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Thursday, July 7, 2011

MLB Power Rankings - Glory at Oregon, but at what price? -

Glory at Oregon, but at what price?
Great article fron espn's Gene Wojciechowski

It began with a billboard.
And not just any billboard, but an audacious, first-of-its-kind, quarter-million dollar piece of advertising placed in the middle of Times Square. It was an image-changer, a Hail Mary pass that the Oregon football program completed for a publicity touchdown. Suddenly, everyone knew about the Ducks.
Now, 10 years after the 100-foot-high Joey "Heisman" Harrington billboard made its debut in faraway NYC, Oregon football has everything it craved: a national brand, the patronage of Nike chairman and UO alum Phil Knight, state of the art facilities and rosters capable of national title runs.
It also has something it never wanted.
An NCAA investigation.
Perhaps it is a coincidence that the two teams that played for the BCS championship seven months ago -- Oregon and Auburn -- have been submerged chin strap-deep in allegations of NCAA wrongdoing. Just like it's a coincidence that Ohio State, which played for the BCS championship in 2006 and 2007 (and against Oregon in the 2009 Rose Bowl), forgot how to read and enforce the NCAA rules book.
I don't believe in football coincidences. Not anymore. Not after Coach Sweater Vest, Jim Tressel, with his American flag lapel pin and his laughable book on "life promises," lied through his molars about his starring role in a clumsy cover-up.
Not after Cecil Newton went underground when his pay-for-play scheme involving his son Cam was exposed.
Not after the murky, something-doesn't-feel-right-here circumstances involving Oregon coach Chip Kelly and scouting service owner Will Lyles.
Be careful what you wish for, right?
Tennessee wanted a Red Bull coach full of recruiting energy, so it hired Lane Kiffin. He stayed for exactly one forgettable season, just long enough for he and his staff to commit enough alleged violations to attract NCAA investigators. He's part of the reason Mike Hamilton lost, deservedly so, his job as UT's athletic director.
North Carolina didn't want to be known as just a basketball school anymore, so it handed the football keys to Butch Davis. Davis hired John Blake, who, according to the NCAA's Notice of Allegations, was a full-service associate head coach. He recruited, he coached the Carolina defensive line and, claims the NCAA, he funneled Tar Heels players to an agent, who then greased their palms with NCAA no-nos.
It is getting harder and harder to stay in love with college football. That's because more corners are being cut, more lines in the sand are being moved -- all in the name of becoming a brand, of aspiring to something maybe beyond most programs' reach.
Meanwhile, the ill-equipped NCAA can only skim off the top layer of the cheating oil spills. Its net isn't big enough or sophisticated enough to clean up all the messes.
It scooped up Ohio State, but only because the FBI and the media did most of the leg work. The Buckeyes' free-fall is stunning not because of the NCAA crimes committed, but because of the myth that was Tressel The Father Figure.
The Auburn situation is more complicated and nuanced. Auburn would never admit it, but it always wanted to be Alabama when it grew up. Or if not be Bama, at least beat Bama. It got its wish -- and a national title -- last season, but did so with a one-and-done player whose reasons for leaving the University of Florida were never fully disclosed and whose actual knowledge of his father's pay-for-play attempt remains a mystery today.
And then there is Oregon, the little Duck that could. Ten years ago, it was an emerging program in the Pac-10, a fix-me-upper with potential. Now it's the nicest house on the conference's block.
But how much of its soul did it have to sell to get there? A billboard publicity stunt is one thing, but the questions raised by the relationship between Lyles and Kelly's program makes you wonder if Oregon has outkicked its coverage.
It isn't just that the school took nearly four months to respond to an open records request by Oregon media. Or that there was a strong connection between Lyles and Lache Seastrunk, a Texas high school running back who signed with Oregon in 2010 -- less than two months before a $25,000 check was cut to Lyles' scouting service.
Instead, this is the allegation that gives you the most pause: Lyles, in an interview with Yahoo! Sports, says Oregon asked him to send retroactive player scouting reports so it would have paperwork to match that $25,000 check.
The NCAA, which reportedly has already conducted extensive interviews with Lyles, will have to decide if Oregon violated the rules or simply mocked them. Did it commit an actual violation or cut one of those corners to its closest edge?
Lyles might have his own skeletons to account for, but Oregon also has a few scattered bones that require an explanation. One guy has gone public, the other guy -- Oregon -- has hired a lawyer. Doesn't mean the Ducks are guilty, but it does mean Lyles' story is plausible.
Whatever happens, Oregon is no longer that feel-good success story of seasons past. It is like everyone else now, only with louder uniforms.
Oregon got what it wanted. But was what they wanted worth it?

MLB Power Rankings
according to si's Joe Lemire


Last Week: 1 Philadelphia Phillies
Three Phillies starters made the All-Star team (Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels and Cliff Lee); one of them, Lee, recently threw three consecutive shutouts and allowed one earned run in 42 innings in June (0.21 ERA); another, Halladay, either leads or is tied for the NL lead in complete games (six), innings (136 1/3), BB/9 (1.1) and K/BB (7.71); and the staff's virtual unknown, Vance Worley, has pitched nearly as well of late. With starters Roy Oswalt and Joe Blanton both on the DL, the 23-year-old Worley's last four starts (2-0, 0.72 ERA in 25 innings) have reinforced how deep the Phillies' rotation really is.


