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It’s Do-or-Die for John Groce and the Illini

Illini Coach John Groce could use a drink before the season has even started.

John Groce seems like a really good dude. The kind of guy I would be down to grab a drink with and talk with about more than just hoops. Much of the time, though, good guys finish last, and that unfortunately seems to the place where Groce is headed.

Groce can coach. Damn well, I might add. His 13-seeded Ohio Bobcats, led by point guard D.J. Cooper (a Chicago product), took down Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr.’s Michigan squad in the first round of the 2012 NCAA Tournament and cruised to the Sweet 16 before losing an overtime thriller to top-seeded North Carolina. Given his great success at such a small school (his 2010 Ohio team also won a tournament game as a 14-seed), his energy, his strong Midwest recruiting ties and his background – he was Thad Matta’s right-hand man for seven seasons at Xavier and Ohio State – Groce was one of the hottest coaching commodities on the market – a truly perfect fit for an Illini program coming off yet another disappointing season under Bruce Weber.

When Athletic Director Mike Thomas hired then 40-year-old Groce as his program’s next head coach just days after Ohio’s loss to UNC, fans were excited, and rightfully so. Groce immediately put his recruiting abilities on the Illinois map by getting a transfer commitment from one of the top players in the Missouri Valley Conference – Rayvonte Rice. He then landed a top-15 recruiting class for 2013 by bringing in five ESPN Top-100 recruits (only one – Malcolm Hill – was a Bruce Weber recruit).

For Groce, it was an extremely impressive start to his tenure, which he followed up with a 7-seed and first-round win in the 2013 NCAA Tournament. Sure, he inherited a pretty experienced roster, led by seniors Brandon Paul, D.J. Richardson and Tyler Griffey, but Groce turned a team that had missed the NIT into a top-30 team in one season. With the big-time recruiting class coming in, it was all sunshine and rainbows in Champaign.

And then the 2013-14 season started, and that sunshine and those rainbows quickly turned into darkness and despair. The aforementioned recruiting class underwhelmed miserably in its freshman year, what with only three of the five former high school stars averaging double digit minutes and only one of them playing over 15 minutes per game. The Illini finished the regular season losing 12 of their final 18 games (with an eight game skid in the middle) before falling to Clemson in the second round of the NIT, making them the first Illini team to miss the NCAA tournament in consecutive seasons since 1991-92.

On top of that, Groce and his staff have dug themselves into a deep recruiting rut that they simply have not been able to claw out of. Sure, they landed 2014 recruit Leron Black and solidified another top-15 class for 2015, but they have missed on way too many potentially program-changing players: Cliff Alexander (Kansas), Quentin Snider (Louisville), Jalen Brunson (Villanova), Jawun Evans (Oklahoma State), Eiljah Thomas (Texas A&M), Charles Matthews (Kentucky), Marcus LoVett Jr. (St. John’s), Dylan Ennis (transferred from Villanova to Oregon), and Johnny Hill (transferred from UT-Arlington to Purdue). A majority of those players are point guards, a position Groce so desperately needs as the biggest strength for his team given how much he loves to utilize the high pick-and-roll in his offense. Needless to say, Illini fans everywhere are starting to get restless and impatient.

After losing Tracy Abrams, their point guard and team captain, to excruciating injuries in back-to-back seasons, junior Jaylon Tate will step in as the only active point guard on the 2015-16 roster. The Simeon product is one of the worst shooters in the Big Ten, which spells serious trouble for an offense that relies so heavily on point guards who have the ability to make quick decisions in high pick-and-roll situations. If Tate still cannot shoot, or if he’s afraid to shoot (only attempted 76 shots in 652 minutes last season), defenses will just sag off and force him to beat them by converting open looks from the wing – not a good formula for Illinois at all.

And if matters can’t get any worse, junior shooting guard Kendrick Nunn, who was likely the favorite to step in as Tate’s backup at the very least, is out for 6-8 weeks with a broken thumb; starting forward Leron Black is out 4-6 weeks with a knee injury; and junior forward Darius Paul was kicked off the team.

