Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Canes Bowling Tournament Brings Back Memories

BY David Villavicencio

Last night was one of the coolest Mondays a Hurricanes fan could ask for.

The UM Sports Hall of Fame hosted their first ever Celebrity Bowling Tournament at Splitsville in The Shops at Sunset Place and it was a huge success.

The event gave Canes fans an opportunity to bowl with a former UM athlete. There was also an auction that featured signed memorabilia and a 2001 National Championship ring.

I was invited to bowl on a friend's team and we bowled with former Canes basketball star, Steve Edwards. Steve was engaging, entertaining and fun to bowl with. We all had a great time.

In addition to Edwards, there were tons of excellent former Canes athletes who were happy to interact with anyone who approached them. Heisman Trophy winner and national champion Gino Torretta was there. So were Reggie Wayne, Brett Romberg, Randall "Thrill" Hill and Bubba Franks.

Me and former Canes standout Reggie Wayne
One of this year's inductees, former offensive lineman Rich Mercier, bowled in the lane next to ours. Duane Starks, Earl Little and Darrin Smith added some defensive flair to the event. Former offensive lineman and president-elect of the UM Sports Hall of Fame KC Jones was there and so was former Canes baseball star Alex Santos.

All of the athletes were happy to take pictures, sign autographs and interact with the many Canes fans in attendance. I was able to meet many of these talented athletes that I grew up watching at the Orange Bowl, Mark Light Stadium and the Miami Arena.

As someone who has always loved the Canes, Monday's bowling event was a great opportunity to meet and interact with many of my favorite players from when I was a kid.

I hope they put the event on again next year because I am already looking forward to it.

For more pictures from the event, check out this photo gallery from procanes.com.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Cards could be insane if they miss out on Molina

BY David Villavicencio

Albert Einstein defined insanity as "doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results."

Hopefully Bill DeWitt, John Mozeliak and St. Louis Cardinals have heard this quote before or they might be destined for a padded room in their future. 

It is no secret by now that the Cardinals botched their negotiations with prized free agent and superstar Albert Pujols. They low-balled him far too long and ultimately made him feel disrespected.

By the time they came up with an offer that Pujols would have deemed acceptable, the star had set his sights elsewhere and decided to join the Angels. 

Reports later surfaced that Pujols was put off by how the Cardinals treated him in their negotiations prior to Spring Training last year. He felt disrespected and had all but decided to go elsewhere when his contract expired at the end of the 2011 season.

Sure, Pujols is older and the contract he signed with the Angels will ultimately have more bad years than good ones. It was tough to hand someone such a franchise-restricting contract, even if he is the greatest player that franchise has had in decades and the best player in baseball at the moment. 

The Cardinals may have ultimately lucked out by not re-signing Pujols but it was clear the way they handled themselves in the negotiations played a huge factor in losing their biggest star.

Fast forward to present day and you will find the Cardinals in the midst of another negotiation with a soon-to-be free agent. 

Yadier Molina is set to hit the open market at the end of the season and the four-time All-Star catcher is sure to have plenty of potential suitors should he become available to the other 29 big league teams.

Who wouldn't be interested in a player that is regarded as the best defensive catcher in the game. Molina completely shuts down the opponent's running game with his cat-like reflexes and rocket arm. A four-time Gold Glove recipient, Molina is also known to call an excellent game and respected by his teammates as a leader in the clubhouse.

But those are just his defensive accolades. Molina can hit too.

The 29-year-old has come a long way offensively. When he first came up, Molina was an offensive liability. But hard work and development have turned him into one of the better hitting catchers in baseball. He has hit over .300 twice and over .290 in three of the past four seasons. 
Molina homers to win 2006 NLCS

Molina has shown steady improvement offensively and is coming off his best season at the plate. In 2011, Molina hit .305 with 32 doubles, 14 home runs and 65 runs-batted-in. All four of those numbers are career-highs.

Yadi is also a "clutch" hitter. I hate to use that term but Molina does seem to rise to the occasion. He is a career .309 hitter in the postseason and played a key role in both the 2006 and 2011 postseasons that ended in Cardinals championships. 

