ALL-STARS IN THE OUTFIELD
It’s time to pick the outfielders on the Notebook’s season-ending All-Star ballot today. When I did this midseason and last year, I did the picks by position, rather than just taking the top three. The selection process was tweaked this year—I still insist on having one pure centerfielder to make it a realistic team, but the corner spots were chosen without regard to whether the player plays left or right. Here’s the picks in both leagues…
The centerfield job is a two-man race between Curtis Granderson for the Yankees and Jacoby Ellsbury for the Red Sox. The offensive stats are almost a dead heat, with on-base percentage being even, and Granderson’s edge in power being attributable to Yankee Stadium being a better home run park for a lefthander. Like any middle position, defense is critical here and Ellsbury stands out based on the metrics. The Sox centerfielder gets the nod here.
Jose Bautista is a mortal lock for one of the corner spots, with the only question left being the merits of the Toronto rightfielder’s MVP candidacy. With 42 home runs keying a .615 slugging percentage and a .445 on-base percentage, Bautista is the best offensive player in baseball. The other spot is an interesting call between Josh Hamilton in Texas and Alex Gordon for Kansas City. Hamilton, last year’s MVP, has the better power with a .537 slugging compared to Gordon’s .504. But Gordon is better at getting on base, .377 to .350, and he does it without the benefit of hitting in the Texas lineup. And due to Hamilton’s time on the disabled list, Gordon has over 140 more at-bats and with that gets the Notebook vote.
There’s quality at the centerfield spot, but Los Angeles’ Matt Kemp is still a very easy vote. Even allowing his defense is much worse than I would like to have at a key spot, his offense is just so extraordinary considering he hits in pitcher-friendly Dodger Stadium that he just overwhelms the rest of the field. Kemp’s hit 34 home runs, his on-base percentage is .399 and he’s driven in 113 runs despite playing in a bad lineup. Honorable mention goes to Philadelphia’s Shane Victorino, whose recent slump cost him any shot at this nod, and Pittsburgh’s Andrew McCutchen, whose solid .364 on-base percentage makes him the brightest of what the Steel City hopes is a rising group of stars.
The corner jobs are dominated by the Midwest as Milwaukee’s Ryan Braun and St. Louis’ Lance Berkman are decisive choices. Both are complete offensive packages, with OBP’s at or near the .400 level, 30-plus home runs and slugging percentages in the high .500s, with Braun challenging the .600 plateau. St. Louis’ Matt Holliday has had a very good year, but his numbers trail his teammate in Berkman, and some honorable mention goes to San Francisco’s Carlos Beltran and Arizona’s B.J. Upton, both of whom might have played their way into a vote with a stronger second half.
That concludes the everyday lineup selections, which now look like this…
C: Alex Avila/Brian McCann
1B: Miguel Cabrera/Joey Votto
2B: Robinson Cano/Brandon Phillips
3B: Adrian Beltre/Aramis Ramirez
SS: Yunel Escobar/Troy Tulowitzki
CF: Jacoby Ellsbury/Matt Kemp
OFs: Jose Bautista & Alex Gordon/Ryan Braun & Lance Berkman
THE WIDE-OPEN SEC EAST
The Western Division of the SEC might be where the big boys are, with #2 Alabama and #3 LSU joining defending national champ Auburn, but the winner of that division still has come through the Eastern champ at year’s end and the “other” division’s race is shaping up to be wide-open.
South Carolina, the preseason favorite, and Florida, the traditional power, are the only teams ranked in the Top 25 right now, at #12 and #15 respectively in the AP rankings. The Gamecocks haven’t looked the part of the favorite early on, playing some terrible defense against East Carolina, a team Virginia Tech shut down last week. Then the Gamecocks struggled past Navy at home. It’s important to note that the Mids have a good team and “only” beating them 24-21 is no shame. But it’s also fair to say that a team that was a top-heavy favorite would have done this more decisively at home. I can still give South Carolina the nod of favorite thanks to the presence of Steve Spurrier on the sideline and the incomparable Marcus Lattimore in the backfield, an imposing talent who calls to mind Herschel Walker, Ricky Williams and Ron Dayne when he runs. All of those three won Heisman Trophies (1982, 1998, 1999), so you can figure out where I’m going with this. But while I can say the Gamecocks are the favorite, the phrase “top-heavy” doesn’t come to mind.
Florida stepped up with a big win on Saturday when they beat Tennessee in a 33-23 final not as close as the score sounds. The Gators are playing some tough defense and Chris Rainey is having a great year out of the backfield, both running and catching the ball. The issue Florida is going to face is creating a passing game through some means other than dumping the ball to Rainey. To beat good teams, they need to get the ball to the outside and after a game with Kentucky on Saturday, good teams are exactly what are ahead—how about Alabama, LSU, and Auburn in succession. No bye weeks mixed in and the last two on the road.
The early surprise in this division has been Vanderbilt, who surprised with a win over UConn and then followed it up by hammering Ole Miss last week. The key to the success has been the run defense, which has been shutdown caliber in those two games. That alone will make the Commodores bowl-caliber, a level that will induce celebration in Nashville. If Vandy wants to do more, they need to clean up the penalties—they’re averaging nine flags a game in those two wins and they don’t have the kind of explosive passing game that can make up for that. And as for that run defense—they bring it to Columbia on Saturday night to meet Lattimore in what’s an unexpectedly interesting game.
Tennessee is still a team to keep an eye on, given that their loss to Florida was on the road, and there’s a good chance 6-2 will take this division. The Vols’ concern is that running back Tauren Poole was completely shut down in Gainesville and they need him to provide balance to the offense against contending teams. Georgia and Kentucky are the only teams that look like non-contenders right now, with the big question in Athens being how long Mark Richt survives.
The SEC East gets ESPN coverage on Saturday night with Florida-Kentucky (ESPN) and South Carolina-Vanderbilt (ESPN2) both going in the 7 PM ET window, and it promises to be a fun race all the way to Atlanta on the first Saturday in December.
ATLANTA TRIES TO SURVIVE
As long as we’re on the topic of Atlanta and the SEC East, let’s stay in that neck of the woods to look at the Falcons, who pulled out a must-win game against Philadelphia on Sunday night to even their record at 1-1 and is looking ahead to a road trip in Tampa in Week 3.
I think everyone in Atlanta just has to be saying “Whew” after the rally from a 10-point deficit to beat the Michael Vick-less Eagles 35-31. There was not a lot in this win that suggests the Falcons are ready to again be a Super Bowl contender. The pass protection is terrible, as Matt Ryan has hit the deck nine times already. Granted, the defensive lines faced have been the Bears & Eagles, both of whom have some pass rushers. But if you profess to be a championship contender, these are the lines you have to be able to block, especially at home. Atlanta does a nice job running the ball with Michael Turner and they have receivers that Ryan can target on quick releases, with Roddy White and tight end Tony Gonzalez, so there is no reason for these kinds of sack problems.
It’s tough for me to look beyond this flaw right now, but Atlanta still hasn’t really solved the secondary problems that Aaron Rodgers and Green Bay made so transparent in the playoffs last January. The Falcons have a lot going for them—they can run the ball and have a lot of great talent at the skill positions, but if you don’t protect the passer and you don’t defend in the secondary, you’re an 8-8 team. And that’s exactly what the Falcons are playing like right now. The positive is that taking advantage of Vick’s untimely exit on Sunday night and stealing this win, gives them a chance to fix the problems before the season slips away too quickly.
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