Expansion Series 2: Buffalo

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, every die-hard sports fan has missed out on some key events that otherwise would have occurred.

The possibility of not having a football season (college or professional) has me pinching myself to make sure that I’m not living in a dream. In an uncertain time in the sports world, it’s perfectly normal to let the mind wander when thinking about hypotheticals that otherwise would never happen.

Sports is what brings us all together, and one thing that every sports fan has in common is that the player, team, or coach that they cheer for represents something unique to them. The majority of fans resonate with a team regionally, and mainly reside locally. That being said, I will dive into each region that is craving a major sports team.

The next stop on our virtual tour is Buffalo, New York.

Buffalo has a solid sports following with the emergence of the Bills Mafia in the past few years, but the fandom has always been there. Josh Allen was just given an angel of an offensive weapon in Stefon Diggs this year and has proven to get a lot of things accomplished with a solid offensive line. Even further, now that Tom Brady has made his long-awaited exit from the AFC east, it has been speculated that the Bills will take the reins.

On the other hand, while the Sabres have one of the most impressive jersey designs in hockey right now, they do not have the most impressive amount of wins.

In regards to baseball, it may be too cold up in upstate New York to have a desirable baseball team in which players would actually be enthusiastic about, although they have Bison! The Buffalo Bisons are the current Triple-A affiliate of the Toronto Blue Jays.

The same may go for basketball, but not necessarily because of the weather. Buffalo was actually once home to the Buffalo Braves until the team ownership moved to Los Angeles and is now known as the Los Angeles Clippers.

On a non-professional level, the University of Buffalo has been impressive to watch in the last few years and has a history of producing some excellent talent. The Buffalo Bulls’ basketball squad has a decent turnout during their regular-season games, but the citizens of upstate New York may be reluctant to watch a basketball game for an alma mater they did not attend.

For more in this series, read why Las Vegas is also in need of expansion teams.

Expansion Series 4: Houston

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, every die-hard sports fan has missed out on some key events that otherwise would have occurred.

The possibility of not having a football season (college or professional) has me pinching myself to make sure that I’m not living in a dream. In an uncertain time in the sports world, it’s perfectly normal to let the mind wander when thinking about hypotheticals that otherwise would never happen.

Sports is what brings us all together, and one thing that every sports fan has in common is that the player, team, or coach that they cheer for represents something unique to them. The majority of fans resonate with a team regionally, and mainly reside locally. That being said, I will dive into each region that is craving a major sports team.

Houston is an interesting case because the sports franchises that reside there are so strong and have been very good in the last few years, legally or otherwise.

Even with the cheating scandal, the Astros were a very talented team and are absolutely still a very strong contender going forward.

The Texans, under the field leadership of Deshaun Watson, have a lot to strive for despite losing arguably one of the best wide receivers in the game in Deandre Hopkins. J.J. Watt is a personal hero of mine, but fans may be at their wits end with Bill O’Brien after Hopkins was sent to the Cardinals for not nearly enough in return (running back David Johnson).

Lastly, the Rockets have one of the best duos in the game in Russell Westbrook and James Harden; two MVP’s that still show MVP talent. They absolutely would have caused a problem for any other team standing in their way of an NBA championship, which would have been the first time in the finals for each of them.

Additionally, they even had an XFL team in the Houston Roughnecks during its brief existence before COVID-19 decided to cut the season short. The Roughnecks played at the University of Houston’s stadium and went undefeated through the only five games of the season.

What the city lacks is hockey, and much like Buffalo does not have desirable weather to house a baseball franchise, the same paradox applies to the warm weather of Texas for hockey fans. The closest thing they had to a hockey team was the Houston Aeros, which was an AHL affiliate of the Minnesota Wild until 2014.

For more in this series, read why Las Vegas, Buffalo and Indianapolis are also in need of expansion teams.