Between freshman guard Jalen Coleman-Lands (coming off a stress fracture in his leg) and freshman forwards Aaron Jordan and D.J. Williams, none of whom are actual point guards, someone will have to step up and fill the void at backup point guard, or even starting point guard if Tate cannot get it done. Williams played a point-forward role during his senior year at Simeon, but Groce would have to find a way to mix it up with defensive assignments if he goes that route, as Williams will not be able to guard point guards at the collegiate level just yet.

Sadly enough, the fate of Illinois’ season is in jeopardy before it has even started. They are in serious position to miss the NCAA tournament for the third straight season – totally unheard of for a program of this caliber. If they are going to right this ship, Groce will need last year’s inefficient offense (ranked 129th nationally) to somehow make strides without an efficient and effective point guard. He’ll need some guys to play out of position, step up and find ways to scrape out as many wins as possible in the brutally tough Big Ten.

This season could be what defines John Groce’s tenure as head coach in Champaign. Right now, fair or not, I don’t like his chances of getting out of this alive.

Someone let him know that I’ll buy him that drink whenever he wants.

What does drafting Marquis Teague mean for the Bulls’ future?

The Chicago Bulls drafted arguably the best player available, Marquis Teague, with the 29th overall pick on Thursday night. What does it mean for their future?

Marquis Teague: Welcome to Chicago. I’m still not totally sure how I feel about this pick (I definitely like it for short-term purposes), but I am sure about this: the Bulls didn’t even think twice about it. They worked out around a dozen different players leading up to the draft, and not one of them was named Marquis Teague. Clearly, no one, including the Bulls’ front office, thought Teague would slip all the way to no. 29 in the draft. Everyone knew we were going after a guard. Was it going to be Doron Lamb, the sharpshooter from Kentucky? Was it going to be Will Barton, the long, versatile 2-guard from Memphis? Was it going to be Tyshawn Taylor, the emotional combo-guard from Kansas? I personally had no clue. But when the Bulls were officially on the clock, and Teague was still available, it just seemed inevitable. Even without those pre-draft workouts, the Bulls liked him the most simply because he was the best player available.

As stated in last week’s post on the Bulls’ draft prospects, Teague has arguably the highest ceiling of any point guard in this draft. If he had stayed one more year at Kentucky, he might have been a top-10 pick, so he’s great value for the us at the end of the first round. Teague’s a great athlete with a 40.5″ max vertical leap and has drawn some comparisons to Steve Francis. He loves to get out and run and break down defenses off the dribble. He’s also a great finisher at the rim, has solid vision, excels in pick-and-roll situations and can knock down midrange jumpers here and there. However, his decision-making in the half court, as well as his long-range jump shooting (shot 32% from three at Kentucky last season), needs work. He won’t become a true threat next season until he can consistently hit three-point shots to keep defenses honest and make them play up on him. Teague is an incredible talent nonetheless, and quarterbacking the Kentucky Wildcats to a national championship as a freshman should probably count for something. But as fun as it is to analyze a player’s skill level, what does this pick mean for the Bulls?

The biggest elephant in the room, other than Derrick Rose’s health, amongst fans and the Bulls organization alike has been the question about the Bulls back court. Most fans thought C.J. Watson’s time in Chicago should come to an end, but no one really had any idea about what Gar Forman and John Paxson were thinking — until tonight. With Teague ready to step in, I think it’s safe to say that Watson will be gone. He had his moments, yes, but for every good thing he did on the court, there were two or three bad things. Watson was completely exposed this past season, as he started 25 total games while Derrick Rose nursed injuries. The poor decision-making, the iffy shot selection and the terrible playoff performance ultimately put him in our doghouse, so there’s no better time for a high-upside point guard like Teague to come in and take over Watson’s spot. If, for some reason, the Bulls decide to keep Watson for one more year, then John Lucas will undoubtedly be let go, and Teague will get his minutes while Rose recovers from knee surgery. What will Teague’s primary role be next season, though, if the Bulls do follow the road that all signs point to and not bring Watson back?

