Even With Loss, Seahawks Still the Best Team in the NFL

Russell Wilson's Seahawks are the best team in the NFL.
Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

After pummeling the Denver Broncos 43-8 February to secure the first Super Bowl championship in franchise history, the Seattle Seahawks came into 2014 with a target on their backs.

They were once again projected as one of the top teams for the new season, due in large part to their vaunted “Legion of Boom” defense and lethal quarterback-running back duo of Russell Wilson and Marshawn Lynch.

Pete Carroll’s squad was supposed to be tested early, in the first game of the season against the Packers, but as has happened so often the past two years, the Seahawks were clearly the best team on the field. They dominated the Packers in every facet of the game, easily winning 36-16.

One particular play epitomized their superiority. The Seahawks had the ball 4th-and-1 at the 15-yard-line, easily in field goal range. The score was 29-16, so a field goal would have made it nearly impossible for the Packers to come back. There was less than three minutes left in the game, but Carroll decided to go for the knockout punch.

Wilson made an excellent play-fake to Lynch, bringing the defense up, and then threw a short pass to fullback Derrick Coleman. He ran it in for the score, putting the game on ice for good.

That’s the kind of aggressiveness that has brought the Seahawks to the top, and it will help keep them there.

And then there are the Broncos, desperately wanting to avenge for last year’s Super Bowl debacle.

The Broncos made a lot of changes this offseason, seemingly in an attempt to compete with the Seahawks. They signed DeMarcus Ware to help with the team’s pass-rush, Aquib Talib and T.J. Ward to solidify the secondary, and Emmanuel Sanders to add yet another weapon to their already loaded offensive attack.

They also got Von Miller back, who missed the Super Bowl because of an ACL injury.. Even with his defensive presence, the Seahawks still churned out nearly 400 yards of total offense.

The Seahawks took it to the Broncos from the beginning, and even though Peyton Manning led a game-tying drive to take the game to overtime, Seattle didn’t waste any time winning the game in the fifth quarter.

Wilson was brilliant all game, but especially in overtime, orchestrating an ultra-efficient 13-play drive that covered 80 yards and ended with a bruising Lynch touchdown run. Manning and his high-powered offense didn’t even get on the field in overtime, and the Broncos went back to Denver with another loss.

There are only three undefeated teams in the NFL after three weeks of play, and the Seahawks aren’t one of them. But then again, only three out of 32 teams have the luxury of calling themselves undefeated.

The NFL is filled with an abundance of good teams, but only a handful of elite ones. The Seahawks are on that list for sure, as are the Broncos and maybe even the Eagles. But after that, it gets murky. The 49ers and Packers have both lost two games, and the Bears and Panthers haven’t looked great either.

The Seahawks, however, have been the epitome of consistency.

Sure, they lost to the Chargers two weeks ago, but that was on the road against a pesky San Diego team that is no slouch this year.

All in all, the Seahawks have all the pieces to not only win another Super Bowl this year, but possibly become a dominant dynasty for years to come.

Wilson is one of the best young quarterbacks in the game and continues to get better. Lynch has been worked hard the past three seasons, but the Seahawks have youngsters Robert Turbin and Christine Michael to serve as change-of-pace backs and give Lynch as much rest as he needs.

Percy Harvin is back as their number one receiver. He has game-changing speed and can attack the defense in a multitude of ways, catching passes or running the ball on jet sweeps.

Doug Baldwin and Jermaine Kearse are talented young receivers as well, and Zach Miller is a veteran tight end who gives the defense yet another threat to worry about.

On the defensive side of the ball, the Seahawks are undoubtedly the premier unit in the league. Most notably in the secondary, where they have the best cornerback in the league, Richard Sherman, and the best safety, Earl Thomas.

The other two defensive backs aren’t too shabby either. Safety Kam Chancellor is a physical specimen, standing 6’3” and 230 pounds with terrific speed. He is one of the hardest hitting defensive backs in the league, and he was one of the main reasons the Seahawks were able to shut down Jimmy Graham in the divisional round of the playoffs last year.

Here’s what NFL Analyst Bucky Brooks has to say about Thomas:

"Thomas is a forceful presence against the run, displaying a non-stop motor and relentless spirit that routinely place him around the ball. He is a fearless hitter with a penchant for delivering big shots on runners in the hole. As a pass defender, Thomas is an aggressive ballhawk who flies to the football. His attacking style has produced 15 career interceptions in four seasons, including five in 2013."

Brooks also writes about Chancellor:

"The 6-foot-3, 232-pounder drops the hammer on receivers venturing over the middle, as evidenced by the teeth-rattling shot delivered on Demaryius Thomas in Super Bowl XLVIII. The Pro Bowler also boasts sneaky athleticism, fine instincts and keen awareness."

Both Thomas and Chancellor were ranked very high on Brooks’ rankings of the best safeties in the NFL.

That scary defense coupled with the Seahawks’ electric offense is downright scary, and don’t forget about their special teams.

Steven Hauschka and Jon Ryan form one of the best kicker-punter duos in the league, and Harvin is a big play waiting to happen on kickoff returns.

Seattle is the most complete team in the NFL. They have the ability to dominate any opponent in every aspect of the game, and losses are going to be very rare for this team as the season progresses. 