Jameis Winston Does Not Belong in the NFL

The former Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback shouldn’t have much to complain about nowadays. He was ousted by the only team he had ever known but was supplanted by the GOAT in what turned out to be the biggest headline of this NFL offseason.

He recently signed a 1-year deal with the New Orleans Saints in a quarterback market with little options. In an offseason where Brady, Rivers, Prescott, Newton, Tannehill, Mariota, and Bridgewater sought suitors, it is a surprise that Winston settled with a team with a comfortable QB room over a higher paycheck.

As we all know from Blue Mountain State, being the backup quarterback is the best position in all of sports, but Jameis should seriously consider all of his options before hitting the market again.

ESPN’s Field Yates reported that he can earn up to $3.4 million in incentives, but he is owed a base salary of $1.1 million. While it is applaudable that he showed humility in passing on higher offers to sign a grossly undervalued contract with the Saints, it seems that he is punting on the 2020 season in search of another opportunity when the market is less competitive in 2021.

The Saints have notably re-signed future Hall of Famer, Drew Brees, to a 2-year deal prior to signing Winston. In addition to Brees, the Saints also re-signed Taysom Hill to a 2-year deal, worth a whopping $21 million with $16 million guaranteed. Hill is a Swiss Army knife and shouldn’t be listed as simply a quarterback, but regardless, the position is crowded heading into the season. While Winston can see some time if Brees can’t stay healthy, Brees is expected to be the outright starter with Hill staying in the gameplan.

Where does this leave Jameis?

In 2019, he broke the kinds of records no one wants to have. He finished the season with the most passing yards in the entire league with 5,109 yards, and he threw for 33 touchdowns. But with Dr. Jekyll, comes Mr. Hyde.

Winston’s 2019 campaign saw him throwing 30 interceptions, landing him at 7th on the all-time list for most interceptions in a single-season. He became the charter member of the 30 TD/30 INT Club.

Jameis clearly has the talent to be an elite quarterback and he might find some success under the tutelage of Drew Brees, but his issues lie in his tendency to force throws into closing windows. He tries to overcompensate, and he can’t find consistency in his game. Perhaps his recent Lasik surgery can help him see farther downfield, but he should look for a new frontier to dominate in instead.

Many forget that Jameis was a two-sport athlete at Florida State. He played his freshman and sophomore years on the varsity baseball team as a two-way player. He played every position in the outfield and was the Seminole’s primary setup man from the bullpen.

Throwing a much heavier football for half of a decade has undoubtedly kept his baseball arm in good shape. Pitchers in the Cape Cod Baseball League have been known to throw a football around mid-game to stay loose, and his rigorous football training should help him in a less physically demanding sport. His talents can still translate to the diamond; he isn’t too far removed from that environment.

In his freshman year, he appeared in 50 games and saw 119 ABs. His offensive splits are nothing to write home about, as he hit .235 with a .345 SLG percentage. As a switch hitter, his objectively bad offensive stats could be attributed to a lack of training from one side of the plate.

As a pitcher though, he found a modicum of success in his freshman year. He appeared in 17 games and posted a record of 1-2, but had an ERA of 3.00. He struck out 21 batters and only let up 12 walks.

His sophomore year perpetuated both his strengths and weaknesses— his offensive stats don’t need to be mentioned beside his dismal .128 batting average through 39 ABs…

Where he did shine though, was on the mound. He appeared as a closer 24 times, and logged 33.1 innings. He had a stellar pitching season; he posted an ERA of 1.08 while striking out batters 31 times. He was a lights-out closer in a very strong ACC conference.

Stars at the collegiate level don’t always translate into stars at the professional level. In fact, the turnaround for players who are drafted out of NCAA that even see a professional baseball field is laughably low: 10.5 percent of NCAA senior male baseball players will get drafted, with even less breaking past the minors.

Jameis is different though… He has the physique to make an impact on a Major League team if he were to work upon his game. During his time in college, he was an imposing figure on the mound. His 6’4” frame yielded an arsenal of pitches— a fastball in the low-to-mid 90s with downward projection, a hard slider, and 12-6 curveball with bite.

