Why ND-Kentucky Was Special

Notre Dame-Kentucky was special. Even in the annals of special games, I felt like it was truly special.

After all, it was the most-watched cable TV broadcast of college basketball of all time, no small feat given last year’s national semifinals both aired on cable.

But merely talking about how many watched it does that game a disservice. And yes, I’m biased. I’m a Notre Dame fan. That Kentucky game was as close as ND basketball has come in my lifetime to really, honestly being a power program. It still stings that the Irish lost.

That game had so many layers to it. The most obvious layer to the outside observer was the dichotomy between the two programs.

Kentucky is known as the mercenary program, shuffling one-and-done players in and out each year and making a mockery of college basketball. (This year’s team doesn’t fit that mold as easily as past teams do, but for the sake of the narrative, few pointed that out.)

Notre Dame, of course, is the school that refuses to play ball in the cesspool of college basketball recruiting. Some may dispute the ‘do it the right way’ reputation the school has, but again, for the sake of the narrative, that’s how ND was portrayed. Their best two players were seniors. Three of their five starters had missed games for academic reasons during their career, something you’d never expect to hear at Kentucky. The roles in the morality play were clear.

The roles in the basketball game were clear, too. Notre Dame was small. They had no depth. Against the powerful front line of Kentucky, their move was clear: Bombs away from the outside and hope to catch fire. Kentucky was going to lock down the paint defensively, dominate the paint offensively and would need both a poor performance themselves and a near-perfect performance by ND to lose.

But a funny thing happened on the way to that narrative: The opposite was true.

It was Notre Dame who controlled the paint offensively, in a manner of speaking. By staying in constant motion with the ball and not putting anyone in the paint, the Irish kept UK from gaining a foothold there either. Their ball movement created attacking opportunities at the rim, and ND delivered. Time and time again the Irish went in for layups. They scored 20 of their first 26 second-half points on dunks or layups.

ND led for much of the way, as it turned out. At one point they got up by six. They did this all while shooting 4/14 from three-point land. There were a couple in there that were probably attributable to poor shot selection or UK’s defense, but many of the misses were the same wide-open looks ND’s gotten for itself all year. So much for needing to catch fire.

It turned out — and this really should be being addressed more — that it was, in fact, Kentucky that needed to play perfectly, at least over the last 12 minutes, to win. UK did not miss a field goal in that span. They hit their last six free throws. They did everything well when it mattered most, as you’d expect a championship team to do. It was very impressive.

My heart broke just a little bit when Jackson committed a blocking foul with six seconds left that allowed UK to hit the winning free throws, somewhat anticlimactically. It broke a little bit more when Jerian Grant’s desperation trey from the corner — a shot that if you watch it, it’s a freakin’ miracle he even got it off at all — went long. It didn’t break because Notre Dame missed out on what would have been the greatest win in its basketball history, and its greatest men’s sports win, period, in probably 20 years. It broke because I wanted to watch these guys play again.

Notre Dame was an absolute treat to anyone who loves basketball this year. While the ongoing media gripe this year was that college hoops is unwatchable these days, ND played a beautiful brand of basketball, one that I, for one, feel incredibly fortunate to have seen.

There was a sequence against UNC in the ACC title game that summed it up better than I ever could. ND was in the midst of rallying from down 64-56 with 8 minutes left when Bonzie Colson came up with a loose ball and batted it over to Jerian Grant in the left corner. Grant whipped it to Pat Connaughton at the top of the key, who whipped it to Demetrius Jackson at the elbow, who whipped it to Steve Vasturia in the right corner for a wide open three-pointer that tied it.

That whole sequence took 2 seconds. ND never looked back. It was dream basketball, beatiful hoops that would be seen again when the Irish eviscerated Wichita State in the Sweet 16 with the greatest 15-minute stretch of play I’ve ever seen from any team in my entire life.

ND really and truly reached a different level with me over the last few weeks. I loved those guys, and loved watching them play, so much that it honestly bummed me out just as much that I wouldn’t get to see them anymore as it did that they fell short of the Final Four.

