Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Pittsburgh Steelers 2013 Offseason Preview

By Tom Mantzouranis
Sports Illustrated
February 21, 2013

Despite big-money deals, LaMarr Woodley and James Harrison were both ineffective in 2012.
Despite big-money deals, LaMarr Woodley and James Harrison were both ineffective in 2012.
Charles LeClaire/US Presswire

SI.com is laying out offseason road maps for all 32 teams as they start their journey for the Lombardi Trophy -- two teams per day, from the teams that need the most work to contend in 2013 to the ones that are in pretty good shape. See them all.

2012 Record: 8-8 
Key Pending Free Agents: Larry Foote, LB; Casey Hampton, DT; Keenan Lewis, CB; Rashard Mendenhall, RB; Max Starks, T; Mike Wallace, WR; Jonathan Dwyer, RB (RFA); Steve McClendon, DT (RFA); Isaac Redman, RB (RFA); Emmanuel Sanders, WR (RFA) 
List of Draft Picks (pending compensatory picks): 1 (17), 2 (48), 3 (80), 4 (113), 5 (144), 6 (176), 7 (207) 
Available Cap Space: About $14 million over the projected limit 
GM/Coaching Moves: None

2012 Season Recap

You could tell last summer that success in 2012 just wasn't in the cards for the Steelers.
Despite coming off of a 12-4, playoff-qualifying season in 2011, bad omens hovered over Pittsburgh. Three longtime stars and fan favorites -- Hines Ward, James Farrior and Aaron Smith -- bid adieu. Mike Wallace decided to try to leverage his breakout season into a new deal with a contract holdout. The running backs, including presumed started Rashard Mendenhall, dealt with injuries. The sordid and sloppy move from Ben Roethlisberger-favored Bruce Arians to Todd Haley at OC unsurprisingly led to drama between the quarterback and his new coach. And then the rookie first- and third-rounders OL David DeCastro and LB Sean Spence, both of whom were being counted on to infuse youth and talent into units thirsty for it, went down in the preseason with serious injuries. DeCastro would wind up missing 12 games, Spence the season.
All of that dissonance bled into the 2012 season, and manifested in mistakes at costly times. Roethlisberger and the Steelers, so typically clutch when the game is on the line, suffered from bad interceptions, fumbles, drops and mental breakdowns. It's fitting, then, that they were officially eliminated from playoff contention when Big Ben overthrew Mike Wallace for a Bengals interception with 14 seconds left and the game tied 10-10 in Week 16, allowing an easy path for Cincinnati to kick the game-winning field goal.
But less tangible influences impacted the Steelers record too. Haley's arrival brought with it a departure from Bruce Arians' vertical-heavy passing game, a scheme built around the Steelers', and Big Ben's, strengths. The emphasis on short passing was supposed to keep Roethlisberger healthy, but he still missed three games with a shoulder and serious rib injury, and the offense took to Haley's plan awkwardly. And despite boasting a defense that was ranked first overall, Pittsburgh was short on game-changing plays; their 20 takeaways ranked 24th in the league, and their 37 sacks were middle of the pack. The offense started fast and slumped late; the defense was troubled early but came on stronger as the season wore on. The Steelers just never were a cohesive unit last year.

Stat To Feel Good About

75.8. The passer rating for all attempts against Steelers starting cornerbacks Keenan Lewis and Cortez Allen, according to Pro Football Focus. Allen, in particular, shone in this area. His 68.5 rating against was 10th in the league in 2012.

If It Ain't Broke ...

The Steelers' No. 1 ranked defense was anchored by a secondary that led the league with just 185.2 yards against through the air. Part of that can be explained by the fact that the team faced just 523 attempts against last year -- only five teams faced fewer. Still, there's a lot to like about the unit, especially given the absence of a pass rush threat to help out (more on that below). On a defense that needs to get younger, the emergence of Keenan Lewis (26) and Cortez Allen (24) proved to be a blessing. The Steelers' secondary didn't make a ton of big plays, but it didn't allow many, either. Its 19 touchdowns allowed ranked seventh last year, but its 31 plays of 20-plus yards and two of 40-plus led the league. If the Steelers can retain Lewis' services this offseason (more on that below, too), those two will pair with the still serviceable Ike Taylor to give the Steelers a very stingy trio atop the cornerback depth chart.

Troubling Stat

10.2 percent. Combined plays on which pressure was achieved by OLBs James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley, down from 14.3 percent in 2011 and 15.8 percent in 2010.

Must Fix It

There are your prime culprits for the Steelers' lack of heat on opposing quarterbacks. Woodley had an abysmal season made all the worse by recent criticism from an anonymous teammate, who said, "He was awful. He tells us he works out, but we didn't see it. He wasn't in shape. That has to be a reason why he was always hurt." Entering the third year of his six-year, $61.5 million deal at just 28, Woodley is going nowhere, but he has to silence questions about his conditioning and motivation.
Harrison, meanwhile, is due to make $6.57 million in 2012, and has said he's open to restructuring his contract but not taking a pay cut. There's a simple solution there: let him walk. The former Defensive Player of the Year just isn't worth the money or hassle his outspoken nature brings at this point in his career. Talented backup Jason Worilds has flashed ability and is ready to step up as a starter. There should be a ton of options available in the first round for the Steelers to address the deficiency, too, including Ezekiel Ansah, Barkevious Mingo and Dion Jordan.

More On The To-Do List

1. Get younger everywhere on defense. The Steelers boast the league's oldest defense adjusted for snap count (29.2 years old), according to Football Outsiders. Cutting Harrison would be a start, and giving Cameron Heyward more snaps at end over Brett Keisel would help too.
2. Don't let the secondary slip. Re-signing Lewis is key if the Steelers could possibly afford it, and it's long past due for the team to find a good insurance plan and sooner-than-later successor for Troy Polamalu. Texas' Kenny Vaccaro could be a good option there in the first round, but it's more likely the team addresses safety with one of the many prospects pegged for Round 2.
3. Give Big Ben help at receiver. What a difference a year makes. Thought to be one of the team's biggest strengths entering 2012, Wallace and Antonio Brown both had disappointing years, and Wallace is as good as gone. Emmanuel Sanders will be given more responsibility once he is signed to a tender or new deal, but the team has to bring in another No. 2/3 option.

