Quickly, now: Melo stays in NY; Pau meditates, joins Bulls

Melo Max Power.

I really didn’t want Carmelo Anthony to sign with the Bulls in free agency. Now, I’d long anticipated that he’d end up re-signing with the Knicks, but I was also aware that besides Houston and potentially Miami, Chicago was a suitor that offered him a great chance to win more than lose, and do so much sooner than later. Granted, signing elsewhere would result in Melo losing a substantial amount of money, but I figured that if he was really willing to take a pay cut in order to have a better shot at winning a championship, playing for the Bulls would be his best option. I already posted my disinterest in seeing Melo become a Bull. While his decision to re-sign with the Knicks disappoints some Bulls fans, I’m fine with his decision. LeBron coming back to the Central Division certainly presents another hurdle for the Bulls, but I feel a rotation of Rose, Butler, Snell, Mirotic and DJ Augustin (soon, hopefully), Taj, Pau Gasol (read below), McDermott, and Noah will be strong enough to come out of the East, so long as health isn’t an issue. Melo will go back to more familiar surroundings and hope that the summer of 2015 brings him some much-needed help. The Bulls are still lacking a scoring wing, but they won’t be hamstrung by a contract for a player that would not have surely gotten them over the proverbial hump.  This makes me happy. I’m still stuck with McDermott and the uncertainty of Derrick Rose’s health for the rest of the offseason, but no Melo makes me happy.

It’s not 2008 Pau, but it’s something.

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Remember when the Bulls wanted to trade for power forward Pau Gasol back in 2006-08, but were unwilling to gut their roster in order to do so? I wasn’t opposed to the Bulls’ strategy; I simply didn’t feel Gasol was worth multiple young players and picks, and Gasol was in his prime then. However, I was tired of watching Ben Wallace not live up to his gaudy contract and wanted to see a semblance of a post presence for a change. Well, the Bulls acquired a post presence, Carlos Boozer, in the summer of 2010 and let’s just say that didn’t work out as intended. Now, after a failed attempt by the Bulls to lure Carmelo Anthony away from the bum ass Knicks, it appears that after some meditation (and probably a brief, cold phone call from Kobe), Gasol has decided to join them.

Gasol, 34, is coming off of a 13-14 season in which he averaged almost 17.5 points per game while pulling down nearly 10 rebounds per contest. After seeing his FG%, TS%, and eFG% drop for four consecutive seasons, Gasol had a bounce-back season of sorts last year, also averaging 3.4 assists per game as the Lakers had to navigate through most of the campaign without Kobe Bryant.

Pau is no longer the offensive threat he once was, but he and a healthy Rose could still work wonders in the pick-and-pop game. Likely to start next to Noah, the two will immediately become the best passing big man duo in the NBA. Taj Gibson will go back to a reserve role, which he is probably best suited for on a title-contending team, and Nikola Mirotic, who should be an official Chicago Bull any day now, could be a mentee to Gasol. Clearly, Gasol is not the uber-scoring wing the Bulls went into offseason in need of. A silver lining, though, is we won’t have to watch Boozer anymore, as he will either be traded or amnestied very soon. That much, is great.

 

Doug McDermott is just so…Bulls

The 2014 NBA Draft took place last week, and it was one of the deeper drafts in recent memory. Armed with the 16th and 19th overall pick, there were a few options for the Bulls. Keep the two picks and add cheap, young pieces for the future. Trade both picks to move up in the draft. Trade both picks in order to acquire a “superstar,” like Kevin Love, or even Carmelo Anthony.

Going into the draft, the Bulls needed a backup point guard, shooting guard or guard who can handle the ball well, along with a backup power forward or center. I had dreamt of the Bulls selecting Michigan State products Gary Harris and Adreian Payne, and it had nothing to do with school allegiance, but fit and more importantly, talent. Harris is a bulldog of a shooting guard who can shoot it from distance as well as defend his ass off. Payne is a prototypical stretch power forward who can step outside and knock down shots as well as maneuver in the low post. Yet, there were growing reports that the Bulls were looking to move up in the draft. ‘That’s fine,’ I thought. Fine, so long as the reports that the Bulls were targeting former Michigan guard Nik Stauskas and former Creighton guard/forward Doug McDermott were false. They weren’t. Of course, they weren’t.

The Bulls traded the 16th and 19th picks to the Denver Nuggets for the 11th pick…who happened to be McDermott. Oy freaking vey, Bulls.

Don’t get me wrong; McDermott was one hell of a college basketball player. Rather, he was one hell of a college basketball scorer. In his senior year and first in the Big East Conference, McDermott finished with this line: 27.7 PPG, .541 FG%, .463 3P%, .864 FT%, 5.8 FTA (career-high), .644 TS%, .603 eFG%, and only a 7.9 TOV% despite a USG% of 36.2. Simply put, a college basketball player shouldn’t be able to score in that manner, and with such proficiency. I don’t care if you’re playing in what is undoubtedly the weakest conference in NCAA history, to post those numbers over an entire season is mind-boggling and worthy of recognition.