Clearly, Molina has a lot going for him as a potential free agent and that also gives him a lot of leverage in negotiations. He has already said he would not give the Cardinals a hometown discount and really has no need to do so. 

He will be likely be the best free agent catcher available in free agency unless the Braves shock the world and decide to decline Brian McCann's option for the 2013 season. Other notable free agent backstops include Ryan Doumit, Russell Martin, Miguel Montero, Mike Napoli, A.J. Pierzynski and Yorvit Torrealba. Joining McCann in the group with pending options are Rod Barajas, Henry Blanco, Chris Iannetta, Miguel Olivo and Carlos Ruiz.

That is a lot of catching options that could be available at the end of the year. The Cardinals might look at that list and say, "We will be alright with any of those guys." But think logically and the list doesn't look as appealing to them.

Atlanta is probably going to pick up McCann's $12 million option or extend him. 

The Diamondbacks will surely want to bring back Montero. He would be 29 on Opening Day 2013 and can really hit. That seems like a no-brainer. 

The Rangers will likely want to bring Napoli back after the huge year he had in 2011. If he can repeat his offensive success, he will be very expensive in free agency. However, the likelihood of that is slim as Napoli never hit better than .273 before posting a .320 average last season. Even if he does hit again, he does not compare to Molina defensively and would cost as much, if not more, than Molina.

The rest of the group is not very exciting. 

Barajas, Blanco, Olivo, Pierzynski, Ruiz and Torrealba will all be 34 or older on Opening Day 2013. For most of those guys, their best days are clearly behind them.

Doumit cannot defend the catcher position full-time and has had a slew of injuries and inconsistent performance. 

Iannetta has never lived up to his promise and might be destined for reserve duty if he doesn't pick it up offensively soon.

Martin, like Molina, will be 30 on Opening Day 2013. He is a clear downgrade from Yadi, both offensively and defensively, and would not be the greatest consolation prize should the Redbirds end up with him as Molina's replacement. Also, it seems unlikely that he will hit free agency as he is in discussions with the Yankees about a three-year extension.

What our very brief look at the other free agent catchers proves is that the Cardinals will likely end up with a major downgrade behind the plate if they cannot come to terms with Molina. 

Add to that the fact that they do not have any everyday catchers close to the big leagues (no disrespect to Tony Cruz, Bryan Anderson and Koyie Hill) and you find that St. Louis really needs to get a deal with Molina done.

But you might be asking yourselves about other potential free agents the Cardinals will need to replace.

Beyond Molina, the Cardinals have just four players set to be come free agents at the end of the year.

Lance Berkman will be a free agent at the end of the year but he may be easily replaced. The Cards already have Allen Craig in the fold. Prospect Matt Adams is expected to be ready by 2013. Mark Hamilton, who has had success in the minors but has not hit much in two big league callups is also waiting for a chance. 

The Cardinals also have a pair of talented third baseman in the minors in Zack Cox and Matt Carpenter. If either proves ready for the big leagues, the Cards could consider shifting David Freese across the diamond and fill the void that way. 

Kyle Lohse and Jake Westbrook are both set to become free agents at the end of the year and that might be addition by subtraction. While Lohse and Westbrook are serviceable, bottom of the rotation arms, they will combine to make over $20 million in 2012. That is a lot of money to pay for your fourth and fifth starters. 

Combine that with the likelihood that top prospect Shelby Miller will be more than ready for the big leagues by 2013 and you have already replaced one starter with someone who many expect to be much better and still have about $19.5 million unspent.

Add in Lance Lynn, Carlos Martinez, Jordan Swagerty and Brandon Dickson and you have plenty of good, young talent to fill the other spot and still have $19 million to spend on Molina and the rest of your roster.

The final free agent in J.C. Romero and he is highly replaceable. It seems like every year, lefty specialists are wearing a different uniform so finding a new one would not be difficult. Internal options are available as well with prospect John Gast ready and waiting for an opportunity. Gast could also factor in as a starter if the Cardinals wanted to use him that way.

So it seems obvious that the Cardinals will have money at their disposal to re-sign Molina. It also seems like they will be able to upgrade internally to replace their departing free agents. 

