49’ers Living on the Edge; What If the All Star Game Mattered

 

 

 

living on the dge2
Dan Pompei
More from Dan

www,sportsonearth.com

 

Living on the Edge
The offseason contract Colin Kaepernick signed is a worthwhile investment if he and his teammates can stay out of trouble.

The 49ers can destroy a lot of teams this fall, assuming they don’t destroy themselves first.

In some ways the 49ers have been football’s best team over the last three years with a .760 winning percentage and three NFC Championship Game appearances. They are well-coached and well-stocked, and their arrow appears to be pointing straight up.

But in some ways they have been a team on the edge, with rumors of infighting, contract standoffs and players running afoul of the law. On and off the field, the 49ers should be as fascinating to watch come September as they have been all offseason.

Biggest Offseason Move: Addressing the perimeters

The 49ers are a team that wins with “bigs.” They play power football and exert their will on opponents. But this offseason the team focused mostly on the perimeter of the offense and the perimeter of the defense with a series of moves that could determine if the Niners get over the hump.

On offense, the 49ers used multiple avenues to acquire receivers who can complement Michael Crabtree. They traded for Stevie Johnson. They lured Brandon Lloyd out of retirement, and they drafted Bruce Ellington. They also re-signed Anquan Boldin. The net is the 49ers have what appears to be the deepest group of receivers they have had in quite some time.

Defensively, the 49ers underwent a secondary makeover of sorts. The domino that began a succession of moves was the departure of Pro Bowl safety Donte Whitner, who signed with the Browns. With Whitner leaving this season and Dashon Goldson leaving last year, the 49ers lost a lot of talent at one position. They responded by signing solid free-agent Antoine Bethea and drafting Jimmie Ward in the first round. Ward is expected to start at nickel corner, but he eventually could be a starting safety.

At cornerback the 49ers will have new starters as Carlos Rogers was released and Tarell Brown was not re-signed. Eric Wright, who was competing for one of the starting jobs, abruptly retired in June. That left Tramaine Brock, Chris Culliver and newcomer Chris Cook as the team’s top three cornerbacks. None of them have established themselves as solid starters yet, but all of them have the ability to do so.

Also on the subject of the perimeters, some of the 49ers have been dancing on the perimeters of the law. Culliver may be facing a suspension at the start of the season after being charged with felony hit and run, felony reckless driving with injury, felony possession of brass knuckles, misdemeanor hit and run and misdemeanor driving on a suspended license. Culliver isn’t the only member of the defense who could be suspended. In May, linebacker Aldon Smith pled no contest to three felony counts of possessing illegal assault rifles and misdemeanor DUI. He faces sentencing in July. Smith also had an offseason run-in with TSA officials at Los Angeles International Airport, though charges were not filed there.

Quarterback Colin Kaepernick and wide receiver Quinton Patton were the subject of an investigation after a woman made a complaint about an incident in a hotel room. No charges were filed in that case, either.

Coach Jim Harbaugh, who once famously said he wants his team to be “above reproach,” has implored his players to surround themselves with good people. Behaving like good people also might be recommended.

Biggest Offseason Gamble: Not extending Harbaugh’s contract

Harbaugh is signed through the 2015 season, so there is time to work this out. But many believe there is a difference of opinion between what Harbaugh thinks he is worth and what the 49ers think he is worth. The 49ers and Harbaugh reportedly have negotiated fruitlessly.

Extending Harbaugh would be a feel-good in a relationship that could use one. There were rumors of discord between Harbaugh and general manager Trent Baalke and rumors of the 49ers considering trading Harbaugh to the Browns. So it would be beneficial for all if the 49ers affirmed they are solidly behind their coach by giving him new paper and making him one of football’s highest paid coaches, which he deserves to be.

Biggest Offseason Question: Can the Niners keep it together on the O-line?

