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The AFC Championship Game: What To Watch

Fri, 01/19/2018 - 14:45
New England Hosts Jacksonville In The AFC Championship Game For The First Time Since The 1996 Season: The Matchup

–TOP STORY LINES FOR THE AFC CHAMPIONSHIP GAME HERE–

Foxborough, MA — The Jacksonville Jaguars and New England Patriots renew their relatively mild playoff rivalry Sunday afternoon. The Jags and Pats have played each other four times in the playoffs since Jacksonville’s first season in 1995. New England is 3-1 vs. Jacksonville in the playoffs, looking for the fourth victory and tenth trip to the Super Bowl.

With a multitude of storylines, the biggest is Patriots’ quarterback Tom Brady. He didn’t participate in practice Wednesday or Thursday due to a hand injury. Also, Brady chose not to partake in his scheduled media appearances on Wednesday or Thursday.

Brady Vs. Bortles AP PHOTO: AARON M SPRECHER

Most saw Brady taking the Patriots to this year’s AFC Championship Game, his 11th.

No one saw Jags’ quarterback Blake Bortles in this spot. No one. Bortles will enter Sunday’s matchup with the lowest winning percentage for a starting quarterback in any Championship game, AFC or NFC (.355).

Brady is the greatest quarterback of all time; Bortles hopes to be on a roster next season.

However, as unlikely this quarterback matchup is, Brady was not elite or the greatest quarterback of all time in his first Super Bowl run.

Brady has the tougher matchup vs. the NFL’s top pass defense and number two defense overall. But Brady is 18-3 at home in the playoffs and 3-0 vs. top-two defenses in the playoffs.

Bortles has a great matchup on paper, but you can’t measure a Bill Belichick-coached team solely on paper. The key for Bortles is turnovers; Jacksonville is 10-0 this season when Bortles does not turn the ball over.

Belichick vs. Coughlin III…Sort Of AP PHOTO: DAVID J PHILLIP

As Brady is the greatest quarterback of all time, Patriots head coach Bill Belichick is the greatest coach of all time; the two go hand in hand.

However, throughout Belichick’s career, he’s had a thorn in his side that kept him from winning seven Super Bowl instead of five, Tom Coughlin.

Tom Coughlin was victorious against Belichick in Super Bowls XLII and XLVI while coaching the New York Giants. Before coaching the Giants, Coughlin coached the Jaguars from 1995-2002. Now Coughlin is the Jacksonville’s EVP of Football Operations.

Coughlin has brought a winning attitude and culture to Jacksonville, as the Jaguars went from 3-13 last season to the AFC Championship Game this season.

However, Coughlin isn’t on the sidelines for this one. There’s no doubt he’ll do everything he can this week to help Jacksonville secure a win, but he cannot do it for them. He’s brought the necessary pieces and the blueprint; can Jacksonville use the Coughlin’s knowledge to make their first Super Bowl appearance?

Matchups To Watch: PHOTO: JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS

Patriots’ Pass O vs. Jags’ Pass D: An unstoppable force meets an immovable object as New England’s top-ranked pass offense faces Jacksonville’s top-ranked pass defense. It starts up front for Jacksonville, they’ve registered 55 sacks on the season. Brady is average vs. elite pass rushes in the playoffs; the middle of the Pats’ offensive line is a concern. The biggest key will be Jacksonville’s linebackers covering the Patriots running backs out of the backfield; they are Brady’s second read and outlet when his receivers cannot separate.

Bortles vs. Belichick’s D: The Patriots’ defense may give up a lot of yards, but they don’t give up a lot of points. Most noteworthy, in the red zone where Jacksonville was 5 for 5 last week vs. Pittsburgh. Expect defensive coordinator Matt Patricia to blitz often to make Bortles uncomfortable, forcing him into mistakes. Bortles will try to combat the blitzing with short passes and screens to the running backs. Also, expect Bortles to take quite a few shots deep early to loosen up the Pats’ defense and not stack the box.

Fournette to Provide Balance: Jags’ running back Leonard Fournette will play a vital role in Sunday’s matchup. His first task is to pound the ball and shorten the game, keeping Brady off the field. Jacksonville must have balance vs. the Patriots to rely on play action where Bortles is at his best. Fournette’s second task, picking up any extra blitzing players from New England, which can be difficult for a young back.

The X Factor: GRONK

Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski is the best tight end in the NFL. A physical specimen who is the single biggest mismatch in the league.

The question is who draws the task of covering Gronk and how much of Jacksonville’s resources are they willing to spend towards him? If they choose to double him, Brady will expose Jacksonville’s great secondary. If not, Gronk can win any matchup vs. any player on Jacksonville’s roster.

Prediction: Jacksonville 24 – New England 23

 

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Categories: Florida Sports News

Lightning Return From Bye Week, Lose To Golden Knights

Fri, 01/19/2018 - 05:18
Golden Knights Sweep Two-Game Season Series  AP Photo/Chris O’Meara

James Neal opened the scoring for the Vegas Golden Knight who went on to defeat the Tampa Bay Lightning 4-1 in their first ever visit to Amalie Arena. Remarkably, the Knights improve to 19-1-0 when scoring the first goal of the game, the best mark in the NHL.

Nate Schmidt, David Perron, and William Karlsson scored and Marc-Andre Fleury made 28 saves as the Knights improve to 30-11-3 on the season and sweep the Lightning in the two head-to-head matchups.

Ondrej Palat scored a power-play goal for the Lightning who fall to 31-11-3.  Tampa Bay will have 21 days before its next home contest (February 8 vs. Vancouver), tied with the Canucks (January 2 through 23) for the most days between home games in the NHL this season.

Lightning Notes:
  • Ondrej Palat took advantage of a power-play by scoring his eighth goal of the season. The goal ended a streak of 21 scoreless games dating back to November 25th at Pittsburgh. However, he did have 15 assist and a plus/minus rating of +10 in those 21 games.
  • Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov picked up assists on Palat’s power-play goal. It was Stamkos 36th assist of the season and Kucherov’s 34th assist.
  • It was Kucherov’s 98th career power-play point.  With that, he moves past Roman Hamrlik into sole possession of ninth place among the Bolts’ all-time power play scoring leaders.
  • The Lightning will head out on an eight game road trip (split in half by All-Star Game). They open the first of the eight games against the Minnesota Wild on Saturday night at 9:00 eastern.

 

 

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Categories: Florida Sports News

Coaches Coach, They Are Not News Editors

Fri, 01/19/2018 - 03:34

You knew Stan Van Gundy was not going to bite the hand that feeds him.

 

 

You might have heard that some National Basketball Association coaches are having a problem with ESPN and some ESPN reporters who have found LaVar Bell to be an interesting character who likes to sprout out opinions and has no problem sharing them with any reporters. Bell is good copy. But NBA coaches aren’t thrilled that Bell criticized Los Angeles Lakers coach Luke Walton. Bell’s son plays on that team and some coaches have decided that team public relations directors should revoke the NBA credentials of those ESPN NBA reporters who are talking to Bell. Detroit coach Stan Van Gundy is one of the most opinionated of the NBA coaches and suggested he would skip in protest the all-important production meeting where he says nothing to the ESPN announcers and producers prior to an ESPN broadcast of the Washington-Detroit January 19 contest.

