Lions Around the Dorm- Week 6

In this week’s Around the Dorm, the “Ref,” Alex Wolfe, challenges Correspondent Kevin Black, Correspondent Chris Molicki and Correspondent Peter Fiorilla to answer questions about which MLB collapse was the most significant, whether the Rays or the Cardinals have the best chance of making something of their wild card appearances and which NFL team is the best fit for Stanford QB Andrew Luck.

1. The Boston Red Sox and Atlanta Braves just managed to complete two of the biggest late-season collapses in MLB history, with both missing the playoffs after losing on the last game of the season. Which team’s collapse is a bigger deal?

KB: With all due respect to the Atlanta Braves, who had an amazing summer with their pitching, the Red Sox were the bigger deal. While their “choking” happened during September, it all really started in March/April. Before the season started, there was a ridiculous amount of hype placed around the team. All 45 baseball analysts on ESPN predicted them to win the division. Forty-two of them had the Sox in the World Series, and of the 42, 33 had them winning it all. So what happened? They opened the season 2-12. The winter signing of outfielder Carl Crawford was supposed to bring the team to the next level, along with the signing of Adrian Gonzalez. While Crawford’s batting average of .255 was OK, he occasionally looked lost and couldn’t really deliver when they needed him to (that came from Jacoby Ellsbury). Also, the pitching was at times a joke to watch and wasn’t playoff-worthy. Josh Beckett was the best starter with a 2.89 ERA, but that was second to relief pitcher Alfredo Aceves. The ERAs of other starting pitchers with 10 or more starts includes 3.47, 3.48, 5.12, 5.54 and Jon Lester’s laughable 6.41. That alone is not playoff-worthy. The pressure that was there all season took its toll.

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CM: It’s clear that the Red Sox’s collapse is the bigger deal because of two main reasons. First, Boston’s schedule in the homestretch was not difficult at all. They had seven of their last 10 games come against the cellar-dwelling Orioles and only managed to win two of them, while their adversary, the Rays, had to face the Yankees, Blue Jays and the Sox themselves. The Braves, meanwhile, had to end their season with a series against the underrated Nationals and then the Phillies. The Cardinals caught them because they had the luxury of finishing with the Mets, Cubs and Astros. The second reason is that this is the team that everyone pegged to be the favorites to win the AL East. Their free-agent signings of Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford were expected to push an already potent lineup to be the best in the game. The preseason pitching staff of Beckett, Lester, Clay Bucholz, John Lackey and Daisuke Matsuzaka was expected to be one of the best in the majors. And Josh Bard and Jon Papelbon were supposed to consistently shut down the eighth and ninth innings. But they completely stopped playing in September and were huge underachievers, making theirs the worst collapse.

PF:  The Boston Red Sox’s late-season collapse is a much bigger deal than the Atlanta Braves’. It shows that the gap between big-budget and tiny-budget teams in the MLB is smaller than is often perceived. This year’s Boston team had a payroll of $161 million — nearly twice as much as the Braves’ and almost four times as large as the Rays’ — and featured household names like Adrian Gonzalez and David “Big Papi” Ortiz. Its failure to hold off this Rays team, depleted in the offseason due to salary-related problems, is not just embarrassing to the Red Sox. More importantly, it is inspiring to fans of small-market teams like the Oakland Athletics and Kansas City Royals — fans that might lose interest in the MLB without feel-good stories like the Rays’. Plus, a confidence deflator like Boston’s 7-27 September could have playoff ramifications for years to come if it causes turmoil in the front office (Terry Francona, the manager who led the Sox to their only two World Series, has been fired). Not much about the playoff picture will change if the Braves, who only have two postseason appearances in seven years, become worse.

AW: Kevin gets 3 for that great stat about all of the ESPN analyists picking the Sox and the fact that the pressure got to them. Chris and Peter both get 2, because I thought Chris’ point about the schedule was just as good as Peter’s about the salaries.

2. On the other side of things, the Tampa Bay Rays and the St. Louis Cardinals knocked the Sox and the Braves out of the playoffs, earning themselves wild card spots. Which of those two teams has the best chance of actually making something of their playoff appearance?

KB: This is a tough one, because they are both coming in on an emotional high. While the Cardinals do enough to win, I feel that the Rays will probably make more noise in the playoffs. They have the advantage of facing the Rangers, who knocked them out of the playoffs last year after pushing the series to the limit. The Rangers won that series solely on Cliff Lee’s arm (which in turn led them to the World Series). Cliff Lee is no longer there, but the Rangers still have the same talented hitters in Nelson Cruz and Josh Hamilton and pitchers C.J. Wilson and Neftali Feliz. Tampa hasn’t changed much either, except with the loss of Crawford, but their pitching has become a little bit stronger with new sensation Matt Moore joining their mainstays Jake Shields and David Price. Canceling out Lee and Crawford makes this a toss-up kind of series, which is what the Rays want and need after their miracle comeback. I like their chances more than the Cardinals’ chances versus the Phillies, who are perennial favorites to win it all. On paper, the Rangers should be included among the title contenders, but they are not.