Will Molina be wearing a different cap a year from now too?
Now it's just a matter of how they choose to handle the negotiations with Molina. Will they toy with these negotiations like they did with Pujols or be aggressive and try to get a deal done? Could a low-ball offer ultimately push Molina away from St. Louis like it did with Albert? 

No one knows for sure but it is clear that they had one type of outcome already with their dillydallying negotiations. Do they think things will end differently this time?

I guess it's a matter of sanity.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Marlins Caravan stops for a little golf

BY David Villavicencio

The Marlins took time to help a great cause today by hosting the Marlins Celebrity Golf Classic at Miccosukee Golf and Country Club in Miami. All proceeds from the tournament will benefit the Miracle League of Miami-Dade County.

It was the tenth consecutive year that Marlins players, front office executives and local sports personalities will tee it up in support of the Miracle League of Miami-Dade County.

The Miracle League of Miami-Dade provides the opportunity for children with mental and/or physical challenges to play baseball on special custom designed rubber turf fields for their protection and accommodations for wheelchairs and walkers.

Beyond helping out a worthy cause, the tournament provided opportunities to see the players up close. It also gave newcomers like Mark Buehrle, Jose Reyes, Heath Bell and Carlos Zambrano a chance to get to know some of their new teammates.

Speaking of Zambrano, I spoke with Big Z about what it felt like to be a Marlin and he could not be happier. The 6-foot-5 right-hander is thrilled for his new opportunity and cannot wait to get the season started. Read more on Zambrano here.

Anibal Sanchez is another player I had the chance to talk to. Fresh off his win in arbitration, Sanchez is excited for what he expects to be a big 2012 season. He will play on a one-year deal in his final season under team control and the Marlins have said they are not interested in offering him an extension at this time.

Always a pro, Sanchez is not letting his contract status get in the way of his preparation. Read more on Sanchez here.

Like most of the Marlins, Sanchez appears to be in excellent shape heading into camp. Edward Mujica is another player who is in good form. Mujica appears to have lost some weight in the off-season as he prepares for his second year as a Marlin.

Hanley Ramirez also is looking as strong as ever. The former batting champ appears to have bulked up a bit before he makes the transition to third base. Ramirez declined to talk to the media but new shortstop Jose Reyes said he is excited about the potential the left side of the Marlins' infield possesses.

You can see some pictures from today's event on my colleague, Joe Capozzi's blog.  New Closer Heath Bell's outfit was a hit. Mujica said that two years ago, Bell wore a similar outfit to a Padres golf tournament only it was black and yellow and made Bell looks like a bumble bee. This year's bright green ensemble brought back memories of the late Payne Stewart.

Stay tuned for more Marlins coverage from me as Spring Training gets going. The Fish will report on February 22 and start playing games on March 5.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Is missing out on Cespedes really a bad thing for the Marlins?

BY David Villavicencio

By now you've heard the news. Yoenis Cespedes agreed to terms on a four-year, $36 million contract with the Oakland Athletics.

Judging by the response from Marlins fans on Twitter, you are probably still up in arms about this news as you read this sentence.

Understandably so, you are frustrated that one of the hottest names of the winter will be playing elsewhere this summer. It probably irks you even more that that Marlins have been linked to Cespedes since his ridiculous workout video was posted on Youtube months ago.

You had him penciled in your Opening Day lineup, playing center field and hitting right behind Mike Stanton. Visions of prodigious power numbers and a potential run at the Phillies filled your head for months.

Now your mind is filled with curse words and frustration as Cespedes will suit up for the lowly Athletics instead of your beloved Marlins.

Well let me put your mind at ease for a bit.

It's not the end of the world.

The Marlins will still be a competitive team in 2012.

Missing out on Cespedes might actually be a good thing.

Wait a minute, what?!

Did he just say missing out on a guy who runs shirtless behind a car in the Dominican Republic, can leg press a small country and hits batting practice home runs so impressive that they look like any other big leaguer's BP home runs was a good thing?

This Villavicencio guy has lost his mind!

Before you call the people running the looney bin, give me a minute and hear me out.