These are guys that deserved every bit of love they got, and probably more. The best tribute I can pay them is that I couldn’t pick a favorite player for most of the year. At times, each of the five starters save Auguste had claims to the title (and, naturally, Auguste would start climbing that chart himself with incredible play in the second weekend of the tournament). Connaughton and Grant were the kinds of leaders college sports fans hardly ever get to see. And we got two in the same class? What had we done to deserve that?

More importantly, all were great kids. Outside of the academic missteps, none of the ND players have been involved in anything to suggest they’re anything less than great kids. It’s a tribute to Mike Brey that he has consistently attracted kids of high character to his program the last 15 years. Grant and Connaughton go in the books as probably two of my favorite four ND athletes of all time for everything they brought to us. And there’s plenty of time for Jackson, Auguste and Vasturia, along with Colson, VJ Beachem, and the next crop of Irish, to start building their own legacy.

The last thing that made that game such a treat was Kentucky, believe it or not. Make no mistake about it: John Calipari is a sleazebag. To his credit, he does appear to have his athletes’ best interests at heart, but he’s still a sleazebag. However, his players aren’t. I was struck after the game with how little ill will I held towards the guys wearing blue and white. Normally I find excuses to hate everyone on the other team after such a game. Maybe I’m growing, but more likely it’s that the UK players impressed me. I don’t remember one time seeing anything that approached what you might call dirty or cheap play. I don’t remember one time seeing a player whine for a call from the refs. Even Calipari, by his standards, seemed to be on good behavior. It was a good, clean, classic game played by two excellent teams. It was, between the lines anyway, everything college sports wants to be about.

That’s what made that game so special to me, and why, once the nagging pain from the loss subsides — eventually it will, I think — I will feel very lucky to have witnessed it and to have had a rooting interest.

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Why ND-Kentucky Was Special

The Junkies Visit with MMA Fighter John McGuin!

Somewhere right now, John McGuin (I’d imagine) is doing some sort of preparation for his upcoming fight at MFL 37 on Mar. 28 in South Bend, IN. While the rest of us are probably still recovering from St. Patrick’s day and engulfed in March Madness, John has one thing on his mind – to not only fight in UFC but make some noise doing it, as he has his eyes on the ultimate prize of one day becoming UFC champion.

I’ve known John for over 20 years as he and I grew up 2 minutes down the road from one another. From our days as kids growing up in the small town of Osceola, IN (about 15 minutes away from Notre Dame), he’s always had a drive and determination that isn’t matched by many others out there. The maxim “If you put your mind to it, you can accomplish anything” was written for people like John. He’s never let anything get in the way of achieving his dream. As I’ve been able to witness up close over the years, if you told John he couldn’t do something, he’d make sure you were wrong. He never attacks anything halfway, its all in or nothing. So for me it was a no brainer to want to write this piece on him and let everyone see a side of John that maybe you don’t get to see as he continues his journey to the top.

The sport of MMA is exploding in popularity across the world and admittedly I am a bit late to the party and green when it comes to the sport of MMA. I wanted to know more about it and branch out of my comfort zone when it comes to sports, as well as give John’s fans a chance to see what goes into a fight, his views on the UFC, among other topics. John was gracious enough to take time out of his busy schedule and sit down and answer a few of them for us:

“I remember you being a multi -sport athlete growing up. How did MMA come to be one of them? What about it sparked your passion?”

I loved competing in sports growing up. I played, football, wrestled, & played basketball. Wrestling & basketball were my two main sports. When I was done with high school I kind of felt lost and wanted to get back into that competitive atmosphere. Watching the UFC sparked my interest in MMA. Royce Gracie stuck out like a sore thumb so I decided to join a Gracie Jiu-Jitsu gym. Having a wrestling background this seemed like the perfect place to start. When I stepped on the mats for the first time at the Lagrange Gracie Academy I knew this was exactly where I needed to be. My journey had begun.