While the likelihood of Jameis being the next Michael Lorenzen or Shohei Ohtani type player is slim to none, he has the physical ability to be an effective relief pitcher for an MLB team. Aside from success, it should be an attractive proposition from his perspective because he could command more money as a reliever than a backup quarterback. The market for relief pitchers is very depleted, and he would be in demand once again.

Jameis does not belong in the NFL due to a lack of talent… He certainly possesses the requisite ability to be an elite quarterback, but he isn’t quite at that echelon yet. Whether he will reach that level is yet to be seen.

He does not belong in the NFL because he would be a great pitcher in the MLB, and would command more money as a reliever.

Baseball money is nuts.

Regions That are Craving an Expansion Team, Part 1: Las Vegas

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, every die-hard sports fan has missed out on some key events that otherwise would have occurred. We’ve seen the NHL, NBA, MLB, and March Madness affected by this crisis. Even the NFL draft was conducted via Zoom for the first time in history.

It’s a different world we’re living in, which has lead several personalities of the sports zeitgeist to talk nonstop about what could’ve been, what will be, and what may not be.

The possibility of not having a football season (college or professional) has me pinching myself to make sure that I’m not living in a dream. In an uncertain time in the sports world, it’s perfectly normal to let the mind wander when thinking about hypotheticals that otherwise would never happen.

Despite the traditions and long histories of teams that we have grown to worship, the talk of adding more teams or relocating a team to a different area of the country is always on the table.

Currently, there are only ten regions/cities in the country that have four teams inhabiting them and are continuously supported: Boston, Miami, Philadelphia, Washington D.C., Phoenix, Central Florida (Tampa/Orlando), Denver, Dallas, and Minneapolis. Furthermore, there are three cities/regions that have more than four teams: New York City, Los Angeles, and Chicago.

There really is no reason for one city to have more than one team per sport, no matter the population. New York and L.A. have more than one team in almost every sport, with the latter gaining even more teams recently. The Rams were once an L.A. football team before moving to St. Louis, but eventually returned. Why do the Chargers need to share the territory?

I still retain the opinion that every region and every sports fan should be fairly represented in this country. Sports is what brings us all together, and one thing that every sports fan has in common is that the player, team, or coach that they cheer for represents something unique to them. The majority of fans resonate with a team regionally, and mainly reside locally. That being said, I will dive into each region that is craving a major sports team.

The first stop on our virtual tour is the City of Sin, Las Vegas.

Las Vegas has become an interesting magnet for sports teams in the past few years and with overwhelming wealth and a tremendous amount of passionate fans, there is certainly room for growth. Not only is there a desire for sports teams, but the people of Las Vegas have welcomed new teams with open arms.

When the Golden Knights entered the NHL scene, they swept the entire nation by becoming Conference Champions in their inaugural year.

It will be interesting to see how the new Las Vegas Raiders perform in their new multi-billion-dollar stadium, Allegiant Stadium which almost perfectly resembles the Death Star. Due to the city’s proximity to Los Angeles, the Raiders will have an established fan base when they play their first game.

While the Vegas crowd is largely comprised of tourists, a niche is already founded in the city. There will be fans that travel with the team by default, and the new stadium could be an asset for the city as a whole.

Much like other highly populated areas in the country, Las Vegas does have an MLB affiliate team. The Oakland Athletics’ AAA team, the Las Vegas Aviators, play at Las Vegas Ballpark which is about 15 miles away from where Allegiant Stadium will be.

Money certainly isn’t an issue in minor league baseball, but the weather might be. A heatwave on the Las Vegas strip in the middle of the summer is known to reach upwards of 110 degrees in the valley.

Las Vegas is also home to the Aces of the WNBA, who finished fourth in the Western Conference in 2019 but fell in the West Championship to the eventual champions, the Washington Mystics. The Aces have the ninth-highest average attendance in the WNBA with a 2019 game-high of 8,470.