Cespedes is a relative unknown. What I mean by that is there is not much to go off to evaluate him. He hasn't played against top competition very much and has seen his star rise while dominating in his native Cuba.

I know Cuba has a reputation of playing high quality baseball but the truth is he is playing in a league that most baseball people consider equivalent to A-ball here in the minor leagues. That is a long, long LONG way from the big leagues in terms of competition.

His unknown status is increased by the fact that he is Cuban so he is secluded on an island that people cannot readily scout. Big league teams have academies and scouts in Dominican Republic and Venezuela and they also scour Puerto Rico looking for top talent year-round. But they cannot do that in Cuba and really have no incentive to do so because they can't sign anyone from Cuba until they defect.

This does not mean that big league teams are out of the loop when it comes to Cuban players but they definitely do not have as much information and visual scouting time on those players than they would on guys who come from other Latin American countries.

When a team signs a kid out of Venezuela or the Dominican Republic, they have typically spent a ton of time scouting him, evaluating him and trying to project what he can ultimately become as a ballplayer. There are no guarantees that the kid fulfills those projections but they can at least take an educated guess at what they are getting when they invest money and resources into the player.

With Cespedes, they have what they have seen in international competitions such as the World Baseball Classic, a workout held in the Dominican Republic, a small sample size in Winter Ball this year and that ridiculous video. Let's break these down one at a time.

International tournaments are an interesting place to evaluate talent because you get the opportunity to see people against different levels of competition. In Cespedes' case, you can see him go against some of the best baseball talent in the world. An opportunity to see him against players from the United States, Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Puerto Rico and Japan would be great because we can see how he handles tougher competition.

Cespedes excelled in the 2009 WBC, hitting .458 with a double, three triples, and two home runs. He posted an impressive 1.480 OPS while helping Cuba advance to the second round of the tournament.

You look at those numbers and you have to be salivating because he absolutely crushed top international competition. But if you look closer, you'll see he didn't face very good competition at all.

Cespedes and his Cuban teammates played in Pool B with Mexico, Australia and South Africa. Those are not three hot beds of baseball talent. Delve deeper into his experience in Pool B and you'll find the closest thing he faced to a big league pitcher was Australia's Damian Moss. The lefty pitched for the Braves, Giants, Orioles and Devil Rays in his career but was five years removed from his final big league appearance when he gave up a homer to Cespedes in the WBC.

But then came the playoffs. Cespedes went 2-for-4 against Japan. Daisuke Matsuzaka started that game and Hisashi Iwakuma also pitched in it. That's two big league pitchers. I can't find if he got a hit off of either pitcher but that is just one game and it is too small of a sample to take positively or negatively. For the sake of this argument, let's say it was a good sign to see a good game against Japan.

In his next game he tripled off of Mexico's Francisco Rodriguez. Not K-Rod but this guy. Still, Cespedes had success against a guy who is now a big leaguer. Another positive.

In his final game in the 2009 WBC, Cespedes tripled off of Iwakuma. If you don't recognize the name, you will when you watch him pitch this year for the Mariners. Iwakuma failed to agree to terms with Oakland last winter so he returned to Japan before signing with Seattle this off-season. He is expected to be an impact Japanese import for the Mariners.

So Cespedes got a grand total of four hits off of Major League talent in the 2009 WBC. I know it is a very small sample size but that kind of makes those gaudy numbers look a little less impressive doesn't it?

Next on the list are his workouts in the Dominican Republic. These were open to any big league team interested in taking a look at what Cespedes was about. Obviously I didn't attend the workouts but I know that any workout is meant to showcase a player. They put Cespedes in the best position to succeed and showcase his strengths as a player.

To give you a comparison, I present JaMarcus Russell and his pro day workout at LSU. We all know Russell was a colossal bust in the NFL but he looked all-world in his pro day. They showcased his incredible arm strength and had him throw familiar routes to familiar receivers. He was put in a situation that made him look like a lock to be a future star.

You have to believe Cespedes' agent, Adam Katz, and his adviser, Edgar Mercedes, did the same for their client in his workouts. They showcased him as a physical specimen, hitting batting practice home runs of epic proportions and running like a world class sprinter. You're supposed to look good in a workout. Cespedes did that. But that doesn't mean he will become a good big leaguer.