CM: Both the Rays and the Cardinals are very good teams, but because of their playoff matchups, the Rays have the best chance of making some noise in the playoffs. Their top three starters — David Price, James Shields and Jeremy Hellickson — all have ERAs under four, which is better than the staff of their first-round opponent, the Texas Rangers, as well as the Yankees and Tigers. They also have a solid offense with Longoria, Upton, Zobrist and Joyce, who may not have the best averages but certainly know how to drive in a lot of runs. But their biggest weapon will be their momentum. In the final day of the season, they pulled off an improbable win by coming back from seven down in the eighth inning to win in extra innings. They’re riding high on this miracle victory and should be able to carry over their winning ways to the playoffs. The reason I don’t think the Cardinals can win a series is because they have to face the Phillies first. I find it hard to believe that the Cardinals’ pitching can match that of the Phillies, and the postseason is all about pitching.

PF: The Tampa Bay Rays have a better chance of doing some damage in the playoffs. Coming off of a historic comeback, the team certainly has momentum, and its young pitching staff is capable of outdoing the Texas Rangers’. Matt Moore, who is only 22, is proving to be a spectacular surprise for Tampa Bay. The Rays also proved their mettle in the AL’s toughest division and have a smart, keen manager in Joe Maddon. They came close to beating their first-round opponent, the Rangers, in last year’s ALDS, and I think they have a good chance of actually winning the series this year. The St. Louis Cardinals, on the other hand, are toast. Led by postseason veteran and MLB superstar Albert Pujols, St. Louis might actually be as good as or better than the Rays, but they won’t have a chance to show it against the Philadelphia Phillies. Philadelphia was the only team in baseball with more than 100 wins this season, and with good reason — their pitching staff is among the best in MLB history. The Rays are set for a postseason surge, but the Cardinals face a tough road ahead if they want to accomplish anything.

AW: I give Chris the 3, because  pitching wins championships. Kevin gets 2 for pointing out that the free agent losses match up with Texas and the Rays. Peter gets 1 because Moore is good but also untested in the playoffs.

3. QB Andrew Luck of Stanford is looking like he’s going to be the undisputed No. 1 overall pick when the NFL Draft rolls around next year, and, of course, talk of tanking (throwing) the season has begun for some of the bad teams around the league. Which team presents the best fit for Luck, and is tanking to get the top pick ever a good strategy?

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KB: Tanking only a month into a season is not the way to go. You have pretty much told your fans to give up and find a way to sell off their season tickets while the chances of landing Andrew Luck increase. We live in a world where we expect immediate results, and when a team is knowingly throwing it, it is a disrespect to the league and that team’s fans. Having said that, I feel that Andrew Luck’s best “fit” is in Miami. He will be walking into a system with a target receiver right there waiting in Brandon Marshall and a running back, in Reggie Bush, who is trying to prove he can be a every-down back. The defense is good but can be improved, and they have a core offensive line that is solid.  Yes, the learning-under-Peyton-Manning-in-Indy scenario sounds awesome, but this is a question of fit, and Miami fits because he goes into that situation not having to live under Peyton comparisons if he takes over. In Miami, he only has to perform and win.

CM: I think the best fit for Luck and where he ultimately winds up going is the Miami Dolphins. The Dolphins are a talented team, but have had some bad games so far, and it won’t get much better with a schedule that still includes the Jets, Bills, Giants, Patriots, Cowboys and Eagles. Miami won’t even have to tank to get Luck. The reason why Luck would thrive in Miami is because he would have a good amount of talent already surrounding him. Daniel Thomas is a bruising running back that will have a good career. Luck would be able to throw to the talented Brandon Marshall and have a safety blanket in Davone Bess. And with Mike Pouncey and Jake Long anchoring the line, he should be well protected. He could revive their fan base and make them competitive in the tough AFC East for years to come. However, I don’t think tanking is a good strategy. Players want to play to win, and the fans want them to as well, so you could hurt your relationships with players and fans. Also, there is no guarantee that tanking would get a top pick, especially if other teams do it too.

PF: Andrew Luck would do well in Kansas City, where QB Matt Cassel has dragged down an otherwise decent Chiefs team. Kansas City’s run game will be good next year with the return of Jamaal Charles, who will take a lot of pressure off Luck and the team’s passing game (last year, Charles came close to beating Jim Brown’s all-time yards per carry record). Kansas City also has a couple of decent targets for Luck to aim at, including Dwayne Bowe, who caught 15 TDs last year to set a new Chiefs franchise record. With a solid QB and a good draft next year, the Chiefs could be a playoff team in the AFC West, which would be great for both Luck and Kansas City. And Kansas City knows it, which is why they should throw the rest of their games to get 2012’s No. 1 draft pick. Fans paying money to see the team at Arrowhead Stadium might be upset to see losses, but in the long term, securing Luck is the best path back to the playoffs for the offensively deficient Chiefs.

AW: Chris gets 3 for bringing up Daniel Thomas as well as Davone Bess. Kevin gets 2 because Reggie Bush isn’t much of an asset anymore. Peter gets 1 because with all the money the Chiefs recently threw at Cassell, I can’t see them canning that project just yet.

Chris wins this week’s AtD, 8 – 7 – 4.