. on Comcast SportsNet

The Union’s roll continued last weekend with a win over D.C. United in extra time, giving Jim Curtin’s club nine points in its last five games and a spot atop the Eastern Conference standings. But that momentum will be tested starting Wednesday night when the Union (5-3-3) make a quick turnaround to take on Orlando City SC (3-3-5) at the Camping World Stadium.

Here are five things to know for the matchup:

1. Defending first place
At first it was a fluke, then a random hot streak. But at the near quarter mark of the 2016 season, the Union are riding high in first place in the Eastern Conference entering Wednesday’s match against Orlando City SC.

“I’ve always believed that you start to get an assessment of your group after about a third of the games,” Union manager Jim Curtin said. “That’s a good barometer. We are starting to form an identity as a team that’s very tough to break down defensively and is a very good home team. Now, we need to carry that mentality on to the road.”

That mentality, the one that’s helped the Union to a 5-3-3 record, is about consistency on the defensive side of the ball. The Union have given up only 11 goals in 11 games, good for second in MLS.

“We’re a team that’s going to be tough to score against,” Curtin said. “One goal against per game is good — that’s good goalkeeping and that’s good defending. There’s some things you’re starting to see that maybe define us and give us a little bit of identity.”

With nine points in their last five games, the Union take their hot run on the road, where they haven’t been good. First up, Orlando City SC on Wednesday and then the Western Conference-leading Colorado Rapids on Saturday. The Union are 1-3-1 away from Talen Energy Stadium.

“Two very hostile places, two very good teams,” Curtin said. “We’ll take every player on our roster on the trip, which is unique. We haven’t done that before. We are a deep team and everyone is going to contribute.”

2. Blake’s availability
The big question for the Union entering their two-game road swing was would star goalkeeper Andre Blake play after being called up to the Jamaican national team for the Copa America tournament? And if so, would he make both games?

Curtin had the answer on Wednesday, stating that Blake will play in both road matches (see story).

“Jamaica’s been excellent with us,” he said. “What is best for both parties is that he is with us up until [June 1]. The Columbus game is the only game he’ll miss.”

And that’s good news for the Union. Blake has been stellar this season, often making game-saving stops a habit on the road to three shutouts and a 76.1 save percentage — placing him among the best in MLS.

“He’s a big part of us getting points,” Curtin said. “Going into two hostile environments knowing that he’s going to be in there is very valuable.”

3. Orlando’s momentum
Despite just one win in their last seven games — a run that includes a 2-1 loss to the Union — Orlando City is still keeping pace in the East by way of three draws over that same span.

But coming off a win over the Montreal Impact, and in the midst of four home games of five matches, the Florida club wants to go from staying afloat to rocketing up the standings.

“Any time we step on the field, we’re looking to get three points,” Orlando’s Kevin Alston said. “For us, we want to build off of last game and move forward.”

But they have to go through the Union first to get that momentum rolling.

“They are a confident team,” Orlando coach Adrian Heath said. “You can see it’s a happy camp. They keep working hard, they don’t give in, it’s gonna be tough because they are coming here with confidence.”

4. Keep an eye on ...
Union: The Union are a better team with Vincent Nogueira in the midfield. Which made it even more concerning when the Frenchman went out with an oblique injury prior to the match against D.C. United last Friday. And though Nogueira isn’t believed to be seriously injured, he, along with Ilsinho, will be a question on Wednesday. “I honestly don’t know whether they’ll be available by Wednesday,” Curtin said. “We’ll assess after Wednesday’s game and see what it looks like for Colorado.” If Nogueira can’t go, the Union will likely go with the same midfield lineup as they did against United, with Warren Creavalle in Nogueira’s spot and Brian Carroll sitting deeper as defensive mid.

Orlando: At 21 years old, Cyle Larin is already one of the most dangerous strikers in the league. He scored 17 goals in 24 starts in his rookie campaign and is continuing his ridiculous pace with six goals in nine starts this season. And the Union have taken notice. “He’s a great striker, one I rate very highly,” Curtin said. “We dodged a bullet because he wasn’t in the last time we played, so it’ll be a real challenge to shut him down, especially in their building.”

5. This and that
• The Union are undefeated against Orlando City all-time with a 2-0-1 record.

• Orlando City’s star midfielder Kaka came alive last weekend, notching two assists in his club’s 2-1 win over the Impact. Heath noted that as Kaka goes, Orlando goes, leaving Curtin to wish the legendary player was invited to the Brazilian national team for the Copa America tournament, missing the match. “Yeah, I’d rather play them without Kaka, for sure,” Curtin laughed.

• Dating back to Aug. 1, 2015, Orlando City is unbeaten at Camping World Stadium. The club is 6-0-6 in its last 12 matches at the venue.