Ten Biggest Questions for the Sixers Off-Season: 9. Is Thaddeus Young Untouchable?

Ten Biggest Questions for the Sixers Off-Season: 9. Is Thaddeus Young Untouchable?

The good and bad thing about the 76ers’ current state of supreme
flexibility is that we don’t have a ton of players that we know for a
fact are gonna be a big part of this team’s future. In the long-term
sense, just about everybody on this team is expendable, and it wouldn’t
be hugely surprising if two years from now, at least ten of the 12 guys
who played the most minutes for the Sixers this year were wearing a
different uniform (or in some cases, possibly out of the league
altogether). Evan Turner, Spencer Hawes, Jason Richardson, Arnett
Moultrie, even Kwame Brown–all of them can be had for the right price.

The only true untouchable on the team is probably Jrue Holiday, the
team’s 22-year-old point guard. He made his first All-Star team this
year, the youngest player in franchise history to do so, he kept the
team in playoff contention for about half the season (before running out
of gas after the All-Star break), and he’s signed to a bargain of a
four-year / $41 million contract. Unless they’re dealing for an MVP
candidate–and there aren’t a ton of those out there for the dealing–any
deals they make are going to be to find a complementary player for the
Damaja.

The real question is about Thaddeus Young, the Sixers’
second-most-valuable player. Like Jrue, Thad had something of a career
year last year, averaging career highs in rebounds, assists, steals and
win shares, while playing the most minutes of his career, proving that
he can be a starting forward for a good team in this league, maybe as  a
sort of poor man’s Shawn Marion. And like Jrue, Thad is signed to a
contract that now seems extremely reasonable, under team control for
another three years and another $27 million or so.

However, Thad probably ranks below Jrue in terms of trade value for
the Sixers and around the league, mostly as a function of his being a
couple years further along his carer than the Damaja, and there being
more of a sense that this is probably about as good as Young is gonna
get as a player. He could expand his shooting range a little (though
he’ll probably never be a real three-point threat) and he could further
improve his ball-handling (which he’s already made great strides with),
but he’s probably a little too slight and undersized to be enough of a
post presence to grow into a 20/10-type player. He’ll always provide
value in subtle ways, but he’s not too likely to become a star, in the
conventional sense.

So Thaddeus Young stands not only as the Sixers’ second-best player
(and probably top all-around producer), but also as their most valuable
trade chip, a player any team would love to have, on a contract that
many teams could easily absorb without it becoming problematic. If the
Sixers wanted to add a second core player to build around, along with
Jrue, including Thad in a deal for that player would likely be the most
efficient way to do it.

For instance–and I’m not suggesting that they should actually do
this–the Sixers could probably make a real run at star Lakers big man
Pau Gasol in the final year of his contract using a deal built around
Thaddeus and an expiring contract or two. Thad would offer the Lakers a
chance to get younger and more athletic, and his defensive versatility
would help them further cover up the defensive deficiencies of their
aging Nash-Kobe backcourt. He’d also help Mike D’Antoni by being able to
play the three or four, allowing them to use him in small or big
lineups, and his finishing ability would be a fantastic weapon for Nash
and Kobe on the break or in the fast court.

However, you might look at all that and rightfully ask: If Thad is
that good, and that valuable, why would you trade him at all? Why not
keep him long-term and build around him and Jrue as the nucleus of the
team’s future? Having two young, cheap players like that locked up on
team-friendy, multi-year deals is a pretty good starting point for any
young team, and if you could add a third worthwhile core player through
the draft or free agency without giving up Thad, wouldn’t that be the
better long-term play?

Undoubtedly it would, but unfortunately, that’s much easier said than
done. Barring a lottery miracle–their second in four years–the Sixers
will likely have the 11th pick in this draft, said to be historically
weak, and chances are much better of them adding a quality rotation
piece than a true difference-maker. And if they keep both Jrue and Thad
around for the next few years, that’ll probably be good enough to keep
them out of the top ten of the draft for the foreseeable future, meaning
they’ll have to strike late-lottery (or early-out-of-lottery) gold with
another Jrue Holiday (who the Sixers nabbed with the #17 pick in 2009)
to add another core player that way.

