How much should the Phils care about ending with a bottom ten record?

How much should the Phils care about ending with a bottom ten record?

I was watching some of the Phils-Mets series ender last Sunday with some Met fan friends, rooting for the Phils to squeak one out and not have to suffer the indignity of a home sweep at the hand of their hated NL East rivals. To my mild surprise, though, some of the Met fans were rooting for the same outcome. When LaTroy Hawkins (seriously, Mets? LaTroy Hawkins??) closed the door on the Phils in the ninth, cementing the sweep, and knotting the two teams in the standings at 71-84, I'm not sure which of us was more disappointed.

The concept of rooting for losses, and the team tanking that occasionally accompanies it, is nothing new to the 21st century sports fan. Still, for the most part, it's been a practice confined to sports like basketball and football, where drafting is a slightly more reliable process, and where one player can (in theory, anyway) turn around an entire franchise. In baseball, no one player matters that much, and you might have a #1 overall pick who never even plays a single game for your major league squad (like the Yankees' Brien Taylor or the Padres' Matt Bush), so the incentive of piling up losses to secure a higher pick isn't nearly as high.

Since the new CBA, though, the rules with the MLB draft are a little different. You might have heard some whispering among writers and/or big fans of losing teams this year about the importance of finishing in the bottom ten of the league standings this year. The reason for this is that teams who finish in the bottom ten--and thus are awarded top ten picks in the upcoming draft--are then protected from losing their first-round picks as compensation for signing away big-name free agents in the off-season.

In years past, signing a Type A free agent--like, say, the Phils did in prying Jonathan Papelbon from the Red Sox in 2011-automatically resulted in the forfeiture of the team's first-round pick, which the Phils then lost in the 2012 draft. (The Phils received a pick in return for the Angels signing away Ryan Madson, but it was lower, in the supplemental first round, due to Madson having a "Modified Type A" status.)

That still happens for teams who sign Type A free agents after finishing with one of the top 20 records in baseball, but now if you're a bottom ten team, you get to hold on to your first-round pick after signing a Type A free agent (though FAs are no longer known by "type"s, and instead judged based on whether they have been tendered an offer of a salary commiserate with a top 125 player salary by their former team--confusing stuff for sure). Instead, the old team is now rewarded a supplemental round pick, while the new team is forced to forfeit their next available pick (either a second-rounder or a supplemental first-rounder if the Phils have one of heir own), which essentially just vanishes.

In plain language, this means that if the Phils finish with a bottom-ten record, then go out and sign a big-name free agent next year, they won't lose their top-ten pick in the process. This isn't as big a deal as it is in the NBA--especially since there's no lottery in baseball, and thus no chance of the Phils somehow sneaking in with a top three pick--but it's a pretty big deal, since the Phils have a relatively barren farm system at the moment, partly as a result of not having a pick in the top ten since 2001 (and no first-rounders at all three of the last five years).

So how close are the Phils at the moment to securing that kind of, um, security? Well, difficult as it was to watch, losing a combined six of their last seven to the Mets and Marlins certainly helped--thanks to the 'Politans just taking an improbable two of three from the Reds, they've climbed above the Phils in the standings, leaving the Phils in a tie with the Blue Jays for the ninth-worst record in baseball. Here's how the overall standings currently look, from the bottom up:

1. Houston Astros (51-108)
2. Miami Marlins (59-100)
3. Chicago White Sox (62-96)
4. Chicago Cubs (66-93)
(tie) Minnesota Twins (66-93)
6. Seattle Mariners (70-89)
7. Milwaukee Brewers (71-87)
8. Colorado Rockies (72-87)
9. Toronto Blue Jays (72-86)
(tie) Philadelphia Phillies (72-86)

---

11. San Francisco Giants (73-85)
(tie) New York Mets (73-85)
13. San Diego Padres (74-84)

As you can see, even with just four games left, the Phils are pretty far from secure in the standings from getting that bottom ten record. However, they do control their own destiny going into the start of tonight's four-game series against the Braves in Atlanta, who might care a little about securing home field advantage in the playoffs (they're currently one game back of the Cards for best overall in the NL, and two ahead of the West-best Dodgers), but generally won't have a ton to play for, having long since clinched the East title. (They start David Hale tonight, who's pitched a grand total of five innings in his major league career--though most Phils fans would probably still feel more comfortable with him than with our own starter, Tyler Cloyd.)