Now let's briefly examine his experience in the Dominican Winter League. The DWL is a competitive winter league that is full of big leaguers and guys close to the big leagues. It is definitely viewed as a higher level of competition than the Cuban League Cespedes dominated.

Only this time, Cespedes was getting dominated instead of dominating. It was just 10 games but Cespedes looked terrible. He went 5-for-35 with one home run and 10 strikeouts. That is a putrid performance to say the least.

Is it indicative of future failure? Not necessarily.

Cespedes had not played in competitive games for a long time so rust was certainly a factor but he did look lost at the plate. He struggled to hit breaking pitches and had a very long swing. Could that be a result of being rusty? Maybe but that is the same long swing you saw in the WBC and in his video. Seems to me like the long swing is the actual swing. Can that be corrected? Probably but you don't know for sure and you don't know if he will be the same power hitter if he does correct his flaws. That should definitely be a concern.

Finally, we have his scouting video. This might be the least informative 20 minutes you could find on Cespedes. You don't learn much that is actually useful from this video.

He hits a ton of batting practice home runs. Fantastic! Every big leaguer does that. Even guys like Emilio Bonifacio can hit homers on every pitch in batting practice if they wanted to. In fact, Ichiro has a reputation of being one of the most impressive hitters in batting practice in terms of home run length and you never see him do that in a game.

He runs really fast shirtless behind a car. Outstanding! Glad to know he would have no trouble running on South Beach on his weekends off.

He leg presses every weight in the Dominican Republic and then a few Dominicans themselves. Great! Nice to know he can pinch hit for my jack if I ever get a flat tire.

You barely see him do any defensive work and when you do see him play the outfield, he is messing around and catching balls behind his back. You never see his form or his range. That is something that you'd like to see from someone who is a potential center fielder. If his range is limited, he is not as valuable because he won't be able to play center field. You also never see him throw. Kind of important for an outfielder who is supposed to have a strong and accurate arm.

The video did a great job of making Cespedes an internet sensation but did little to make him seem like a potential big league star. It hardly answered any questions surrounding his potential for success in the Majors.

Speaking of potential success in the Majors, scouts aren't sure what to make of it.

Having spent three years covering Major League Baseball, I have been fortunate enough to get to know a bunch of scouts around the league and they are all split on Cespedes.

They all see potential for stardom but they also see plenty of bust in Cespedes. They see the holes in the swing and the long swing. They question whether he can truly play center field. They wonder if he will develop into a true impact bat or if he will be a third or fourth outfielder. The scouts have a lot of questions and they see a lot of flaws in Cespedes' game.

Will Cespedes play in the Majors? Absolutely.

Will he live up to the hype and now the contract that came with it? Probably not.

Most baseball people I have spoken to have Cespedes pegged to be a .250-.270 hitter that will hit 20-25 homers and strike out a lot. A bunch of baseball people are confident he will not be able to defend in center field and will ultimately end up playing in one of the corners.

It was those opinions coming from highly knowledgeable baseball men that first got me thinking that signing Cespedes would not be a wise investment.

As I considered their opinions and gathered more information, I began to form my own opinion of Cespedes. It seemed clear that he was far more likely to be the next Hideki Irabu, Kei Igawa, Hee Seop Choi or Kenji Johjima than the next Ichiro, Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez or Kendry Morales.

It appears that the success rate for these big name international free agents is not nearly as high as you'd like it to be. Even if Cespedes became a solid big leaguer like Livan Hernandez or Jose Contreras, that would be a disappointment because you expected so much more from him. You had built up this larger than life image of him and were not going to be satisfied until he became a potential MVP candidate.

Ultimately, I became convinced that signing Cespedes was going to cost too much for what the reasonable expected return would be. He simply would not live up to the hype and would never be that major impact bat that teams are always looking for.

Despite spending all of this time mentioning the issues with Cespedes, I want to be clear. I am not bashing him nor do I have anything against him. I am happy that he was able to sign a lucrative contract and I hope he proves me and all the others who question if he will ever be a true star wrong. I just am not confident that he will be able to do so.

