The 2014 FIFA World Cup will not be an easy one for the United States soccer team. The U.S. has been placed into the ‘Group of Death’ with two power houses (Germany and Portugal) and the team that defeated them during the 2010 World Cup (Ghana). The U.S. will bring some veteran leadership in the form of Everton goalie, Tim Howard. Forward Jozy Alitdore of Sunderland will attempt to lead the offensive charge. The U.S. thrives in the counter attack, keying on its midfielders to help push offensive chances. The counter attack may run into a few speed bumps against Germany and Portugal. Both teams rely on strong midfielder play to limit chances and help power the offensive attack. After the jump, I’ll preview each U.S. opponent and present some official picks.

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Masahiro Tanaka (1-0, 2.57 ERA) will make him Yankee Stadium debut on Wednesday night against the Baltimore Orioles. Tanaka gave up three runs and six hits over seven innings during MLB debut in Toronto last weekend. Tanaka struck out eight and did not issue a walk. 65 of his 97 pitches were strikes. He’ll look to build on that success against a hot hitting Baltimore club. The Orioles scored 14 runs on 20 hits during Tuesday’s 14-5 beat down of the Bombers. Each of Baltimore starters, except catcher Matt Wieters, had multiple hits. The Yankees will look to deliver a beat down of their own to Baltimore RHP Miguel Gonzalez. Gonzalez was shelled for seven earned runs on nine hits in 3 1/3 innings last Friday in Detroit. The Yankees touched Gonzalez up for seven runs last August at Yankee Stadium. Outfielder Alfonso Soriano has two home runs in five career at bats against Gonzalez.

Current MLB odds have the Yankees listed as a whopping -180 home favorite. The Yankees and Orioles have split the first two games of this three game series. Many people will opt to side with the Yankees and Tanaka in an emotional home debut. However, I’m siding with Baltimore. Hitting in contagious and tends to carry over from day-to-day. I’m getting a good price on Baltimore after a 14 run onslaught. The Yankee bullpen is spent and the closer situation is unsettled. I expect Tanaka to pitch well, but I don’t trust the Yankee bullpen.

Pick: Baltimore Orioles +165

Masahiro Tanaka will make his major league debut Friday night against the Toronto Blue Jays. He’ll look to guide his team after a disappointing road trip to start the season. The New York Yankees (1-2) dropped two of three in Houston against the Astros while the Blue Jays split four games in Tampa Bay against the Rays. The Yankees have high hopes for their $175 million man and a strong start on Friday night will be a great start. Tanaka was flat out dominant last season in Japan, posting a 24-0 record with a sparkling 1.27 ERA. Tanaka was the center piece of the off-season, but his contract didn’t stop the Yankees from improving their offense. The Yankees committed $85 million to catcher Brian McCann and over $150 million for center fielder, Jacoby Ellsbury. The Yankee offense as a whole struggled in Houston, but hopefully a stop in Toronto’s hitter friendly park will help.

Tanaka will face off against RHP Dustin McGowan. Due to various injuries, McGowan will be making his first start since September 2011. McGowan missed the entire 2012 season due to foot injuries and exclusively pitched out the bullpen last season. McGowan’s strong spring earned him a rotation spot over LHP JA Happ. 

The Yankees went 13-5 against the Blue Jays last season, but went just 4-5 at the Rogre Centre. 

Pick: Current MLB Odds have the Yankees listed as a modest road favorite (-128). I’m fully expecting Tanaka to come out ready to pitch and start his MLB career on a high note. The Yankee offense is ready to get on the map and I’m fully expecting them to take advantage of McGowan.

Pick: New York Yankees -128

The New York Mets kicked off their 2014 season Monday afternoon at Citi Field. The Mets drew a crowd in excess of 43,000 people. Many Met fans used ScoreBig to purchase tickets to attend the game. ScoreBig offers fans a very unique ticket buying experience. In short, here are some quick ScoreBig facts that make it the best ticket buying option:

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Less than 72 hours remain in the Masahiro Tanaka sweepstakes. I’ve written a scouting report, valuation study, and just some general thoughts.  Overall, I think a six-year, $120 million deal is pretty reasonable. However, two of baseball’s richest teams, the Yankees and Dodgers, as well as new regimes in Arizona and Chicago have also shelled out nine figure offers. When the competition is this fierce, someone is going to pay a premium. Tanaka’s agent, Casey Close, has done an excellent job keeping negotiations quiet, so we don’t know where each team stands.

When we compare Tanaka to the entire free agent pitching market, it’s not even close–and Close knows that. Based on age alone, Tanaka is three years younger than the next pitcher (Phil Hughes). Skill-wise, an argument can be made that Tanaka has the best ‘stuff’ among free agent pitchers. This article will show us why we shouldn’t be shocked when Tanaka signs a deal in excess of $140 million.