“What’s it like being locked in a cage with an opponent, who’s trying to take you down and only one of you can come out on top?”

Being locked in a cage with someone who wants to embarrass you in front of your family, friends, and fans is something different. My opponent wants to take my money and take the food off my plate. He is literally in there because he believes he can defeat me. I really believe I was born to do this. This is the most competitive sport I’ve ever been involved with by far.  When you’re in there it’s either kill or be killed. If you think any other way, in my opinion, you won’t last in this sport. When the cage door locks it’s almost like God is right there with you; it’s a very spiritual and out-of-body experience.

“What all goes into preparing for a bout? What are the most important aspects of training for you?”

Preparation is the name of the game. I train year-round, but when I have a fight scheduled, my training gets upped a notch. I train 2 times a day; 3 times if you count weightlifting. Mornings are striking-specific, whether it be mitt work or MMA positional sparring.  At night I work on my jiu-jitsu. This is what I specialize in. I am a Gracie Jiu-Jitsu fighter.  My diet is also cleaned up. I eat food for constant energy but also food that helps me lose weight. It’s kind of a tricky science, but something that needs to be done. I currently train with Team Blackhouse out of Los Angeles. During my training camp I fly out to California and work with the best fighters in the world. My groundwork is taken good care of at the Gracie Academy by Ryron and Rener Gracie.  If I want to be the best I must train with the best. Fortunately Ryron Gracie has taken me under his wing and made this all happen for me.

“When you aren’t training or thinking about your upcoming fight, what do you do to escape?”

To escape from the rigors of training or thinking about training I watch other sporting events on TV. I love the Pittsburgh Steelers and watching NFL football along with any basketball, wrestling, UFC, and boxing. I’m pretty much a sports junkie.  But it’s hard to not daydream about becoming UFC champion one day. It almost haunts me at times.

“What do you think of the UFC and all the visibility the sport has been getting with CM Punk joining and the rumors of Brock Lesnar possibly returning? Is this good for the sport? Would you like to see them change anything?” 

I believe any added publicity is always good for any sport, but unfortunately I don’t agree with the addition of CM Punk. He has never competed before in combat sports and to my knowledge isn’t well versed in any martial art. However, Brock Lesnar has proven at all levels that he is an elite athlete. He was the NCAA Division I wrestling national champion and also a former UFC heavyweight champion.  I would love to see Brock back in the cage. I don’t think the addition of CM Punk is good for the sport whatsoever. It almost waters the sport down and delegitimizes it in a way.  If I could change anything it would be the fighters’ pay. I believe UFC athletes from top to bottom should be paid much more. These guys are elite athletes and should be paid as such.

“There’s been a lot of debate regarding Ronda Rousey, and if her dominance is good for the women’s division. What is your opinion?”  

Without Ronda there would be no women in the UFC. She has single-handedly set the bar for all females in the sport of MMA. The publicity she has given women fighters is unbelievable. She has not only proven that women can compete on the biggest stage in this sport, but she’s shown that they can carry a pay-per-view card and even become one of the most popular athletes on the planet.

“Follow up to that, would you like to see her, try and fight in the men’s division?” 

Never. The UFC would never do that, and rightfully so.

“What kind of fighter would you say you are? Do you model yourself after anyone in particular?” 

I am a Gracie jiu-jitsu fighter. I pride myself on being able to defend myself anywhere in a fight. Because of this I feel totally comfortable in attacking my opponent. I model my grappling after Ryron Gracie and my striking after Anderson Silva with a mix of Nick Diaz.

“Who is currently your favorite fighter in the sport and, if you could have one dream match to face anyone, who would it be and why?”  

Nick Diaz has been my favorite since day one. My dream match would have to be a guy named Sakuraba. Many new fans don’t know who this is, but in my opinion he is one of the greatest of all time. The first real fighter to put the ‘mix’ in mixed martial arts.

“For anyone who is thinking of getting into the sport, what would your advice be for them?” 