NL Rookie of the Year: deGrom Has Been Better Than Billy Hamilton

deGrom deserves to win the NL Rookie of the Year

Last year, Jose Fernandez edged out Yasiel Puig for the National League Rookie of the Year award. This time around, there are once again two candidates who have separated themselves from the rest of the pack.

Mets pitcher Jacob deGrom and Reds center fielder Billy Hamilton are the front runners, but which candidate is more deserving of the award?

C. Trent Rosecrans, a Reds beat writer for the Cincinnati Enquirer, believes that Hamilton's chances of winning the award are slim.

"Hamilton, like his team, has struggled in the second half. And the two are likely intertwined. After hitting .285/.319/.423 in 90 games in the first half, he's hit .214/.265/.276 in 55 games since the break."

Rosecrans goes on to promulgate that Hamilton's miserable month of September will cost him.

"So far this month, Hamilton's hitting .156/.255/.200 has been caught stealing (2) as much as he's been successful stealing (2)."

Hamilton electrified the baseball world in 2012 when he broke Vince Coleman's record for the most stolen bases in a minor league sesaon. He ended the season with 155 steals, ten more than Coleman's previous record of 145. Then last year he showed that his speed did indeed translate to the MLB. When the rosters expanded in September, Hamilton stole 13-out-of-14 bases in mainly a pinch-running role. Every time he came into the game, everyone in the ballpark knew he was going to steal, yet he was rarely thrown out.

This year, his first full season, he has been impressive. His bat has always been suspect, but he has still managed to steal 56 bags.

deGrom, on the other hand, was not near as well known. On Opening Day, he was pitching in Las Vegas for the Mets’ Triple-A affiliate. He was overshadowed even then, pitching in a rotation stocked with more hyped prospects Noah Syndergaard and Rafael Montero.

Different backgrounds aside, the voters are going to have a very tough decision to make after the season.

Both players have their pros and cons.

In addition to the 56 stolen bases, Hamilton has 39 extra-base hits and has played a tremendous center field for the Reds. His .255 batting average is solid, but definitely not spectacular. Hamilton’s .296 on-base percentage is poor, especially for a leadoff hitter, his .657 OPS is well below the major league average, and he has been caught stealing 23 times, which leads the MLB.

deGrom, on the other hand, has been stellar in all aspects of the game. He has a terrific 2.68 ERA and has registered as many strikeouts as innings pitched. Despite pitching for the Mets and their anemic offense, he has an 8-6 win-loss record.

A pitcher’s record does not always reflect his overall value, but in this instance it speaks volumes to how well deGrom has been this year. He has had several potential wins blown by the Mets’ shaky bullpen and poor hitting.

Now let’s address two of the biggest flaws in the voting process. Voters are enthralled with contenders and position players, and have a tendency to let those factors sway their decisions.

Neither the Reds nor the Mets are in any kind of contention for the division title or even the wild card, so let’s throw that out.

Then it gets interesting. Position players seem to get a bit of an edge in the voting because they are thought to affect the team more. After all, they are on the field every day while a pitcher pitches only every fifth day.

deGrom didn’t make his debut until May and he also spent spent some time on the Disabled List in August, but Hamilton has played 149 games so far, meaning he has played nearly every game. Despite that, deGrom has still been the better player.

He is a complete pitcher with an overpowering repertoire. He throws hard with outstanding offspeed pitches, and has a fantastic career ahead of him.

Hamilton, on the other hand, is not near as complete of a player. He is fast, probably one of the fastest to ever play the game. But should he win an award just because he has one outstanding tool?

I don’t think so, and for good measure, here’s an impressive stat to ponder. deGrom, a former infielder at Stetson, has a .222 batting average this season. That is only 30 points lower than Hamilton’s average, a very telling statistic about deGrom’s wide range of skills.

deGrom should win the Rookie of the Year. He is a better player than Hamilton. He leads all NL rookies in ERA and strikeouts, and he might have the pitching Triple Crown had he gotten some run support from his bullpen and offense, as I mentioned earlier about his lack of wins.

The only categories that Hamilton leads NL Rookies in are stolen bases and number of times caught stealing. If deGrom does not win the award, it will be because the voters held it against him that he missed some time due to injury and the fact that he happens to be a pitcher.

deGrom has pitched better than Hamilton has performed as a position player, and if deGrom doesn’t win, it will be a shame.

With Brian Kelly Rebuilding Project Complete, Notre Dame is a Playoff Contender

Everett Golson has the Irish playing their best football in recent memory.
Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

Notre Dame is one of the premier programs in all of college football, but it has also been one of the most underperforming ones in the last decade. When Brian Kelly left Cincinnati after the 2009 season to come to South Bend, he inherited a team that had done more losing than winning under Charlie Weis.

Kelly had built an impressive reputation as an offensive mastermind after his teams at Grand Valley State, Central Michigan, and then Cincinnati lit up the scoreboard thanks to his innovative no-huddle schemes. He vowed to bring a new identity to Notre Dame, a program that struggled mightily from 2006-2009 despite repeatedly raking in top recruiting classes.