Obviously, the Bulls must have at least three point guards on next year’s roster with Rose set to miss a majority of the regular season. Teague is a lock. But John Lucas and Mike James? Not so much. After Lucas’ horrendous performance against Philadelphia in round one and Tom Thibodeau’s surprising stubbornness to give Mike James any chance whatsoever to prove himself, it’s hard to see why either of them would be brought back. Maybe one (probably Lucas), but not both. I can’t imagine Teague being thrown into the fire immediately and starting for three months, so his primary role will almost certainly entail being the backup point guard before and after Rose comes back. That being said, someone will have to be the guy to get his name called during the starting lineups. With the $3.7 million the Bulls would save by not picking up Watson’s option, a guy like Kirk Hinrich, whom I mentioned in last week’s post about potential offseason decisions, would be a perfect bridge (there are other options out there, but he comes to mind first because of how much fans in Chicago love him). However, if Teague, or even John Lucas, ends up getting the starting nod on opening night, it wouldn’t shock me — stranger things have happened. And that includes Miles Plumlee getting drafted by the Pacers before Arnette Moultrie, Perry Jones III, Draymond Green AND Marquis Teague (seriously, what an AWFUL pick).

As far as the long-term future is concerned, this pick kind of confuses me. As @NBATradeIdeas tweeted last night, the Bulls drafted a point guard whose ceiling is Rose’s backup for the next five years or so. Why didn’t they take a flier on a potential shooting guard? Consider what blogabull.com’s Alex Sonty wrote:

The Bulls already have an MVP point guard whom the organization expects to log 35+ MPG for at least the next six years, so no matter how good Teague becomes, when does this value get added?

Honestly, I don’t know; and the Bulls probably don’t either, but will do their damnedest to sell you on “can’t have too much depth” narrative.

What I can do is speculate is that the Bulls are questioning Rose’s long-term viability as a point guard, as the 76ers did with Allen Iverson at an inflection point; that maybe more minutes in small backcourts in shifts as the secondary ball handler — the de facto SG — is optimal for his health, so he can rest more often on offense.

If Sonty’s hunch is true, then my analysis of this pick changes completely. Did the Bulls draft Teague with the notion that Rose will soon become the shooting guard of the future? None of us will really know the answer to this question until we see what kind of impact Teague will have during the earlier part of his career in a Bulls uniform. Of course, it’s all speculation, but it’s still something for us Bulls fans to ponder deeply.

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The Blackhawks’ Draft Day Steal

Teuvo Teravainen may prove to be a huge draft day steal some day within the next few years.

Don’t look now, but the Chicago Blackhawks may have just gotten the biggest steal in the first round of the NHL entry draft on Friday night.  Teuvo Teravainen, a 17-year-old left winger out of Finland, is considered by many within the NHL circle to be the number two ranked skater in all of Europe and, according to ESPN Insider’s and former NHL scout Grant Sonier, was the 5th best prospect overall in this year’s draft (also ranked 5th by McKeen’s, 12th by Hockey News and 7th by TSN).

Before the draft, the Hawks thought they stood no chance at getting Teravainen with the 18th pick that they didn’t even bring a nameplate for him. No one in their right mind saw him slipping this far in the draft, but once he did, it was a no-brainer. Yes, the Hawks could use some more depth at defense. And yes, goaltending is a pretty major need right now (although they drafted two goaltenders in the seventh round to make up for not taking one earlier). But it’s not often that you see a player of Teravainen’s skill level fall into your lap at no. 18, so I can’t help but praise Stan Bowman’s decision to deviate from the pattern of selecting defenseman (eight of the first 10 picks were defensemen) and go with the best player available. As Teravainen continues to draw eerily similar comparisons to Patrick Kane because of his amazing puck wizardry, one would have to think about the possibility that Bowman will start (if he hasn’t already after his most recent drunken escapade during Mifflin weekend at Madison) shopping Kane around in order to make up for the holes that the Hawks haven’t seemed to fill up over the past two seasons.

All signs of Teravainen’s draft stock slippage point to his undersized body (5’11” and only 165 pounds). He will need to improve his muscular strength in order to wrestle physically with bigger defensemen along the boards, as well as his defensive game in order to become a complete hockey player. The Hawks front office, as well as a number of analysts, are confident that he will put on the necessary weight with time and will continue to fill out that thin frame of his. In spite of his small stature, Teravainen managed to put up 18 points (11 goals, 7 assists) in 40 games during the regular season as a member of the Jokerit professional team in Finland and win Rookie of the Year (Jarmo Wasara Trophy), which is quite impressive considering the fact that the league (SM-liiga) is filled with men who have been playing professional hockey for years, many of whom even played in the NHL.