My advice would be that this is the wrong sport to make a hobby. If you really want to be a professional fighter you must take it seriously. This is the hurt game and is not for everyone. If you are not passionate about MMA then my advice would be to quit now.

“5 years from now where do you envision this journey taking you?”

In five years I really believe I will be in the UFC and contending for a UFC title if not already being the champion. I have no other goal other than to become UFC champion. This is all that runs through my mind everyday and every night.

“I’m sure you’ve met some amazing people along the way. Is there anyone you would like to thank or shout out for helping you make you into the fighter you are today?”

First, I thank God for the people I’ve had the opportunity of meeting and the path he has set me on. Chet Schemahorn took me as a white belt that knew nothing and nurtured me into a pure Gracie Jiu Jitsu practitioner. Along the way I have had the privilege of working with guys like Kroyler Gracie, Dan Weed, Jeff Howe, Ryron and Rener Gracie. Just recently I joined the best MMA team in the world, Team BlackHouse. At BlackHouse I’ve been able to learn from and train with Lyoto Machida, Mehdi Baghdad, James Moontasri, Kevin Casey, Brendan Schaub, Khalil Roundtree, & all the rest of the BlackHouse team. Thomas McGuin has been with me every step of the way. He’s been a huge part of my success and growth.

“How big is it for you to be fighting in your hometown at MFL 37?”

It’s huge that I’m able to fight in front of all my friends, family, and fans in my hometown. I wanted to fight in front of them one last time and the MFL gave me the opportunity to do so.  Where I’m from is a big part of who I am today. At MFL 37 on March 28, collectively we will all bring the house down. I can’t wait to feel the energy that everyone brings. The crowd that comes to root me on is amazing. It’s a privilege to fight in front of such great people.

“For those who have never experienced a fight in person before, what can they expect at MFL 37?”

They can expect to be on the edge of their seat the whole time.  I’ve been training very hard to give everyone an unbelievable show come March 28.  When I step into the cage you can expect to see a real professional doing what he loves and the absolute beauty of fighting.  Be ready for one heck of a show!

“Any fight other than yours that you have your eyes on that day?”

The only fight I honestly am thinking about is mine. I have one thing on my mind and that’s taking Ricky Miller’s head off. I’m sure there are other great fights on the card but one thing is for sure… I promise to give one heck of a show.

“Can you give us details about your fight, or any thoughts on your opponent?”

My opponent is an amateur champion and good fighter. I have nothing but respect for anyone that steps in the cage with me.  I’ve been working very hard for a long time to give myself the best opportunity to climb the ladder in the sport. Unfortunately for Ricky Miller, he’s my first victim.  I don’t want to sound cocky; only very confident in who I am and what I’m able to do.

“Where can people follow you in your climb to be a champion?”

You can follow me on Twitter: @JohnMcGuin, Instagram: @JohnMcGuin, & on Facebook @ John McGuin.  Thanks to everyone for all the support.

We’d like to thank John McGuin for his time and allowing us the awesome opportunity. Best of luck on your upcoming fight.

The Junkies Visit with MMA Fighter John McGuin!

MLB Power Rankings/Team Preview Series – #28 Minnesota Twins

#28 – Minnesota Twins (70-92) in 2014, my 2015 projection (72-90)

This team summary is going to be slightly more positive than my previous two, as I view the Minnesota Twins as a team trending in the right direction.  I’m not here to crush everyone’s hopes and dreams.  I have some concerns with this team, but there’s also a lot to be excited about.  I’ll start with the concerns, as they pertain to both the Twins immediate situation and the challenges they will face moving forward.