What We'll Be Saying In July

The Steelers' disappointing 2012 began with a roster bloodbath, and 2013 looks likely to start the same way. The Steelers are well over the cap, with eight players slated to make at least $5 million in 2013. Roethlisberger could be extended to help relieve some of that, but the stark reality is that the Steelers are probably going to lose all of their unrestricted free agents (except, possibly, Lewis if they do enough tinkering with their cap space) and will likely have to ax veterans on top of it.
Though the Tomlin-Roethlisberger tandem keeps the Steelers in the playoff contention conversation, this is a team that appears to have its short-term window closing, and the draft likely won't bring enough help to get the Steelers back in the 10-win range. We're going to be looking at the Steelers and wondering if they can do more with less to get back into the playoffs.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Steelers' problems might be too big

By Mark Madden 
Special to the Beaver County Times | Posted: Sunday, February 24, 2013 11:51 pm

Turmoil didn't cause 8-8; 8-8 caused turmoil.
But the fact remains that the Steelers locker room appears lousy with malcontents, laggards and tattletales. Which is worst? That's in the eye of the beholder
Such malaise is common with most NFL teams. Localization thereof is just another reminder that the Steelers are no longer a "special" franchise - if they ever were.
So, who's at fault?
Coach Mike Tomlin is hardly blameless. He seems to cede a bit more control and lose a bit more discipline every year.
Linebacker LaMarr Woodley is the founder of the latest tempest. Critics like Ryan Clark may characterize the unnamed Steeler source as a rat, but no one is calling that unnamed source a liar.
It's common knowledge that Woodley was out of shape, overweight and lacked dedication. The proof was in his season: Just four sacks and a level of invisibility the Steelers can't afford from an edge rusher.
Clark and Antonio Brown are right when they say the matter should have been kept in-house. But, given that, why did they keep discussing it publicly?
Oh, right: Got to get on TV.
What's a bigger sin: Tanking a season due to lard and laziness, like Woodley? Or calling Woodley out anonymously after the fact? Stinking, or snitching?
Going 8-8 suggests the former. Gangsta culture dictates the latter.
Hines Ward knows where things went wrong: He retired. Humility lives.
"When you lose so much leadership in the locker room, that is where things present itself like that," Ward told the NFL Network.
The Steelers don't lack leadership. They lack followers. The Young Money Crew and the Florida Gators posse (known collectively as the No-Ring Mafia) seem to believe they got NFL life figured out. So shut up, Troy.
The Steelers also lack self-awareness. The Steelers, as an organization and as individuals, are rarely made to experience an unpleasant moment. As a result, they seem to believe they shouldn't. They run this town, and they know it.
But when you go 8-8 and miss the playoffs, you don't get treated like immortals coated in Teflon. Punks, loafers and lousy performances get called out.
Humiliation isn't always bad. It can motivate. Woodley's problems weren't sorted out internally, or privately. So tell the outside world and see what happens.
Some feel Mike Wallace's impending departure (via Rolls-Royce
Phantom) will restore order. But there is a lot more than one bad apple.
The idea of a player currently without a contract or team purchasing a car that costs $500K is dumbfounding, isn't it? Wallace is in a temporary profession making temporary money. But someday he'll be a TV star: Wallace will be the primary protagonist on ESPN 30 for 30's "Broke 2."
So, how will the Steelers straighten out their locker room?
Winning is generally a cure-all. It's also easier said than done.
The Steelers' biggest problem has traditionally been when they don't recognize there's a problem. But perhaps the Steelers' current problems are too big. Perhaps too many bad actors populate their roster. Perhaps there are insufficient replacements for the broken parts that need to be replaced.
Only one thing seems certain: The Steelers are a lot closer to a losing season than they are a Super Bowl.
On the field, the Steelers' best bet is turning their hopes over to Ben Roethlisberger, one of football's top five quarterbacks. But tradition dictates the Steelers strive for balance on offense and hard-hitting defense. Don't let Roethlisberger win the game in the first quarter. Ask him to bail you out in the last.
Didn't work in 2012. Won't work in 2013. Between inferior weaponry and outdated philosophy, the Steelers are wasting their $102 million quarterback.
You think 8-8 caused turmoil? We might see what 6-10 produces.
Mark Madden hosts a radio show 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WXDX-FM (105.9).

Crosby climbing but not at peak yet

Penguins center Sidney Crosby carries the puck in the offensive zone against the Lightning in the first period Sunday, Feb. 24, 2013, at Consol Energy Center. (Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review)
About Dejan Kovacevic
Pittsburgh Tribune-Review Sports Columnist Dejan Kovacevic can be reached via e-mail

Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

Published: Monday, February 25, 2013, 12:01 a.m.
Updated 7 hours ago 

Sidney Crosby has another level.
That's not a criticism. And it'll sound completely crazy on a Sunday night when the captain carried the Penguins with two goals and the sweetest assist to set down the Lightning, 5-3, at Consol Energy Center.
The Kid was sensational. He was skating on clouds out there.
“Flying,” was Paul Martin's term.
“Outstanding,” Pascal Dupuis called him.
Crosby's been strong all along, actually. And he'll need to be that much stronger given the word after the game that Evgeni Malkin was diagnosed with a concussion and won't make the upcoming three-game road trip.
But that should be fine with Crosby because there is more.
He has another level, another gear, another ceiling to smash.
He knows it, too.
“Yeah, for sure,” Crosby said after this one. “I think there are still points where the timing, the bouncing of the pucks, it's a matter of getting sharper. But I think if the work ethic is there, that stuff will come.”
Right. Future tense. As in, it isn't there yet.
Let's be honest: There's been this great unspoken, this terrible taboo that, however well Crosby does, we don't compare it to what we saw before the crash at the Winter Classic, before the concussion that cost him a year-plus of his career. We recall that scintillating spell of 32 goals and 34 assists in 41 games, that total dominance every time on the boards, but we set it aside as if that was some other Crosby.
Why, exactly, is that?
What's missing?
He's one point off the NHL scoring lead, right behind Tampa Bay's superb Steven Stamkos, who gallantly held the edge here Sunday. He's getting the best of goaltenders, as he did to poor Anders Lindback with that short-side, top-shelf special in the opening 76 seconds. He's setting up teammates with saucer specials like the one that brought Beau Bennett's first NHL goal. He's forechecking, backchecking, bodychecking and …
Well, OK, there is one thing.
Here's a stat I'll guess you haven't seen: Crosby has two power-play goals — out of his total of nine — through 19 games. Revisit all of his post-concussion action, and he's got four power-play goals in 47 games.
That's staggering.
Now, to repeat: That's not a criticism. Not close.
But to rewind to that scintillating spell again, Crosby scored 10 of those 32 goals on the power play. And he was doing so not just on the east-west that are the foundation of the power play now but also on deflections, rebounds and other stuff in tight. He wasn't so much a net-front guy as he was lurking off to the side, but he was there, and he was brilliant.
On a power play the other night against the Panthers, Crosby was stationed on the left side by the goal line. He couldn't shoot from there, couldn't even really set himself up for a pass. Not surprisingly, with each touch, he harmlessly flicked the puck back to the left point.
Worse, when other shots did get through, he stayed out on the perimeter.
I brought that up Sunday morning, and Crosby didn't hesitate with the response.
“Yeah, it's probably a tough place to be,” he acknowledged with a smile. “You're looking to pass, but there's no angle. You're looking for deception, maybe.”
That's how coach Dan Bylsma described that same sequence. He credited Crosby with distracting Florida defenseman Mike Weaver, who “was expecting 87 to be somewhere else,” and thus created more room for Malkin and James Neal.
Nothing wrong with that in isolation, of course. As Bylsma correctly added, “We've had quite a bit of motion with the power play, including Sidney.” Crosby has played below the goal line, on both half-walls and now on both points after an adjustment Sunday with Malkin out.
Moreover, there's no crime in having Crosby occasionally on the left side. He's right to stress, “I'm in a pretty good spot over there getting to feed two great shooters” in Malkin and Neal.
But the broader scope can't have Crosby as a decoy or even as a pure playmaker.
The Full Crosby, if you will, the one the Penguins must have to chase the Stanley Cup, is a scorer whose goal totals more closely approximate the assists. In 2009-10, his only 50-goal season, he had 51 plus 58 assists, roughly the same ratio as the greatest version of him, that one leading up to the injury.
He knows that, too.
“I'm starting to feel more comfortable shooting the puck,” Crosby said. “It's putting yourself in an area to get off a kind of shot like I had on that goal. I need to focus on that more.”
He's getting there, no doubt, and the buildup's been a blast. But know that there's more.
Dejan Kovacevic is a sports columnist for Trib Total Media. Reach him at dkovacevic@tribweb.com or via Twitter @Dejan_Kovacevic.

Copyright © 2013 — Trib Total Media

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Another headache for Penguins

By Brian Metzer
Beaver County Times Sports Correspondent | Posted: Saturday, February 23, 2013 6:10 pm
The Penguins moved back into a first-place tie in the Atlantic Division on Friday night but they suffered a huge loss in the process.
Reigning MVP Evgeni Malkin was knocked out of the Penguins' 3-1 win over Florida after crashing into the boards following a hit by Panthers defenseman Erik Gudbranson in the third period.
It's believed that Malkin is experiencing concussion symptoms such as mild disorientation and severe headaches though the team hasn’t officially confirmed a concussion diagnosis.
Minimally, Malkin will miss at least one game according to coach Dan Bylsma.
“He is ruled out for (Sunday night's game against Tampa Bay) and he’s still getting evaluated as to the extent of the hit and going into the boards hard,” the Penguins' coach said after Saturday's practice at Southpointe.
The one thing that was confirmed is that it is going to be an ongoing process and that there is no timetable for the Russian to return.
The Penguins are well versed in managing injuries to their superstars after having dealt with the loss of captain Sidney Crosby due to concussion, head and neck issues over the past two seasons. It is also a reason why they are going to proceed with caution.
“It’s hard to know what to expect in any situations of this nature,” Bylsma said. “In terms of protocol and continued evaluation, I think you’ve got to continue to do that (cautious approach) and some of the other things. (The Crosby situation) mentioned would be the reason why.”
Malkin, who has scored four goals and added 17 assists on the season, has been a big part of the team’s power play success this season and has helped James Neal stay among the league’s leading goal scorers with his slick playmaking skills. He leaves behind some pretty big shoes but there does seem to be a plan moving forward.
“I think Dustin Jeffrey would much likely fit into a third-line center role,” Bylsma said. “Whether that’s with Matt Cooke and Tyler Kennedy, that’s probably where Dustin would slot into and Brandon (Sutter) would probably play with James Neal and Beau Bennett on that line.”
The Penguins leaves for a three-game road trip Tuesday. Bylsma wouldn't say whether Malkin will make the trip, but it is expected that he will remain in Pittsburgh.
“We follow NHL protocol in terms of evaluating them and testing them and we will continue to do so," said Bylsma.
Malkin, who was being defended by Gudbranson as he cut towards the Florida net, was slightly off balance when the young defenseman made contact with him sending him tumbling. He was unable to brace himself and hit back first. The collision caused Malkin’s head to whiplash violently and he lay on the ice motionless for a few seconds before groggily getting up and heading to the Penguins’ locker room.
“It’s just a dangerous spot, the way he goes in,” Neal said. “I hope he’s OK."
Gudbranson was not penalized on the play and admitted that he was just taking an opportunity to defend his net and lay a hit on an attacking forward.
"I just finished my check," Gudbranson said. "You never want to see a guy go down. He's in a vulnerable position, but you can't pass up a hit like that. It's unfortunate that he got hurt on the play, but it's a hit that I'd take every time.”