The Weis era in South Bend hit rock bottom in 2009, when the Irish lost to Navy for the second time in three years after beating Navy 43 times in a row since 1963. It was the longest series winning streak between two annual opponents in FBS history. The streak ending resulted in the end for Weis, and the beginning for Brian Kelly.

It took a few years for Kelly to turn them around. Even when the Irish went undefeated in 2012 and made it to the BCS National Championship, the team did not look like a perennial power. While redshirt freshman quarterback Everett Golson had plenty of bright spots, he had his moments where he looked inexperienced. Notre Dame needed every bit of the luck of the Irish on their side in 2012, winning six games by one touchdown, including a three-overtime thriller against Pittsburgh. It took a desperate fourth quarter comeback by N.D just to take the game to overtime, and then the Irish would have lost in the second overtime if Pitt could have converted a 33-yard field goal.

The Irish took a step back in 2013 after Golson was suspended for academic misconduct, but after spending months with quarterback guru George Whitfield Jr., he looks better than ever this year.

Golson took his first snaps in over a year and a half against Rice in Notre Dame’s first game of the year, and he was nearly flawless. He scored five touchdowns against the Owls, completing 14-of-22 passes for 295 yards in a convincing 48-17 defeat over last year’s Conference USA champs.

While Weis focused on flashy signings that made analysts drool over his superior recruiting skills, Kelly has directed his efforts to solidify the trenches. His first three recruiting classes were stocked with offensive and defensive lineman, which has already paid dividends for the Irish. They have been able to control the line of scrimmage recently, something that was a foreign concept under Weis.

Even though Kelly placed a high value on linemen, his recruiting classes definitely have not been short on skill players. The 2013 class was especially potent, loaded with stars who are already contributing for the Irish.

Running backs Greg Bryant and Taurean Folston were both four-star recruits, and are currently part of the three-man rotation fighting for carries. Jaylon Smith has developed into a monster and one of the best linebackers in the country, while Max Redfield, recruited as an athlete, has been invaluable at safety for the Irish, especially with the loss of KeVaire Russell to academic suspension.

Overall, most analysts consider this year’s team the best one that Kelly has had in South Bend. It has been anything but an easy road, but it seems that Notre Dame might be back to the prominent program that they should be.

Everett Golson has improved astronomically since his freshman year. He has turned into a playmaker instead of a game manager, and because of that, the Irish offense is firing on all cylinders.

They have scored at least 30 points in all three of their games while averaging 418 yards per game. Maybe even more impressive than the volume of production has been the superb balance. The Irish offense is not just airing it out like Kelly’s Cincinnati teams used to; they are running the ball effectively.

Cam McDaniel’s 97 yards are three away from giving the Irish three 100-yard rushers, and Golson gives Notre Dame another legitimate running threat. It is that type of terrific balance that will continue to keep opposing defenses off balance.

The defense has been stifling as well. With new defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder, the Irish have been the second-best defensive unit in the nation so far in 2014. VanGorder has incorporated various NFL-type philosophies into the defense, and it has reaped rewards to this point.

The offensive balance coupled with the physical, aggressive defense makes the Irish a playoff contender. Oregon and Texas A&M look as dominant as ever, but Florida State hasn’t been near as good as they were last year and Jameis Winston is a ticking time bomb. Alabama struggled against West Virginia in the season opener, and even though they have looked fantastic since, they have an inexperienced quarterback who could crater at any time. Auburn struggled with Kansas State on Thursday, barely surviving a hard fought 20-14 game.

In other words, nearly every single one of the perceived top teams is likely to falter at some point this year. However, Notre Dame is no different.

The Irish have a very tough remaining schedule, but they have the necessary pieces to overcome it. They had only an overpowering defense in 2012 when they went undefeated, but now they have an offense as well.

In their last foray to the championship game, they got blasted by Alabama. But now they have what it takes to not only make the inaugural college football playoff but also win the thing.

It has been an arduous process, and one that has taken a bit longer than most Irish fans hoped, but Notre Dame Football is on the cusp of regaining its greatness from the late ‘80s and early ’90s Lou Holtz squads.

They are a very young team, and they are still producing at a very high level. Just imagine how good they are going to be when these freshman and sophomores develop into upper classmen.

For now, though, they are not looking that far into the future. They are focused on winning every game they play. USC and Florida State will be tough, as will Stanford and Arizona State. But this N.D team is more talented than the one that went undefeated through its regular season slate two years ago, so don’t put it past them to do it again.

And this time around, they can win it all.

Texas Tech DC Wallerstedt Resigns

Stephen Spillman/AJ Media

Being the defensive coordinator at Texas Tech is an overwhelmingly lonely position. Long revered for its high-octane Air Raid offense, nobody in Lubbock really places a high importance on defense.

Since Ruffin McNeill left Tech to take the head coaching position at East Carolina, it has been musical chairs at defensive coordinator. However, when Matt Wallerstadt took over the defense in Kliff Kingsbury's first year, it seemed like the future was kind of bright.

Unfortunately, his tenure has come to an abrupt end. He resigned on Thursday afternoon amid reports that he was under the influence while on campus.

Linebackers coach and former Tech player Mike Smith will take over the defensive coordinator duties, making him the seventh since 2007.