However, McDermott played in a watered-down Big East for the 2013-14 season. Gone from the once-powerful conference was Louisville, Pitt, Syracuse, Notre Dame, UConn, and Cincy. And those schools weren’t nearly bottom-feeders, either:

  • Louisville won 31 games and reached the Sweet 16…without Chane Benahan, who was dismissed from the team.
  • Pitt won 26 games and finished a solid fifth in the ACC.
  • Syracuse, a 2013 Final Four team, won 28 games and finished second in the ACC, behind regular season and conference tournament champion, Virginia.
  • Notre Dame, another new member of the ACC, started a very respectable 8-4 but went 7-13 in the games Jerian Grant missed due to suspension.
  • All UConn did was win 32 games and the 2014 NCAA title.
  • Cincinnati played stingy defense all year long as it led them to 27 wins and a share of the American Athletic Conference’s regular-season title.

The Big East was not long ago a conference that could send 7 or 8 teams to the tournament, with ease. A few of those teams would enter as national title favorites, and it wasn’t a surprise when one of them came out on top. The 2013-14 Big East was just…not good. Only three schools, Villanova, Creighton, and Marquette, found themselves in the AP Top 25 all season, and only Villanova and Creighton were ranked over the final two months. Providence made the tournament because they won the conference tournament and Xavier clearly bribed someone to go dancing, because their best win of the season was probably against Cincy, at a neutral site.

When someone tries to argue that because McDermott lit up the Big East, he will do the same in the NBA, I point to the quality of the conference today, and not five years ago, when it was arguably the best and deepest conference in the entire nation. Point out McDermott’s gaudy offensive numbers and I’ll inform you that Creighton’s offense, most likely devised by McDermott’s dad, who is also the head coach, runs through Doug. It’s not so much that “McD” averaged nearly 28 a night while the Creighton’s next-leading scorer, fellow senior Ethan Wragge averaged not even 10.5. McD attempted 17.9 shots a game while the team’s next three leading scorers didn’t attempt that many as a trio. Yes, McDermott is listed as a small forward, but he played the 4 in college. So, I’m not all that impressed by the fact he pulled down 7.5 rebounds per game over his career, because he was not doing it from a guard or primarily wing position on the floor. Watching McDermott go to work in the low post, which he did fairly often, was a pleasure. However, he’ll have to likely scrap his post game now that he’s in the NBA because he will be constantly going against defenders who are longer and more athletic than the competition he faced in college, whether in the Missouri Valley Conference or Big East. McDermott could pattern his game after Ray Allen’s, but he doesn’t have the foot speed or quickness to consistently run away from defenders while trying to maneuver around teammates’ screens.

In addition, McD is a barely average ball-handler, so you really can’t call isolation plays for him at the NBA level. Despite playing over 30 minutes a game as well as posting a USG% over 32 during his college career, he averaged only 1.3 assists per contest. Carmelo Anthony managed to at least average 2.2 APG during his one season at Syracuse, and “Melo” can certainly be a black hole on offense. And while his offensive shortcomings aren’t many, on the defensive end, McD is a flat-out non-factor.

Explain to me how someone can spend so much time on the floor, year in and year out, and not even average half a steal or block per game. If you were to combine his steal and block numbers, he doesn’t even average half a steal and block per game, combined. Monta Ellis is not a great, very good, or even good defender, really. But Ellis can get you two steals per night, and the same goes for a number of other NBA players. This is due to athleticism, mostly, which McD was not exactly blessed with. A team can’t even count on McD to play the passing lane and come away with a steal or, when guarding a smaller player, to swat a shot, or at least alter the course of it.

I’m very aware that Bulls’ head coach Tom Thibodeau is a defensive wizard and with just about any collection of 12 guys, can produce a good defensive unit. But the NBA, to an extent, is still about individual play; a game of one-on-one within a team game. McDermott is 6’7″ and 220 lbs., and will probably mostly play small forward in the NBA. It’s certainly a position of strength, whether you mention LeBron James, Melo, Kevin Durant, Paul George, Rudy Gay, or even Nic Batum and Luol Deng. Yes, Thibs’ defensive scheme calls more for team defense, but there will definitely be times when McD finds himself on the perimeter, all alone, stuck with the task of keeping LeBron or Durant in front of him. I don’t like McD’s chances in that situation. Ever.

Could McDermott wind up becoming a good NBA player? Of course he could. He’s much better than, say, Adam Morrison, another prolific college scorer who beat up on inferior competition over four years. However, the NBA is becoming increasingly athletic and while that doesn’t mean there’s no longer room for those of less-than-stellar athletic ability, it means those guys will essentially be relegated to role player status. This is especially true for guards and wings, and if McD doesn’t find himself at the 3, the only other position he’ll man is the 2.

Best-case scenario: McDermott ends up being a very good reserve; coming off the bench to provide instant offense and take advantage of opponents’ second units. Think a less athletic, less talented Paul Pierce.

Worst-case scenario: McDermott finds it much harder to score in the NBA and his lack of defensive prowess results in him becoming more of a detriment to his team. Think a taller, bigger Jimmer Fredette.

I’m still irked about the McDermott deal. Not only did they give up draft value, but they also took on the contract of Anthony Randolph, who has been a disappointment to this point in his NBA career. While one would think the Bulls set out to save money, they actually lost cap space with the deal. Randolph could be moved, but it would have to be part of a package.