Word of advice for Steelers: Zip it

About Joe Starkey
Pittsburgh Tribune-Review Freelance Columnist Joe Starkey can be reached via e-mail or at 412-320-7848

Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

Published: Saturday, February 23, 2013, 9:40 p.m.
Updated less than a minute ago 

Antonio Brown should add a line to his signature mantra, the one that goes, “Chest up. Eyes up. Prayed up.”
How about shut up?
Brown should put the amended phrase in a place where he can't help but see it dozens of times each day. Like his mirror. And since he obviously considers himself a Steelers spokesperson — even though he's been a full-time starter for all of one underachieving season, which he helped to sabotage — he should tweet out the new mantra to his teammates …
Chest up. Eyes up. Prayed up. SHUT UP!
Man, do the Steelers like to talk. They've become the new Ravens, minus the winning. You'd think a second consecutive season without a playoff victory would have them sufficiently humbled. But they just keep talking.
They just keep embarrassing the organization.
In the process, they are basically mocking coach Mike Tomlin. If there is one thing Tomlin hates — besides the media — it's players airing their dirty laundry in public.
Remember when reckless tweeting infiltrated the NFL? Tomlin said he didn't mind his players participating in social media as long as they didn't discuss team business. He didn't want them “talking shop.”
Now look: One by one, Steelers players are publicly sniping at each other and telling the world of a “fractured” locker room, the word Ryan Clark used on NFL Network.
The report of an anonymous Steelers player ripping LaMarr Woodley would have died a quiet death — with Woodley the only victim — if not for teammates throwing logs on the fire.
Clark spoke of how the locker room isn't the way it used to be, when leaders such as Joey Porter reigned.
Larry Foote went next, on 93.7 The Fan, blasting teammates for being too friendly with the Ravens. Was he indirectly calling out Clark, who visited the Ravens' locker room after Baltimore's win at Heinz Field and chatted up old friend Ed Reed?
Hard to tell, but this is what Foote said: “You see guys joking with (the Ravens) too much. I'd see guys talking to them by their bus. I remember back in the day we'd be fighting with them in the tunnel. … Guys need to get back to that hatred.”
Then along came “Look-at-Me Brown,'' the guy who ran 20 yards backward against the Redskins, giddily making the rounds at ESPN's Bristol studios and announcing on live television that Steelers players are selfish and that “guys weren't really together.”
Of the Woodley criticism, Brown said, “Just shows you the men we had in that locker room.”
Wow. Antonio Brown pontificating about selflessness.
Brown's the same guy who made season-changing turnovers at Oakland and Dallas. The same guy who played the entire Cowboys game as if his brain had been removed beforehand. Same guy seen laughing with Reed on the sidelines, during the aforementioned Ravens game, as teammate Jerricho Cotchery lay motionless and injured behind him.
Asked if individual agendas had crept in with the Steelers, Brown said, “Definitely.” He should have said, “Yes, and I was guilty of it. Did you see me run backward into the end zone?”
Instead of taking personal responsibility, the way a real leader would, Brown spilled a bunch of drivel about how the Steelers weren't as closely bonded as the Ravens.
Quick question: Do you think we'd be talking about a fractured locker room if Ben Roethlisberger and several other high-impact players hadn't missed multiple games?
Quick follow-up: Think Clark and Brown would be lauding the Ravens' camaraderie if Rahim Moore hadn't made sports' most incomprehensible defensive gaffe since Bill Buckner in 1986?
Maybe the Steelers are partly to blame for Brown's ego, which is expanding faster than Woodley's thighs. Maybe they gave him too much too soon.
Brown's teammates named him MVP in 2011, eschewing others for a player who wasn't yet a full-time starter. Management subsequently lavished Brown (and his then-two career touchdown catches) with a $42.5 million contract.
Now, Brown is likely to be handed the No. 1 receiver spot after a season in which he failed to record a 100-yard game.
Does he look like No. 1 receiver to you?
We'll see what kind of tone Tomlin sets in training camp, coming off two profound failures and an offseason in which his players blatantly ignored one of his more precious dictums.
Maybe the coach could start by stationing Brown at the gates of Saint Vincent with a giant sign that teammates couldn't help but see on their drive to the dorms:
“Chest up.
Eyes up.
Prayed up.
Joe Starkey co-hosts a show 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays on 93.7 “The Fan.'' His column appears Thursdays and Sundays. Reach him at jraystarkey@gmail.com

Copyright © 2013 — Trib Total Media

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Fleury hot, but time to cool it

Penguins goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury makes a save on the Devils' Steve Bernier during the second period Saturday, Feb. 2, 2013 at Consol Energy Center. Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
About Dejan Kovacevic
Pittsburgh Tribune-Review Sports Columnist Dejan Kovacevic can be reached via e-mail

Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

Published: Wednesday, February 20, 2013, 12:01 a.m.
Updated 7 hours ago 

Dan Bylsma won't name the Penguins' goaltender for Wednesday's game until sometime before the faceoff with the Flyers, but here's betting it'll be Marc-Andre Fleury.
Nothing wrong with that, of course. Fleury's been fantastic of late. In winning the past three games over the Senators, Jets and Sabres, he's stopped 82 of 88 shots and soared into the NHL lead with eight wins.
Let's put it another way: The other night in Winnipeg, shortly after Fleury lost a shutout in the waning minutes on Andrew Ladd's backhand rebound into a half-empty net, Fleury shook his head as he told me, “I should have had that.”
There's a temptation to run someone sizzling like that out there night after night.
But it had better be resisted.
Remember all that talk during the brief training camp about how, now that the Penguins had a bona fide backup in Tomas Vokoun, and now that they had to cope with a condensed 48-game schedule, there would be a different dynamic?
Remember Bylsma projecting Fleury and Vokoun would split at a ratio of “60/40 or 55/45?”
Well, while everyone's been enjoying the team's bounce-back from that awful weekend against the Devils, maybe it's gone unnoticed that Fleury has started six of the past seven games.
And that, overall, Fleury has made 11 starts to Vokoun's five, a ratio that's roughly 70/30.
If anyone thinks that's a good idea, then there's some serious short-term memory involved.
Need I remind …
• Fleury played a career-high 67 games last season and won a career-best 42. Some lauded him as the Penguins' MVP even though eventual league MVP Evgeni Malkin was on the roster.
• Fleury began to fade in his final five regular-season games, smoked for 17 goals, but the coaching staff continued to start him because all trust had been lost in Brent Johnson.
• Fleury utterly fell apart against the Flyers in the playoffs. You don't need those numbers again, do you?
Didn't think so. It can't happen again.
Ray Shero's smartest move of the offseason — yes, even smarter than sticking by Paul Martin — was signing Vokoun. The GM not only found a quality veteran willing to take less — just $2.5 million — to join a contender, but also one who's still got it at age 36. Just ask the last-place Capitals if they wouldn't love him back.
The Penguins absolutely can't let Vokoun go to waste.
Or to get disillusioned.
By every account, the latter isn't close to happening. But I checked, anyway, Tuesday after practice atConsol Energy Center.
“Sure, it's different. You don't play as much,” Vokoun said, with a small laugh. “But there are always tradeoffs for things in life. I wanted to be on a good team with a chance to win the Stanley Cup. When you make that decision, you never know what's going to happen. I'm here to help the team. If I play ‘X' games, I play ‘X' games. Over the years, I've played enough games to know what to do.”
Good for him.
Shouldn't surprise anyone. Vokoun's been a model teammate and goaltending partner.
But he's also a pro. He deserves a chance to maintain his own strong play, which includes a 3-2 record, 2.27 goals-against average, .918 save percentage and a shutout.
More to the point, the Penguins — with their elite talent, their toughness and diversity — deserve better than yet another early playoff exit.
That's why Fleury's vote shouldn't count. Not anymore. Especially not after the meltdown last spring.
Oh, he's having fun, sure. Just look at his grin when saying, “I'm feeling pretty good right now.” Or watch him make a childish fool of himself, as he did in cracking up everyone at practice Tuesday with some shootout hijinx.
And that's great. That's ideal, actually. Fleury's a colossal piece of the franchise.
So go ahead and give him another shot at the Flyers, if that's the call. He beat them in the season opener, and he still might have a demon or two to shoo away.
But after that, the Penguins face the Panthers in two of the next three games. That was Vokoun's employer in 2007-11, and he has a better book than most on their shooters.
Next week also starts a stretch with four of five games on the road. The next three weeks sees one other break as long as two days.
The rest of the season crams in 20 games in 48 days.
There's plenty enough high-velocity vulcanized rubber to go around.
Dejan Kovacevic is a sports columnist for Trib Total Media. Reach him at dkovacevic@tribweb.com or via Twitter @Dejan_Kovacevic.

