Phils still under .500, but don't blame the old guys or the new guys

Phils still under .500, but don't blame the old guys or the new guys

The Philadelphia Phillies were one inning away from the perfect weekend, a three-game sweep of the New York Mets at Citi Field that would have brought the team back to .500 and recovered a little momentum from the team's debilitating four-game sweep at the hands of the Blue Jays in a home-and-home series earlier in the week. But with a 4-1 lead in the ninth and closer Jonathan Papelbon given the day off, substitute Antonio Bastardo was unable to secure the W and a Mets flurry sent the game to extras, where the bad guys won it in 11th. Subsequently, the Phils stay tied for last in the NL East with the Mets at 17-19, with the NL's second-worst run differential at -30.

Nope, it hasn't been a great start to the year for the Fightins, though it's not like we predicted anything all that different. The hitting and starting pitching are both inconsistent, the fielding is absolutely brutal (especially in the outfield), and the relief pitching...well, if Pap needs too many more rest days, we're in pretty big trouble there. It's not a particularly good team, and they've given us not particularly good results.

The reflexive reaction here would be to point the finger at the roster's architect, GM Ruben Amaro Jr. However, though there's certainly fault to be had with Ruben, it's interesting to note a little bit that actually, of all the roster moves he's made over the last year or so--many of which were met with pretty decisive criticism--none of them have really flopped, and actually, most of them have looked pretty good for the team so far.

Marlon Byrd, the team's top hitting pickup in the off-season, was given two years and $16 million (potentially 3/$24, if certain vesting options come through) to be the team's starting right fielder, a commitment which seemed slightly ridiculous for a 36-year-old who was essentially out of baseball two years earlier. But while the contract still has the potential to look silly in a year or two, it's so far, so good with Marlon: He's been one of the team's best offensive producers this season, hitting over .300, slugging over .500 and leading the team with 23 RBIs, while not killing them with his defense in right.

Top pitching acquisition A.J. Burnett, a 37-year-old signed for one year and $15 million (with a team option for the same next season), seemed like a pretty unsafe bet given his age and erratic history of production. But A.J. hasn't been the problem either--even after his roughest start of the season last week against Toronto, he still has the lowest ERA (2.98) and highest WAR (1.0) among Phillies starters. His strikeout to walk rate of under two might be a bad sign of things to come, but for the season's first month-plus, it's hard to say he hasn't made the Phillies a better team.

The team's lower-leverage pickups haven't been huge difference-makers, but they haven't been disasters, either. Wil Nieves and Tony Gwynn Jr. have mostly been acceptable bench players, though Gwynn is starting to get exposed as he has to make too many sub starts for Ben Revere in center. Roberto Hernandez hasn't been a revelation, but as the team's fifth starter, he's acceptable--an ERA of just over four and a 2:1 K/BB ratio that at least gives the team a chance to win when he starts. Jayson Nix...OK, that guy straight-up blows, but whatever, as long as Cody Asche can keep up his improved hitting and Maikel Franko can make his way up from Triple A before too long, we hopefully won't have to see that much of him moving forward.

What's more, even the extensions that RAJ signed last year seem like OK deals thusfar. We gave Chase Utley $15 mil a year, basically until he can't play anymore, but that's more than cool with us when he's hitting .338 with a slugging percentage near .550, easily leading the team in both categories. He's clearly not the guy he used to be in the field, but as long as he's giving us near-MVP-caliber production from the second-base position at the plate, it's hard to find much ground for complaining with Chase. And Carlos Ruiz, in the first year of a deal that should last at least three years and 25 million, has remained one of the game's more productive offensive catchers, posting an OBP of .390 and staying steady behind the plate.

The Phils' struggles this year haven't been due to their work in free agency, or but rather the stunted development of some of the team's more medium-tenured players. A year after a breakout All-Star campaign, Domonic Brown has been absolute murder for the Fightins this season, slugging an anemic .287, which is even lower this season than that of his notoriously light-hitting outfield partner Ben Revere. Brown and Revere have basically been zeroes for the Phils at the plate this season, with a combined eight extra base hits in 259 plate appearances, and in the field, they've been even worse, with Brown's plodding feet and poor route-running combining with Revere's questionable decision-making and historically weak arm to make every fly ball to the left side of the outfield a Choose Your Own Adventure book of horrors.

And as previously alluded to, the bullpen has officially reached tire fire status for the Phils. Outside of Papelbon, who's actually been pretty kickass by just about any statistical measure, there's just nobody that's even the slightest bit reliable. For some perspective, Pap leads the bullpen in ERA+--a stat which measures individual ERA against league average, with 100 being the median--with a superlative 213. 2nd on the list? Newcomer Mario Hollands, with an 83. This team has urgently needed one of their longer-tenured bullpen arms--B.J. Rosenberg, Justin de Fratus, Jake Diekman, Antonio Bastardo, hell, we gave Mike Adams 12 million--to step up, and each has politely but firmly declined, already costing the team a number of games this season, most recently last night.

So the Phils are getting better-than-expected contributions from both their aging long-time vets--we haven't even talked about Jimmy Rollins, who's off to easily his best all-around start in ages--and their (similarly aging) first-year pickups, yet they're still disappointing. And while it seems like you can't blame this on RAJ, since none of his individual decisions have backfired, it does make you continue to wonder why he made so many of those go-for-it, quick-fix-type moves over the last year when it's clear that the core of the team just isn't good enough to compete at an elite level anymore.

Maybe Dom and Ben bounce back, and maybe a couple bullpen arms emerge to help out over the course of the season. But when you ask for that to happen while also hoping that all of the old guys continue to outperform expectation, you realize just how much you're asking for to go right with this team just so they can approach a base line of competence as a ballclub. Baseball isn't basketball, certainly, and you don't build your teams the same way across the sports, but you can only imagine what our dark lord Sam Hinkie is thinking as he watches the Phils desperately (and expensively) scrap their way to .500, rather than just admitting it's over, bottoming out and figuring out what to do next.