And yet, I wasn’t surprised by this move. Really, I wasn’t. Trading the 16th and 19th pick along with a future first-rounder to move into the top 7 would have been too grand a move for a franchise that, outside of the trade for Dennis Rodman and Elton Brand/Tyson Chandler swap, doesn’t really make bold moves. “Thibs” definitely is fond of more experienced players, as two recent first-round draft picks who spent four years in college, Taj Gibson and Jimmy Butler, are projected to start next season. So again, this move makes sense when considering the preferences of Thibs. When taking into account that the Bulls are still without a backup point guard and that if Carlos Boozer is amnestied, there’s no front court depth behind Gibson and Joakim Noah, this moves makes no sense at all. And if the Bulls don’t go into the 2014-15 season with Melo, LeBron, Love, or European prospect Nikola Mirotic, the move definitely makes no sense and will go down as a big, fat, red F in my grade book.

I don’t blame McDermott for any of this. And while the deal still has not given me any reason to celebrate it, I’m no longer really angered by it. This, because McDermott is just so…Bulls.

Just say no to Melo, Gar. Just say no.

Regretting that trade yet, Melo?  Nathaniel S. Butler -- Getty

Regretting that trade yet, Melo? Nathaniel S. Butler — Getty

Disclaimer: I am a fan of New York Knicks’ small forward, Carmelo Anthony, and have been since he helped lead the Syracuse Orange to an NCAA title in 2003. He may be overrated to some, but oddly enough, I feel he is a bit underrated. In my unabashed opinion, “Melo” is the NBA’s best all-around scorer who has mostly been a victim of being on the wrong team, at the wrong damn time. Or something like that.

That said, I don’t want to see Melo on the Bulls’ roster at the start of the 2014-15 season. In fact, I don’t even want Chicago Bulls GM Gar Forman to send Melo a warm text message, call and ask about his kids, or even like any of his Instagram posts. If Phil Jackson calls and attempts to gauge the Bulls’ interest in acquiring Melo in a sign-and-trade deal, I hope Forman bursts into laughter before asking, “Wait. Are you serious?” before bursting into laughter again. When Melo decides to opt out of his current contract and test the free agent market, as he has said he will do, the most Gar should do is feign interest in the hopes that a rival grossly overpays for Melo’s services. Melo has said he’ll take a pay cut, although that was in  response to a question about his willingness to re-sign with the Knicks. Say Melo decides he’ll take a pay cut to sign with the Bulls. Just say no to Melo, Gar. Just say no.

Despite my belief that Melo is much better than advertised (28 PPG, 45/39/84 FG%/3P%/FT%, and PER of over 24 the last two seasons, plus a great rebounder and one of the best in the L at getting to the FT line), I want Forman to stay as far away from his as possible.

Even if Melo takes a pay cut, the Bulls are strapped for cash.

At the current moment, the Bulls have seven players signed for the 2014-15 season: Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah, Carlos Boozer, Jimmy Butler, Taj Gibson, Tony Snell, and Mike Dunleavy. Combined, they make $62.7 million, so obviously, the Bulls would have to be creative if they wanted to acquire Melo. This, in spite of the fact that the NBA salary cap will actually rise to a little over $63 million for the start of next season. If Boozer is amnestied, which is expected, the Bulls’ salary commitments drop to nearly $46 million, leaving them with $17 million to spend on not only Melo, but another four players as well. The Bulls will select 16th and 19th in this June’s draft, and those salary commitments total just south of $3 million. It’s highly unlikely those two picks won’t make the roster, so the Bulls will be shelling out nearly $50 million in salary, and that’s without Melo and another four players to fill out the roster. The luxury-tax threshold will jump to $77 million in 14-15, so it’s conceivable the Bulls could spend the remaining amount on Melo and parts, but it’s also very conceivable they won’t, because you know, Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf ain’t really about that life. Of course, the Bulls could trade Dunleavy and/or Gibson to free up cap space, but the Bulls preemptively dumped salary in order to make a run at a top-notch free agent in the summer of 2010, and they ended up with…Boozer. Simply put, the Bulls are a bit hamstrung, mostly because of Boozer’s contract, which likely won’t be moved via trade. So if they want Melo, they’ll have to give away valuable parts in a sign-and-trade, or simply move players to free up cap space with the hopes they’d land Melo. In both situations, I’m not sure the Bulls would come away a better team.

The Bulls should be looking to get younger; add players with upside.

Look, Melo is not old. He turned 30 not even a week ago. Technically, one could say he’s in the middle of his prime if we consider an NBA player’s prime to be in the 27-32 age range. Still, I don’t see any real room for development in Melo’s game. At this point, he is what he is, and personally, I think he’s been at his best these past two seasons. But generally, we start to see a bit of a decline once a player hits 30. At 32, 33, Melo may very well still be a very good or even great player, but I don’t think he’ll be as good as he was at 30. Of course, this is all conjecture and Melo could become an even better player by then, but I’ll bet that while he’ll still be very good, maybe even great, he’ll start to show signs that he is a player on his way out, rather than one just starting to find his way. If the Bulls still want to build around Rose, who won’t be 26 until the end of October, they’ll have to add players who will grow with him, not ones who come in with their own identity, accustomed to doing things a certain way.

Once the Bulls realize they’re in a relatively fortunate position, they will see the light.

This year’s NBA Draft will be a deep one, and there are teams like the Bulls that will be picking in the teens, but don’t view their draft slot as a total crapshoot. It would not be beyond belief that a future All-Star is picked after 15th, and we could easily see a 2nd-rounder or two be a significant contributor for years to come. Again, the Bulls will pick 16th and 19th, high enough to land an impact player, but probably not high enough to land a “game-changer.” In my world, the Bulls take Michigan St. power forward Adreian Payne with the 16th pick and Michigan combo guard Nik Stauskas with the 19th. In Payne, they would get an ideal stretch 4, but also one who isn’t afraid to go to work in the low post and scrap for rebounds. Stauskas is an excellent shooter from long-range, but worked hard to escape the “one-dimensional” label and established himself this past season as a player who can not only hit the 3, but create for himself and others.