Copyright © 2013 — Trib Total Media

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Pirates Whacked and Wacky

By Murray Chass

February 17, 2013

Pittsburgh Pirates fans, of whom I was one in my youth, didn’t know how to react. After suffering through 19 consecutive losing seasons, the fans were in ecstasy early in August last season. But they wound up in agony and disbelief.
That the Pirates wound up with their 20th consecutive losing season the fans could believe because they had become inured to losing. The disbelief arose from the revelation that the Pirates were engaged in a program of bizarre conditioning of their young minor league players.
The club had retained an outfit of former Navy SEALs to work with the players and put them through mental and physical routines that stunned the baseball world – players running along a Florida beach toting small telephone poles, having sand thrown on them, being sprayed with a hose.Navy Seals 225
Disclosure of the Pirates’ unusual, to say the least, activities left members of other organizations shaking their heads in bewilderment and wondering how crazy professional baseball men could get.
This is just the start of spring training so the Pirates don’t know how their major league team will do on the field, but they already know what their young players will be doing off the field.
“What we’re doing is helping our minor league players become mentally stronger, helping them block out distractions,” General Manager Neal Huntington said in a telephone interview Friday. “The former SEALs were brought in with elements we can continue to give players as individuals and as a group.
“The SEALs can impact a young group. They were one of the groups we’ve drawn upon to supplement our baseball. The impact they had was a positive one. We felt good about the impact they had. They were one of the external groups we brought in. We’ve had experts from a bunch of different fields outside the organization. Some have impacted some players.”
Huntington emphasized the mental impact on the players, ignoring the telephone poles, water spray and sand.
Manager Clint Hurdle echoed the thoughts on the mental impact. “We have done nothing,” he said, “other than introduce elite training, mental training, going to elite forces, the SEALs being one of them, to improve the players mentally.”
A person familiar with the thinking of the team’s chairman, Bob Nutting, said, “The reason they’re stressing the mental part is because Nutting instructed them to because he didn’t want them to do the physical things.”
“Nutting,” the person added, “wants nothing to do with that other stuff. He says ‘we’re not running a boot camp; we’re a baseball team.’”
Fans in Pittsburgh are skeptical about that claim. After six years as the principal owner, Nutting might be tempted to join the skeptics, though he didn’t return telephone calls to express his view.
A 50-year-old West Virginian, Nutting was said not to be happy last year to learn of the SEALs’ use of telephone poles, but he was even less thrilled when the Pirates squandered four months of uncharacteristic success and experienced their second consecutive collapse. The 2012 collapse was worse than the one in 2011.
Shedding their 19-year history of constant losing, the Pirates last season held a one-game lead in the National League Central at the All-Star break with a won-loss record that had 11 more wins than losses. A month later they were 2 ½ games behind Cincinnati but with a record 16 games over .500 (63-47).
If the division title or a wild-card spot in the playoffs was not to be the Pirates’ – they led for the second wild card Aug. 21 – a winning record and the end of the streak was certainly theirs, right? Well, no. The Pirates lost 27 of their last 39 games (36 of their last 52) and staggered to the finish, where a 79-83 record became No. 20, an unparalleled achievement in professional sports.
Clint Hurdle 225This spring Hurdle is faced with instilling in his players a positive state of mind, one that will prevent them, if they establish a winning record, from asking themselves when will it happen this year.
“My strategy is to do what I’ve learned from some very good baseball people,” Hurdle said. “You face it straight on. What lessons have you learned, what were you doing well and not well and what you felt when it happened? Look it right in the eye. That’s the best way. Life lessons are learned. When you have the right people, they learn from it.”
“Last year’s gone,” the manager added. “The future is ahead of us.”
Hurdle said he would be pleased to get to the point of the season where the Pirates have encountered self-imposed roadblocks the past two seasons and take his chances.
“We want to get to the part of the season where we’re having success,” he said. “There are four basic staples:
“Getting better every day will sustain success.
“We’ve got to learn to control the grind of the season, not let the grind control us.
“Third, we have to set our focus. We’re playing for something bigger than the individuals. We have to stay purposeful. Everybody has a job to do; everyone has to do his job.
“Those are the three main lessons we’ve talked about. The fourth is continuing to play the game. We’ve got to find a way to embrace the hard times. We have to play better baseball.”
General manager Huntington said he didn’t see any single reason for the late-season letdown.
“We’ve looked throughout and evaluated it,” he said. “There’s no single cause. We stopped playing to win and started playing not to lose. We’ve worked on everybody getting tougher mentally.”
He said he didn’t see the late-season letdown having a carryover effect this year.
“We don’t think so,” he said. “We’ve worked hard to improve our talent pool. We’ve worked hard mentally and physically. We’ve taken a multi-pronged approach.” There are the players like catcher Russell Martin who have been added, and “some of our young players got a taste last year and will get more of a taste this year.”Russell Martin Pirates 225
Martin, who caught for the Yankees the past two years, signed with the Pirates as a free agent, enticed by a two-year, $17 million contract. He earned the same amount from the Yankees, who were not interested in giving Martin a multi-year contract.
The contract the Pirates offered was not their typical expenditure, but Huntington explained, “We felt the catching spot was a chance to impact most positively. Rod Barajas did some nice things last year, but we felt Martin’s going to take it to a different level. We felt he was the best free agent catcher available and he gave us the biggest chance to improve.”
Another pitcher, Jason Grilli, re-signed with the Pirates for two years and $6.25 million and will be the closer, replacing Joel Hanrahan, whom the Pirates traded to Boston for second baseman Ivan DeJesus Jr. and reliever Mark Melancon.
In addition, the Pirates signed Francisco Liriano, a once promising pitcher with Minnesota, who is recovering from an injury to his non-throwing arm.
The Pirates incurred another injury, one they don’t like to talk about because Gregory Polanco, a highly regarded minor league outfielder, reinjured an ankle running a SEALs drill in which, according to Dejan Kovacevic of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, he sprinted across the outfield, ran through an above-ground pool of ice water and leaped into a sand pit or had sand thrown on him. Baseball at its best.
Kovacevic wrote three columns in all in revealing the Pirates’ adoption of militaristic drills, believed to be the first of their kind used in baseball. Reading Kovacevic’s accounts reminded me of the reaction of Lou Piniella and Bobby Murcer to the change in the New York Yankees’ spring camp when Bill Virdon replaced Ralph Houk as manager in 1974.
Houk’s camps were always easy, the players usually working at their own pace. The pace adopted by Piniella and Murcer was not the most rigorous. Virdon required the Yankees to work at his pace, and Piniella and Murcer resented the change and complained about it bitterly.
Virdon, however, did not require the Yankees to do what the Pirates have had their young players do.
Kyle Stark, the Pirates’ assistant general manager, designed the conditioning program for the team’s young minor leaguers and informed minor league personnel about it in an e-mail that Kovacevic obtained and published.
Dated June 28, 2012, the e-mail quoted Mac Wilkins, the 1976 Olympics discus champion:
“Mac explained that gold medal winners live by three golden rules – Dream and be creative like a Hippie. Have the discipline and perseverance of a Boy Scout. Be crazy and take risks like the Hells Angels.” …
Stark went on to expand on each of the three points and concluded his message with an Indian (Native American) battle cry: “HOKA HEY – It’s a good day to die!!!”
Said one definition I found: “It is likely that Crazy Horse would have shouted this in battle…One would yell ‘Hoka hey’ when charging at an enemy.”
From the time in September 2007 that the Pirates’ braintrust was formed – Frank Coonelly, president, and Huntington, general manager – I have found it strange. Coonelly had been a labor lawyer in the commissioner’s office and had never had a front office job. Huntington had basically been a scout with no appreciable front office experience.
But they were assigned the task of making a winning team out of a team that had earned 15 consecutive losing seasons. When asked about all of those losing seasons, Coonelly would say they weren’t his; he just got there. The streak is now 20 years, and one-quarter of them belong to Coonelly.
But better times may be ahead. The Pirates reportedly will get a makeover (in looks, not necessarily play) for the 2014 season. The team is said to be using focus groups to help decide a new logo. “Losers” in black on gold, or vice versa, would probably not be a good idea.