As for free agency, having Jrue and Thad is a good start to landing
quality free agents. However, the Sixers don’t have quite enough
financial flexibility to add a max guy this off-season, and the
free-agent class next season is pretty weak. And in the meantime, the
rules of the most recent Collective Bargaining Agreement have so
incentivised players to stay with their current teams (who can award
them more years and more money per year than any new team) that the only
reason marquee free agents have to really switch teams are to play in a
major market or chase a championship, neither of which they would
necessarily be doing if they signed with the Sixers.

This is all pretty broad-strokes stuff, but I do believe that
generally speaking, it’d be much easier to add another difference-maker
through trade than through other avenues, and Thad is their best asset
with which to do it. And if so, I think that would ultimately be a
sacrifice the Sixers have to make–as wonderful as Thad has been, he
hasn’t been good enough to be the second-best guy on a Sixers team that
would actually contend for anything, and even though his production last
year was his best yet, it was more due to an increase in minutes and
role than any tremendous strides he made as a player, as his percentages
and rates for the season–field goal percentage, PER, win shares per 48,
etc.–were all basically in line with his last two years’ averages.

That’s not to diminish his accomplishments–being able to maintain
that level of production in big minutes is a huge accomplishment in
itself, and Thad proving he could do it was a huge step for his career.
But as previously mentioned, it’s hard to see him getting that much
better from here, and a guy that gives you 15 and seven with solid
peripherals and excellent defense is still more of a complimentary
player, a third or fourth option, on a title-caliber team. Thad could
easily put a team close to contention over the top, but it’s hard to see
him elevating a lottery team like the Sixers to that status without a
whole lot of help. So if the right trade opportunity came along, I would
like to see the Sixers open to trading Thaddeus, though not for
anything less than an established star (or at least a player with the
upside to be one), or a likely high future lottery pick.

Of course, as with so many of our Ten Biggset Questions, the
Funny-Looking Kid With the Big Hair looms large over all. If the Sixers
do end up rolling the dice a second time with Bynum, that high-upside
guy they could get without giving up any other assets besides cap space,
it might be worth holding to Thad for at least another year, since he
would be an excellent frontcourt complement to Bynum, especially if he
can be enough of a mid-range threat to give Drew some space on offense.
But if Bynum is a no-go, our chances are better at getting the player we
thought he was gonna be for us are better if we deem Thad expendable in
such pursuits. Sad, but that’s just how player acquisition works in the
NBA.

Phillies pitching prospect Mark Appel hits DL with shoulder strain

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Phillies pitching prospect Mark Appel hits DL with shoulder strain

Mark Appel, whose fastball velocity was down considerably in the first inning of his last start, was placed on the disabled list Friday with a shoulder strain.

Appel, 24, is 3-3 with a 4.46 ERA and 1.57 WHIP in eight starts for Triple A Lehigh Valley in his first year in the Phillies' system. He's struggled his last four times out, allowing 18 runs (15 earned) in 16⅓ innings on 20 hits and 11 walks.

The No. 1 overall pick in 2013 out of Stanford, Appel has had a disappointing pro career to this point. In 62 minor-league games (61 starts), he has a 5.04 ERA. The Phillies acquired him from Houston as part of the Ken Giles trade this past winter.

Appel's trip to the DL creates an opportunity for right-hander Ben Lively, who was promoted from Double A Reading to Triple A to take Appel's place in the IronPigs' rotation. Lively, acquired from the Reds for Marlon Byrd prior to the 2015 season, is 7-0 with a 1.87 ERA this season.

In aggressive D, Mike Martin trying to show Eagles his worth

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In aggressive D, Mike Martin trying to show Eagles his worth

When Ray Horton brought his two-gapping 3-4 defense to the Tennessee Titans in 2014, Mike Martin wasn’t thrilled. 

After all, the former third-round defensive tackle thought he was at his best in an aggressive get-up-the-field type defense, not the one full of lateral motion that Horton established in Tennessee. 

But without recourse, Martin played out the last two seasons of his rookie deal in Horton’s defense, before joining the Eagles in free agency this offseason. 

“That’s something that I was kind of disappointed in Tennessee when we were playing that, but you gotta adjust,” Martin said this week. “That’s this game. Coaches switch and you have to be able to change to stay in this game. But to be back in a system like this, excites me a lot.”