Hopefully, the Bulls will re-sign D.J. Augustin and have a 9-man rotation that looks like this: PG Derrick Rose, SG Jimmy Butler, SF Mike Dunleavy, PF Taj Gibson (assuming Boozer is amnestied), C Joakim Noah, PG D.J. Augustin, G Nik Stauskas, G/F Tony Snell, F/C Adreian Payne. Only one of them, Dunleavy, will be 30 when the season starts. Pretty damn good. This doesn’t even take into account that the Bulls still own the rights to 6’10” forward, Nikola Mirotic, who is only 23 and already arguably the best hooper in all of Europe. And oh, the Bulls will also get the Cleveland Cavaliers’ 2015 1st-round pick if the Cavs make the playoffs. That pick could be as high as 14th. They will also get the Sacramento Kings’ 2015 1st-round pick so long as it’s not in the top 10, and if it is, the Bulls will own the rights to that pick for the following two years, with the same stipulations. The Bulls need to realize that they still have a young Rose, 2013-14 Defensive Player of the Year and 1st-team All-NBAer Noah, a good power forward in Taj, promising wing in Butler, as well as future 1st-round draft picks and Mirotic. Desperate, the Bulls should not be.

In summation.

Calling the 2013-14 Bulls offense “anemic” would be a gross understatement. They finished dead last (30 out of 30) in points per game (93.7) and field goal percentage (43%). In terms of pace, the Bulls finished 13-14 29th (90.2), 28th in Offensive Rating (102.5), and 24th in three-point field goal percentage (35%). They’re in the middle of the pack in their ability to get to the free-throw line and were one of the worst in the league at protecting the ball. Their saving grace was their willingness to play defense as if their lives depended on it.

Obviously, adding Carmelo Anthony would help the Bulls improve tremendously on the offensive end. But, I worry about the Bulls’ current cap situation, Melo’s ability to grow in the coming years, and most importantly, I feel the Bulls have enough viable pieces (should Rose come back healthy, Boozer gets amnestied, and they draft reasonably well) to contend for a title in 2014-15 and beyond. It would make the most sense for Melo to try and navigate his way to Chicago, but what the Bulls would have to sacrifice would ultimately be too much. You can look, but don’t touch, Gar.

Dr. Edwin and Mr. Jackson.

Jackson in a 4/2 road start against the Pittsburgh Pirates.  Justin K. Aller -- Getty

Edwin Jackson in a 4/2 road start against the Pittsburgh Pirates. Justin K. Aller — Getty

Twice upon a time, Chicago Cubs starting pitcher (and definite journeyman) Edwin Jackson was one of Major League Baseball’s top pitching prospects. Then a Los Angeles Dodger, Jackson was widely regarded as a minor league arm to look out for, even though he hadn’t yet turned 20 years old. Jackson tore through the minors and made his ML debut on his 20th birthday, out-pitching Cy Young Award winner Randy Johnson to earn his first ML victory over the Arizona Diamondbacks. After his first “cup of coffee,” his numbers looked very promising: 4 G, 3 S, 22 IP, 2-1, 2.45 ERA, 17 H, 2 HR, 19/11 K/BB. Sure, his FIP (what a pitcher’s ERA should have looked like over a given period of time) was 4.12 and he struggled with control, not even posting a 2/1 K/BB ratio, but there was much reason to believe he would be at the least a good starting pitcher for years to come.

Unfortunately, Jackson spent the next two years going from the big leagues to the minor leagues and back, trying to regain the control that made him one of the minors’ best arms just a few years prior. In 2004 and 2005, he posted this line: 15 G, 11 S, 52.1 IP, 4-3, 6.88 ERA, 62 H, 9 HR, 29/28 K/BB. No longer a guy the Dodgers felt was a “can’t-miss” prospect, he and southpaw Chuck Tiffany were traded in January of 2006 to the then-Tampa Bay Devil Rays for pitchers Danys Baez and Lance Carter. Jackson pitched almost exclusively out of the bullpen in ’06 before becoming a full-time starter in ’07. He rebounded from a poor ’07 campaign to win 14 games in ’08, tying a then-Rays (Tampa Bay dropped the “Devil” after the ’07 season) record for most wins by a pitcher. The Rays made the postseason and reached the World Series before losing to the Philadelphia Phillies, but Jackson didn’t make a start, instead pitching 3 games out of the bullpen. Despite the demotion, it appeared that the 24 year-old Jackson would be a part of a scary Rays rotation and even scarier Rays team for a long time. And then, he was traded not even three months after the season, to the Detroit Tigers for outfielder Matt Joyce.

Since, Jackson has been traded to the Arizona Diamondbacks, Chicago White Sox, Toronto Blue Jays (for who he never pitched; traded later that day) and St. Louis Cardinals. He threw arguably the most bizarre no-hitter ever against the Rays in 2010. He made 30 starts over 2 seasons for the Sox, putting up a 11-9, 196.2 IP, 3.66 ERA, 174/57 K/BB line. He “unfortunately” won a World Series ring with the Cardinals in 2011. Jackson, after not getting much serious attention on the free agent market after that season, signed a one-year deal with the Washington Nationals, putting up respectable numbers in a great starting rotation before finally finding a little security and stability, thanks to your Chicago Cubs.