Friday, February 15, 2013

NL Central Preview

By Cliff Corcoran
Inside Baseball
Sports Illustrated
February 14, 2013

Aroldis Chapman
All-Star closer Aroldis Chapman will try to earn a spot in the Reds loaded rotation this spring.
Getty Images
This week, Cliff Corcoran will break down what to watch in each team's camp as part of SI.com's spring training preview. Teams are listed by their order of finish from 2012. Note: The Big Prospect is a player who will be in major league camp but has not yet debuted in the major leagues.
CORCORAN: AL Central spring training preview

Cincinnati Reds

The Big Question: Can Shin-Soo Choo play centerfield?
As I wrote at the time of the three-team, nine-player trade that brought him to Cincinnati, Shin-Soo Choo could be as much as a four-win upgrade over the 2012 version of Drew Stubbs as the Reds' new centerfielder -- provided that he can actually play centerfield. Choo has played just 10 games there prior to this season, and only one since 2007.
Just how large of a gamble the Reds are taking here depends on who you ask. Choo was regarded as a superlative defensive rightfielder in Cleveland, but advanced fielding metrics graded him harshly for last season. Still, he's a player with enough speed to regularly steal 20 bases at a high percentage, and while he's very likely to be sub-par in center, he won't be so bad that the total package of his fielding (which includes one of the best throwing arms in the game), baserunning and hitting (.289/.382/.458, 133 OPS+ over the last four years) won't still be several wins better than what the Reds got out of Stubbs last year.
If Choo just can't hack it in center, one solution may be for him to simply swap places with rightfielder Jay Bruce, who played 35 games in center as a rookie in 2008. Whatever the arrangement, there's little chance that, barring injury, Choo and Bruce won't be a significant upgrade over what the Reds got from Stubbs and Bruce last year.
The Big Battle: Aroldis Chapman's attempt to become a starting pitcher
For the second straight spring, lefty relief ace Aroldis Chapman is coming to camp with the intention of making Cincinnati's starting rotation. A year ago, Chapman earned a spot with a dominant spring but was shifted back to the bullpen just before Opening Day in reaction to the news that intended closer Ryan Madson would miss the entire season due to Tommy John surgery. This year, the Reds have Jonathan Broxton lined up to close with lefties Sean Marshall and Manny Parra in set-up roles, clearing the way for Chapman's long-anticipated conversion back to the role he filled for the Cuban national team prior to his July 2009 defection.
However, as great as the soon-to-be-25-year-old Chapman's potential as a starter might be, Cincinnati's rotation won't be the easiest nut to crack. The Reds five incumbent starters -- Johnny Cueto, Mat Latos, Homer Bailey, Bronson Arroyo, and Mike Leake -- combined to start 161 games last year, and the weakest performance in that quintet was a nearly league-average season from fellow 25-year-old Leake, who was the eighth-overall pick in the 2009 draft. Chapman has front-of-the rotation potential, but he'll also likely need to be on an innings limit for the coming season, further complicating the matter as the Reds would surely like to have him available for their very likely return to the postseason.
Still, for the team to maximize his value, Chapman's conversion to starting has to begin sometime and putting it off won't eliminate those stumbling blocks.
The Big Prospect: CF Billy Hamilton
Hamilton is the fastest player in baseball. The 155 bases he stole last year (at an 81 percent success rate, no less) were the most ever in a single season in the majors or minors, breaking by 10 a 28-year-old record held by Vince Coleman. Yet, Hamilton is not a one-trick pony. He hit .311/.410/.420 in a season split between High-A and Double-A last year at the age of 21 and the tales of his range afield are as astounding as those about his speed and daring-do on the bases. Hamilton will move from shortstop to centerfield this spring, a natural conversion given tales of him ranging from shortstop to the warning track in leftfield to catch a fly ball the leftfielder lost in the sun or into the rightfield gap to catch a would-be double. He's a long shot to relieve Choo in center should the Reds' new centerfielder struggle this year, but he could emerge as a secret weapon on the postseason roster and should be Cincinnati's starting centerfielder in 2014.

