Lions around the dorm

After what many in the world of sports banter would call beginner’s luck, correspondent Andrew Amadeo is taking his maiden voyage as AtD referee. For this week eight showdown, Andrew has Sports Assistant Garrett Rasko-Martinis and Staff Writers Duncan Slobodzian and Brandon Lee discussing who has the best hurlers in baseball, who should be crowned NBA Most Valuable Player and how the Detroit Lions can possibly get any better.

1. Going into the 2009 MLB season, who has the best starting rotation and bullpen heading into the new year?

GR: I think the Boston Red Sox have the best all-around pitching staff in regard to both the starting rotation and the bullpen. While I don’t think they have the strongest rotation in baseball, they are carrying enough pitchers to account for injuries without throwing young, inexperienced pitchers into the fire. Josh Beckett is a dominating ace who has also won two championships. Jon Lester is still young but proved last year he has the stuff to be a very successful major leaguer. Daisuke Matsuzaka is coming off a great season too, although I doubt he can be as successful this season if he walks 94 guys again. After that, you have Brad Penny, a decent fourth starter; Clay Buchholz, who, despite a bad stretch last season, pitched a no-hitter in his second career major league start; or Justin Masterson, who the Red Sox expect good things from. Then there’s also Tim Wakefield, the prototypical fifth starter. The Red Sox bullpen is probably the most dominating on paper. Jonathan Papelbon is arguably the best closer in baseball, and with middle relievers like Kenji Okajima, Ramon Ramirez, Takashi Saito and possibly even John Smoltz if they need him to, they should be very efficient at holding on to their leading scores.

BL: I almost wanted to choose the Yankees, but there are a ton of question marks. So I’ll go with division rivals, the Tampa Bay Rays. The Rays are a year older and that much deadlier with playoff experience under their belts. Last season, none of the Rays starters had an ERA higher than 4.42, and that was Edwin Jackson, who is being replaced by David Price in the starting rotation. James Shields, Matt Garza and Scott Kazmir had ERAs under four and continue to get better. The only knock I have on the Ray’s bullpen is the lack of a lockdown closer. Right now, Troy Percival is their closer but a closer with an ERA of 4.53 isn’t one that would boost my confidence as a manager. Last year, the Rays used a closer by committee approach and that hurt them in the playoffs. Besides that, they have a solid lefty in J.P. Howell with an ERA of 2.22 and a few lockdown righties in Grant Balfour, Dan Wheeler and Chad Bradford, all of whom had an ERA less than 3.50.

DS: The Mets are second to none. Johan Santana is the best in the game, hands down. His 2008 season was stellar even if far too many of his quality starts were wasted to late-inning mini-meltdowns. Bring back reliable starters like Mike Pelfrey, John Maine and Oliver Perez (all of whom have another year of valuable experience under their belts), and you’ve got the makings of a dominant top-to-bottom staff. General Manager Omar Minaya dedicated the lion’s share of his energies this offseason to bolstering a league-worst bullpen. With the additions of J.J. Putz as a setup man (a bona fide closer) and record-setter Francisco “K-Rod” Rodriguez, the Mets have more than made up for the shelving of Billy Wagner. Perhaps more important in those deals, Minaya shed some of the middle-relief baggage – Scott Schoeneweis, Aaron Heilman and Joe Smith – that seemed to haunt the Mets in tight situations all summer long last year.

AA: Garrett gets 3 points here, analyzing the best pitching staff in the major leagues. Good work mentioning back-up starters. Lee gets 2 points for his stats but unfortunately, he pointed out the holes in the Rays pitching staff: their bullpen. Slobodzian gets 1 point for pointing out a team that has only four starters and a bullpen that lost two of their better middle relievers.

2. At this point in the NBA season, who is the front-runner for this season’s MVP?

GR: I will once again use my limited basketball knowledge to try and answer this question the best I can. I’m going to say that Dwayne Wade is the front-runner for MVP. While I think Kobe Bryant is the best all-around player in this discussion, Wade is completely carrying the Miami Heat on his back. LeBron and Kobe are both the central pieces of their individual teams, but have more talent around them than Wade. The Heat won 15 games last season with Wade missing most of the season with injuries, and this year they won 35 games with Wade in the lineup. He’s also playing solid defense, averaging two steals a game. If the season ended today, Kobe would be the biggest reason the Lakers are the best team in the West, and LeBron would be credited for leading the Cavaliers to the No. 1 seed in the East. However, Wade would absolutely be the reason the Heat own a playoff berth.