Kingsbury brought Wallerstedt over from Texas A&M, where they both coached in 2012, because he was impressed with his schemes. However, the Red Raiders' defense was the main problem in their five-game losing streak at the end of 2013 as well as their lone loss of 2014.

In last week's debacle against Arkansas, Tech was gashed on the ground to the tune of 438 yards and seven touchdowns.

Wallerstedt seemed genuinely apologetic for his recent actions.

"I have submitted my resignation to Coach Kingsbury effective immediately because I want the best for the Red Raider program, and this will allow them to go in a different direction on defense," Wallerstedt said.

Kingsbury also wished Wallerstedt the best in a statement.

Even though the Tech defense has been subpar recently, it is always disappointing to lose a coach in this fashion. It seems like Tech has moved on, though, and the future is still very bright in Lubbock.

Justin Stockton Vital to Texas Tech's Future Success

Michael C. Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

In early January of 2013, Texas Tech football coach Kliff Kingsbury made an addition to his coaching staff that didn’t make many headlines or create much buzz around the country. On that day, he hired former high school coach Mike Jinks to coach the Red Raiders’ running backs in Lubbock.

Jinks was in the later stages of building a high school juggernaut in a San Antonio suburb. Before Jinks’ departure, the Steele Knights were one of the best teams in the country, with a roster loaded with D-1 caliber talent.

While Kingsbury’s decision to hire Jinks as running backs coach didn’t look like a game-changing move on paper, the move paid dividends only ten days later.

Then, Steele running back Justin Stockton committed to Texas Tech. He was the most highly-touted recruit of the Kingsbury era to that point. Whether or not Stockton’s commitment was based solely on Jink’s presence is unknown, but it had to have helped.

He was a four-star recruit, according to ESPN Recruiting Nation, and had a very productive high school career. As a senior, he rushed for 2,159 yards and scored 38 touchdowns. For his career, he amassed over 6,000 yards on the ground and averaged a phenomenal 11 yards-per-carry. He was rewarded for his terrific senior season, as he was one of the running backs named to the Associated Press Class 5A All-State first team.

Stockton showed up on the High Plains with several other backs ahead of him, but after Kenny Williams moved to linebacker and Stockton showed his explosive big-play ability, he found himself in line for a decent number of touches as a true freshman.

In the Red Raiders’ opening game against Central Arkansas, Stockton rushed for 38 yards on 6 carries. He also recorded his first collegiate touchdown, a six-yard run to give Tech a 21-16 lead before the end of the first half.

If you think that was a pressure situation, it gets better. Just a week later, in the Sun Bowl in El Paso, the Red Raiders found themselves locked in a dogfight against heavy underdog UTEP.

After the Miners churned out a long 11-play, 88-yard touchdown drive that took nearly six minutes off the clock, Kingsbury’s squad had only 5:05 left in the game and needed a touchdown.

The blustery winds of the Sun Bowl had thrown off Davis Webb’s passing a little bit, so they needed Stockton to lead them down the field. Stockton broke off long runs of 24 and 20 yards to get the Red Raiders into position to win the game. Webb promptly found Bradley Marquez in the end zone for his third receiving touchdown of the game, but they wouldn’t have been in position to do that if not for Stockton.

The 5’9” true freshman has an impressive and diverse skill set. He can run the ball between the tackles, catch passes out of the backfield, as well as effectively return kicks and punts. An example of his explosiveness and wide array of talents came in the San Antonio All-Star Game, when Stockton scored five touchdowns, three of those on kickoff returns.

After Kenny Williams moved over to linebacker in an attempt to solidify a defense that couldn’t stop the run last year, it put a lot of pressure on the other running backs. Junior DeAndre Washington has the most experience of the running back core and also was a four-star recruit, but Stockton is the dynamic change-of-pace back that gives yet another option for the Red Raiders.

For Tech’s offense to start firing on all cylinders, they need Stockton to break off more runs like he did on that last drive against UTEP.

The Red Raiders have struggled a bit of late, but they still have the necessary weapons to have one of the most prolific offenses in the nation. They have a quarterback, Davis Webb, who has all the tools to engineer Kingsbury’s Air Raid offense, three talented running backs that have the ability to rotate and keep their legs fresh, and a slew of receivers with big-play ability.

However, they had plenty of firepower last season when they went 8-5. One of the biggest differences this year, though, is Stockton. He adds a kind of offensive presence that you don’t see very often. Texas Tech has had several solid running backs this century, but Stockton has the potential to be better than any of them.

He has breakaway speed, as he was a decorated track star in high school, and his outstanding vision and elusiveness make him a threat to score a touchdown every time he touches the ball.

Expect Kingsbury to incorporate Stockton into the offense as much as possible. He can line up in the backfield or as a slot receiver, and that kind of versatility is an offensive play caller’s dream. He will probably be the second option to get carries in his freshman year, but as he gets more familiar with the offense and grows a bit, he should develop into one of the most productive backs in the Big 12.

The Red Raiders still have huge question marks on the defensive side of the ball, which is why they need all of their young skill players to blossom into terrific college players if they hope to compete with the other high-powered offensive attacks in their conference.