St. Louis Cardinals

The Big Question: How healthy is Jaime Garcia?
The Cardinals have a deep pool of starting pitchers coming into camp, but having already lost Chris Carpenter for the season, they don't want to have to dip into that depth a second time before they even play their first exhibition game. That puts increased importance on the health of Garcia's shoulder. Garcia hit the disabled list last June with what was labeled a shoulder strain or impingement. After two and a half months on the shelf, he returned and posted a 3.25 ERA in nine starts down the stretch. However, Garcia only lasted two innings in his lone postseason start due to further issues with the shoulder, angering teammates by taking the ball despite feeling discomfort prior to that start, and immediately being removed from the playoff roster.
A subsequent MRI diagnosed a partial tear of the labrum and rotator cuff in his pitching shoulder, but after three other doctors recommended surgery, Garcia and the Cardinals opted for Dr. James Andrews' recommendation of rest and rehabilitation. Thus far, that has worked, with Garcia gaining strength via a throwing program that has him on pace with the rest of the team's pitchers. Of course, he looked great last September, as well.
The Big Battle: Starting Rotation
With Carpenter out, a healthy Garcia would be one of just two Cardinals starters, along with ace Adam Wainwright, guaranteed a rotation spot coming into camp. Third-year righty Lance Lynn and veteran groundballer Jake Westbrook have the inside track to two of the remaining three spots, but both will be in a battle against youngsters Shelby Miller, Trevor Rosenthal and Joe Kelly. Miller and Rosenthal are among the organization's top prospects and they, along with Kelly, had some level of success in their major league debuts last season.
At least one of those three young arms will wind up in the Opening Day rotation, and the 22-year-old Miller might be the best bet. Miller struggled a bit in his Triple-A debut last year due to a high opponents batting average on balls in play and a bit of gopheritis, but his other peripherals remained strong. After a September call-up, he struck out 20 men in 17 big league innings between the regular and postseasons, proving his stuff (mid-90s fastball with movement, plus curve, change) works in the bigs.
The safe choice, however, would be Kelly, who will be 25 in June and posted a 3.74 ERA in 16 starts for the Cardinals last year. Rosenthal, who turns 23 in late May, struck out 40 men in 31 1/3 major league relief innings last year (also split between the regular and postseasons) with a fastball that averaged 97.7 miles per hour. He is a better bet to be used out of the bullpen in the near term, though he started exclusively in the minors the last two years and a has a curve, cutter and changeup that should allow him to thrive in either role.
The Big Prospect: OF Oscar Taveras
Taveras is a flat-out stud. MLB.com's Jonathan Mayo listed him as the third best prospect in baseball coming into this season. ESPN's Keith Law had him second. Last year, in a season in which he didn't turn 20 until mid-June and was just his second year in full-season ball, Taveras made the leap to Double-A and hit .321/.380/.572 with 23 home runs, 10 stolen bases in 11 attempts and just 56 strikeouts.
Taveras needs to draw more walks and may have to move from centerfield to a corner pasture, but the rest is superstar stuff. What's more, it's stuff that we could very well see in the major leagues in the coming season. Taveras will open the year in Triple-A, but that level is unlikely to contain him. Any sort of crack in the Cardinals outfield could be filled by Taveras, and once he's up, the Cardinals will have a hard time sending him back down.

Milwaukee Brewers

The Big Question: Can the team's young starting pitchers replace Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum?
In 2012, Greinke and Marcum combined to give the Brewers a 3.57 ERA over 42 starts and 247 innings. This year, Greinke is a Dodger, Marcum is a Met and the Brewers will be looking to young arms such as rookies Wily Peralta and Mark Rogers to replace those lost innings.
The good news is that Peralta and Rogers combined for 67 innings of a 3.22 ERA across a dozen starts last year. While they're unlikely to be that stingy in the coming season, it's worth remembering that the Brewers rotation has also deleted Randy Wolf's miserable 2012 performance. Mix Wolf in with Greinke and Marcum and you get 387 1/3 innings of a 4.35 ERA. That's still not a slam dunk for a group of young pitchers getting their first extended big league look, a group which could also includes Tyler Thornburg as well as 27-year-old sophomore Michael Fiers, who posted a 6.99 ERA over his final 10 starts last year, but it's not an unreasonable expectation.
Then again it's not the sort of performance that young group is particularly likely to improve upon, either, which could leave the Brewers short of a playoff berth for the second straight year.
Yovani Gallardo
Yovani Gallardo is the best of a shaky and depleted rotation in Milwaukee.
USA Today Sports
The Big Battle: Starting Rotation
Yovani Gallardo and Marco Estrada have the top two spots locked up and Fiers, based on his aggregate 3.74 ERA last season, and the 23-year-old Peralta, the teams' top prospect, have an inside track to the next two. Neither of the latter two should be guaranteed anything coming into camp with Rogers and Thornburg also jockeying for position and Chris Narveson working his way back from May 2012 surgery to repair a torn rotator cuff.
Worth noting: Gallardo is the only one of those seven to have made 30 starts in a major league season, and the 31-year-old Narveson is the only other one to have qualified for a major league ERA title, having done so exactly once with a 4.99 ERA in 2010.
The Big Prospect: RHP Johnny Hellweg
Hellweg, part of the return in the deal that sent Zack Greinke to the Angels, is a 24-year-old, 6-foot-9 righty with a triple-digit fastball who posted a 3.38 ERA in 21 Double-A starts last year, but who struggles with his command and may ultimately find himself in the bullpen. Hellweg will spend the early part of this season in Triple-A working on repeating his delivery, refining his control, and mastering his changeup, his third-best pitch behind his calling-card heater and plus curve. If all goes well, he could present as yet another young arm to go into that rotation mix and one with significant potential. If not, he'll likely be moved into the bullpen, where he can scrap the changeup and likely earn a promotion in the second half of the season.