On January 2, 2013, Jackson signed a 4-year, $52 million contract with the Cubs, with $8 million of it allocated as a signing bonus. Promising, durable starter? Yes. Frustrating-as-all-hell starter? Yes.

2013 was…not so great for Jackson. He didn’t reach the 7th inning until his ninth start and lost 8 of his first 9 decisions, posting a ghastly 6.29 ERA along the way. Over roughly the next seven weeks, however, Jackson was one of the better pitchers in baseball, going 6-3 and seeing his ERA drop more than a point and a half while showing better control and working deeper into ballgames. Although “EJax” went on to lose seven of his next eight decisions, he didn’t pitch all that poorly, allowing 3 earned runs or less in six of his final eight starts. Final 2013 line: 31 S, 8-18, 175.1 IP, 4.98 ERA, 197 H, 16 HR, 135/59 K/BB. Jackson was immediately placed into the “free agent bust” category after the season, and for fairly good reason.

Was there really good reason to label him a bust? Jackson’s FIP was 3.79, a pretty good sign. His BABIP (batting average on balls in play) was .322, GB% (Ground Ball percentage) a career-high 51.3% (I don’t count 2006 because of the small sample size) and FB%, (Fly ball percentage) a career-low 28.4%. While Jackson had his outings in which he was absolutely shelled, the numbers above (and having actually seen most of his starts) will tell you that wasn’t always the case. Nearly. His HR/9 (home runs given up per 9 innings) was a respectable .82, so it’s not like he was allowing dingers left and right. And while it’s hard to blame the defense behind him when they posted a cumulative 26 DRS (Defensive Runs Saved), good for ninth in the majors, a lot of that was due to three regulars: 1B Anthony Rizzo, 2B Darwin Barney, and C Wellington Castillo, who posted a combined 46 DRS. In summation, Jackson was somewhere in between a below-average and bad luck starter, basically.

Enter 2014. I didn’t believe for a nanosecond that Jackson was as bad as his 2013 line, but I didn’t have the utmost confidence that he would rebound fully. Through 11 starts: 3-5, 63.2 IP, 4.81 ERA (3.22 FIP), 66 H, 4 HR, 61/24 K/BB. Now, say hello to both Dr. Edwin and Mr. Jackson:

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Believe me when I write that that’s essentially what Cubs fans have dealt with since EJax became a member of the Cubs. 2013 is in the past, but 2014 is certainly salvageable…provided Jackson never has to pitch in the first two innings ever again. In the first two innings, Mr. Jackson has been absolutely unpleasant: 22 IP, 9.41 ERA, 38 H, 3 HR, 20/12 K/BB. An opponent OPS of over 1.000 only makes it worse, as well as the fact that in a few starts, he’s given up an early lead his teammates provided him with. Over the next 3 innings, we have Dr. Edwin: 31.2 IP, 2.01 ERA, 19 H, 1 HR, 30/8 K/BB. Dividing starts by thirds, Jackson is a different pitcher in innings 1-3 than he is in innings 4-6, and I’m not exactly sure what can be done to rectify this issue.

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There’s no disputing that when EJax is on, we all enjoy seeing Dr. Edwin go to work. But, when he’s off, which is seemingly every other start or inning, Cubs fans (myself included) turn into angry villagers with pitchforks looking to run the monster (Mr. Jackson) out of town. It wouldn’t even be entirely accurate to say that he has one good start, then one bad one, and so on and so forth, because again, he goes from crud to champ sometimes from inning 2 to 3.

I feel all any of us can really hope for is that EJax falls somewhere in between good and bad, providing durability and reliable pitching. At $11 million a year, he’s not exactly expensive, but when an athlete is making 8 digits a damn year, you’d expect a bit more than inconsistency and maddening displays of prowess, failure, prowess, failure, etc. It doesn’t help matters that he’s pitching on a Cubs team that is probably a little worse (no Sori or Garza) than last year’s club, leaving the error-prone Jackson little room for, well, error. He may right the ship. He may not. He probably will. He probably won’t. Whatever the case, Dr. Edwin and Mr. Jackson are here to say. Let’s just hope that Dr. Edwin learns how to better suppress Mr. Jackson so long as he is a Chicago Cub.

Each 2014 Chicago Cub, in a (somewhat baked) nutshell.

Today is officially Opening Day for all of Major League Baseball and yes, that includes the Chicago Cubs, bless their incompetent hearts. If you haven’t already heard or read, the Cubs have a plan that involves not spending absurd amounts of money on free agents just to do so, as well as rebuilding their farm system so that it produces multiple significant contributors at the Major League level, as opposed to one every decade. I will give a brief rundown of each 2014 Chicago Cub, from 1-25 (not including several Cubs who will begin 2014 on the disabled list).

Pitchers.

SP Jeff Samardzija: The de facto ace of the Cubs’ staff, “Shark” is mostly a good starter who shows flashes of very good on occasion. He’ll likely be traded before the July 31 deadline or decide that life as a fourth receiver on the Bears isn’t so bad at all.