Apparently NBA coaches such as Van Gundy, Golden State’s Steve Kerr and Dallas’ Rick Carlisle don’t realize that without ESPN part of their huge salaries would disappear. ESPN pays billions for the right to carry NBA games. Also some NBA coaches have had no problems voicing opinions on social issues. It seems incompressible that certain NBA coaches are so thinned skinned when it comes to criticism about their own. It is also hard to believe that ESPN would bow down to the coaches or teams, the teams are paid by ESPN. Robert Iger, who runs Disney-ESPN needs to explain to NBA Commissioner Adam Silver and the 30 NBA Owners, without us, your businesses would be worth significantly less money. Yet, television partners always seem to be afraid of leagues. Also to NBA coaches, ESPN is a product of the 1984 cable TV act where everyone pays for what few watch, cable TV made sports franchises more valuable. The coaches should coach as they are not editors.

Van Gundy and his fellow coaches are mad at the ESPN website not the TV production people.

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Categories: Florida Sports News

Will The Joint North American World Cup Bid Be Trumped By Morocco?

Thu, 01/18/2018 - 01:58

will Haiti and Africa remember this at the FIFA vote?

 

 

In five months the governing body of soccer, FIFA, awards the 2026 World Cup rights to either a United States, Canada and Mexico joint proposal or Morocco’s bid for the event. It was thought that the North American proposal was a sure thing and that it was just a matter of FIFA rubber stamping the proposal for the international sports competition. But that notion came before Donald Trump’s immigration meeting last week when he let certain Senate members know what he thought of some of the voting countries, 55 of them from Africa which also happens to house Morocco as one of its countries. Those nations are not happy with Trump.  Morocco was considered not much of a contender when it matched up against the North American bid and it has a history of rejection as a host for the 1994, 1998, 2006 and 2010 World cup. Before Trump uttered his remarks which he contended he never said, Morocco had the support of the Confederation of African Football.

There are 211 FIFA members. Africa has more than a quarter of the voters. The North American bid is better from the stadium, infrastructure and access to money viewpoint than Morocco.  In 2010, Morocco did get a good rating in its failed bid. But the 2026 World Cup will feature 48 teams not 32 and Morocco may not be able to accommodate all the teams in a manner that FIFA wants. There were some assumptions that European countries would go for the North American bid but Trump’s visit to England has been canceled and it seems the United States has some relationships that have been slightly frayed on the continent. Canada and the US might have a North America Free Trade Agreement problem as that pact is under attack by Trump. Trump still wants his Mexican wall.  Diplomacy plays a part in World Cup selection.

Don’t count out geopoltiics in the World Cup vote later this year.

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Categories: Florida Sports News

Rock Riley Show: Shane Stafford Believes In Foles

Thu, 01/18/2018 - 00:30

Perhaps the biggest storyline coming into this Sunday’s conference championship games centers around the notoriety of the quarterbacks involved.  Outside of Tom Brady, fans are asking which of the three other quarterbacks can be trusted to play well in the biggest game of their lives.  Former Arena League QB Steve Stafford suggests Nick Foles can be the guy.

Listen to the Rock Riley Show, weekdays from 3-6 on Sports Talk 1040 Tampa Bay and Sports Talk 1080 Orlando.

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Categories: Florida Sports News

Rock Riley Show: Steve Kyler on Arron Afflalo’s Swing at T-Wolves Player

Thu, 01/18/2018 - 00:10

Another fight nearly broke out in the NBA Tuesday night as the Orlando Magic’s Arron Afflalo took a swing at a player on the visiting Minnesota Timberwolves.  Steve Kyler of basketballinsiders.com was in the building, and he spoke to Rock Riley today about the incident.

Listen to the Rock Riley Show, weekdays from 3-6 PM on Sports Talk 1040 Tampa Bay and Sports Talk 1080 Orlando.

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Categories: Florida Sports News

It’s time for the Orlando Magic to Blow things up!

Wed, 01/17/2018 - 22:24
Orlando Needs to Start Tanking

We have reached the half way point of the NBA season and it is safe to say that this will not be the year the Orlando Magic snap their longest playoff drought in franchise history. The Magic find themselves just a game out of last place in the East after an exciting hot start to this season. However, that hot start did not last long as the Magic quickly came back to reality. Now one can say injuries had a lot to do with the team’s poor performance, but injuries aside, the talent is simply not there. Orlando clearly need a superstar if they are going to be relevant again. Something they’ve been missing since Dwight Howard left town.

Now if you’re wondering how the Magic land a superstar, the answer is quite simple…Tank! Tanking is the only way the team can assure themselves of landing one of the three difference makers that will be available in the upcoming draft. Of course Orlando’s players won’t purposely throw games, so management will need to unload a player or two to make sure they land in the top 3 of this year’s draft. Players who could be on the chopping block include: Evan Fournier, Elfrid Payton, and Mario Hezonja. Now if Nikola Vucevic was not injured, he too could be on this list. Really, the only players who are safe on the current roster are Aaron Gordon and rookie Jonathan Isaac. These two are viewed as building blocks for the future and should be considered safe during the rapidly approaching trade deadline.
Orlando Magic guard Evan Fournier (10) drives against Memphis Grizzlies forward James Ennis III (8) during the first half of an NBA basketball preseason game Monday, Oct. 2, 2017, in Memphis, Tenn. Photo: AP Photo/Brandon Dill.

As for what the Magic will be looking for in any trade is either veterans on expiring contracts, or future draft picks. Even if it’s a low first round draft pick, the Magic may be able to package that for an even higher pick in the upcoming draft. The main objective is trading away players who are not part of the long-term picture while getting closer to securing a potential superstar in the upcoming draft. Now regardless of who comes and goes it should be an exciting few weeks leading up to the NBA trade deadline next month.

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Categories: Florida Sports News

Five Storylines For The AFC Championship Game

Wed, 01/17/2018 - 16:29
The Patriots Welcome Jacksonville to Foxborough, As The Jaguars Look To Repeat Their Performance From Last Week: Top Storylines The Coughlin Factor AP PHOTO: BILL KOSTROUN

Patriots’ quarterback Tom Brady and head coach Bill Belichick have been brilliant together since 2001. Bringing New England five Super Bowls in seven appearances; both will go down as the best to ever do it, in their respective roles.

However, their two Super Bowl losses came at the hands of the New York Giants, led by then head coach Tom Coughlin.

Coughlin is now the EVP of Football Operations for Jacksonville. He’s built the Jaguars through his eyes with a strong pass rush, playmakers in the secondary, and a top-rated rushing attack.

Can Jacksonville utilize Coughlin’s experience vs. New England en route to their first Super Bowl appearance?

Brady Vs. Elite Defenses in the Playoffs AP PHOTO: AARON M SPRECHER

If you don’t have an elite quarterback, the only way to beat Brady and the Patriots is to have an elite defense. Most noteworthy, an elite pass rush.

When Brady faces a team in the playoffs with 48 plus sacks during the regular season, he has nine touchdowns to nine interceptions with a passer rating in the 70’s.

Jacksonville posted 55 sacks this season to along with other top-tier stats. The Jags finished second in points allowed (16.8), first in total defense (286 yards per game), first in passing defense (170 yards per game), second in interceptions (21) and second in takeaways (33).

The following teams defeated Brady with elite defensive play and won a Super Bowl: The New York Giants in 2007 and 2011 (both teams won Super Bowls), the 2012 Baltimore Ravens (won Super Bowl XLVII), and the 2015 Denver Broncos (won Super Bowl 50).