Pittsburgh Pirates

The Big Question: Is Gerrit Cole ready?
The top pick in the 2011 draft, Cole made his professional debut at High-A last year and cruised through that level as well as Double-A before finishing his season with a quality start at Triple-A (6 IP, 6 H, 3 R, 1 BB, 7 K). The Pirates have said that they want Cole, now 22, to open the season back in Triple-A, but all reports are that he's ready for the major league test, and given Pittsburgh's flirtations with contention in each of the last two seasons, the team would have good reason to let him beat out the likes of Jeff Karstens, Jeff Locke, Jeanmar Gomez and Kyle McPherson for the final spot in its Opening Day rotation.
Cole, who compliments high-90s heat with an outstanding high-80s slider and an above-average changeup, projects as a true ace and will likely force his way up to the big leagues at some point this season. The only question is if he can do it in March.
The Big Battle: Outfield corners
The competition to be one of Andrew McCutchen's wingmen should be a compelling one this spring as there are five men vying for those two spots, not counting first baseman Gaby Sanchez, who would like to push Garrett Jones back into rightfield. The player the Pirates would probably prefer to see capture one of the two corner jobs is 24-year-old Starling Marte, who, as a rookie last year, hit .257/.300/.437 with 12 steals in 47 games down the stretch, 38 of them starts in leftfield, after hitting. 286/.347/.500 with 21 steals in 99 games at Triple-A.
In early December, general manager Neal Huntington suggested that Marte and 25-year-old Travis Snider, who continued to confound after coming over from the Blue Jays at the trading deadline, would start in the corners in the coming season, but he later retreated from that comment. Last year's Opening Day starters Alex Presley (27) and Jose Tabata (24) remain in the mix, and one can't count out Jerry Sands, a 25-year-old former Dodgers prospect. Sands hit .288/.362/.552 with 55 home runs for Triple-A Albuquerque over the last two seasons only to be dealt to the Red Sox in the massive Adrian Gonzalez trade last August and to the Pirates in the Joel Hanrahan swap in late December, after Huntington's comment on the team's likely outfield starters.
The Big Prospect: RHP Jameson Taillon
Having dealt with Cole above, let's give some attention to Taillon here. A year younger than Cole and two inches taller at an impressive 6-foot-6, Taillon, who was drafted out of high school with the second overall pick in 2010 (the one that came after Bryce Harper) is pitching prospect 1-B in the Pirates' system. Taillon has a devastating fastball/curveball combination and a developing changeup. He cracked Double-A late last year at the age of 20 and went 3-0 with a 1.59 ERA in three starts while striking out 18 men in 17 innings against no home runs and one walk.
He'll likely start the season back at Double-A, but should jump to Triple-A quickly and could earn a September call-up. He and Cole should both be in the Pirates' rotation next year and both have ace potential. Their emergence could be what finally pushes Pittsburgh back over .500 and possibly all the way to the playoffs.

Chicago Cubs

The Big Question: How healthy are Matt Garza and Scott Baker?
Don't look now, but if everyone's healthy, the Cubs have a pretty strong starting rotation. Imagine a top four of Garza, Edwin Jackson, Baker and Jeff Samardzija with a fifth starter taken from a group that includes Travis Wood, Scott Feldman and Carlos Villanueva. There's no dominant ace there, but for a team coming off a 101-loss season, that's something to dream on.
Early reports on Garza, who missed the second half of last season with a stress fracture in his pitching elbow, are positive, but he won't attempt to throw any breaking balls until March. Baker, meanwhile, is working his way back from Tommy John surgery, and while he's progressing nicely thus far, the team is prioritizing a full recovery over a timely one, leaving open the possibility that he could start the season in extended spring training.
The Big Battle: Outfield
The Cubs seem likely to open the season with lefties David DeJesus in centerfield and Nate Schierholtz in right with Scott Hairston serving as a righthanded alternate to that duo. Hairston was the most productive of the three last season, slugging .504 with 20 home runs for the Mets, and centerfield prospect Brett Jackson, who made his major league debut late last season, has received high marks from manager Dale Svuem after retooling his swing with Svuem and the team's hitting coaches, James Rowson and Rob Deer, in the offseason to cut down on his strikeouts. Team president Theo Epstein said back in early October that Jackson and third-base prospect Josh Vitters would open the season in Triple-A, but Jackson could change that by translating that mechanical change to game action in March.
The Big Prospects: SS Javier Baez and RF Jorge Soler
Baez, who just turned 20 in December, hit .294/.346/.543 in his full-season debut last year at age 19. The ninth-overall pick in the 2011 draft, Baez projects as a .300 hitter with 30-homer power in the majors. He will be tested in High-A this year as multiple scouting reports describe his approach as "reckless" and his aggressiveness at the plate will be exploited as he moves up the ladder.
Soler, who turns 21 later this month, defected from Cuba in 2011 and signed a nine-year, $30 million contract with the Cubs last June, after which he hit .299/.369/.463 with 12 stolen bases in 13 attempts in his U.S. debut. Soler projects as a power-and-speed threat in rightfield, where he'll also get to show off his impressive throwing arm, a legitimate middle-of-the-order bat whose true potential will come into clearer focus in this, his first full season in the States.
Neither Baez nor Soler is expected to reach the majors before 2015, but along with teenage center fielder Alberto Almora, who was not invited to major league camp, they form a trio of blue-chippers whose arrival could mark the final stage of the Cubs' return to contention. That would come just in time to earn Epstein, whose contract expires after the 2016 season, an extension.