The Twins have some bad contracts, and as a small market team, bad contracts can severely limit Minnesota’s options to build around the core talent they’ve assembled.  Joe Mauer still has 4-years, at $23 million per year, remaining on his 8-year, $184 million extension.  That’s the type of financial commitment that can cripple of a mid-to-small market team if the player doesn’t produce to his expected value.  Unfortunately, that’s what we’re seeing with Joe Mauer, as injuries leading to position change, and possibly some regression with the bat, have lead to Mauer’s decline from one of the best Catchers this generation, to a Major League average First Baseman.  The Twins also have a total of $25.5 million per year committed to the pitching combination of Ervin Santana (signed through 2018) and Ricky Nolasco (signed through 2017).  Combined with the money owed Joe Mauer, that’s $48.5 million per year(of a $100 million ML payroll), through at least 2017, committed to three players who project for roughly 6.8 WAR (Wins Above Replacement) in 2015.  To the Yankees, that’s business as usual.  To the Twins, that’s a lot to absorb and remain competitive.

As for the positives, Baseball Prospectus ranked the Twins Farm System #4 in 2013, #1 in 2014, and #2 in 2015.  Not only do the Twins have an impressive amount of organizational depth, but the high-end talent that has headlined the Twins prospect rankings over these past 3 years is nearing the Major Leagues.  The amount of impact talent in this organization is pretty staggering.  It’s almost impossible, even with some of the financial limitations this organization may face, to imagine this Twins team not competing for Central Division titles beginning in 2016.  The 2016 Minnesota Twins may be next year’s version of the young and exciting Chicago Cubs team everyone is wound up for this season.

Hitters to watch: Kennys Vargas, Oswaldo Arcia, and Danny Santana.  These three young players need to play every day they are physically able so the Twins can have a firm grasp on exactly what they have heading into 2016.  Vargas is a 1st Base/DH (best suited as a DH), switch-hitter, with power.  The question will be if he hits for enough average to claim the full-time DH job moving forward.  I think .250 is a reasonable expectation, and I imagine the Twins would be satisfied with that if comes with 20+ homers.  Arcia, a left-handed hitting, corner outfielder, faces nearly identical challenges.  The power is there, smacking 20 homers in 2014, in just 410 ABs.  For the Twins to hand him a full-time job, Arcia must improve his .231 batting average, starting with his dismal .198 average against LHP.  If he can push that average against LHP to at least .230, he’s going to be a valuable player for the Twins moving forward.  If he can’t, he can still provide some value as platoon guy, much in the Matt Joyce mold.  Danny Santana burst on to the scene in 2014, hitting .319 with 7 homers and 20 Steals.  Santana might be biggest regression candidate entering 2015, as his 2014 totals were lifted by an unsustainable .405 BABIP.  The question is, how far will the average fall?  If he can set a new baseline between .260-.270, he can be a useful contributor.  If it falls closer to .240-.250, he’s going to lose the job to Eduardo Escobar, another temporary solution at SS.  If the Twins fall out of contention early, I’d also like to get an extended look at Catcher, Yosmil Pinto.  He’s shown some impressive skills with the bat, for a Catcher, but questions about his defense behind the plate may push him off the position.  His offensive tools don’t play as well at 1st Base or DH.  The Twins may want to answer those questions about his defense and find out if he’s going to be a possibility behind the plate before 2016 arrives.

Pitcher to watch: Just one….. Phil Hughes.  Personally, I’m a believer.  I think Hughes can repeat, and possibly even improve on his impressive 2014 season.  If the Twins hope to contend at all in 2015 and beyond, Hughes must be the Ace.  The Twins have pitching depth, but most of their young arms are mid-to-back of the rotation guys.  They can’t afford to go out and sign a top of the rotation free-agent.  They need Phil Hughes to be that guy.  It’s unlikely Hughes, an extreme fly ball pitcher, will repeat his incredible 0.69 BB/9, or his 0.69 HR/9 (with a 6.2% HR/FB rate), but it’s possible he’ll see improvement with his BABIP against, which may offset some regression elsewhere.  I think it’s completely within reason to expect Hughes to post a 200-inning, sub-3.50 ERA season.  If he delivers on that, the Twins have a phenomenal deal on the 5-year, $58 million extension Hughes signed in December.