Will This Moment Be Too Big for Jacksonville?

As Brady and Belichick prepare for their 11th AFC Championship Game, Jacksonville is playing in their third, first since the 1999 season.

The Patriots have been to seven Super Bowls since 1999, winning their latest last season in dramatic fashion over the Atlanta Falcons. New England is the best-coached team in the league, led by the best quarterback ever.

The Pats are battle-tested, experienced, and focused on nothing other than defeating the Jaguars this week. Even last week’s reports of disconnect within the Patriots didn’t slow them down against the Titans.

Jacksonville is in unfamiliar territory. They’ve never won an AFC Championship game; hence, never winning a Super Bowl.

Will this moment be too big for the Jaguars, affecting their preparation and performance? Or can they treat this like any other game and use the matchups to their advantage?

Will New England’s Play Callers Be Focused AP PHOTO: WINSLOW TOWNSON

The Patriots coordinators are some of the best play callers in the business. As a result, offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia will be head coaches next year.

McDaniels is reportedly taking the Indianapolis Colts job. Patricia will fill the Detroit Lions’ vacancy. The respective General Managers for the Colts and Lions have ties to New England head coach Bill Belichick.

But will these play callers be focused going into Sunday’s Matchup? Yes, they work for Belichick who is the most focused coach of all time as he pays attention to detail like no other. However, they are not Belichick.

In last year’s Super Bowl featuring the Patriots and Falcons, then offensive coordinator Mike Shanahan took the San Francisco 49ers job before the game. He unraveled, as the Patriots came back from a 28-3 deficit.

Bortles AP PHOTO: DON WRIGHT

Jacksonville quarterback Blake Bortles is the most scrutinized and dissected player in the NFL this season. No one would give Bortles a second thought if the Jags went 3-13. But the Jaguars are not 3-13, they’re in the AFC championship game with Bortles as their signal-caller.

He’s had stretches during the season where he’s looked great and stretches where he’s looked like the old Bortles. Then, in his first ever playoff game he had more rushing yards than passing yards.

But the key to Bortles success is not limited to yards and touchdowns, its turnovers. Coming into this season, he led the league in turnovers since being drafted, but Bortles has done a much better job of protecting the football. In fact, Jacksonville is 10-0 when Bortles doesn’t turn the ball over including their two playoff victories.

The Jaguars have already overachieved this season and so has Bortles to some extent. Quarterbacks with comparable or worse statistics than Bortles has gone to the Super Bowl. But can Bortles navigate Patricia’s and Belichick’s defense? Sunday’s matchup will be the toughest of his career.

Catch the AFC Championship Game Sunday, at 3:05pm on CBS

JAQUAN CATHEY ON THE JAGS VICTORY OVER PITTSBURGH.

 

 

 

 

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Categories: Florida Sports News

Jaguars Rookie Leonard Fournette Uninjured In Car Accident

Wed, 01/17/2018 - 13:41
Jags Running Back, Leonard Fournette. Photo: Jacksonville Jaguars

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (AP) — Jacksonville Jaguars running back Leonard Fournette escaped injury after he was involved in what authorities say was a minor three-car crash.

The team says the rookie’s car was rear-ended about 11:30 a.m. Tuesday, and that he was not hurt. He was able to drive home after the crash.

The Jaguars also say Fournette signed the rear bumper of his 2017 Mercedes-Benz Maybach — it was knocked off in the wreck — and gave it to one of the first responders on the scene.

Special Thanks to @Jaguars Leonard @_fournette for being a true professional. He took the time to take a photo with boy involved in crash and to thank our trooper for his service. We are glad to hear of no injuries in this crash. pic.twitter.com/ICQSKL9tAw

— FHPJacksonville (@FhpJacksonville) January 16, 2018

The Florida Highway Patrol says Fournette was not at fault in the crash.

Fournette and the Jaguars play at New England on Sunday in the AFC championship game.

Fournette ran for 109 yards and three touchdowns in Jacksonville’s 45-42 victory at Pittsburgh last Sunday.

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Categories: Florida Sports News

UCF Unable To Beat Cincy in BJ Taylor’s Return

Wed, 01/17/2018 - 06:06

If you like a low scoring, hard physical game, this is the game for you as the UCF Knights were unable to beat the number 12 ranked Cincinnati Bearcats by the final score of 49-38.

Both teams shot under 25% in the first half which has to be a first in this college basketball season. UCF shot 7-31 from the floor while Cincinnati shot 6-26 from the floor. When you do the math, that’s 13-57 which is only 23%. That means it’s not that good.

However, that means the Knights played tremendous defense. Their defense looked just as good if not better than the game against Temple when they only allowed 39 points for the entirety of that game.

“Both teams do hang their hat on that end of the floor [defensively],” UCF Head Coach Johnny Dawkins said. “I think both teams are trying to build their program, well they built their program off of that under Cronin and we’re looking to build our program off of something similar.”

This game was also the return of BJ Taylor. This was Taylor’s first game since he injured his foot during the first game of the season and he provided a spark to UCF’s stagnate offense in the first half.

Taylor had six points on 3-5 shooting, including two and-ones to get the crowd to go nuts. He led all Knights in scoring in the first half as well.

“It was good to be back on the floor for sure,” Taylor said. “I had eight weeks off. You know it was good to back out there with the team. Wish we would have came out with the victory in the end because that’s all I really care about honestly.”

Offensively in the second half got a lot better. The Bearcats scored 15 points in the first eight minutes in the second half after only scoring 15 in the first half alone. The Knights scored 11 in that span as well as the ball movement looked more solid and guys were moving around more.

But the Bearcats continued to have success in the second half as they had multiple 8-0 runs and had the lead up by nine with a little over three minutes left and that basically sealed the deal.

The Knights finished the game shooting only 30% from the floor and only made 3-10 from the free throw line.

No Knights finished in double digits and that is the least amount of points that the Knights have scored all season. In fact, that’s the lowest that the Knights have scored since Dawkins took over as the head coach of the team.

With the loss, the Knights are now 12-6 (3-3 AAC) on the season and will look to end their two-game losing streak when they hit the road against USF this Saturday for their first of two War on I4 games of the season.

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Categories: Florida Sports News

London Calling, NBA Answers Just Once A Year

Wed, 01/17/2018 - 02:42

whatever happened to that European Division?

 

 

The National Basketball Association’s one game trip into London is done. The NBA keeps sending teams to play a game in London but the NBA was never able to establish a European Division which was a goal of former Commissioner David Stern. The plan was to establish the conference by 2010 with London having one of the franchises. The NBA seems to have put the notion on permanent hiatus. Europe has an established basketball leagues and may not need the NBA.

The NBA has had an eye on Europe for more than five decades. The Boston Celtics’ coach Red Auerbach really began the globalization of basketball in 1964 when he took a group of NBA players to Europe with the goal of beating the Soviet National Team in Moscow. Auerbach was annoyed that the Soviet Union team was beating up on American college kids in various international tournaments and decided to march on Moscow with the help of his friends at the United States Department of State. Auerbach’s goal was to get a Soviet visa for himself, his staff and players and be a Johnny Appleseed by putting seeds down in various European countries by playing games and giving clinics on his march on the European continent. Auerbach got as far as Cairo, Egypt. He never did get the Soviet visas and was stopped but along the way throughout Europe and into Cairo, Auerbach provided a foundation that would eventually produce quality European basketball players who would play in the league and open up international markets.  In 2016, Commissioner Adam Silver ruled out a European division although he insisted that the league would love to have an All-Star Weekend in London and would continue playing annual games in London.  The NBA seems more interested in Mexico City these days than in Europe. Love is fickle.