McKeen’s Greg Burstyn claims Teravainen has “the best hands in the draft” which, along with his lightning-quick speed, fantastic on-ice vision, superior hockey sense and tremendous offensive skill set, will give him the ability to become an offensive stud in the NHL one day. Here is what TSN had to say about him:

He is elusive and is like a chess player in that he can anticipate moves 3-4 steps ahead of his opponent. Excellent agility and balance & he maneuvers away from danger and opposing checks very well. Great hands in traffic and he’s able to make any type of pass under any circumstance and he has a very good shot that makes him a multiple threat when he’s on the ice.

And that’s not all Teravainen brings to the table. This past season, he was running the power play for Jokerit at age 17, proving that he’s not intimated by the physicality of professional hockey and could be one of the long-term answers to a Blackhawk power play unit that ranked 26th out of 30 in PP% last season (15.2%), dead last in PP% (5.3%) during the playoffs and, to be honest, probably won’t improve all that much next season and beyond unless Bowman makes some legitimate moves.

With Teravainen set to return to Helsinki, Finland next season, it may be one or two years before we see him in a Blackhawk uniform. But once that day comes, another Blackhawk star may be born, only to add to the offensive juggernaut that Chicago has tried to rebuild since losing a good chunk of its players after the magical 2009-2010 season. There’s too much potential here for us not to be excited about what lies ahead.

Click here for a Teuvo Teravainen compilation.

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White Sox Candidates for the 2012 All-Star Game

After a successful first half of the season, the White Sox are primed to send multiple players to the Midsummer Classic.

If you had told me last winter that the Chicago White Sox would essentially be in first place in the AL Central (only a half game back) and 2.5 games ahead of the pre-season overwhelming favorite Detroit Tigers by late June, I would have considered hosting an intervention for you in which the possibility of sending you to an insane asylum would have been discussed. To think that the Sox would be this good halfway through the season was unfathomable, and I’d bet that most Sox fans would agree. Players who were seeing the baseball as a golf ball last year are seeing it as a beach ball this year. The runs are up, the bullpen ERA is down, and there’s many guys worthy of making the All-Star team. It’s an exciting time to be a Sox fan, and there’s a lot to look forward to over the next few months and beyond. That being said, let’s take a look at who those worthy players are:

Chris Sale, Starting Pitcher

Given the way he has pitched this season, one would have to think that Chris Sale has been pitching at the major league level for years. His path to stardom is well ahead of schedule, as he has looked nothing short of magnificent thus far this season. Sale ranks second in the American League in wins (tied at 8), third in ERA (2.47), fourth in WHIP (1.00), third in opponent’s batting average (.197) and fifth in K/9 (9.19, ranking him ahead of C.C. Sabathia, Justin Verlander AND Felix Hernandez). He has, without question, been one of the two or three best pitchers in the American League , and I don’t see him slowing down. Don’t be surprised if he not only makes the All-Star team but also starts for the AL come July 10. Clearly, most baseball fans would like to see Justin Verlander take the mound, but if he ends up making a start for Detroit less than five days before the game (or just decides he doesn’t want to pitch), Jim Leyland would have no problem telling him off. That would leave Sale, who deserves the starting nod as much as anyone.

Jake Peavy, Starting Pitcher

You can’t mention Chris Sale without mentioning Jake Peavy these days. The other half of this dynamic duo is in the middle of a coming of age season as he attempts to win the second Cy Young Award of his, what many would consider a very unlucky, and somewhat disappointing, career. After a number of shoulder injuries and a nearly career-ending experimental surgery in which the surgeon had to reattach a key tendon to the rear of his right shoulder, Peavy is finally back to old form. At 6-3, he ranks fourth in the American League in innings pitched (98.2), sixth in ERA (2.74), second in WHIP (0.97), fourth in opponent’s batting average (.198) and ninth in both strikeouts (83) and BB/9 (2.10). Of his 14 starts, 12 (repeat: 12) of them have been considered quality. Coincidentally, those other two are the only two starts in which he has given up more than three earned runs all season long. Amazing.