Stockton will be a vital part of the offense this season, and as he goes, so will Texas Tech. It might seem odd that a backup running back has such a vital role in the team’s success, but he has the talent to serve as a tremendous complement to DeAndre Washington, and might even match Washington’s touches as he works his way into different packages and personnel groups. If Stockton continues to run wild when the Red Raiders face better defenses in the heart of their schedule, the offense will thrive and might even be a dark horse for the Big 12 championship.

If not this year, then definitely before Stockton uses up his eligibility.  

Houston Astros' Late-Season Performance Could Be a Sign of Things to Come

Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

There’s rebuilding projects, and then there’s the Houston Astros. Ever since the team went to the World Series in 2005, the entire organization has been in shambles. Sure, they won 86 games in 2008, but that is their only time in the past eight years to win more than 80 games. They are currently on their seventh different manager in those eight years, and their attendance has plummeted to one of the lowest in the league.

Even worse, the Astros continued to refuse to secede into full-blown rebuilding mode. General Managers Tim Purpura and Ed Wade repeatedly made questionable decisions in trades, in the draft, and in offseason free agency.

Despite maintaining a higher payroll than they should have, the Astros still could not find any success. Finally, Drayton McLane mercifully sold the team to Jim Crane, giving the franchise the opportunity for a fresh start.

Crane hired Jeff Luhnow to be his G.M. Luhnow, a Penn-educated engineer, drastically cut the Astros’ payroll and started over. He got rid of all the team’s established players, fielding a roster of mostly minor league caliber players. It was an admirable undertaking, but one that was slated to get worse before it got better.

After nearly three full seasons utilizing Luhnow’s new ideals in the front office, it has definitely not been easy. The Astros blew past the 100-loss plateau in both 2012 and 2013, and they are once again one of the worst teams in the league this year. However, there is obvious improvement regarding the on-field talent, especially recently.

In their last series, the Astros beat the A’s twice in a best-of-three series. This comes after they took three-of-four games from the Rangers and also swept the Angels in a brief two-game series.

In the past, Houston wouldn’t have even been able to compete with legitimate playoff contenders like the Athletics and Angels, much less win. Even with the recent turmoil in the front office, Luhnow was reportedly not seeing eye-to-eye with manager Bo Porter before Porter’s firing, the Astros are still winning.

Unfortunately, winning the rest of the way will not be overly beneficial to the Astros. They are nearly mathematically eliminated from the postseason at this point, currently trailing the Mariners by 15.5 games for the second Wild Card spot, so winning will only earn them a lower draft pick in next year’s draft.

However, with Luhnow’s past success in the MLB Draft, it won’t much matter what spot they get. The Astros are already slated for the second overall selection in the 2015 draft due to their inability to sign this year’s first overall pick Brady Aiken.

The Astros might be undermanned at the big league level, but there is plenty of talent working its way up the minor league ladder. Carlos Correa headlines the plethora of highly-touted prospects in the Houston farm system, but Mark Appel, Domingo Santana, and Colin Moran are also projected to be solid major leaguers. Widely thought of as one of the top three farm systems, the Astros’ future is only a few years away from reaching the big leagues. Recent draft picks Lance McCullers Jr., Rio Ruiz, A.J. Reed, Tony Kemp, and Derek Fisher are already making a name for themselves in the lower levels of the minor leagues. Expect them to move up the ladder at an expedited rate.

Not to mention the high-upside youngsters who are already at the big league level. Jon Singleton, the team’s former top prospect, is working out the kinks in the Show after his June call up. Mike Foltynewicz has been a nice weapon out of the bullpen, as his 100 MPH fastball suits him as a reliever more than a starter.

Dallas Keuchel is a homegrown pitcher, and his breakout season has him looking like a solid future starter. The starting rotation is filled with other young arms, and they will only get better with time. Also, they recently announced that they will be implementing a six-man rotation for the foreseeable future. They recalled Nick Tropeano, the Astros’ number-thirteen prospect according to MLB.com, to fill that sixth slot.

They have been relatively quiet this season on the trade and free agent market, but they did make one move at the July 31st trade deadline. They shipped Jarred Cosart and others to the Marlins for outfielder Jake Marisnick and Colin Moran. Moran, the sixth pick in the 2013 MLB Draft, was expected to be the centerpiece of that trade, but Marisnick has been better than expected.

Always known for his outstanding defensive attributes, Marisnick has contributed with the bat so far in Houston. He sports a .250 average during his time in Houston after hanging around the Mendoza Line in his past MLB experiences. He has also chipped in with several timely hits for the Astros, and that kind of clutch hitting is a luxury going forward.

The organization also has a few cornerstone players who the Astros can build around if they choose. Jose Altuve has blossomed into one of the most productive second baseman in the entire MLB. He has always been a solid infielder, but 2014 has been the ultimate breakout season.

Always known as a free-swinging singles hitter, Altuve has set career highs this year in hits, doubles, batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, and Wins Above Replacement (WAR). There are still 20 games left to play, plenty of time for the Venezuelan second baseman to also surpass his previous career highs in both home runs and RBIs. Most impressive, however, has been his aggressiveness on the basepaths. He has stolen 51 bases this year while only being caught seven times. His 5.2 WAR ranks eighth in the American League, meaning he is one of the most valuable players in the Junior Circuit. To put his number into context, Mike Trout’s WAR is 6.6 and Jose Bautista’s in 4.2.