 

The NBA likes globaliztion but has no plans for a global league. Adam Silver, the commissioner of the National Basketball Association (NBA) delivers a speech during the joint press conference with Rakuten in Tokyo Tuesday, Oct. 10, 2017. Japanese online retailer Rakuten will be NBA’s exclusive distribution partner in Japan for live NBA games and a global marketing partner of the NBA. Photo: AP Photo/Eugene Hoshiko.

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Categories: Florida Sports News

Rock Riley Show: Drew Brees Isn’t Going Anywhere

Tue, 01/16/2018 - 00:49

The big question Monday:  “Where were you during the last play of Saints-Vikings?”  Mike Nabors was in the building as part of the New Orleans Saints’ broadcast crew.  Rock Riley discusses the game, and Drew Brees’ future in New Orleans.

Rock Riley can be heard weekdays from 3-6 on Sports Talk 1040 Tampa Bay and Sports Talk 1080 Orlando.

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Categories: Florida Sports News

Rock Riley Show: Jaquan Cathey Says Jags Can Beat Patriots

Tue, 01/16/2018 - 00:14

Thinking of counting out the Jaguars again?  Jaquan Cathey picked them to win last week–correctly–and on Monday he told Rock Riley that Jacksonville could keep shocking the world against New England on Sunday.

Listen to the Rock Riley Show, every weekday from 3-6 on Sports Talk 1040 Tampa Bay and Sports Talk 1080 Orlando.

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Categories: Florida Sports News

North Korea In, Russia Out Of 2018 South Korea Olympics

Mon, 01/15/2018 - 23:23

so Kafka isn’t it?

 

 

Who would have thought that the 2018 South Korea Olympics would feature a team from North Korea and not have a Russian team competing? That is the status of the Olympics with a bit more than three weeks to go before the event gets underway. North Korea apparently is also sending a delegation to represent the county at the South Korea sports celebration. In a way, this is a victory for the International Olympic Committee in a stated goal of using sports to make the world safer. Just because North Korea has athletes competing in South Korea, it does not mean tensions between North Korea and the United States have thawed nor does it mean than strains between the two Koreas have abated and it doesn’t mean that Japan is all of a sudden going to trust the North Korean regime. What is it? An opening that could produce some talks between the US, South Korea and Japan and maybe some pressure to expand the talks from just a sports event to something more substernal that can include China and Russia.

Russia will not have a team after being tossed from the 2018 Olympics by the IOC for a doping scheme although Russia had many allies Russia saying should be there. The IOC and the World Anti-Doping Agency were at odds over whether Russia should have competed in the 2016 Rio Summer Olympics. Russia did participate with the IOC’s backing after WADA suggested a ban. Last fall, the World Anti-Doping Agency President Sir Craig Reedie did an about face and was against banning the Russian team from the 2018 South Korean Games. Switzerland’s Patrick Baumann said the National Anti-Doping Organization members including the United States and Britain, did not have the “moral ground” to push for banning the Russian team. There will be Russian athletes participating in the South Korea Games as neutral competitors. The Russians are coming after all.

International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Thomas Bach, left, is escorted by South Korea’s Prime Minister and acting President Hwang Kyo-ahn for a meeting in Seoul, South Korea, Tuesday, March 14, 2017. (Kim Kyung-Hoon/Pool Photo via AP)

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Categories: Florida Sports News

The Game of Quarterback vs Real Football

Mon, 01/15/2018 - 19:23
Focusing too much on passers turned out to be a mistake this past weekend

It is undeniable that the quarterback is the most important single player on a football team.

A good passer can send a talented offense to a new level.  An inaccurate signal-caller can throw away entire football games with poor decision-making.  Football fans all know this, because we’ve all seen it repeatedly in both directions.  In particular, the current era of NFL football is such that the passing game has become more important than ever before.

Still, at times it seems as though all of football is placed on the quarterback these days.  We attribute wins and losses to quarterbacks as a statistic, a practice that usually ends poorly in team sports.  Moreover, we sometimes judge an entire team based on their quarterback, and miss some important things in doing so.

This past weekend showed us repeated instances of a football truism, one that should be obvious but simply isn’t:  Football is a team sport. 

Saturday’s early game between the Philadelphia Eagles and the visiting Atlanta Falcons was not supposed to be much of a game.  To hear the talking heads tell it, Atlanta was a clear favorite, to the point they could have been essentially penciled in to the NFC Championship Game.  Philadelphia, by the same token, was lucky to have made it this far.  With Carson Wentz out for the season, and Nick Foles lining up under center, Philly was hardly supposed to have a chance.

The logic was clear:  The rest of Philadelphia’s team didn’t much matter in the face of Foles’ existence.  Or, to put it in words I heard ad nauseum last week, nobody could “imagine Nick Foles winning a playoff game.”

In a way, every one of those takes was accurate.  Nick Foles did not win Saturday evening’s playoff game.  The Philadelphia Eagles, however, did end up winning and moving on to host the NFC Championship.  With a seemingly clear disadvantage at quarterback, few saw that coming.

Philadelphia won because they came with a better game plan.  Head coach Doug Peterson knew exactly what Nick Foles was capable of and where he struggles, so Peterson put together a game plan that allowed Foles to showcase his strong decision-making without relying on passing skill he might not have in comparison to a Matt Ryan.  The Eagles ran the ball consistently and effectively, setting up passes that left people open for first downs.  It helped that Philadelphia got a fantastic performance from their defense, holding the Falcons to ten points and their vaunted passing offense to just 195 yards on the day.

The game was viewed as an upset, but keep in mind the Eagles have the top playoff seed in the NFC.  Home teams in the playoffs are no underdogs, and the Eagles were no exception.  They played the entire game like the team with a better coach, a better game plan, a better running game, and a better defense than Atlanta.  Really, the surprise was not so much that the Eagles won but that nobody seemed to expect that could happen.

If Nick Foles was treated as a hindrance to his team coming into Saturday, he had nothing on Blake Bortles.

Bortles, almost ever since he was selected third overall in the 2014 NFL Draft, the young quarterback from Altamonte Springs has been treated as some combination of a joke and an affront to the very game of football.  He has been criticized for everything from his decision-making to the sound of his last name.  It is as though nobody has ever seen an atypical NFL quarterback before when Bortles is under center.

As a result, outside of our own Jaquan Cathey, just about nobody was willing to pick “Blake Bortles” to beat “Ben Roethlisberger” on Sunday afternoon.

Again, the prognosticators were right and wrong at the same time.  Bortles played much better than expected on Sunday, but to say he won the game is a stretch so far one could pull a muscle.  The Jacksonville Jaguars won as a team in the truest sense.  The defense scored a touchdown.  Bortles threw for touchdowns.  Leonard Fournette ran extremely well, getting into the end zone himself and really setting the tone for the offense as a whole.  Placekicker Josh Scobee got involved in kick return coverage and prevented a Steeler touchdown.