Of course, the question of how important it is to lock down a bottom-ten record in our last four games leans a great deal on what the team's plans are for next year's free agency. Ruben Amaro Jr. seems pretty unlikely to launch a full-scale rebuild in the off-season, but he's been pretty restrained with his big-money purchasing in the meantime, and it's unclear if that'll change before 2014.

What's more, it's a pretty weak crop of free agents hitting the market in the fall--the only real superstars up for grabs are Yankees second baseman Robinson Cano and Red Sox center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury, and after that, it's a bunch of 2nd and 3rd starters (Matt Garza, Ervin Santana, Ricky Nolasco) and good-not-great position players (Shin-Soo Choo, Brian McCann, our old friend Hunter Pence).

It's hard to see the Phils really breaking the bank for any of these guys--though a quality corner outfielder and a reliable third starter would certainly be a nice off-season get--so it's possible this will be irrelevant anyway. Meanwhile, the team already has nearly $120 mil committed in salary for next year, and that's before getting to all our arbitration-eligible players, whatever deal we might re-sign Carlos Ruiz to, and the money we already promised to Cuban signee Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez. That's already a lot of cash for a sub-.500 team, and without any huge fixes obviously available, the team might be wise to show a little more prudence with their additional off-season spending.

Still, it's better to have the option than not, and with RAJ looking to bolster confidence in the team in advance of their big upcoming TV deal, he might be looking to add some more names to the roster--in which case, we'd certainly be much better off with a bottom ten record and a protected top-ten pick. It's definitely not the standings race we hoped we'd be monitoring with the Phils down the season's home stretch, but it's still one worth keeping an eye on this weekend, if you can avoid the urge to chug a bottle of lithium in the process.

Penn State's Saquon Barkley staying patient with sluggish run game

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Penn State's Saquon Barkley staying patient with sluggish run game

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Saquon Barkley believes he can score a touchdown every time he takes a handoff.

Don't mistake the Penn State running back's confidence for arrogance. He's put plenty of evidence on tape in just 15 games to earn a growing reputation as one of the country's most dangerous backs in space.

But with each game this season, Barkley's discovering that space isn't always there in Penn State's new zone-read rushing attack that ranks near the bottom of every major statistical category. Barkley's sure if he remains persistent, more of those highlight-reel runs will come, however.

"We've got to be patient," Barkley said Wednesday. "Stuff will open up and I've got to step up as a player and make more guys miss and break more tackles and we've really got to start getting our run game going because if we get the run game going, that can open up the passing game even more."

Barkley leads the Big Ten with six rushing touchdowns but Penn State ranks last in the conference and 122nd in the nation with just over 101 rushing yards per game. Those sagging rushing numbers can be traced to the big-play back being bottled up before he even gets going.

Usually Barkley's first step is backward in Joe Moorhead's zone-read rushing attack. A delayed handoff follows and Barkley or quarterback Trace McSorley have at times been swallowed up quickly as defenders converge on the mesh point. Although his 55-yard score against Temple came on an inside zone run, Barkley's average on such plays over the last three games falls to just 1.4 yards without it.

It's a cause for concern for Penn State's offensive staff, which is committed to finding more ways to get Barkley the ball as the team prepares to face Minnesota (3-0, 0-0 Big Ten) on Saturday.

Shovel passes and pitches have made brief appearances. Barkley's also caught 10 passes thus far and direct snaps may show up in the future.

Eliminating inside zone reads isn't an option, though.

"There's a lot of different ways," Penn State coach James Franklin said.

Penn State has had success on the outside. Even with a delayed start, Barkley's done most of his damage over the last three games when he's been able to flank defenders. He's averaging 10.8 yards per carry on those plays, further evidence of his skill on the edge.

"He's a game-changing player," center Brian Gaia said.

But one that's not comfortable lobbying his coaches for more touches or criticizing a young offensive line that will likely start two freshmen guards this weekend. Like Franklin, Barkley believes a little more early physicality coupled with his own patience will open things up in the middle.

"I would say the thing that we really need to improve the most is just coming out stronger, coming out faster and starting fast," Barkley said. "Physically, I think we're there. Mentally, we've really got a good grasp of the system but, especially in away games, we've been starting out really slow."

Temple readying for conference play, SMU's uptempo attack

Temple readying for conference play, SMU's uptempo attack

Take a look at the standings and you’ll see the Temple Owls are 2-2 so far this season with wins over Stony Brook and Charlotte and losses to Army and Penn State.

But take a peek to the right of that 2-2 mark and you’ll see a 0-0 record in AAC conference play.