BL: LeBron James is going to win the MVP. Although Kobe Bryant and Dwayne Wade are making strong cases for themselves, King James is making the team the possible No. 1 seed in the Eastern conference with a record of 47-12 and ahead of the Celtics, who are currently without Kevin Garnett. Wade should probably be No. 2 because he doesn’t have that much help outside of Jamario Moon and occasionally Jermaine O’Neal. Wade is definitely doing the most with less and keeping his Miami Heat three games above .500. King James has elevated his team to the best record in the East with an amazing all-around game. James is averaging 28.5 points, 7.3 boards, seven assists and 1.2 blocks while playing near lockdown defense. So far, his numbers are slightly down from last year but he’s playing better defense and has become an even better leader.

DS: It’s gotta be the King, LeBron James. His physical stature is as unprecedented as the 28/7/7 he has been putting up as averages. He leads the league in scoring, and is best among all forwards in dimes. James appears more than happy to accept the proverbial “next Jordan” baton from Kobe, as Bryant enters the tail end of his career. James has already taken a couple cracks at postseason glory (we remember the 25 straight against the Pistons in the overtime thriller, and the 41 against the Celts in game seven, both on the road in hostile territory), but fallen short. Cleveland looks more primed for a June push than ever: The dynamics of the Cavs work completely differently than in the 2007 finals when they got swept by the veteran Spurs. Other players like Damon Williams are willing and able to ascend to the Scottie Pippen all-star level role.

AA: I give 3 points to Garrett again because he mentioned the significant impact D-Wade has had on his team. Brandon gets 2 again because of his numbers and reasoning, but he again pointed out that the Caviliers are better than a Celtics team that has been without Garnett for some time. Duncan gets 1 because he does not lead the league in scoring, and has not for a while. That honor goes to D-Wade, who you can count on as the MVP.

3. Most people have said Matthew Stafford is going No. 1 to the Detroit Lions in this year’s NFL draft. Considering this team went 0-16 last season, is this the right choice or should they consider someone else?

GR: I think there are a lot of ways to go with this question, and most of it has to do with just how many problems the Detroit Lions have and how weak the draft is, quarterback and running back wise. It is for that reason that I think they are better off drafting Jason Smith with the first pick. I’m not neglecting that the Lions are in desperate need of a quarterback, but I don’t think Stafford is the answer. I think the Lions are best served rebuilding their offensive line with a stud offensive tackle like Smith. With a good line, the Lions can focus on getting a good young quarterback next draft. With Calvin Johnson, they have the potential for a good passing game in the future. It’s hard to imagine the Lions led the league in anything, but Johnson did lead the league in receiving touchdowns with 12. The Lions have to think long term because no matter who they draft this year at best they’re going to win six games. The Lions have to draft a quarterback, but I think just because they have the first pick they shouldn’t settle on someone they’re not sure can be a solid performer in the NFL. They’re better off using the first pick to start rebuilding the offensive line and look to the next draft for a better quarterback class.

BL: Stafford is the right man for the job. Usually, I would suggest that the Lions should take an offensive tackle like Jason Smith with the first pick, but this draft is deep with offensive lineman. Games are always won in the trenches. Stafford is more accurate than Mark Sanchez and has more college experience. I doubt he’ll be a bust because he’s not coming out of college from a spread offense like Alex Smith or Vince Young. Stafford also doesn’t have the personality flaws of Ryan Leaf or Tim Couch. Stafford will be the quarterback of the future and the Lions could draft him some body guards in the second and third rounds.

DS: I like the pick. Stafford’s got a strong arm and has key leadership in a highly competitive conference that gets national exposure on practically a weekly basis. He’s got natural leadership instincts and a cerebral knack for playcalling. Overall, No. 1 quarterbacks are hit or miss, by definition. For every Peyton Manning, there’s going to be a David Carr: It’s tough to say Stafford is a surefire success. But then again, if you are working in the Detroit front office, you have to realize that the two days of the draft alone will not turn around your 0-16 like magic. It takes a combination of the NFL-grade talent already on the roster with due diligence in drafting players and picking up free agents during integral offseason time. Look at surprise turnaround success stories like the Miami Dolphins and the Atlanta Falcons – a playoff-quality year in the NFL is now as much about team chemistry as big name players.

AA: Garrett’s mention of the weak draft gives him the sweep. Brandon gets 2 for pointing out the personality and game smarts of Stafford, and Duncan gets 1 for saying that they should draft Stafford but pointing out that it will not significantly improve their team, so why draft him?

Garrett grabs the victory, 9-6-3