In this case, however, it wasn’t just the fans and analysts who seemed to write off the Jaguars.  In many ways, it appeared as though Pittsburgh was simply not expecting Jacksonville to be able to do anything on offense, and as a result the Steelers’ defense looked unprepared and on their heels all game long.

Jacksonville, if you’ll recall, won the AFC South.  They did so with the number one ranked pass defense in the NFL, meaning that they were veritable experts in stopping the kind of quarterback play that people will tell you up and down “wins games.”  Fournette was one of the best rookies in the NFL, running back or otherwise, all year long.  Doug Marrone had proven a capable coach under guru Tom Coughlin.  The offense could come and go at times, but by and large they did just enough to win games, which is important since margin of victory matters little in the NFL.

The same Jacksonville team that was supposed to lose in Pittsburgh on Sunday went into the same Heinz Field in week five and blew the Steelers out of the water.  They didn’t just win, they destroyed the Steelers, but when it came to predicting the game that simply didn’t matter.  Jacksonville, on Sunday, was perceived to have no chance and it was entirely because of Blake Bortles.

Of course, the Jaguars put up 45 points in the contest en route to a victory.

The weekend’s finale became another example of quarterback worship in the buildup.

The Minnesota Vikings earned a bye week in the NFC playoffs.  Throughout the season, they looked like one of the conference’s most complete teams.  The defense was excellent, the offense was balanced, and Minnesota got solid performances out of their special teams unit.

Problematically, though, their quarterback is a person named Case Keenum, who was in due to injuries to both Sam Bradford and Teddy Bridgewater throughout the season.  Keenum was described as a “game manager” and a “journeyman” coming in.  His opponent in the New Orleans Saints were led by Drew Brees.  Brees, likely to be enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame about five years after he retires, was of course favored to win the game over Keenum.

Again, it turned out that quarterbacks can only do so much, and football is a team sport.  The Vikings led the game in both passing yards and rushing yards, as well as in takeaways, but winning took them every last second of the 60:00 clock.

The last play needs no introduction or description.  You’ve seen it by now, and hopefully you’ve also heard Vikings announcer Paul Allen’s high-volume call of the play.  The moment was iconic, and sure to be talked about for years to come.

As a result, we enter a Championship round in which the only “elite” quarterback was famously a sixth-round afterthought in the 2000 NFL Draft.

The lesson here is not, of course, that quarterbacks are overrated or that Ben Roethlisberger, Matt Ryan, and Drew Brees are all losing their touch.  All three are great, and it should not be questioned that quarterbacks remain more important on balance than other positions.

The lesson is that wins and losses are not good statistics to keep for a quarterback.  At the end of the day, teams win or lose football games, signal callers aside.  The New England Patriots, who might have the greatest quarterback the league has ever seen, have always known this.  That knowledge is part of what sets Tom Brady up for such wild success.

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Categories: Florida Sports News

Jacksonville Drops 45 On Pittsburgh, Advance To AFC Championship Game

Mon, 01/15/2018 - 15:13
Jacksonville Came Out The Gates Swinging Vs. Pittsburgh, Never Lets Up: The Takeaway

Pittsburgh, PA — Coming off the lowest scoring game in AFC Wildcard history, the Jacksonville Jaguars (10-6) exploded for 45 points against the Pittsburgh Steelers (13-3) in the AFC Divisional Round.

The Jags will play in their first AFC Championship game since the 1999 season.

Jacksonville jumped out to a 21-0 lead to begin the game. Jags’ quarterback Blake Bortles hit his passes early and running back Leonard Fournette seemed to be unstoppable.

But the Steelers fought back with their championship pedigree. Down 21-28, Pittsburgh had all the momentum as they were driving to tie the game with 12:30 left in the fourth.

However, the Jaguars stopped Pittsburgh on fourth and one; scoring on the ensuing drive for another 14-point deficit for the Steelers.

On the next possession, the Steelers faced another fourth down; quarterback Ben Roethlisberger threw a 43-yard dime to receiver Antonio Brown for a touchdown to pull within seven again.

When it mattered most, Bortles navigated an eight-play, 75-yard drive, taking 4:46 off the clock. Jacksonville took a 42-28 lead, a deficit too steep for the Steelers to overcome with just 4:19 left in the game.

“They won the moments…” Steelers’ head coach Mike Tomlin said. “…They made the significant plays in the moments…”

Respect

It’s time for all the critics and naysayers to take a step back and respect what Jacksonville has achieved. The Jaguars endured an uncanny amount of disrespect this season, all the way up to this week by players from the Steelers.

“You can’t overlook us, and that’s what we took as disrespect: that they were already looking ahead to next week while we were focusing on them,” said Jags linebacker Miles Jack. “It was weird because we had won the last game, and I guess they forgot about that.”

Jacksonville did an excellent job of shutting out the outside noise taking care of the Steelers, again.

On this day, the offense picked up the defense as Jacksonville showed what they are capable of when clicking on all cylinders.

Bortles Unfazed AP PHOTO: DON WRIGHT

No one has faced more criticism this season than Jacksonville quarterback Blake Bortles. With multiple NFL players calling him “trash” and almost no NFL analyst picking Jacksonville in this game due to Bortles’ history.

Bortles didn’t play great, but the key to Bortles contributing to Jacksonville’s success isn’t touchdowns and yards, its turnovers. The fourth-year signal-caller had none on Sunday, as the Jaguars improve to 10-0 this season when he doesn’t commit a turnover.

Bortles has stretches where he looks great, and others where he looks like he doesn’t belong in the NFL. But as long as he isn’t turning the ball over, the Jaguars will always be in games due to their rushing attack and defense.

“All the guys that cover him know he’s competitive as hell,” coach Doug Marrone said of Bortles. “He’s doing everything he has to do. He was able to run today for yardage. he was able to throw the football and put us in good situations…”

Defensive Concern? AP PHOTO: DON WRIGHT

Up to this point, Jacksonville’s defense has carried the most weight in the Jaguars’ success this season. Top-two in total defense (286.1), pass defense (169.9), scoring defense (16.8), takeaways (33), interceptions (21), and sacks (55).

During stretches of the season, they’ve had to carry the offense to win games. But the offense carried their weight and then some, in route to the AFC Championship Game.

However, Steelers’ quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and the Pittsburgh offense lit up Jacksonville’s defense on Sunday. Roethlisberger finished with 469 passing yards and five touchdowns.

Pittsburgh was forced to put the ball in the air often due to the 21-0 deficit in the first half. But defending the pass is the strength of Jacksonville.

It wasn’t like they were schemed to death, such as the San Francisco game. It was “my guy is better than your guy” attitude from the Steelers, and it worked in the second half.

Jacksonville needs to keep the pats on back short-lived this week and focus on the miscues vs. Pittsburgh from Sunday. After all, they will face the greatest quarterback and coach of all time next week.

Up Next: Jacksonville travels to New England to take on the Patriots in the AFC Championship Game.

 

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Categories: Florida Sports News

Yoel Romero Pulled From UFC Orlando

Mon, 01/15/2018 - 03:02
Who Will Headline UFC on Fox 28?

The UFC returns to the sunshine state for the first time since April 2016.  The fight card on February 24th will be the first event in Orlando since December 2015, UFC on Fox: dos Anjos vs Cerrone 2.

The last fight card in Orlando was a memorable one.  Rafael dos Anjos defended his lightweight title against Donald Cerrone with a TKO 1:06 into the fight.  In the co-main event, Alistar Overeem knocked out former heavyweight champion, Junior dos Santos in the second round.