But I'll tell you one thing that I am confident about.

I am confident that the Marlins may have just dodged a $36 million bullet.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Canes snag a stud DB

BY David Villavicencio

Tracy Howard is staying home.

The top-rated cornerback in the country announced he would play for the hometown Hurricanes and join a group of freshman defensive backs that could see a ton of playing time next season.

Howard will be a candidate to play early and potentially start as a freshman. Miami does not have any standouts returning at corner and Howard is expected to be the type of player that can make an impact from the minute he steps on a college campus.

While Howard is the highest rated corner Miami has signed, there are several other outstanding talents that will be joining him as freshmen next season.

Deon Bush from Columbus High School in Miami is a big, physical corner that could pair with Howard to form one of the best cornerback tandems in the country by the time their college careers are done.

Vernon Davis and Larry Hope, two more local cornerbacks, will have a chance to earn some playing time early as well. Davis was a shutdown corner for Miami Coral Reef and Hope is a talented corner from Miami American.

Tracy Howard shows the world what it's all about
The Canes also picked up three more corners from outside their backyard.

Antonio Crawford is one of the newest additions to Miami's class. The corner from Plant HS is Tampa, Fla. committed to Miami following a visit this past weekend. Previously committed to Georgia Tech, Crawford has looked impressive on his highlight film and stood out when he covered future teammate Malcolm Lewis in this year's state title game.

Ladarius Gunter is a Junior College transfer that is expected to play early. At 6-foot-2, Gunter can match up with an opponent's biggest receiver and he can use his 4.4 speed to run with their fastest one too.

Nate Dortch is another bigger cornerback at 6-foot-1. Dortch hails from South Fort Myers HS and he is expected to add depth and develop into a contributor in the defensive backfield over his career.

Coach Al Golden addressed a huge need at defensive back in this class. With Howard, Bush, Davis and the rest of those talented corners coming in, Miami's secondary could become a strength very soon.

National Signing Day: A College Football fan's Christmas

BY David Villavicencio

National Signing Day is here!

In a few hours, high school seniors from across the country will announce their college choices and fax in their letters of intent.

NSD is a holiday for college football fans. It's kind of like Christmas. You know what most of your presents are going to be but there are always a few surprises.

Signing Day is no different as most schools have the majority of their recruiting class committed. Those young men will fax in their letters of intent and officially join their school's Class of 2016.

But like Christmas, there are some surprise gifts that you may not know about. Those come by way of announcements from undecided players. NSD is full of these announcements that fans from across the country will be eagerly awaiting.

Fans will all be hoping the talented player will "make the right decision" and choose their school over their bitter rival. Some will be happy and others will be disappointed. Those emotions are a part of NSD that every college football fan experiences.

I covered National Signing Day a few years in a row while I was in college. I was at Miami Northwestern when Tommy Streeter and Brandon Washington picked the Canes. I was also at Booker T. Washington when Brandon Harris picked Miami that same year. I was at Killian the day Lamar Miller announced he would join the lineage of great Hurricanes running backs three years ago.

While I have plenty of good memories from covering National Signing Day, I also remember some announcements that did not go in favor of my beloved Hurricanes. I was at Pace the day Kayvon Webster decided to join two of his high school teammates and sign with USF after being committed to Miami for nearly a year.

Tomorrow will be be an interesting National Signing Day for the Hurricanes. It will be the first full class for Al Golden and it is a good one. Coach Golden addressed many needs and has pulled in a ton of top talent. Local stars like Duke Johnson and Deon Bush are just some of the headliners in Golden's class but he could be adding some more.

Miami is in the running for a pair of big time talents that will be announcing their decision on NSD and many believe they will get at least one of them. Cornerback Tracy Howard will announce his intentions early Wednesday morning while offensive lineman Avery Young will tell the world where he is going to school in the afternoon.

Even if Miami misses out on both talented players, they should be commended for their talented class. Coach Golden and his staff did an excellent job of recruiting what is expected to be a pivotal class for the Golden regime. This year's recruits will go a long way towards determining how soon the Hurricanes return to national prominence and that is something every Canes fan is excited about.