The Astros might have also uncovered a gem in Chris Carter. The powerful right-handed hitter has shown his massive power on occasion in the past, but he finally put it all together this year. His average still sits at a paltry .235, but he is finally tapping into his prolific home run potential. He is currently second in the American League with 36 home runs, and has driven in 85 runners, many of them coming late in close games. I’m not sure if he is in the Astros’ long-term plans because of his age and propensity to strike out, but he is an excellent placeholder even if the Astros have another first baseman/designated hitter in mind. Carter doesn’t bring much to the table regarding defense or baserunning, but if you’re only going to possess one of the five tools that scouts talk about, power is the one to have.

While the two aforementioned players are very good, there is one player in the organization who is in a league of his own. Unlike Carter, outfielder George Springer is a legitimate five-tool player. He can hit tape measure home runs and is also very fast, giving him the unique blend of power and speed that is matched by very few.

Springer was called up in April, and after adjusting to major league pitching, he started to rake. He launched ten homers in May and then six in June. The former first-round pick struck out at an alarming rate, but he has been working on that and should be able to hit for a higher average in the future.

So with the Astros string of moderate success, it seems they are barely even scratching the surface of their overall potential. With all the losing, the Astros have stockpiled plenty of jewels in the draft. It has been a drastic uphill climb, but they finally have a loaded farm system that is poised for possible greatness.

It will be interesting going forward to see what the Astros do next. Once the first crop of prospects is in the major leagues, Luhnow will have to decide when it is the right time to become buyers instead of sellers. When it is indeed time, the Astros will not hesitate to pull off a blockbuster trade or sign a marquee free agent.

“If we do our jobs and get some breaks going our way and the fans start coming back,” Luhnow said in an early 2012 interview. “We’re going to be able to push the payroll to a point where we can compete year in and year out.”

However, Luhnow knows that there must be a steady nucleus of homegrown players to make free agents work.

“You can’t win with just free agents. Everybody knows that. Even the Yankees know that,” Luhnow said in that same interview.

There are still plenty of questions regarding the club’s future, including the fact that most of the prospects are largely unproven. However, considering Luhnow’s phenomenal success rate from his time in the St. Louis Cardinals scouting department, the Astros are in pretty good shape.

But Lunhow’s arrogant nature has to be concerning as well. He all but ran Bo Porter out of town because they did not see eye-to-eye on all issues. If for some reason his plan doesn’t begin to show some dividends in the near future, his seat will consistently get hotter and hotter.

The bullpen has been a massive question mark for the Astros this year as well. Veteran closer Chad Qualls has repeatedly blown huge leads, and the rest of the relieving core has been below average at best. Tony Sipp is a decent left-handed specialist, but after that it gets shaky. Foltynewicz will eventually be a valuable weapon out of the ‘pen, but in the interim, the Astros are going to lose a lot of leads late in the games unless they specifically address that area.

All in all, the Astros have arguably the most long-term potential of any organization in the league. Still, their future success is solely dependent on how fast the prospects progress. Once they start producing at the major league level, the front office can explore other avenues to solidify the roster. 2015 is not going to be the year where they are legitimate contenders, but I think by 2016 or 2017 they will be one of the premier teams in the American League. Prospects are incredibly tough to gauge, but the Astros have stored up enough of them that at least a few of them will become stars.

If that happens, all of the losing will be worth it. Hopefully a few winning seasons will bring more spectators to Minute Maid Park, and they can build a loyal fanbase that will support them in the coming years.

The American League West has developed into one of the toughest divisions in all of baseball, but if the Astros’ prized prospects become as good as most scouts think they can, Houston’s ceiling is nearly unlimited.

They are a team of the future, and if Sports Illustrated’s recent proclamation that the Astros will win the 2017 World Series is any indication, that future is very, very bright.

Cardinals Sweep Pirates, Take Control of NL Central

Wainwright is a key cog in one of the best pitching staffs in the MLB

As August has turned into September and October gets closer, Major League Baseball is filled with tight playoff race.  Oakland and Los Angeles are locked in a tight battle out west, as are the Tigers and Royals in the AL Central.  However, the most exciting race in the National League, in my opinion, is the NL Central.

The Cardinals came into the season as the favorite, as their deep starting rotation and terrific bullpen was supposed to take them straight to the playoffs. Unfortunately for them, their offense has been so bad that the pitching hasn't mattered.

The St. Louis offense has struggled mightily all season.  They currently rank 26th out of the 30 MLB teams in runs scored, which is one of the main reasons why they have trailed the Brewers for most of the season.

They trailed the Brewers by two games on the July 31st Trade Deadline, and general manager John Mozeliak targeted pitching help.  He went against popular opinion then, trading for John Lackey and Justin Masterson when every sign pointed to him acquiring hitters.

He sent one of his best hitters, outfielder Allen Craig, as well as talented young pitcher Joe Kelly, to the Red Sox for Lackey.  Also, they got Masterson from the Indians in exchange for minor league outfielder James Ramsey, the team's first-round selection in the 2012 draft and one of their most promising prospects.