The moment fans were talking about leaving the Amway Center that night was Nate Diaz’s post fight interview with Joe Rogan after an unanimous decision victory over Michael Johnson.  Diaz used the platform to call out Conor McGregor.  The interview can be seen below via the UFC on Fox’s YouTube page.

He went onto fight McGregor twice, winning one fight and losing one, while making a lot of money in the process.

With UFC on Fox 28 just over a month out, the event still doesn’t have a main event.  The biggest fight announced for the card was Yoel Romero vs David Branch.  Romero (12-2) trains out of Florida at American Top Team.  He lost his last fight to Robert Whittaker at UFC 213 in July 2017 for the interim middleweight championship.  Whittaker (19-4) won via unanimous decision.

Yoel Romero, left, fights Robert Whittaker in a middleweight championship mixed martial arts bout at UFC 213, Saturday, July 8, 2017, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)

Branch (21-4) is a former World Series of Fighting middleweight champion and is 1-1 in the octagon.  Branch is coming off a submission loss to Luke Rockhold.  The fight makes sense with both fighters coming off losses.  Well, that fight is no longer going to happen.

UFC 221 was supposed to be headlined by middleweight champion Whittaker and Rockhold.  Whittaker has been forced to withdraw from the card due to injuries and the UFC replaced him with Romero.  Rockhold (16-4) and Romero will now fight for the interim middleweight championship.

Luke Rockhold, right, reacts after defeating Chris Weidman, left, in a middleweight championship mixed martial arts bout at UFC 194, Saturday, Dec. 12, 2015, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)

A replacement for Branch has yet to be announced.  There aren’t enough big names announced on the card to move anyone else up to the main event, so expect a replacement for Romero to fight Branch or a new fight to get announced in the next couple weeks.

David Branch in action against Kryzsztof Jotko in a mixed martial arts bout at UFC 211 on Saturday, May 13, 2017, in Dallas. Branch won via decision. (AP Photo/Gregory Payan)

Former middleweight champion Chris Weidman (14-3) hasn’t fought since July and doesn’t have a fight announced.  He is ranked number five and is the only top middleweight who doesn’t have a fight lined up or just fought.

Another possibility is Vitor Belfort (26-13) against Uriah Hall.  The two were supposed to fight tonight on UFC Fight Night: Stephens vs. Choi, but Hall (13-8) fainted on his way to the weigh-ins.  The fight has been called off.  Belfort was set to retire after the fight, so perhaps the UFC can reschedule Hall to fight him or have him fight Branch for what’s set to be his final MMA fight.

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Categories: Florida Sports News

Negro Players Struggles In The 1950s When Dr. King Joined The Civil Rights Movement

Mon, 01/15/2018 - 02:52

In Martin Luther King’s day, sports of the 1950s.

 

 

It has been nearly 50 years since the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was gunned down in Memphis, Tennessee.  King became involved in the civil rights movement in the mid-1950s. At that time, not every Major League Baseball team had Negro players, there was an unofficial quota of four Negro players on each National Football League team. No Negro could be a quarterback, a center or a middle linebacker because Negroes lacked intelligence. George Preston Marshall did not hire Negro players for his Washington NFL team. Marshall would be the last holdout in the hiring Negro players. Marshall gave in because of a threat by the Kennedy Administration to bar Marshall from moving his football team into a federally funded DC Stadium in 1962 because of equal opportunity work requirements. When King got involved with the Montgomery, Alabama bus boycotts, Negro players could not enroll at a good number of colleges in the south. In 1947, the Cotton Bowl in Dallas wanted Penn State to play SMU in the January 1, 1948 game but did not want Wally Triplett to play. Penn State players said we are Penn State. Triplett played. The NFL ended an informal color ban in 1946 as Los Angeles Coliseum officials told Cleveland Rams owner Daniel Reeves he could move his team and enter into a lease to use the stadium if he hired Negro players.

The Harlem Globetrotters basketball team was bigger than the National Basketball Association but in the 1950s while the team could entertain on the court in southern cities, the players could not stay at certain hotels or eat at certain restaurants because of Jim Crow laws. Same held true during baseball’s Florida spring training for Negro players. American Football League players boycotted the league’s planned 1965 New Orleans All Star game because of Jim Crow. Conditions for Negro athletes did change by the end of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s. life in 1968 but work remained.

 

 

Washington’s NFL team was the last football team to hire negro players and that happened in 1962.

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Categories: Florida Sports News

J.T. Brown Claimed Off Waivers By The Anaheim Ducks

Sun, 01/14/2018 - 20:22
Now Former Lightning Forward Heads Out West Photo Credit: Chis O’Meara Associated Press

J.T. Brown was claimed off waivers by the Anaheim Ducks. The Tampa Bay Lightning placed Brown on waivers on Saturday afternoon. According to Lightning General Manager Steve Yzerman the move was necessary in order to create roster flexibility.

“I wanted the flexibility within our roster, when the time comes, to recall players currently excelling in Syracuse and give them an opportunity to play,” Yzerman told the Joe Smith of the Tampa Bay Times.

The Times article mentions several candidates to take Brown’s place on the roster. Of note is forward Adam Erne, who Yzerman told Smith is “playing his way out of the AHL”. Additional players mentioned include Carter Verhaeghe and Alex Volkov.

In addition to roster flexibility, the Bolts will gain an additional sum of betwen $500K – $1MM in cap space this season.

Brown, 27, went undrafted after finishing a solid career at the University of Minnesota, Duluth. Yzerman signed him to a 2-way contract on March 28, 2012.  His debut with the Lightning came just days later on March 31st against the Winnipeg Jets.

This season he has played in just 24 games, often being a healthy scratch. He has four points (1-3–4) while registering a plus/minus rating of -1. He averaged less than 10:00 minutes of ice time per game (9:22).

In parts of six seasons with the Lightning, Brown appeared in 286 games tallying 61-points (19-42–61), a +/- rating of -1, and averaged 11:48 minutes of ice time per game. Although only 5-feet, 10-inches, Brown was never one to back down and first to protect a player.

Ducks Chasing Wild Card:

Brown will join the Ducks who are 20-15-9 and are currently two games out of a wild card spot and trail the Vegas Golden Knights by 12-points in the Pacific Division. In a corresponding move, the Ducks have placed right winger Logan Shaw on waivers.

The Ducks acquired Shaw from the Florida Panthers in a trade for center Michael Sgarbossa in November 2016. In 42 games this season he has 8-points (2-6–8). He was originally drafted by the Florida Panthers in the third round of the 2011 NHL Entry Draft.

 

 

 

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Categories: Florida Sports News

Tracking The Rays Rebuild: Silverman’s First Off-Season Filled With Deals

Sun, 01/14/2018 - 19:12
Silverman Begins With Crazy Winter Of Wheeling And Dealing Photo: MLB.com

The Tampa Bay Rays won 92 games in 2013 needing a victory in Game 163 over the Texas Rangers to earn a Wild Card spot. They traveled to Cleveland and defeated the Cleveland Indians before being dispatched by the Boston Red Sox in four games in the American League Division Series.

After the season, Executive Vice President of Baseball Operations and General Manager Andrew Friedman committed $104MM in salary. This includes picking up $5.5MM of Heath Bell‘s 2014 salary in a trade with the Arizona Diamondbacks, free agent signings (James Loney, Grant Balfour, and Jose Molina), and contract extensions to David DeJesus, Ryan Hanigan, Yunel Escobar, and Chris Archer).