Baseball’s Ability to Shine in the COVID-19 Era

Like many others, I am an ardent fan of the game and I wish to see it return in some capacity this year. Even though I want to see baseball played, I can’t help but think that there are various geopolitical issues surrounding this pandemic and the proposed plans by MLB.

Each affected area has a unique position that they must deal with, and playing baseball in each of these affected areas has the potential to go south, very quickly.

Baseball has the opportunity to be in a position in which it hasn’t been in for decades: it can unite our country in a time of need.  The sport has the ability to be a driving force for the return of commerce (in some capacity) to our economy. While the idea of an untraditional season is intriguing, we need to have the utmost caution before returning to play. The proposed plans for the Florida-Arizona season might be our best shot at returning to play, but it needs to be modified. 

These globalized commercial areas in the Northeast (like New York and Boston) are why this virus spread so quickly, and why certain areas have been hit so hard. These areas’ economies and cultures are incredibly globalized, and have dense populations that rely on others for transportation, employment, and food. This undoubtedly is one of the many reasons why there was an uptick in these urban areas, and the person-to-person contacts commonly associated with living in an urban area is what makes dealing with this pandemic in an urbanized setting so difficult.

The plan to return baseball to teams’ home cities is not the answer.

Traveling amidst the pandemic is the largest issue surrounding a return to play… Players can’t be expected to bounce from potential hotspot to hotspot throughout the season, even at a lesser rate than a normal season. Players would inevitably opt-out and forgo their contracts and sit out the season if they think they or their families are put in harm’s way, which will have a ripple effect throughout the sport.

As we saw with Blake Snell’s recent comments, players are feeling apprehensive about returning to play. Aside from financials, health will remain the priority. If All-Star caliber players opt to sit out, what would be the point of having a season at all?

Baseball can be played in 2020, but how can we have a season without putting players in harm’s way? 

In terms of the game played between the foul lines, this season has the opportunity to be an experimental one. 

I have long been a dissident of “robot umpires,” but I think in light of this situation it would be the right call (pun intended). 

With robot umpires, it would mean that there is one less person on the field, and the person-to-person contact with players and outsiders would be minimized. The contact between the catcher and umpire would be eliminated completely; it would be one less avenue for infection to spread while the umpires could still maintain their jobs and perform remotely from the booth.

Another change that I have vehemently opposed in the past is the universal DH. With a tight timeframe for the season, it is imperative that managers have the capacity to make personnel changes with their players’ bodies in mind. While some NL teams would be at an immediate disadvantage compared to AL teams with currently established DH hitters, having the flexibility roster-wise would outweigh any drawbacks from roster issues. 

In addition to the universal DH, expanded rosters should be in play. The need to fill a roster spot with a minor leaguer who had to travel to camp would be a big question mark amidst this crisis, so having a reserve squad training and isolating with the major league team would be necessary. 

The biggest of the many challenges that baseball faces in 2020 lies in determining where the season should be played. Having a season outside of teams’ home ballparks is a strange concept, but if there aren’t fans in attendance, why risk having players travel?

If baseball is to be played this season, it needs to be at a localized facility with multiple fields that can be used simultaneously. A rural complex with ample infrastructure in the form of hospitals and hotels located in a warm area is crucial if a season is to be played. If the MLB can find a site that has the ability to host an entire league, it can be a great way to pump some revenue into a local economy. Even though aiding a localized economy would only be the tip of the iceberg in this crisis, the league could pave the way for other major sports to finish their leagues.

Before any game is to be played, players would need to isolate for 2-3 weeks prior to preseason training. If early July is circled on everyone’s calendar, this plan needs to be hashed out posthaste. 

The Days of the Prototypical Leadoff Hitter Are Numbered

In a rapidly evolving landscape, the traditional build of a leadoff hitter is hard to find in today’s game—the days of the Rickey Henderson-type leadoff hitter are long over. 