Martin, 25, admitted part of the reason he joined the Eagles was the opportunity based on the lack of depth the team had at his position, but an even bigger reason was the opportunity to play in Jim Schwartz’s downhill scheme. 

Really, it’s the main reason the 6-1, 306-pound interior defensive lineman decided to sign a one-year deal to join the Eagles in April. 

“I already knew what they were all about and then when I got to see what type of scheme they were bringing in and what Coach Schwartz wanted to emphasize, with getting off the ball and getting to our landmarks and things like that, really excited me and solidified it for me, because I know I can flourish in a system like that.”

In fact, Martin thinks he fits best in the kind of defense the Eagles will run this year. 

“Oh yeah. Oh yeah,” Martin said. “My quickness and my get-off and the type of player I am, it suits me well, so it’s exciting.”

Martin came to Philadelphia because of the defensive scheme, but he already knows a couple players on the team. Martin played at Michigan with Brandon Graham; the two have been good friends ever since. And Vinny Curry was Martin’s roommate at the Senior Bowl back in 2012. 

This offseason, as Fletcher Cox stays away from the Eagles’ spring practices while he awaits a new contract, other guys are getting extended reps. One of those guys is Martin. While Taylor Hart lined up next to Bennie Logan on the first-team defense last Tuesday, it was Martin next to him this week during the practice open to the media. 

Martin said he’s been sporadically working with the first unit and has been switching sides with Logan too. 

Eventually, Cox will return and reclaim his rightful spot as the starter and Martin will be sent back to his spot in the depth chart with the likes of Hart, Beau Allen, Destiny Vaeao and Connor Wujciak. 

In the meantime, Martin is just focused on showing his coaches as much as he possibly can, which isn’t very easy in May. During these practices players aren’t in pads and the hitting won’t start until training camp — even then, it’s limited. 

Still, Martin thinks he can show something over the next few weeks. 

“Really, I’m just trying to focus on my hands because we’re not allowed to have a lot of contact,” he said. “If I’m good with my hands, I can show them how I can move in this defense. I think that’s something that they can see and you can’t really deny. I’m just going to continue to improve and show them those things. When it comes time to put the pads on, it will just translate.”

Phillies-Cubs 5 things: Challenging series begins with Jon Lester

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Phillies-Cubs 5 things: Challenging series begins with Jon Lester

Phillies (26-21) at Cubs (31-14)
2:20 p.m. on CSN

After their having their second straight Thursday off, the Phillies open up a challenging three-game weekend series Friday afternoon against the Cubs, owners of the majors' best record.

Let's take a look at what to expect:

1. Best in the bigs
The Cubs are three games better than any team in baseball. Their run differential of plus-119 is 47 better than the next-best team. They've scored the most third-most runs (256) and allowed just 137, which is 12 fewer than any other club.

With Jake Arrieta, Jon Lester, John Lackey, Jason Hammel and Kyle Hendricks, the Cubs probably have the deepest starting rotation in baseball. 

With Dexter Fowler, Ben Zobrist, Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Jason Heyward and Addison Russell, they have the National League's top offense.

With guys like Tommy La Stella, Matt Szczur and David Ross making key contributions, they have one of the best benches in baseball.

There is no real weakness with this team. Even the mostly anonymous bullpen has been among the game's best, posting a 3.09 ERA with 135 strikeouts in 122⅓ innings.

This is, however, the right time to be playing the Cubs. Chicago is 4-6 in its last 10 games and 6-8 in its last 14. The Cubs did appear to get back on track by beating the Cardinals in the final two games of a nine-game road trip that ended Wednesday.

At Wrigley, the Cubs are 14-6. They've lost two home series this season to the Padres and Rockies.

2. Cool Lester Smooth
Props if you get The Wire reference.

The Phillies open the series against left-hander Jon Lester, who is 4-3 with a 2.60 ERA this season but is coming off his worst start. Lester allowed five runs in just 2⅔ innings in last weekend's loss at San Francisco.

Aside from that, he's enjoyed another very good season. The 32-year-old joined the Cubs in free agency prior to last season on a six-year, $155 million deal, and has gone 15-15 with a 3.18 ERA and 1.11 WHIP in 41 starts with Chicago. He's struck out 259 batters in 260⅓ innings.