SP Edwin Jackson: I didn’t quite get the signing of Jackson to a 4-year, 52-million dollar deal before the 2013 season, which is really 44 mil after a signing bonus of 8 million. He was bad in 2013, but his FIP and xFIP suggests he’ll be better in 2014. Because, advanced metrics.

SP Jason Hammel: The former Baltimore Oriole was good a few years ago. Yeah…that’s about it.

SP Travis Wood: The southpaw was good in 2013, making 32 starts and posting an ERA of 3.11 in 200 innings. I doubt he’ll be as good in ’14, but I am looking forward to seeing him pinch-run late in a close ballgame.

SP Carlos Villanueva: Villanueva, a veteran swing, can keep his job by simply not being awful. Easier said than done.

LHP James Russell: Russell has been very good out of the pen the last two seasons and has made me forget all about my affinity for Sean Marshall.

RHP Pedro Strop: Strop could probably close for this team, but that job belongs to Jose Veras at the moment. Don’t worry, Pedro. After July 31, the gig will likely be yours.

RHP Justin Grimm: Grimm is just 25 and was a part of the trade that brought former Cub starting pitcher Matt Garza to Texas. Grimm was excellent in just 9 innings for the Cubs after the swap, and I guarantee Theo and Co. are praying he’ll be decent in ’14.

LHP Wesley Wright: The lefty and former Houston Astro should prove to be a valuable arm out of the pen and more importantly, adds to the color at Wrigley. Literally.

RHP Hector Rondon: Rondon had control issues in 2013, but then again, he was a Cubs pitcher in 2013, so it makes sense.

RHP Brian Schlitter: Schlitter graduated from Maine South High School, in Park Ridge, Illinois. And he’s tall.

RHP Jake Arrieta: I’ve liked Arrieta for a while now and was actually happy when he became a Cub after coming over in the Scott Feldman deal. He has the potential to easily fill a spot in the middle of the rotation, provided he’s healthy and not, you know, terrible.

RHP Kyuji Fujikawa: Fujikawa wasn’t all that bad–despite his numbers–before being shelved for the rest of the season after undergoing Tommy John surgery. He’s still on the DL and probably won’t miss losing in relatively frigid temperatures.

RHP Jose Veras: Veras signed with the Cubs because obviously, he wants to pitch in low-pressure situations before being dealt to a contender during the peak of the season.

Catchers.

John Baker: I assume Baker is on the big league club because it’s wise to have at least two catchers on the 25-man roster and starter Wellington Castillo isn’t a robot, contrary to popular belief.

Wellington Castillo: A defensive stud, Castillo only has to get his bat going on a more consistent basis and he can be recognized as one of the game’s better young catchers. Catchers are so great, aren’t they?

Infielders.

SS Starlin Castro: After a bad 2013, things can’t possibly get any worse in ’14. Well, they definitely could, but I highly doubt they will. Expect Starlin to slash .300/.340/.420 and enrage old, White baseball writers in Chicago for years to come.

1B Anthony Rizzo: When everyone was gushing over the lethal work Rizzo was putting in as a minor leaguer in the Cubs’ system, I was patient to see what he would do at the ML level. Last year was definitely rough for him, but like, Starlin, he should improve this season. If not, I will begin chants of “Vo-gel-bach” wherever I go.

2B Darwin Barney: Barney is a whiz with the glove. At the plate, he stinks. If this were still 1955, Barney would be the perfect second baseman. Unfortunately for Barney, this is 2014, so start hitting the damn baseball, Darwin.

3B Mike Olt: I fully expect Olt to hit 25 homers and post an OPS+ of at least 105 because he can see now. I miss Valbuena already, though.

2B Emilio Bonifacio: I’d love it if Bonifacio could wrestle the job away from Barney. Then again, it’s not saying much to beat out Darwin Barney for that spot.

3B Luis Valbuena: Oh, Luis. You got robbed, man.

Outfielders.

Ryan Sweeney: I like Sweeney. Sure, if my team were legit title contenders, there wouldn’t be a spot for him, but yeah, I like Sweeney, nonetheless.

Junior Lake: Lake will have his “man” moments this season and if opposing pitchers have made adjustments, will frustrate the hell out of me even more.

Nate Schierholtz: Anyone else expect Schierholtz to not come close to duplicating his 2013 campaign? At best, he should be league-average. Good for the Cubs because they’re the Cubs.

Justin Ruggiano: Ruggiano’s OPS from 2011-13, yearly: .673 (2011), .909 (2012), .694 (2013). So…this means we should brace ourselves for Super Ruggiano in 2014, right?

Ryan Kalish: Not much should be expected of the 26 year-old pride and joy of Red Bank, New Jersey. Although, fist pumps after wins should be kept to a minimum.

Quickly, now: In Sparty I Trust.

Yes, Tom. I trust you that much. -- Getty Images

Yes, Tom. I love you that much. — Getty Images

Well, it’s NCAA Division I men’s basketball tournament time. Sort of. I know there were some “play-in” games played or there will be, or…they don’t matter. This is about the Michigan State Spartans and also, their head coach, Tom Izzo. Yes, he of the 465-186 record over 19 years at MSU. The same Izzo who has led Sparty to seven regular season Big 10 titles, four Big 10 conference tournament titles, compiled an NCAA tournament record of 39-15 and navigated his team through the maze that is the NCAA bracket to six Final Fours. He has never had a senior class that didn’t appear in a Final Four and of course, he has a national title ring from 2000. And the man who is 12-4 in the opening round of the tournament lets his players know that he is doing battle with them, come March. “[He] always tell us, ‘Get me through the first day, I’ll get you through the second,'” said former Spartan do-everything hooper, Draymond Green.