Things Did Not Go Well For The Rays In 2014

Friedman and company had hoped that the additions to the 2013 roster could lead the Rays to another deep October run. Unfortunately, injuries and poor performance short-circuited the 2014 season almost immediately.  They finished the season under .500 at 77-85 and traded David Price to the Detroit Tigers at the trade deadline. It was their first losing season since finishing 66-99 in 2007, the last year of the franchise being known as the Devil Rays.

Changing Of The Guard:

After the season, Andrew Friedman left the organization to take over the Los Angeles Dodgers front-office. Shortly after, Joe Maddon opted out of his contract and eventually took over the bench job with the Chicago Cubs.

Front Office Reshuffled, Silverman Takes Over, Cash Named Manager

Matt Silverman took over as President of Baseball Operations and Brian Auld was promoted from Senior Vice President of Business Operations to Team President. Silverman joined the Rays in 2004 as director of strategic planning and has served as team president since Sternberg became principal owner in October 2005.

Friedman was not taking any members of the Rays front office with him. This opened the door for two long-time baseball operations members Chaim Bloom and Erik Neander to assume larger roles in baseball operations. On October 17th,  Bloom and Neander were officially promoted to Vice Presidents of Baseball Operations.

Cash Hired:

The Rays new front-office went through an exhaustive search for the next skipper. Their list opened with 10-members and eventually was whittled down to three finalist. Kevin Cash, Raul Ibanez, and Don Wakamatsu. On December 5, 2014 the Rays hired Kevin Cash to be the team’s fifth manager in franchise history.

In tandem with the manager search, the front office had to take stock in the shape of the franchise. They had to determine the value of each member of the current roster, examine who in the farm system was worth protecting in the Rule 5 draft, and the overall state of the farm system which entered the 2014 season ranked as just the 20th best in baseball.

Off-Season Goals:

Matt Silverman, Erik Neander, and Chaim Bloom had a lot of work to do in the wake of Andrew Friedman and Joe Maddon‘s departure. Besides finding a new manager and several coaches they had the normal off-season issues to contend with: setting the 40-man roster, tender/non-tender decisions, and payroll decisions. They also had to look for ways to inject promising young players into their suddenly weak farm system.

The goal for the front office was to field a competitive team in 2015 while building a strong farm system for the future. It’s pretty much the same goal for all 30 MLB teams, but the Rays operate on a smaller budget and have less margin for error. Adding bad contracts on top of an already constrained budget can be suffocating to an organization.

James Loney, Grant Balfour, Ryan Hanigan, Jose Molina, Yunel Escobar, and David DeJesus all were given contract/extensions by Friedman and were set to earn $32.35MM in 2015.

Ben Zobrist was entering the final year of his contract. Jeremy Hellickson‘s star had fallen and he was due a raise in arbitration. Matt Moore was going to miss half the season as he continued to recover from Tommy John surgery.

State Of The Farm:

The farm system was sinking as the organization had missed on a number of first round picks in years prior. Entering 2015, Baseball America ranked the Rays farm system 17th. For reference, it was ranked 20th (2014), 4th (2013), 11th (2012), and 3rd (2011) in the previous four years.

A big reason for the decline of the farm system were a series of poor drafts, especially the first round from 2008-2012. Of the 16 first round picks the Rays selected in that time period, only five made it to the big leagues.

The first round draft picks included: Tim Beckham (2008), LeVon Washington (2009 – unsigned), Drew Vettleson (2010), Justin O’Conner (2010), Josh Sale (2010), James Harris (2011), Grayson Garvin (2011), Kes Carter (2011), Blake Snell (2011), Jeff Ames (2011), Tyler Goeddell (2011), Brandon Martin (2011), Jake Hager (2011), Mikie Mahtook (2011), Taylor Guerrieri (2011), and Richie Shaffer (2012).

Silverman’s First Big League Signing:

In mid-October reliever Michael Kohn became the first big league signing of the Matt Silverman era.  His stint with the Rays was a short one as his big league deal was not guaranteed and he was designated for assignment on November 20th.

Matt Silverman still had to clear roster space ahead of the November 20th deadline to protect player from the Rule 5 draft. In dealing Cesar Ramos to the Los Angeles Angels for Mark Sappington he opened one spot. Additionally, Ramos was projected to earn around $1.4MM in arbitration and was a non-tender candidate.

Sappington had struggled in 2014 posting a 4-1 with a 6.02 ERA (113.2-IP, 76-ER) in 42 appearances (17 starts). He converted to the bullpen in July, and went 2-0 with five saves, a 3.38 ERA (12-ER/32-IP) and had 49 strikeouts in 25 relief appearances.

Rays Deal Former Rookie of the Year:

On November 14th, Jeremy Hellickson was shipped to the Arizona Diamondbacks for a pair of minor leaguers. Infielder Andrew Velazquez (20) and outfielder Justin Williams (19), both promising young prospects, were added to bolster a lagging farm system that Baseball America ranked 20th best in baseball heading into the 2014 season.

“As we thank Jeremy for his contributions to the Rays organization and wish him great success in Arizona, we are pleased to receive two talented young prospects in return,” said President, Baseball Operations Matt Silverman. “They have the potential to become impact players at the major league level, and we are excited to add them to our player development pipeline.”

Following the season, Velazquez was named the No. 12 prospect in the D-backs system by MLB.com and Williams was ranked at No. 14 prospect.

Hellickson, Rookie of the Year in 2011, had fallen on tough times over the 2013-2014 seasons. During that time he appeared in 45 games (44 starts) and posted a record of 13-15 with an ERA of 5.00. He was also projected to earn $3.9MM in arbitration.

Moving Hellickson also cleared a 40-man spot, as neither Williams or Velazquez needed to be added ahead of the November 20th deadline to protect players from the Rule 5 draft.

Rays Trade Perlata, DFA Molina As They Set Roster:

Right at the roster deadline the Rays set their roster by trading Joel Peralta and minor leaguer Adam Liberatore to the Los Angeles Dodgers. In exchange they received reliever Jose Dominguez and minor league right handed pitcher Greg Harris.

They also designated for assignment Jose Molina, Cole Figueroa, and the aforementioned Michael Kohn. To fill the roster, they selected five players: right-handed pitcher Matt Andriese, infielder Ryan Brett, left-handed pitcher Grayson Garvin, outfielder Mikie Mahtook and catcher Justin O’Conner to set their roster.

S-Rod Designated For Assignment:


The Rays, looking to strike gold on another struggling reliever, signed Ernesto Frieri to a 1-year deal on November 26th. To make room for Frieri on the 40-man roster, the Rays designated for assignment fan favorite Sean Rodriguez.

In 2014, Rodriguez batted .211 (50-for-237). He established career highs with 12 home runs, 41 RBI and a .443 slugging percentage.

Frieri had a down year in 2014 posting a 1-4 with a 7.34 ERA (34-ER/41.2-IP) and 48 strikeouts over 48 appearances between the Angels and Pirates. He was one year removed from a 2013 season in which he saved 37 games for the Los Angeles Angels.

Rodriguez was ultimately traded to the Pittsburgh Pirates for minor league right handed pitcher Buddy Borden.