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Yesterday, we heard rumblings that the Yankees were ‘considering a run‘ at free agent shortstop, Stephen Drew. Drew, who turns 31-years-old in March, was the starting shortstop for the Boston Red Sox. In 124 games, Drew hit 13 HRs, drove in 67 runs, and put up a .253/.333/.443 slash. Defensively, Drew finished second among American League shortstops with a .984 fielding percentage. Drew finished the year with a 3.4 WAR, sixth best among shortstops. After making $9.5 million last season, Drew turned down Boston’s qualifying offer of one-year, $14.1 million, in hopes of securing a multi-year deal. Despite grading out as one of the better shortstops, Drew is having a tough time find suitors. Could the lack of demand for Drew create a market inefficiency that the Yankees can exploit?

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Lost in the Masahiro Tanaka sweepstakes, the A-Rod fiasco, and the optimistic Jacoby Ellsbury signing, the Yankees signed a future Hall of Famer to anchor the middle of their order. No one is talking about switch hitter Carlos Beltran, who quietly signed a three-year, $45 million in December. Among position players, Beltran is 90th in career WAR (64.1). Three solid seasons in the Bronx will vault him in the Top 50 ahead of future HOFer, Craig Biggio (68.1) and 2014 HOFer Frank Thomas (72.1). In 16 seasons, Beltran has 2,228 hits, 358 HRs, 308 SBs and boasts a .283/.359/.496 slash. To put his numbers in perspective, A-Rod is the only other active player with 300 HRs and 300 SBs.

As he enters his Age 37 season, Beltran’s days of double digit stolen bases are finished. However, Beltran’s power has not subsided. Beltran has clubbed at least 22 HRs over his last three seasons and hit at least .296 in two of those seasons. When we factor in Fangraph’s park factors, via Fangraphs, there’s an even bigger reason for optimism. Take a look at Table 1.

Table 1: Park Factors (Busch Stadium vs Yankee Stadium)

Season Team 1B as L 1B as R 2B as L 2B as R 3B as L 3B as R HR as L HR as R
2013 Yankees 101 99 98 97 103 86 114 106
2013 Cardinals 101 99 94 100 97 91 94 90

Higher ratings indicate a more hitter friendly park and when we consider home runs, Beltran gets a giant boost by playing half of his games at Yankee Stadium. For lefties, Yankee Stadium is the second most power hitter friendly park (Coors Field is first) while Busch Stadium ranks in the Bottom 10. For righties, Yankee Stadium is the seventh most friendly while Busch Stadium is in the Bottom 3. Beltran took 71 percent of his at-bats left-handed last season and hit 17 of his 24 homers from the left side.  Add in the luxury of the DH and Beltran should be a safe bet for 70-75 games at Yankee Stadium. Therefore, as long as he continues to receive 600+ plate appearances, Beltran should see a spike in home runs. 

In addition to a boost in park factors, Beltran will likely hit third and have more RBI opportunities than he did in St. Louis. Beltran hit second in St. Louis’ order and had the luxury of second baseman, Matt Carpenter (.396 on-base percentage) hitting in front of him. With the Yankees, Beltran will have Ellsbury (.355 OBP) and Derek Jeter (.362 OBP) hitting in front of him. Add in Brett Gardner (.352 OBP) when the line-up turns over and Beltran, who hit .374 with runners in scoring position last year, will have ample opportunities to drive in runs. Beltran should see a steady dose of fastballs with Alfonso Soriano and Brian McCann hitting behind him as well.

Defensively, Beltran will grade out as below average, but when you factor in two plus defenders in LF (Gardner) and CF (Ellsbury), it’ll off-set Beltran’s shortcomings. In addition, Beltran will like see a third of his at-bats as a DH and the Yankees can insert Ichiro Suzuki into RF during late game situations. His glove won’t kill the Yankees, but he was ultimately brought in for his offense. 

Based on these factors, I think Beltran has 30 HR, 100 RBI, .290+ batting average upside over 145 games. After reviewing some third-party projections, I think analysts are down on Beltran due the stigma surround his age (37) and ‘injury proneness’ (knee injuries in 2009 and 2010).  Table 2 has their projections and my projection:

Table 2: Beltran Projections

Season Site G PA HR R RBI SB AVG OBP SLG
2011-13 Avg 146 606 26 80 88 6 0.288 0.357 0.504
2014 Steamer 122 530 21 68 73 4 0.277 0.343 0.473
2014 Oliver 143 600 23 75 86 3 0.279 0.341 0.471
2014 Fans (23) 129 562 24 76 81 4 0.283 0.345 0.484
2014 NYSOS 145 603 30 85 100 5 0.290 0.355 0.520

Overall, I’m surprised how down Steamer and Oliver are on their projections. Beltran has some major things (home park, lineup, situational advantages) working in his favor. While ‘trying hard’ and ‘determination’ are things that go overlooked, Beltran has always wanted to be a Yankee. Before signing with the Mets in 2005, Beltran was very open about joining the Yankees. At the time, the Yankees had a declining Bernie Williams manning center field and opted for a cheaper Johnny Damon (four-years, $52 million) instead of a more expensive Beltran (seven-years, $119 million). Beltran, who hails from Puerto Rico, grew up idolizing Puerto Rican star, Bernie Williams. Just from listening to his press conference, Beltran is ecstatic about donning pinstripes. 