The trade didn't pay dividends right away, they went 5-6 in their first eleven games after the trade, but they have started to play better baseball of late.  Just recently, they swept one of their other NL Central rivals.  The Cards beat the Pirates in three straight close games, at the same time seizing control of the division.

It was a very tight series, every game was decided by two runs or fewer, but the Cards came out on top.  They got a solid start from Lance Lynne in the first game, an uncharacteristically outing from Adam Wainwright where he gave up four runs, and then a sterling performance by Shelby Miller in Game 3 in which the Cardinals won the game 1-0 thanks to Peter Bourjous' walk-off RBI single in the bottom of the ninth.

Manager Mike Matheny leaned heavily on the bullpen over the course of the series, and they were up to the challenge.  St. Louis relievers allowed only one run over 14 innings of work, bringing back memories of their tremendous effort that took the Cards all the way to the World Series in 2013.

The hitting is coming along too.  Matt Holiday's recent surge has boosted the lineup, as has Yadier Molina's return from the disabled list.  The emergence of Matt Adams as a legitimate power threat has been invaluable, but the other players in the lineup need to step up as well.  Matt Carpenter is not hitting as well as he did last year, but he is an ultra-consistent leadoff hitter.  He a very patient hitter and possesses one of the best batting eyes in the league.  

Rookie Oscar Taveras is one of the elite prospects in all of baseball, but he has not yet lived up to his massive potential.  He has hit a little better now that he is the primary right fielder after Craig was dealt, but he needs to continue to improve for the Cardinals to make another run deep into the playoffs.

The pitching, on the other hand, is loaded.  Wainwright is one of the best starters in the league, Lackey is having a fine season, Lynn eats up innings and always finds a way to win, and Shelby Miller is a talented but inconsistent youngster.  Masterson is having a down season, but the Cardinals are hoping that he can turn it around after it was just recently announced that he will move to the bullpen for the foreseeable future.

The bullpen, once again, is one of the team's main strenghts.  Trevor Rosenthal has struggled at times in his inagural season as the closer, but overall, he has been effective and his 41 saves are tied for the league lead.

Pat Neshek has been one of the best relievers in the league.  He is 7-1 and sports a magnificent 1.37 ERA.  Seth Maness has been a very reliable, logging seventy innings out of the 'pen, and they have a host of other young, live arms who have the ability to get outs in the late innings.  

Such a deep relieving core is a terrific luxury for a manager to have.  Also, the Cardinal roster has great depth off the bench.  Speedy outfielders Jon Jay and Peter Bourjos give Matheny the option of opting for a double switch late in games to maximize the offensive output.

I expect the Cardinals to hold off the Brewers for the division championship, and also make a run similar to last season.  However, any run to the World Series is going to have to go through the Dodgers.  That is a tall order for any team to accomplish, but a deep pitching staff and an opportunistic lineup gives the Cardinals a fighting chance.

Is Alabama Losing Its Edge?

Nick Sabans defense has not been as good recently, mostly due to the rise of the no-huddle offense

Ever since arriving at Alabama in 2007, Nick Saban has molded the Crimson Tide into a factory of success.  Starting his eighth season at the helm of one of college football's most storied programs, Saban has an incredible 75-15 record.

In Saban's first year in Tuscaloosa, the Tide were still recovering from some sanctions regarding academic infractions.  Alabama went 7-6 on the field, but then the NCAA mandated that they vacate 21 wins going back to the Mike Shula regime.

Despite taking over a program nearly in shambles, Saban awoke a sleeping giant.  The Crimson Tide have won at least 10 games since that inauspicious first year, including 4-2 in bowl games.  He has led the Tide three national championship wins as well as two Sugar Bowl berths. 

Coming into every season, Alabama is at the top of the polls.  Even in years like this one, when the Tide are without an experienced quarterback, it is still ultra-safe to pencil them in for at least ten wins and a serious contender for the SEC title.

But then the up-tempo offenses came along.  The past few years the high-octane spread offenses have been developing, but they seem to have culminated.  Offenses are spreading the field with track stars, chucking the pigskin around the yard, and hustling to the line after every play.  The new strategy has forced defenses to substitute more, meaning their best players aren't on the field as much.  It also forces defenses to throw out most of their complex schemes because getting lined up correctly is hard enough.

In other words, defenses are having to square off against the best offenses in the country without their best on the field.  Defensive coordinators don't have enough time to think clearly about what defense gives them the best chance to stop the offense, and it is for this reason that offensive numbers have skyrocketed.  Offenses are running more plays, gaining more yards, and scoring more points than they did even a few years ago.

The times have changed, but Saban has refused to change to this point.  It belies common sense to refuse to adapt to other strategies that have proven to be more efficient, but it is also not correct to second guess a guy with the track record that Saban has.  

Saban has always been outspoken about up-tempo offenses, even laughably so.  He has suggested various idiotic rule-changes to slow down the game, but thankfully he has been rebuffed.  I think that the reason he is so animated about this topic is that he does not want to stray away from his ideals, but that is beside the point.