Last Week: 3 Atlanta Braves
Second baseman Dan Uggla has the 11th-worst OPS (.612) of the 156 big-league players with enough plate appearances to qualify for the batting title. Rightfielder Jason Heyward, last year's NL Rookie of the Year runner-up, has a .706 OPS that's 71 points behind the .777 average for a major league rightfielder this season. Neither has met expectations so far this season, which in turn means that the Braves rank below-average in runs (352, tied for 17th in the majors), yet the Braves still have the NL's second-best record. In other words, if Uggla and Heyward heat up -- and Uggla has homered in his last two games -- watch out.


Last Week: 2 New York Yankees
As a Tiger in 2007 Curtis Granderson became only the sixth member of the 20-20-20 club for doubles, triples and home runs as he had a 38-23-23 split for a total of 84 extra-base hits. (Impressively, he also had 26 stolen bases to join the 20-20-20-20 club.) With the Yankees in 2011 Granderson has 43 extra-base hits ? which projects to 82 for the season -- meaning he's on a similar pace, only with a different distribution. He is tied for the AL lead with seven triples and though he only has 11 doubles, he has 25 home runs. That's a pace for 48 homers, which would obliterate his previous career high of 30 set in 2009. Swapping doubles for homers is a trade any player would take.


Last Week: 6 Boston Red Sox
After throwing four no-hit innings against the Blue Jays on Tuesday, Red Sox lefthander Jon Lester exited the game unexpectedly with a lat strain on his left side, prompting a DL stint. Four of the original five starters in Boston's rotation have now spent time on the DL, and the only one who hasn't, Josh Beckett, recently went 13 days between starts because of illness. Despite the starting pitcher absences -- and despite the continued presence of John Lackey (7.47 ERA) in the rotation -- the Sox keep on winning, taking six of their last seven.


Last Week: 4 Tampa Bay Rays
Since many readers wrote in last week seeking elaboration on how I could choose Ben Zobrist over Robinson Cano as an All-Star starter, here's the case for Zobrist. Though he trails Cano in OPS .858 to .810, Zobrist's OPS+ -- which, for players in the same league, adjusts OPS for the ballpark -- is slightly higher (131 to 129). Their offensive résumés are comparable, as Cano has more homers but Zobrist leads the majors in doubles; their OBPs are nearly identical. Cano has the advantage of a much better surrounding lineup, and Zobrist blows him out defensively. According to Plus/Minus, Zobrist ranks first among all major league second baseman at +12; the next best is +7 and Cano is -5. Zobrist's WAR (Wins Above Replacement) is 3.3, compared to Cano's 2.5.


Last Week: 5 San Francisco Giants
Manager Bruce Bochy should have resisted the temptation of using three of his four free All-Star picks on his own starting pitchers, even though Matt Cain, Tim Lincecum and Ryan Vogelsong are all having very good seasons; they just aren't having exceptional seasons by the standards of the current, depressed run environment. Vogelsong's 2.13 ERA and 1.15 WHIP sparkle in any year (though he has pitched fewer innings than the rest), while Lincecum (3.14, 1.19) and Cain (3.22, 1.09) have excellent stats that would stand out more if 2011 weren't such a down year generally for offenses. In fact, Lincecum and Cain merely rank 13th and 14th in the NL in ERA, making their All-Star selections generally defensible individually -- as in, a case could be made for each by himself -- but inexcusable collectively.


Last Week: 9 Cleveland Indians
Indians righthander Josh Tomlin denied the Yankees any hits for the first six innings on Monday night, and in doing so he easily exceeded five innings pitched to become the only big-league pitcher since at least 1919 to have gone at least five frames in each of the first 29 appearances of his career. Tomlin has been a revelation for the Tribe, going 10-4 with a 3.78 ERA and 1.00 WHIP with a 1.1 BB/9 ratio that's not only the stingiest rate in the majors but also in stark contrast to the pitching style of the man whose record he broke: Red Sox starter Daisuke Matsuzaka.


Last Week: 7 Texas Rangers
Dating to June 8, 2010, the Rangers have only finished 10 days of play in which they were not in first place or tied for first in the AL West, but they spent three days this week in a tie with the surging Angels. Texas is tied with the Cardinals for the worst record of any division leader and has had a losing record (33-34) since April 24, when they were an AL-best 14-7. On the bright side, outfielder Josh Hamilton is getting hot. He's had nine multi-hit games in his last 19, during which time he's batted .316/.391/.605 with six home runs.


Last Week: 12 Los Angeles Angels
As recently as 2008, starter Dan Haren threw his cutter only 6.6 percent of the time, according to data at FanGraphs. That rate has grown to 23.3 percent in '09, 27.2 percent in '10 and 45.5 percent in '11, including 53.6 percent of his pitches (60 of 112) in Tuesday night's complete-game shutout against the Tigers, who had Justin Verlander on the hill. Haren threw 51 of his 60 cutters for strikes, inducing swings and misses 14 times as he won his 100th career game. He ought to be an All-Star selection for a Sunday starter, as he's 9-5 with a 2.65 ERA and leads the AL in K/BB ratio (5.9).


Last Week: 14 St. Louis Cardinals
Man or Machine? Such is the increasing question regarding Cardinals first baseman Albert Pujols, who was activated Tuesday and returned to the lineup Wednesday (and contributed an RBI single) after missing only two weeks after suffering a broken bone in his wrist; he was initially expected to miss roughly six weeks. He batted .339/.435/.831 with eight homers in his last 16 games before the injury and if he hits anything close to that upon his return, St. Louis, which went 7-7 in his absence, could hold onto their slim divisional lead.

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