Peavy’s miracle season has been one of the best stories in baseball this year. After all he has been through over the past few years, making the All-Star team would really be something special.

A.J. Pierzynski, Catcher

I can’t remember the last time A.J. Pierzynski had a bad season in the majors, if ever, but it sure as hell wasn’t while wearing a White Sox uniform. Year after year, the dude just puts up solid offensive numbers across the board and continues to stay vastly underrated. It has been six years since Pierzynski’s made the All-Star team, but this might be the year he finally breaks that streak. He leads all AL catchers in RBIs (41), total bases (110) and runs scored (32 — tied with Minnesota’s Joe Mauer and Texas’ Mike Napoli), and he trails only Mauer in hits with 62 and Boston’s Jarrod Saltalamacchia in home runs with 12. Who knew the 35-year-old backstop still had it in him? With Napoli undeservedly leading the way in voting so far, it’s going to be tough for A.J. to beat out two of three great catchers in Mauer, Baltimore’s Matt Wieters and Saltalamacchia, but stranger things have certainly happened.

Paul Konerko, First Baseman

Just another under-the-radar season for Paulie Konerko. Time and time again, Konerko seems to remind all baseball fans that, although he’s getting older, he has no intentions whatsoever of slowing down. If you sat here and told me that he will continue to hit like this until the age of 40, I’d probably agree. But regardless of how good we think he’ll be in four or five years, right now is all that really matters. Through the first half of the season, Konerko is leading the American League with an incredulous .354 batting average and .426 on-base percentage. He also ranks fourth in hits (81) and slugging percentage (.585), which are both good for first among first basemen. Konerko leads all first basemen in home runs with 13 (Adam Dunn and Billy Butler are designated hitters, so they don’t count in my mind) and total bases (134), and he’s fourth in RBIs (39). It never ceases to amaze me how great this guy continues to be. With Prince Fielder likely to get the starting nod at first base, Rangers’ manager Ron Washington will have slow-starting guys like Albert Pujols, Adrian Gonzalez, and Mark Teixeira to choose from in addition to Konerko. I’d like to think that the current AL batting leader will be at the very top of his list.

Adam Dunn, Designated Hitter

Everyone knows the Adam Dunn story by now – he batted .159 last season and sucked beyond anyone’s wildest imaginations. But, 2011 proved to be a fluke, as Dunn has reverted back to old form, smashing baseballs out of any and every ballpark like it’s no one’s business. He leads the majors with 23 dingers and 55 walks. He’s also third in the AL in RBIs with 53 (first among DH), seventh in slugging percentage at .554 and tenth in total bases at 133 (both rank him third among DH). The only thing really holding Sox fans back from bowing down to this beast is his terrible .225 batting average and 109 strikeouts, which is 26 more than the next player. However, a low average, high strikeout totals and a boatload of home runs has been the story of Dunn’s 12-year career, so it just comes with the territory. He deserves to be considered for the All-Star team, that’s for sure, but there’s a lot of competition at DH this year. I smell a candidate for the Final Vote, but only time will tell.

Who I would pick: Chris Sale, Jake Peavy, Paul Konerko, A.J. Pierzysnki 

There should not even be a debate about Sale and Peavy — they’ve been two of the most consistent pitchers in all of baseball this year, and without them, the White Sox would arguably be a last place team right now. They’ve been that valuable.

If it was up to me, Paul Konerko would be starting at first base for the American League in a few weeks. But, seeing as how there are millions of other fans out there voting, my opinion pretty much means jack. Nevertheless, even when Prince Fielders wins the vote, Konerko should easily make the roster as the second or third first baseman. If he’s not, then Ron Washington is clearly still blowing lines during his free time and is only picking players based on name alone.

The most debatable guy on my list is Pierzynski. His stats alone should make him an All-Star, but because Mike Napoli is projected to win the starting gig, one spot gets taken from a guy who actually deserves to make the team. Both teams usually bring three catchers to the All-Star game though, so Pierzynski should still make it because of how valuable he has been to the Sox lineup.