The Phillies have faced Lester six times — five when he was with the Red Sox — and they've never beaten him. He's 4-0 with a 1.76 ERA against them and has allowed just 30 hits in 41 innings. He's gone seven innings in five of the six starts.

Lester's repertoire has remained consistent through the years. He throws mostly four-seam fastballs, cutters and curveballs. He'll also mix in sinkers and changeups, but 85 percent of his pitches this season have been four-seamers, cutters and curves.

Lester's cutter is his great equalizer against right-handed hitters, who have hit .240 against him the last four seasons. He can back-door it, starting it outside and having it break back over the outside corner, or start it over the middle and have it break in to jam a righty.

Current Phillies are 10 for 55 (.182) against Lester with two walks and 18 strikeouts. Ryan Howard and Freddy Galvis have each homered off him. Carlos Ruiz is 0 for 11, Cameron Rupp is 0 for 3 and Maikel Franco is 0 for 6. Odubel Herrera has never faced him.

3. Tommy time
Facing a lefty means an automatic start for Tommy Joseph at first base. Joseph went 4 for 11 in the Tigers series with a double and a homer, hitting the ball hard even when he made outs. 

What will be interesting is how Pete Mackanin uses Joseph the rest of the series. The Phillies will face right-handers on Saturday and Sunday in Kyle Hendricks and John Lackey. Only once since Joseph came up from Triple A has he started against a right-hander in place of Howard. Joseph faced two righties in the Tigers series, but Howard was the designated hitter. The only game in which Joseph replaced Howard at first base against a right-hander was last Sunday in the Phils' win over Casey Kelly and the Braves.

Joseph hit .324 with seven extra-base hits against right-handed pitchers at Triple A this season, and is 4 for 18 (.222) with a double and a homer against them with the Phils. Both extra-base hits came Monday off Mike Pelfrey.

Here's the Phillies' lineup Friday:

1. Odubel Herrera, CF
2. Freddy Galvis, SS
3. Maikel Franco, 3B
4. Tommy Joseph, 1B
5. Carlos Ruiz, C
6. Cesar Hernandez, 2B
7. Tyler Goeddel, LF
8. Adam Morgan, P
9. Peter Bourjos, RF

4. Morgan's command must be perfect
It's the same thing every time Adam Morgan takes the mound but it's especially true this afternoon: He needs to throw quality strikes early in counts and command his fastball nearly flawlessly on the inside and outside corners.

Morgan (1-2, 5.61) is coming off a decent start against the Braves in which he allowed two runs over six innings. But the Braves and Cubs are about as different as two offenses can be. 

Morgan held lefties last season to a .225 batting average, but this year they're 8 for 26 (.308) against him with two doubles and a homer. He's not the kind of lefty who makes it uncomfortable for a same-handed hitter, but Rizzo and Heyward are both out of the Cubs' lineup Friday.

Morgan faced the Cubs last season and allowed four runs in five innings in a loss. Fowler, Heyward and Javier Baez all had multi-hit games against him.

5. Model for success?
The Cubs endured several years of losing during their own rebuild and have emerged as one of the most talented teams in recent years. It took a little luck along the way. The Astros drafted Mark Appel first overall and left Kris Bryant at No. 2. Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer took advantage of a rare win-now move from Billy Beane in trading a half-season of Jeff Samardzija and Hammel for Russell. 

But the Cubs also identified Kyle Schwarber (out for the season, but a very good young hitter) and drafted him higher than most analysts predicted he'd go. They found lights-out closer Hector Rondon in the Rule 5 draft. They clearly won the 1-for-1 swap of Andrew Cashner for Rizzo. Most importantly, they bought low on a highly-touted Arrieta, who was struggling with the Orioles before emerging into one of the three-best starting pitchers in the majors.

And when the prospects began graduating to the majors, the Cubs did what the Phillies will likely do in a year or two: They spent. 

As much as everyone loves to talk about Chicago's young talent, they also spent $184 million on Heyward, $155 million on Lester, $56 million on Zobrist and $60 million on catcher Miguel Montero. They filled in their roster with veterans who fit the plan, and it's allowed them to continue to ease in guys like Baez and Jorge Soler.

It would take a ton of breaks for the Phillies to be as exciting or as successful a team as the Cubs in a few years, but Chicago has shown that this model can work in a major market.