3/17/2015 – Ryan Perry, @OCBrooks7 on Twitter

MLB Power Rankings/Team Preview Series – #28 Minnesota Twins

MLB Power Rankings/Team Preview Series – #29 Arizona Diamondbacks

#29 – Arizona Diamondbacks (64-98) in 2014, my 2015 projection (71-91)

The good news: Tony La Russa isn’t drunk, asleep at the wheel of his Florida SUV.  The bad news for Diamondbacks fans: Tony La Russa is, in my opinion, drunk, asleep at the wheel of your organization.  Since the Diamondbacks hired La Russa as Chief Baseball Officer in May of last year, to oversee the baseball operations department, TLR has bizarrely hired several of his friends to various positions in the D’Backs organization.  Dave Stewart, a former player of La Russa’s, who was working as a player agent, was hired as GM, to work directly under TLR.  Chip Hale, who had crossed paths with Stewart and La Russa as Bench Coach for the A’s, was hired as Manager.  Dr. Ed Lewis, 66-year-old former veterinarian was hired to lead the Diamondbacks analytics department.  The early outlook is not great.  The Diamondbacks signed 24-year-old Cuban import, Yasmany Tomas, to a 6-year, $68.5 million deal, then threatened to play him at Third Base.  The verdict is still out on his bat, though it’s concerning he struck out more often than he walked in the Cuban Serie Nacional, a league soft in pitching.  The one report on Tomas in which everyone seems to agree, he’s not going to be able to pull off Third Base.  That potentially gives the team a pair of corner outfielders, in Tomas and Trumbo, who project similarly, with good power, poor contact skills, and questionable defense.  The D’Backs also raised some question marks trading away two prospects to land Starting Pitcher, Jeremy Hellickson, coming off a disastrous 2013, and injury-plagued 2014 with the Rays.  Hellickson, a fly-ball pitcher, often had trouble keeping the ball in the yard in pitcher-friendly Tampa.  The move to Chase Field, combined with the Diamondbacks corner outfield defense, isn’t likely to help his numbers.  The fact the Diamondbacks front office keeps suggesting they expect this team to immediately compete, combined with there being no clear direction or trend to any of the moves this team has made in the last year and a half, all suggests to me this team might be looking in a new direction, someone to clean up La Russa’s mess, within another year or two.

Hitters to watch: Is Paul Goldschmidt too obvious?  If that name isn’t obvious, google him.  There’s enough out there that you don’t need to hear about him from me.  I love A.J. Pollock.  Offensively, he’s not great at anything, but he’s good at everything.  Defensively, he could be one of the best Center Fielders in the game.  He should be headlining that Arizona outfield for a least a few more seasons.  At shortstop, I like Chris Owings.  Like a poor man’s A.J. Pollock, Owings is very good defensively, and does enough to contribute offensively.  He’s one of those guys who’s a much better real-life player than fantasy player, so he’ll always be a bit under the radar.  I’m also interested in Outfielder, Ender Inciarte, though his role is uncertain.  He’s another player who’s value is mostly tied to his defense.  I think there’s still some question if Inciarte can provide enough offensive value to keep him in the lineup.  The trouble is, he may not get the opportunity to show us his value, because, if Tomas is forced to the Outfield, Inciarte dips to 5th on the D’Backs depth chart.

Pitchers to watch: This is where the team will struggle the most.  I’m not a believer in Hellickson, Vidal Nuno, or Addison Reed.  I think Opening Day starter, Josh Collmenter, is probably better suited for a role in the bullpen.  It’s going to be rough.  As a positive note, I like Patrick Corbin, currently working his way back from Tommy John surgery, and due back mid-season.  I also think the Diamondbacks have some interesting arms that could contribute at the back end of the rotation or the bullpen.  Rubby de la Rosa, Chase Anderson, and Allen Webster have all shown promise and possess tools to be successful Major Leaguers.  I’m particularly fond of Anderson, 27-years old, who may have the least impressive stuff of the three young pitchers, but has had the most encouraging results.  There is some depth in the bullpen.  Addison Reed, Brad Ziegler, Oliver Perez, Evan Marshall, Matt Reynolds, and Randall Delgado are all usable Relievers.  However, I wouldn’t expect any of them to be much better than average.  A below average rotation backed up by an average bullpen is going to make it a long year for Diamondbacks fans.