I’m not picking Dunn because, assuming David Ortiz wins the vote for DH, there are still too many other guys at the position worthy of making the team. You have to remember that every team gets at least one All-Star. Coincidentally, the two best options along with Dunn (Kansas City’s Billy Butler and Toronto’s Edwin Encarnacion) have each been the best players for their respective teams this season, so there’s a good chance that one of them makes it instead. Even if Dunn doesn’t make the team, he still has a shot at making Robinson Cano’s Home Run Derby squad and, as I said before, there’s a possibility he makes it to the Final Vote, which would leave his fate in the hands of the fans.

Who will be picked: Chris Sale, Jake Peavy, Paul Konerko, A.J. Pierzynski

Dunn won’t make it for the reasons I just stated. If Pierzynski doesn’t make it, it’s for reasons very similar to Dunn — there must be an All-Star from every team. Because of that, Joe Mauer who, as you know, plays for the horrific Minnesota Twins, should be a no-brainer for the American League staff as the backup catcher and lone Twin to make the team. But, assuming the AL goes with three catchers, Pierzynski should easily get selected over Wieters and Saltalamacchia. If he doesn’t, it’ll just go to show you how truly under-appreciated he is around the league.

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Cubs Candidates for the 2012 All-Star Game

Like every MLB team, the Cubs are guaranteed to get at least one All-Star this season.

Newsflash: the Cubs are bad. Like really bad. With the Crosstown Series officially over until next season, the only things Cubs fans can really look forward to are seeing Anthony Rizzo in white with blue pinstripes and spending Saturday afternoons (or any day of the week for that matter) getting absolutely hammered in Wrigleyville before and after games. Life can be worse, that’s for sure, but having a winning team to root for wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world either.

It makes me sick to think that just four years ago, this was a team that sent a total of eight players to the All-Star Game. Now, we’re struggling to find more than a couple of guys who deserve to even be in consideration. With the Midsummer Classic just three weeks away, baseball fans on the North Side will finally get to watch some legitimate baseball (for one night), and at least one of the players participating in that game will reign from the corner of Addison and Clark. Which Cub deserves to be the team’s likely lone all-star, you ask? Well, let’s break down their top candidates and see who we come up with.

Ryan Dempster, Starting Pitcher

As crazy as it sounds, Ryan Dempster has quietly been one of the five or six best pitchers in the National League this season. His 2.11 ERA ranks him third overall for starting pitchers across the Majors, and nine out of his 12 starts have been considered quality ones (6+ innings pitched, 3 earned runs or less). His WHIP (walks plus hits divided by innings pitched) thus far (1.02) is the lowest it has EVER been in his 15-year career, which is an amazing feat for a 35-year-old pitcher who has always had some trouble finding the plate and preventing hitters from getting on base.

Unfortunately, Dempster only has three wins to show for his incredible first half (all of which came in his last three starts), but that has almost nothing to do with him and everything to do with the abysmal Cubs hitters, who have failed to score more than three runs in seven of his 12 starts. But wins aside, Dempster has been far and away the best pitcher on the Cubs and will undoubtedly make any contender happy for the last two months of the season when he gets traded. As he sits on the DL with mysterious “back tightness,” one would have to suspect that Dempster’s time in Chicago may be coming to an end sooner than expected. Whether he manages to stay a Cub until July 10 or not remains to be seen, but he definitely deserves a spot on this list.

Starlin Castro, Shortstop

Yes, he ranks second among all every day players in errors with 12 (tied with Giants’ Brandon Crawford and one behind Dodgers’ Dee Gordon). And yes, he ranks 19th among 24 every day shortstops with a .956 fielding percentage. But Starlin Castro is still the best pure hitting shortstop in the National League (and arguably the ML), and that’s really all that matters when it comes to making the All-Star team. He currently leads the Cubs in hits (85), average (.302) and total bases (125), and he’s second on the team in runs scored (33), RBIs (38)  and stolen bases (16). The only thing holding him back from true stardom is his inability to walk (he has only six walks with a horrendous .316 on-base percentage), but that’s another conversation for another day.

At the moment, Castro is sitting in third place among NL shortstops in all-star voting (~700,000 votes behind Rafael Furcal for first), making it very unlikely that we’ll see him starting for the National League in a few weeks. It looks as if Castro’s all-star fate will rest in the hands of the players, coaches and managers around the league. With the numbers he has put up so far this season, it shouldn’t surprise anyone if Castro gets selected for his second consecutive all-star game.