While most Yankee fans are excited about Tanaka, McCann, and Ellsbury, expect Beltran to relish in a ‘secondary role’. Keep forgetting about him until April before watching him rake all summer long. 

The Brooklyn Nets (37-32) are currently ranked fifth in the Eastern Conference with only 11 games to go. The Nets are only one game behind the Chicago Bulls and Toronto Raptors for third and fourth place, but will need to fend off the upstart Charlotte Bobcats (34-37) who are currently seventh in the Eastern Conference. 

The Nets had their four-game winning streak snapped on Monday. The Nets blew a 22-point second half and lost 109-104 to the New Orleans Hornets. Despite the loss, the Nets posted an impressive 107-104 overtime win in Dallas on Sunday. The Nets shot 51 percent from the field during their four-game winning streak before shooting just 37 percent in their loss to New Orleans. The Nets were a staggering 10-for-40 from three-point range. 

Brooklyn has defeated Charlotte in nine of their last ten meetings. Charlotte’s lone victory occurred in November at home. Alike Brooklyn, Charlotte is coming off a poor shooting performance. Charlotte dropped a 100-89 home decision to Houston on Monday night. Charlotte made just four of their 21 3-pointers. Their 12 assists were also a season low. Kemba Walker scored 22 points in the loss. Walker has scored at least 20 points in four of his last five games.

This is a must win game for both teams and the odds makers expect a very tight contest. Current NBA odds state that this game is essentially a Pick’em. However, I disagree with the line makers on this one. Kemba Walker is starting to play really well and Brooklyn is a paltry 14-21 on the road. The Nets do not have an answer for Al Jefferson inside and I expect a big game from him. Take the home team at a discount for your NBA picks.

My Pick: Charlotte Bobcats -PK

The New York Knicks made headlines earlier this week by hiring Phil Jackson as their President of Basketball Operations. The 68-year-old Jackson will collect a staggering $60 million over the next five seasons to fix the Knicks. That’s big money for an older yet very successful basketball mind.  Ever since they began negotiating with Jackson, the Knicks have played much better.

The 27-40 Knicks, winners of six straight, will host the struggling 50-17 Indiana Pacers. The Pacers have been sluggish on offense and have failed to cover ten of their last eleven games. The Knicks, on the other hand, are 5-1 against the spread over their last six. The Knicks are currently ninth in the Eastern Conference and sit 4.5 games behind Atlanta for the final playoff spot, so expect this team to play with a great sense of urgency. There are only 15 games to go, so every win matters. Especially when Atlanta has won five straight games. 

The Knicks will get center Tyson Chandler back on Wednesday night. Chandler is a welcome addition for an opponent that loves to push opponents around inside. Amare has played with a sense of urgency and JR Smith is taking better shots. Maybe Jackson already has a winning influence on this team.

Current NBA odds have the Knicks slotted a small 2.5 point home underdog. The Knicks have been playing well while the Pacers have been struggling. Back the Knicks in your NBA picks for this evening.

Pick: NY Knicks +2.5

The New York Knicks (25-40) will go for their fifth straight win as they head north to face the Boston Celtics (22-42). The Knicks currently sit in 10th place in the Eastern Conference and just 3 1/2 games out of the final playoff slot. During their five game winning streak, the Knicks have scored 114 points per game while shooting 41 percent from three-point range. The Knicks took care of business by handling the hapless Philadelphia 76ers, 123-110. Guard Tim Hardaway led the way with 28 points. 

New York has defeated Minnesota, Utah, Cleveland, and Philadelphia during their winning streak which shows they’re winning the games they need to win. After facing the Celtics, the Knicks will host the Bucks at home on Saturday. Getting two wins is critical.

Last night, the Celtics dropped a 94-83 decision in Indiana to the Pacers. Jared Sullinger led the way with 17 points and nine rebounds. Kris Humphries chipped in with 15 points and nine rebounds. Indiana is known for their tough defense and that defense was on full display. Indiana held Boston to just 35 percent from the field, which included a 19 percent mark from three-point range. 

Boston has defended the three-point very well, allowing opponents to make just 19 percent of their shots. The Knicks made 50 percent of their three-pointers in their most recent meeting on January 28th. The Knicks won 114-88.

Current NBA odds peg New York as a 4.5 point road favorite. New York has agreed to terms with Phil Jackson to become their president of basketball operations, so the distractions are running rampant. I don’t like betting again home dogs and I won’t buck this trend in this spot. Take Boston and the points at home for your NBA pick.