This year’s team began the season ranked second in the country in the Associated Press and coaches poll. In their second game of the season, Sparty beat then-top ranked Kentucky at the United Center in what was mostly an excellent game between a MSU team with one surefire first-round pick (shooting guard Gary Harris) and UK one with an entire starting lineup that could ultimately end up all being first-round picks when their collegiate careers are over. MSU then enjoyed a three-week stay atop the polls before seemingly, the Spartans just couldn’t stay healthy. Or hit free throws. Or not turn the ball over. Or simply, play good damn basketball. After going 18-2 in their first 20 games, with their only losses coming at home to North Carolina ( starters PG Keith Appling, PF Adreian Payne and Harris shot a combined 16-40 from the floor) and at home to Michigan (both Payne and starting G/F Branden Dawson missed the game due to injury), Sparty went 5-6 to finish the regular season, losing on the road to Ohio St. by 2 in the finale. Thankfully, Harris got over some of his injury woes, Payne’s foot healed, Dawson’s broken hand healed (don’t slam a desk with your fist during a film session, kids), Appling and his bum wrist appeared to turn a corner, and anyone else who even thought about getting sick or hurt realized that the conference tournament was fast approaching.

Three days, three games. MSU dispatched of Northwestern easily and despite the 83-75 final score, did the same to Wisconsin. With a chance to exact a little revenge on rival Michigan in the conference tournament title game after being swept in the regular season, Sparty played arguably its most impressive game to date. In a 69-55 win, MSU outrebounded a top-10 Michigan team by 14, shot 50% from the field compared to 32% for Michigan, and held Wolverines sharpshooter Nik Stauskas to only four points in the second half after he scored thirteen in the first.

With conference tournament title in hand, MSU waited for the NCAA tournament selection committee to tell them what seed they’d earned as well as where they’d be playing their first weekend. Somehow, some way, the committee tabbed Sparty as a 4 seed (Louisville, also a 4, got the shaft, too) and banished them to Spokane, Washington, where they will play the 13th-seeded Delaware Fightin’ Blue Hens at 4:40 PM, ET, in the East Region. The Blue Hens, of the Colonial Athletic Conference, are dancing after beating William & Mary in the conference tournament title game, 75-74.

Despite a regular season and conference tournament title, the Blue Hens should prove to be absolutely no match for the upstart (can a team that began the season with serious title aspirations at any point be considered an upstart?) Spartans, who appear to be fully healthy and determined to show that their shaky stretch was attributed more to missing key players because of injury than subpar play. Delaware is an average offensive team, which certainly won’t be good enough to beat MSU. On defense, they’re one of the worst in the country, which should make Sparty’s task even easier.

I wouldn’t say that MSU is the hottest team in the country right now. That title probably belongs to North Carolina Central University. However, biases aside, I felt before the regular season started that if healthy and not at each other’s throats, this Michigan St. team could easily find itself in contention for a spot in the Final Four. To hell with ESPN analysts picking the Green and White to go all the way, because, to hell with them. Despite some disappointments in years’ past, I’m confident this team can do more in this year’s tournament than make some noise. In Sparty I Trust. GO GREEN. GO WHITE.

The (seemingly) two kinds of Jay Cutler fans.

When the Chicago Bears traded quarterback Kyle Orton and multiple high draft picks to the Denver Broncos for quarterback Jay Cutler, I was pretty damn ecstatic. I anticipated touchdown throws, tight spirals, and rockets over the middle. All from Cutler, a then 26 year-old, strong-armed Vanderbilt product. Those would lead to wins, division titles, conference titles and Super Bowl titles. In addition, Cutler would finally be free of John Elway and his quarterbacking legend in Denver. It was true that he wouldn’t enjoy the benefit of playing for offensive mastermind Mike Shanahan, and also in a stadium that gives the home team about as unique of an advantage as a team could receive. That top-notch running game and flock of talented receivers and tight ends? They weren’t coming with him to Chicago. Honestly, though, Bears fans didn’t care all that much. We didn’t really care all that much that Cutler had a legit play caller and even more legitimate offensive weapons in Denver, from the offensive line to his backs and ends. We were just happy to finally have a competent quarterback wearing a Bears uni for a change.

Let the division begin.

When Cutler arrived, the offensive line was beyond terrible, running back Matt Forte was coming off of a rookie year in which he probably did more than should have been asked of him, and the wide receivers and tight ends–outside of TE Greg Olsen–were collectively less than average, and that’s being generous. Earl Bennett and Johnny Knox were Cutler’s top two wide receivers that season. Earl Bennett and Johnny Knox were the top two wide receiver options. On an actual NFL team. Don’t pin the 2009 team’s 7-9 record on Cutler.

But, some did. It was easy to see that on roughly one-quarter of his dropbacks, Cutler simply ran for his life. No time to go through your progressions; just start running, Jay. It was even easier to see that freakin’ Joe Montana himself wouldn’t have been able to do much with receivers like Bennett, Knox, Devin Hester and Rashied Davis. It still infuriates me to no end that Cutler went through much of his prime trying to target Hester, by the way. Plenty of fans ignored the pedestrian play-calling on offense. Instead, they subscribed to the NFL logic that states quarterbacks should receive the lion’s share of the blame, win or lose. So even when the Bears were completely outclassed in every facet of the game, a certain contingent of fans directed their ire towards the player the franchise had given up so much for. After all, this wasn’t a team that was “one piece away” when they traded for Cutler. There were multiple holes to fill, especially on offense. It’s almost as if the Bears front office and Chicago sports media wanted us to believe that Cutler would fix all that ailed the Bears’ sickly offensive unit.