Bryan Lahair, First Base

Once upon a time, Bryan Lahair was a 32nd round nobody out of St. Petersburg Junior College. Ten years, two short Major League stints, a Pacific Coast League MVP and a whole lot of perseverance later, he has become one of the most pleasant surprises in baseball. With the Cubs in rebuilding mode, Lahair was called upon to be the guy-who-plays-first-base-against-righties-only until Anthony Rizzo came to town. Then, it would be to the bench as a utility player/pinch-hitter or maybe even back to the minors. Clearly, Lahair never got that memo, as he obliterated major league pitching throughout the month of April and made it loud and clear that he is more than worthy of starting every day at the major league level, whether it be playing an unnatural position in right field for the Cubs or playing first base/DH elsewhere. He leads the club in home runs (tied with Soriano at 13), on-base percentage (.375) and slugging percentage (.563), and he’s second on the team in extra-base hits (25).

Due to the departures of Adrian Gonzalez, Prince Fielder and Albert Pujols from the National League over the past two years, as well as Ryan Howard’s torn achilles tendon, the crop of talent at first base is at an all-time low, which means there’s no better time for Lahair to accomplish something no Cubs fan would have ever expected him to accomplish coming into this season: making the All-Star team. Joey Votto and Freddie Freeman are unquestionably the two best first baseman in the NL right now and are virtual locks to make the All-Star team. But after them, you’d have to make a very strong case to convince me that Lahair is NOT the next best player at his position (Adam Laroche may have more RBIs, but the average and OPS aren’t even close, in favor of Lahair). If the retired Tony LaRussa decided he wanted three first baseman on his All-Star roster, I would like to think that Lahair would be his third guy. After witnessing a journeyman knuckleballer become the frontrunner for the NL Cy Young Award while throwing 41 consecutive scoreless innings and back-to-back complete game one-hitters (that would be R.A. Dickey if you haven’t caught on), nothing in baseball would shock me anymore. And that includes Bryan Lahair becoming an All-Star.

Alfonso SorianoOutfield

The way Soriano’s career has panned out in Chicago over the past few years, never did I think he’d make it to this list. But here we are, near the end of June, and Soriano leads the team in home runs (13), RBIs (43) and extra-base hits (26), and he ranks second in slugging percentage (.485) and OPS (.800). He has also been one of the best hitters in baseball over the last month (10 homers, 21 RBIs, 18 runs and 61 total bases). Who knew? Whether you think Soriano deserves to be in consideration for an All-Star selection or not, I had to put him on here because, after all the negative things I’ve said about him over the years, he really has been one of the few bright spots for the Cubs this season, and I commend him for it. I understand that there are a plethora of outfielders to choose from, so he probably doesn’t stand a chance at making the team anyways. But for the first time in four years, I am actually proud of Fonsi. That should count for something.

Who I would pick: Starlin Castro 

Although all of these guys are equally deserving in my mind (except for maybe Soriano), I would pick Castro because a) as I said before, he has become the best pure hitting shortstop in the NL, and b) there is a severe lack of depth at the shortstop position this season. With Troy Tulowitzki out for the next 2+ months with a torn groin (ouch?), and Jose Reyes and Jimmy Rollins stinking it up worse than a fat kid’s dutch oven, Castro is easily the best candidate of all (and that’s assuming the mildly overrated Rafael Furcal wins the starting gig). If Castro fails to make the All-Star team, it’ll just be stupid.

Who will be picked: Starlin Castro 

If the NL decides to go with two first baseman (or picks Laroche as the third guy), making Lahair the odd man out, it wouldn’t be the end of the world. And because there are so many great pitchers to choose from (R.A. Dickey, Matt Cain, Madison Bumgarner, Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, Cole Hamels, Lance Lynn, James McDonald, Johnny Cueto, Clayton Kershaw, Zach Greinke, and Johan Santana, among others), the NL can survive without Dempster as well. That, along with my reasoning above, makes picking Starlin Castro the most logical choice. Since the Cubs are so bad, they will almost certainly get only one all-star (if they get more, I’ll be pleasantly stunned). Ultimately, this is how it will probably play out.

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