While more and more teams are shucking the running game and going to the air, Saban has stubbornly stuck with his preferred pro-style offense.  He even brought in Lane Kiffin to be his new offensive coordinator after Doug Nussmeier opted to take his services to Michigan.  That move took some guts considering Kiffin's recent futility, and the offense looked promising in the opening game against West Virginia.

However, the real question coming from the Crimson Tide is their defense.  Even though Saban is regarded as a strong defensive-minded coach, his units have started to struggle recently against high-powered offenses.  

While most teams in the SEC have stuck to their downhill running attacks, teams like Auburn and Texas A&M have given 'Bama fits.  Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel torched the Crimson Tide defense in consecutive years, and even though Alabama came back to beat the Aggies last year, Manziel's 464 passing yards in that game are the most ever against a Nick Saban-coached defense.

In last year's Sugar Bowl against Oklahoma, Alabama single-handedly fueled the emergence of Trevor Knight.  Largely unproven before the bowl game, Knight schooled the Tide through the air, amassing 348 passing yards and four touchdowns.  

In the 2014 opener, even after months of preparation to stop Dana Holgerson's Air Raid attack, West Virginia quarterback Clint Trickett threw for 365 yards, which marks the third-most passing yards allowed by the Tide under Saban, according to ESPN Stats & Info.  

Alabama's less-than-stellar performance against the Mountaineers also made it the first time since 2007 that the Tide defense has allowed at least 17 points in three straight games.  Also, the 10 points that West Virginia scored in the first half on Saturday matched the combined number of points Alabama allowed in last year's four regular season non-conference games.

Alabama will still find a way to win most of the games it plays because Saban is arguably the best recruiter to ever pace the sidelines, but the recent success of opposing offenses shows the country that Nick Saban is indeed human.

He is not perfect, and if he continues to refuse change, he is going to continue to be dominated by up-tempo offenses.

Navy Football: A Sisyphean Climb to Relevance

Last season, Navy football had a tremendous season.  They finished the year with a 9-4 record and a victory over Middle Tennessee in the Armed Forces Bowl.  Even though the Midshipmen are an Independent team and not affiliated with a conference, they still managed to play three teams from Big 5 conferences as well as Notre Dame.  They went 2-2 in those games, nearly beating Notre Dame in a 38-34 thriller.

Ohio State was Navy's opponent in the 2014 opening, and even though they looked a bit less menacing on the schedule after Braxton Miller went down with injury, they are still one of the best programs in the country.  Their current roster is loaded with elite talent and NFL prospects.

Despite being heavily overmatched physically, Navy still gave the Buckeyes more than they wanted. They led most of the game, but in the end couldn't keep the Buckeyes from staying undefeated in the regular season under Urban Meyer.  Nonetheless, Navy's triple-option attack battered the Ohio State defense for 370 yards on the ground.

The way this game unfolded seems to be a recurring theme for the Midshipmen.  At the beginning of the game, Navy played the favorite very tight.  They ran the ball effectively and played strong defense. But after halftime and as the game went on, the tide started to slowly but surely go the way of the Buckeyes.  

Once again, the underlying factor is that Navy does not recruit well enough to be able to match their top-tier opponents man for man.  Ken Niumatalolo has done a phenomenal job of keeping the Midshipmen competitive, but he doesn't have quite the necessary resources to keep up with the elite programs.

Niumatalolo has formed a very good roster, one that fits precisely with the team's wishbone offensive attack.  The offense is led by quarterback Keenan Reynolds, and he is flanked by a slew of small, quick running backs that work well in Navy's scheme.

Even though Navy came out on the short end of the scoreboard, they still put on a solid showing and should win most of their remaining games.  Notre Dame is the only team left on the schedule that is even close to as talented as Ohio State, and there is no reason Navy cannot match and even exceed last year's nine victories.

Keenan Reynolds was one of the most prolific quarterbacks in the country in 2013, reaching the 1,000 yard plateau both through the air and on the ground.  He also led the nation with 31 rushing touchdowns, and repeatedly took the team on his back in several high-scoring affairs. 

In last year's opening game, Reynolds rushed for three touchdowns in a 41-35 win over Indiana.  A few weeks later, Reynolds scored three more touchdowns in a 45-44 loss to Toledo in overtime. Reynolds' career year culminated in the eleventh game of the season against San Jose State.  In that contest, Reynolds rushed for 240 yards and SEVEN touchdowns in a 58-52 triple-overtime victory.  

He has big-time running ability, and I expect him to have another monster year in 2014.  But as far as competing with big-time schools, Navy might never be able to reach that level of success.  Still, the Midshipmen have found a way to stay competitive when the other service academies have not.  

That has to be worth something.  They have played Ohio State too close for the Buckeyes' comfort twice in the past five years, as well as premier programs Notre Dame on multiple occasions and South Carolina in 2011.  It's Navy's style of play that makes the Power 5 conference teams sweat because those schools rarely see that kind of offense, but the better team can usually wear Navy down later in the game.

I still admire Navy for their accomplishments and ability to repeatedly challenge more talented teams, and I think they are poised for a terrific 2014 season. 

They may never get over the hump, but they will stay germane in the college football world as long as they run the wishbone offense in a way that would make Darrell Royal proud while pulling occasional upsets along the way.