To an extent, those incredibly critical fans of Cutler were right. It’s a little hypocritical to damn near hail a guy as a savior, and then when there is colossal failure, you don’t even begin to lay any of the blame at his feet. There were certainly times when I felt for Cutler because he simply wasn’t put in a very good position to win early in his time with the Bears, but there were also the forced throws, terrible footwork, even more terrible throwing mechanics and the “I’m getting paid to not give a fuck” facial expressions that seemed to come aplenty, especially when things weren’t going his way. I wasn’t completely on the side of the fans who wanted Cutler to lead the offense, defense, special teams and our military, but he just wasn’t very good for the Bears early on, porous offensive line and crappy receivers or not.

On the other side were the Bears fans who have been watching inept Bears quarterbacks for their entire lives, and wanted to protect and coddle the first good thing to happen to that position since Sid Luckman. No, seriously. Sid Luckman. They saw an offensive line that struggled to block wind and pointed to that unit as the main reason why Cutler has never lived up to expectations. When the coaching staff tries to force Hester, Kellen Davis and Devin Aromashodu on you, just how are you supposed to lead that team to any sort of title? Once again, the Chicago Bears tried to turn one of the greatest punt/kick returners of all-time into a receiver and not only did the experiment fail magnificently, Hester’s return production took a significant hit as well, which meant the Bears screwed themselves on both offense and special teams. It didn’t matter that up until this season, the Bears defense had been a strength, and if it weren’t for that unit doing more than their part, Cutler’s record with the Bears would be much worse than it is right now. For a few years, the only consistent threat on offense besides Cutler was Forte. No, that is not an exaggeration. And while Forte is a very good running back, he’s not exactly a game-changing horse of a back who can just up and will a team to victory whenever he feels like it.

Cutler was doomed from the start, they often said. The horrendous play-calling limited his big arm and surprisingly, above-average mobility. Then again, if you’re an offensive coordinator, what do you call when the only two weapons you have are your quarterback and running back? Would you want your quarterback to have to target Bennett 15 times in a game? Would you call a play for Kellen “Drop It, KD!” Davis? With the Bears running out such a horrendous offensive line for years, I’m surprised pass plays beyond a few yards downfield were called at all.

The Bears fans who want to blame Cutler for all of the Bears’ failures have often ferociously pointed to the other side and attempted to paint them as gullible and naïve. This is partly true. I find it amazing that some of my friends and people I follow on Twitter will stop at nothing to avoid criticizing Cutler, even when a bad play is clearly his fault. Throwing off of his back foot? Blame the line. Forced throw? Blame the receiver. Bad body language? Blame the media…or gas. Just don’t blame Cutler. To be fair, the Bears fans who act as if Cutler, or any other quarterback, are responsible for all happenings on the football field are just as ridiculous, if not a tad bit more. Cutler is not responsible for the following: Pass blocking, run blocking, blitzing, stopping the run, stopping the pass, tackling, punting, kicking field goals and extra points, and challenging or calling plays. It’s not, and never has been Cutler’s responsibility to turn crud into croissants. So while I’ve been waiting for Cutler to maximize his potential since he arrived, I do realize that he hasn’t been put in the best position to do so.

I suppose I’m in the middle. Admittedly, Cutler received a few dozen passes from me for his early troubles with the Bears. After a 2009 45-10 beating at the hands of the Cincinnati Bengals, I wanted Cutler to leave because I didn’t want to see such a young talent have his career ended prematurely, or at least mucked up by the ineptitude of the Bears.  At the same time, any member of the “Cutler Lover For Life” camp who argued that the guy was elite should explain then, why he didn’t really make any of the guys around him better. I simply won’t hear or read that Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees haven’t made guys around them who aren’t household names into…well…household names. Granted, all four of them have mostly enjoyed exceptional offensive line play, but those four could win more than lose with almost any team, I believe. Cutler has two stud receivers in Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery, but they were prepackaged bundles of talent. Cutler didn’t reach down and find their superstar within, or anything close. That’s not entirely his fault, either, but it does lend some credence to the arguments that while Cutler is good, he’s no superstar.

Then again, the Bears and I never needed Cutler to be a superstar, so I find a nice chunk of the criticisms of him to be unfair. The problem is, he was sold as one, and he has not been. I’m sure the biggest fans of his know he has not been elite since becoming a Bear and the incessantly dissenting fans make sure to indicate that. To be honest, I don’t sense much middle ground when it comes to Cutler. And, maybe there doesn’t need to be. Cutler is an impending free agent and while I want the Bears to tag him and draft a young quarterback early, I sense the front office is leaning towards extending him. I don’t have any issues with an extension, so long as it’s not Flacco-like. Perhaps with some continuity for the first time in years, Cutler will come back in 2014 and live up to expectations. After all, this was arguably the finest season of his career, despite missing five games. Perhaps, not. Either way, the warring Cutler fans will just have to put off the squabbling for another 8 months. I’m coming, Elizabeth. I’m coming.