3/16/2015 – Ryan Perry, @OCBrooks7 on Twitter

MLB Power Rankings/Team Preview Series – #29 Arizona Diamondbacks

MLB Power Rankings/Team Preview Series – #30 Philadelphia Phillies

#30 – Philadelphia Phillies (73-89) in 2014, my 2015 projection (67-95)

When Ruben Amaro Jr. took over the GM responsibilities in 2009, after serving a decade as Assistant General Manager, he was taking over a Phillies team, largely assembled by Ed Wade and Hall of Famer Pat Gillick, coming off their first World Series Title in 28 years. The Phillies have been on a steady decline ever since. Amaro has often scoffed at the use of analytics, been combative with the Sabermetrics community, and even criticized other front offices for being unrealistic and overvaluing prospects.  All the while, the other 29 organizations watch on as the Phillies sit on declining, overpriced veterans as Amaro waits for an offer that allows the Phillies to ‘win the deal’ in his eyes. This team isn’t going to compete in 2015. It’s clearly time to tear down this Phillies team and start a rebuild, but many question if Amaro is the man to oversee that process. In July 2014, Philly.com ran a poll, with over 10,000 votes recorded, asking Phillies fans if Amaro should ‘stay or go’ with just a touch under 94% of the voters wanting Amaro to go. That’s high even for Philadelphia standards. If Amaro wants any shot at retaining this position, the Phillies need to move some of these veteran contracts this season, and show fans they’re progressing towards building another contender in Philadelphia.

Hitters to watch: One eye needs to be kept on Ryan Howard and Chase Utley, the two most obvious candidates in the Phillies lineup to be traded.  Now that Amaro has waited for the season to begin, he needs both players to play well and stay healthy for the Phillies to expect anything of value in return for the two remaining stars of the 2008 Championship team.  The other eye needs to be focused on the Phillies future.  The one hitter on the current Philadelphia 40-man roster that I could see being a significant contributor for the next contending Phillies team is Maikel Franco.  The 22-year old corner infielder has flashed impressive power throughout the Minors, smacking 31 homers across two stops (High-A and Double-A) in 2013, and 16 homers at Triple-A in 2014, at just 21 years of age.  Franco doesn’t have particularly strong plate discipline, but makes up for it with higher than normal contact rates for someone with his power.  It’s reasonable to think, if he can gain a slightly better understanding of the strike zone, he can make solid contact with more consistency and unlock the power he flashed in the lower minors and be a 25-homer guy in the Majors.  That’s a valuable commodity in today’s offense starved environment.

Pitchers to watch: Again, like with Howard and Utley, one eye needs to be kept on Cole Hamels and Jonathan Papelbon, two popular trade targets.  The greater the early season performance, the greater the potential trade return.  As far pitchers likely to be with the team past August 1, Jake Diekman (28) and Ken Giles (24) are two very exciting arms in the Phillies bullpen.  The Lefty/Righy combination has been dominant at times, both posting strikeout rates well over a batter per inning.  With the year-to-year performance and health of relief pitchers being extremely volatile, the Phillies have an interesting decision to make with these two power bullpen arms.  Do you hold on to both, hoping they’ll still be effective, late-game relievers when this team is once again ready to compete?  Or, do you decide dominant bullpen arms are a luxury not necessary for a rebuilding team, and flip them now, while both may be at their peak value, for pieces that could potentially accelerate the rebuilding process?  It’s an easy decision for me to make, from the safety of my couch, behind this computer screen.  It’s a more difficult decision for members of a front office, who’s jobs are on the line when making decisions like this.

3/13/2015 – Ryan Perry, @OCBrooks7 on Twitter

MLB Power Rankings/Team Preview Series – #30 Philadelphia Phillies