Rays Deal Another Rookie of the Year Away:

On December 14, 2014, the Rays completed their biggest deal of the offseason sending Wil Myers and Ryan Hanigan along with minor leaguers Jose Castillo and Gerardo Reyes to the San Diego Padres. The Friars sent the Rays Jake Bauers, Rene Rivera, and Burch Smith . They also sent Trea Turner and Joe Ross to the Washington Nationals. Then Nationals sent Steven Souza Jr. and minor league pitcher Travis Ott to the Rays.

After winning the Rookie of the Year in 2013, Myers struggled with injuries in 2014. He appeared in only  87 games batting .222/.294/.320 line with six home runs, 14 doubles and 35 RBI.

In the deal, the Rays were able to unload the remainder of Ryan Hanigan’s contract ($8MM). The oft-injured catcher was coming off a season in which he had hit just .218/.318/.324 in 84 games.

Steven Souza Jr. was a third round pick by the Nationals in 2007. He struggled through the minor leagues with maturity even quitting his team and contemplated giving up baseball. By 2014, he had found himself spiritually and was showing promise as a power hitting outfielder. In Triple-A he hit .350/.432/.590 with 18 homers in 407 plate appearances. He had just made his MLB debut appearing in 21 games with the Nationals.

Jake Bauers was just 19 years old at the time of the trade. He was selected by the Padres in the 7th round of the 2013 draft.  2014 was his first full season of professional ball and he hit .296/.376/.414 as a 18-year old in Class-A. Last season, he hit .263/.368/.412 with 13 homers in 575 plate appearances in Triple-A. He is ranked by MLB Pipeline as the Rays 6th best prospect.

Rays Deal Joyce To Angels:

On December 16th the Rays traded Matt Joyce to the Los Angeles Angels for reliever Kevin Jepsen.

Joyce, coming off a season in which he hit .254/.349/.383 with nine homers. All but one of his starts in 2014 came against right-handed pitching. He was eighth in the AL in on-base percentage against right handed pitching at .365. He was entering his final year of arbitration eligibility and was was projected to earn $4.9MM.

“Matt was an important part of this team for the last six seasons. We appreciate his many contributions to the Rays on the field, and the professionalism he brought to the ballpark,” said Vice President, Baseball Operations Erik Neander. “We’re excited about the experience Kevin brings to the bullpen, and his ability to pitch in key moments of the game.”

Jepsen was coming off a season in which he made a career high 74 appearances. Overall, he pitched to a 0-2 mark with a 2.63 ERA (19-ER/65-IP) while striking out 75.

McGee Requires Elbow Surgery:

The injury bug that derailed the team to open the 2014 season was back to make life difficult on new Manager Kevin Cash. In mid-December it was announced that McGee had arthroscopic surgery on his left elbow on Friday to remove a loose body.

The news meant that Kevin Cash would have to go to spring training looking for a closer. McGee spent the final 3 1/2-months of the 2014 season in that role. McGee was also coming off one of the best years ever for a Rays reliever going 5-2 with a 1.89 ERA and 19 saves in 73 appearances.

Rays Trade Zobrist To Athletics:

Ben Zobrist was entering his final season with the Rays and due to make $7.5MM. On January 10, 2015, Zobrist and Yunel Escobar were dealt to the Oakland Athletics. In exchange the Rays received John Jaso and minor leaguers Boog Powell and Daniel Robertson.

“It’s an emotional and meaningful day as we bid farewell to Ben Zobrist and thank him for everything he’s meant to the Rays organization,” said Rays President of Baseball Operations Matt Silverman. “Any description of his value, talent and character would understate how we feel about Ben, and we consider ourselves fortunate for all our great moments together.”

A big component of the trade was moving Yunel Escobar and his remaining $13MM.  Not to mention his somewhat difficult locker room demeanor, which could negatively impact first year Manager Kevin Cash.

Escobar, once though as the shortstop of the future, was coming off a dismal season in which he ranked as one of the worst defensive shortstop in the game. Much of his issues seemed to focus on his effort as much as diminished skills.

Robertson, 20 years old at the time of the trade, was ranked as the Oakland Athletics top prospect by both Baseball America and MLB.com. He spent the 2014 season in Class-A (Stockton) where he hit .302/.402/471 with 15 homers in 642 plate appearances. He entered 2016 as the 66th best prospect in baseball by Baseball America and Baseball Prospectus and #65 by MLB.com.

Powell was ranked as the #11 prospect in the Athletics organization by MLB.com. He split
the 2014 season between Class-A Beloit and Stockton. He led the A’s system with a .343 batting average (108-for-315) and a .451 on-base percentage.

Jaso, was coming off a 2014 season in which he batted .264 (81-for-307) with nine home runs and 40 RBI in 99 games for Oakland. All 79 of his starts came facing right handed pitchers.  Both the 2013 (final 33 games) and 2014 seasons (final 60 games) ended prematurely due to concussions.

Cabrera Signed As Team’s New Shortstop:

With the trade of Yunel Escobar and Ben Zobrist, the Rays were hoping to find a shortstop and a switch-hitter. In Asdrubal Cabrera they got both. Cabrera signed a 1-year/$7.5MM deal.

Off-Season Trades Give Farm A Boost:

The Rays farm system had fallen to 20th in MLB as ranked by Baseball America prior to the 2014 season. They improved to 12th best after several off-season deals added much needed talent. Eight of the players acquired  joined the Rays MLB Pipeline Top 20 List.

Baseball Prospectus ranked the Rays farm system as the 26th best in MLB heading into the 2014 season. All the trades noted above only bumped them to 24th heading into the 2015 season.

“Previously considered one of the gold standards for developing minor-league depth and augmenting the major-league roster with homegrown talent, the Rays minor-league system has fallen on hard times. Even after acquiring big ticket items Daniel Robertson and Steven Souza (as the headliners returning for Ben Zobrist and Wil Myers, respectively) the system still lacks an anchor—a role not filled by Willy Adames, the system’s top prospect before Matthew Silverman started putting his stamp on the organization.” – Baseball Prospectus Trading big leaguers such as Wil Myers, David Price and Ben Zobrist rebuilt a farm system that was running dry thanks to unproductive drafts–even a 2011 class that included 10 picks among the first 60. Tampa’s system features depth but few sure things. – Baseball America Rays Ready For Cash’s First Spring:

A lot of work was done in the off-season to add to the expected opening day roster. Below is how the team stacked up as they reported to spring training:

Starting Rotation:  Alex Cobb, Chris Archer, Drew Smyly, Jake Odorizzi,  and Alex Colome.

Bullpen: Brad Boxberger, Kevin Jepsen, Ernestor Frieri, Jeff Beliveau, Steve Geltz, Kirby Yates.

Infield: James Loney, Nick Franklin, Asdrubal Cabrera, Evan Longoria, and Rene Rivera.

Outfield: Desmond Jennings, Kevin Kiermaier, and Steve Souza Jr.

The bench would have John Jaso (DH), Brandon Guyer, Logan Forsythe, David DeJesus, and Bobby Wilson.

Disabled List: Jake McGee (elbow) and Matt Moore (elbow)

Next:

This opening day planned roster would look very different after a slew of injuries hit. The injury bug carried on into the 2015 season, but the team got off to a good start. Eventually, the injuries caught up to the Rays and they finished the year 80-82. Some good, some bad. Next up, spring training injuries and the 2015 season will be reviewed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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