While the Owls would most certainly like to have a better record than the 2-2 record they sport at this very moment, the silver lining is that none of those games were conference games. Therefore, those games don’t affect Temple’s overall goal of defending its AAC Eastern Division crown.

But, on Saturday afternoon, that title defense finally begins when Temple welcomes SMU and its uptempo offensive attack to Lincoln Financial Field in the first of eight straight AAC games that will close out the regular season.

“It sort of feels like a new start to the season,” Temple senior quarterback Phillip Walker said following Tuesday’s practice on campus at Edberg-Olsen Hall. “It’s just another great opportunity for us not to look back on anything or think about anything that happened in the past in the first four games. Now it’s an opportunity to play our next eight games and enjoy playing the conference again.”

The good news for Temple heading into conference play is that the offense has found its stride. The Owls overwhelmed Charlotte last week, 48-20, behind 268 yards and two touchdowns throws from the arm of Walker and two touchdowns runs a piece from senior Jahad Thomas and Sophomore Ryquell Armstead. After early struggles, Walker is now up to 846 yards and five touchdowns on the year.

That’s after the tough loss at Penn State two weeks ago when the offense settled itself for the first time this season and found continuity. Thomas’ return to the backfield has helped, as he’s scored four touchdowns in two games since missing the first two games of the year with a dislocated left thumb.

The Temple defense is still hurting itself with a lackluster pass rush. The Owls have only five sacks through the first four games. Last season, they had 10 sacks in the first game alone. Big plays allowed are an issue, too, as Temple has allowed 10 plays of 20 yards or more from scrimmage through four games.

But the confidence is there and the Owls believe they are getting better each week.

“I think we’re better than where we were [earlier in the year,]” said redshirt senior defensive lineman Haason Reddick, who has five tackles for loss on the year. “A lot of guys are stepping up, locking in on the small details that were hurting us the first couple of weeks. We’ve got the younger guys playing better and harder, so I think we’ve come a long way. I still think there are some things we need to get better on, but we’re close.

“Those first four games, none of those teams were conference teams. It was like preseason to work out the kinks. Now it’s time to go. It’s full-throttle now. There’s no time to make mistakes. There’s no time to beat ourselves.”

Temple head coach Matt Rhule, on the other hand, doesn’t like to talk much about the “fresh start” or “restart” that comes with the beginning of AAC play this weekend.

He preaches the importance of conference play every week, and he has proof.

“Every week, I put up the conference rankings, no matter what,” he said Tuesday “Week 1 when we lost, I put up the conference rankings. Week 2 when we won, I put up the conference rankings. Week 3, Week 4, I do that every week because I want guys to understand the importance of conference wins, conference losses and conference play.

“I will say, to be fair, I did say we were going to try and get our kids to be ready for Week 4 or 5 or 6, because we knew we were going to have to play a lot of young guys and knew we were going to have to teach them.”

All the Owls, young and old, know they need to be prepared on Saturday.

The Mustangs have already equaled their win total from last season and have the same record, overall and conference, as the Owls heading into Saturday. They hung tough with Big 12 powerhouses Baylor (6-6 at half) and TCU (6-3 TCU at half) before eventually succumbing in the second half of both games.

Defensively, SMU is tied for tops in the nation with 10 interceptions. But plenty of focus goes on the Mustangs’ uptempo offense, which break off chunks of yardage in the blink of an eye with 448 yards per game so far this year. Rhule and the Owls know that fact better than anyone. The last two times these schools have met, SMU earned a 59-49 win in 2013 and Temple came away with a 60-40 victory last season. That’s 208 points combined in the last two meetings.

SMU’s fast-paced attack is exactly the type of offensive system Rhule’s Owls have historically struggled with, too.

“They have, obviously, a lot of offense,” Rhule said of Saturday’s foe. “(SMU head coach) Coach (Chad) Morris was one of the best offensive coordinators in the country. He did it at Clemson and he’s doing it there. There’s a lot to deal with. That’s the history of this series, though.”

Quarterback Matt Davis, who hurt Temple with both his arm and his feet last season, is out for the year with a knee injury suffered in Week 1. Ben Hicks has stepped in and thrown seven interceptions compared to just two touchdowns. But big-play receiver Cortland Sutton is still there and he already has four touchdown grabs on the year.

In practice this week, speed has been the theme of the Owls' defense, which is 28th in the nation with 327.3 yards allowed per game this year.

“It’s difficult to prepare for,” Reddick said of SMU’s offense. “You’ve got to just work on it in practice, going fast and getting the defensive calls faster. You have to look and read to the offense faster to see what you have to do faster. So you have to kick it up.”