Josh Norman goes WWE on division, ready for Alshon Jeffery

Josh Norman goes WWE on division, ready for Alshon Jeffery

Josh Norman is going all WWE on the NFC East. 

Washington's outspoken cornerback is featured in a lengthy Q&A with Bleacher Report and he's, well, outspoken. 

He starts in the story by saying crazy things like this: "I feel like King Leonidas leading an army into battle, leading troops into defending your territory."

Yeah, off to a good start. 

He then goes after his nemesis Odell Beckham Jr. hard, calls Dez Bryant "just a guy" and even has some thoughts on new Eagles receiver Alshon Jeffery. 

Norman praised receivers Julio Jones and Antonio Brown, saying there aren't those types of challenging players in the NFC East. He was asked if there was any player he has circled on his schedule. 

Jeffery was the one that came to mind. 

"Alshon [Jeffery] is going to be with us this year," Norman told Bleacher Report. "He's a big guy. He uses his body. And I enjoy going against big guys because they think they can get physical with me. They think that. That's quite the contrary."

Norman will get his shot against Jeffery in the opener, when the Eagles travel to Washington on Sept. 10. 

Comparatively, Jeffery got off easy. Norman was much less complimentary when speaking about Beckham, with whom he has an infamous history, and Bryant, the Cowboys' top receiver. 

On Bryant: "That's a guy. Just a guy. Dez was Dez in 2012, '13, '14. Maybe '14. Now? He's a guy."

Norman might have a little point with Bryant, who has failed to go over 800 yards in either of his last two seasons. In 2016, he caught 50 passes for 796 yards and eight touchdowns. From 2012-14, Dez was over 12,000 yards with at least 12 touchdowns in each of the three seasons. 

He even called Bryant a "fake tough guy" for his behavior on the field.  

But even Bryant got off easy. 

There's no secret about the way Norman feels toward Beckham. And Norman didn't hold anything back. Based on his comments, the WWE speak may turn into WWE-type action during the 2017 season. 

Here's a part of the Q&A about ODB: 

You get Beckham twice a year now.

Yeah, and that game gets so hyped up by the time we play them, it won't even be Giants vs. Washington—it'll be me and him. You know what I'm saying? It's like when it becomes bigger than the game. ... Because now you have us on Thanksgiving Night. C'mon, man!

So when you think of Odell, what is his game?

He tries to be a tough guy. He tries to put on this persona which he's not. Because he's always going to have his head on a swivel. Always. Always when we play each other. He's scary like that. He does things that he normally wouldn't do because of all the pressure and added hype that he has to put on his whole persona. He's not this guy. If you go back and watch the games in which we play compared to the games we don't play each other, he's a totally different guy.

How so?

When people get physical, tough, like the Minnesota game, he acts out. He's a kid. He's a big kid, man.

Like messing around with a kicker's net.

When you really, really want to see what a person's really like, you get in their face, you smell what they ate and you take their soul from them. How do you do that? You put your fist right into their chest and you see what they're made out of.

And you did exactly that with him. What did you see in Beckham?

You see a person who's actually not what they're made out to be. Because they come back at you. And that's not him. They come back at you in a way like, "He's not going to punk me! He's not going to sissy me out!" All right! But then when you go and you do things you're not accustomed to doing, that's pretty much what it is.

This is going to be fun. 

Throughout the whole thing, Norman speaks like a classing wrestling heel. If nothing else, the trash talk is going to make the NFC East more fun. 

ESPN hires Chip Kelly as college football studio analyst

ESPN hires Chip Kelly as college football studio analyst

Former Oregon coach Chip Kelly is joining ESPN as a studio analyst next season.

ESPN announced Friday it has signed Kelly to a multiyear deal.

Kelly will primarily be part of Saturday pregame, halftime and wrap-up shows on ESPN2. He'll also provide NFL analysis on Sundays during SportsCenter.

The 53-year-old Kelly spent the last four seasons in the NFL, coaching the Philadelphia for three years and San Francisco for one. Kelly was fired by the 49ers after going 2-14 last season. He was 26-21 with a playoff appearance for the Eagles.

Before jumping to the NFL, Kelly spent four seasons as Oregon head coach and went 46-7. In 2010, Kelly led the Ducks to the BCS title game and was The Associated Press coach of the year.

"I spoke with a lot of people this offseason about different situations for me -- in coaching and TV," Kelly said in a statement. "I had various opportunities in both. In the end, I have had a relationship with ESPN for many years from when I was coaching and after speaking with them, I decided it was the best step for me to take."

Kelly figures to be in demand at the college level when head coaching jobs begin opening next season. Spending a season or two doing television has been a common path for coaches between jobs. Urban Meyer spent a season at ESPN between resigning from Florida and landing at Ohio State. So did Rich Rodriguez after being fired by Michigan and before being hired by Arizona.

"I have been a coach for nearly the last 30 years," Kelly said. "Working in television will allow me to see the game from a different perspective, but I didn't take the job with the intention it will lead to something specific. I love the game of football and working with good, smart people; ESPN presents an opportunity to combine those two things."

Kelly will fill an opening left by Butch Davis, who became head coach at Florida International.

Kelly was considered one of the most innovative coaches in college football. His up-tempo spread offenses dominated defenses and were mimicked by teams all over the country.

"As a coach, he saw the game from a unique perspective, never afraid to take an unconventional approach," said Lee Fitting, ESPN senior coordinating producer. "We want him to bring that mentality to our college football coverage each week, offering fans a varying viewpoint outside of the conventional thought process."