Admittedly, I looked at my phone screen a bit cock-eyed when I read David Ross’ announcement that Kris Bryant would be the Cub’s leadoff hitter for the 2020 season… He is the closest thing to a five-tool player on their roster and surely belongs in the heart of their order.

The Cubs have notoriously tried 17 different players in the leadoff spot (i.e. Kyle Schwarber and Anthony Rizzo) since Dexter Fowler’s departure in 2016.  Their experiment with Schwarber leading off ended in a dismal season for the outfielder.  In the games that Schawrbo led off, the Cubs won just 26 games and lost 30.  While his ability to hit the longball never left, he saw a slight dip in batting average in the leadoff spot during the 2019 season.  

Kris Bryant, the leadoff hitter, could have made the Cubs a contender again.  Without the virus’ impact on society as a whole, we might have seen this bold move pay off for the Cubbies.

In today’s game, there is a large emphasis placed on a player’s athleticism, and it is expected that most batters in a lineup have sufficient wheels.  Concocting a carefully crafted batting order comes out of necessity in the wake of a hitting revolution.  Metrics like exit velocity, WAR, and OPS have become so prevalent in today’s game, it has streamlined so many facets of the game. Teams need to adapt or die, which forces Darwinism to run its course. 

Maximizing the most out of a given game from the jump is incredibly important, but it is also equally as important to have an explosive and productive back-end of the lineup.  Having the compatibility and effectiveness in any combination of three batters can maximize a team’s ability to produce runs efficiently.  If your most dynamic player is only seeing the batter’s box 4 times per game as opposed to 5, as insignificant as it sounds, it could mean the difference between a win and a loss. 

In the wake of the now-infamous Mookie Betts trade, Boston is left without an outright leadoff hitter.  The only person on the roster who has experience leading off is Andrew Benintendi, who notoriously was experimented with in the leadoff hole during the 2019 season.  The Benintendi Experiment did not last for more than a few weeks even with Mookie on the roster; Benny is not “the guy.”  He had a largely uninspiring 2019 campaign at the dish, posting career lows in BA, OBP, and OPS.  When leading off, Benintendi hit .267 in the first half of the season.  These statistics alone do not discredit his efforts, but he is not the sparkplug that belongs at the top of the lineup.   

One player currently on the Red Sox comes to mind when thinking about those who could benefit from “top loading” the batting order. 

Looking at Xander Bogaerts’ physique, one would correctly assume that he belongs in the heart of the order. His 6-foot, 1-inch frame is well-suited for hitting in the 2-5 holes in the lineup where it would be able to do the most damage by being sandwiched between great hitters. 

When purely looking at his hitting capabilities, Bogaerts has the ability to get behind the ball and drive it to all parts of the field.  He also displays plate discipline beyond his years; not the type of maturity one would expect from a 27-year-old. 

Filling Mookie’s role is no easy task—he was 10th in the entire league in OBP with .391, ahead of some very big names.  One of the players following Mookie at 13th in the league in OBP however, is our boy, Xander.  Bogaerts posted a .384 OBP and saw lots of growth in his batting abilities.  He even posted an OPS that was 14th in the league.  Xander also has the slight speed advantage over Mookie, with Xander posing a 28.0 ft/sec as opposed to Mookie’s 27.9 ft/sec. 

At any level, every ballplayer should be prepared to lead off an inning—even the not-so-fleet-of-foot DHs out there.  Whoever leads off a game is no different.  A leadoff batter’s approach could differ depending on the pitcher, as he could set the tone of the game either by jumping on a pitcher early in the count or working to wear the pitcher down via attrition. The one thing that remains a constant throughout all leadoff hitters, though, is the ability to work the count and get on base often.

“Top loading” lineups with a team’s best five-tool players will be the way of the future.  Shifting players who typically belong in the heart of the lineup to the top of the order will become more prevalent in years to come.