The offensive line has formed the identity of the 49ers, but the line has some issues heading into camp. Guard Alex Boone is unhappy with his contract and was a minicamp holdout, along with tight end Vernon Davis. Some suspect Boone will not report for training camp without a new deal, which could lead to a trade. Potential replacements for Boone are 2012 fourth-round pick Joe Looney and former Dolphin Jonathan Martin, a player whom Harbaugh hopes to revitalize now that he is free from the shadow of Richie Incognito.

The team will have a new starter at center, as Jonathan Goodwin was not re-signed. The 49ers may miss Goodwin’s veteran presence, but third-round rookie Marcus Martin has more physical tools. If Marcus Martin isn’t ready, Dan Kilgore will have to be.

Two of the blocking stalwarts, Mike Iupati and Anthony Davis, are returning from injuries. Iupati suffered a broken ankle in the NFC Championship Game; Davis had offseason shoulder surgery.

Bold Prediction

The 49ers will be happy they signed Kaepernick to a six year, $126 million deal

Kaepernick is not one of the most precise passers in the game, but he is a quarterback who moves the chains, makes big plays and wins. Though he is unconventional, Kaepernick creates problems for defenses. He remains a work in progress, but with Harbaugh, Greg Roman, Geep Chryst and newly added QB guru George Whitfield coaching him, and with some new skill-position players to work with, Kaepernick should take another step this season.

Kaepernick said he thinks the 49ers offense is capable of much more this year. Harbaugh said he expects a breakout season from Kaepernick. If that happens, it’s difficult to envision the 49ers as anything less than one of football’s best teams.
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2014 all star game
Jonathan Bernhardt
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If The All-Star Game Really Mattered

If you were actually trying to win the game, how would that change who makes the All-Star rosters? Sorry, Carlos Gonzalez. Not this year. (Getty Images)

Voting has closed for July 15’s MLB All-Star Game, and we’ll learn the identity of the rosters during a presentation show at 7 p.m. Eastern on Sunday night. That’s all well and good, and always leads to a lot of of fun and controversy, but MLB has been telling us that this is a game that matters for more than a few years. It determines home-field advantage for the World Series now, despite the fact that it’s just a trumped-up exhibition match.

The question I put to you is: what if it weren’t? What if All-Star Game rosters were put together not by fans engaging in brand-synergizing ballot box stuffing but were instead constructed with an eye toward winning a game, or even a playoff-length series, against the other league’s All-Star team?

Well, Derek Jeter wouldn’t be starting at shortstop, for one thing, regardless of whether or not he were planning on retiring. He wouldn’t even make the squad. The rosters below were built using the ballot divisions of traditional All-Star voting — outfielders are selected without specific regard to their position, for instance, the NL will not have a set DH, and every team will have a representative — but were built as if they were legal 25-man active rosters instead of the 34-man rosters made to accommodate the substitutional eccentricities of the actual All-Star Game. After all, at least in theory, these games do actually count.

American League

Catcher

Salvador Perez, Kansas City Royals

Perez is the best healthy hitting catcher in the American League and a more experienced backstop than the clear second choice, Yan Gomes, who makes the team as Perez’s backup. Seattle’s Mike Zunino would be the injury replacement were either man to bow out, and then the AL would get somewhat desperate, because Matt Wieters is injured, Brian McCann has been terrible, and Jason Castro, on the team last year, has been worse. The other 2013 All-Star catcher, Joe Mauer, is no longer a catcher, and is on the disabled list anyway.

First Base

Miguel Cabrera, Detroit Tigers

A position of strength for both leagues. Cabrera gets the start over Toronto’s Edwin Encarnacion due to actually being a nearly neutral defender at first, while Encarnacion is best kept in a DH role. Brandon Moss is the injury replacement.

Second Base

Jose Altuve, Houston Astros

Altuve was one of the hottest players in June at one of baseball’s lightest-hitting positions, though the fact that this team is observing the roster requirement of one representative from every league club has something to do with his selection over injury replacement Ian Kinsler.

Shortstop

Alexei Ramirez, Chicago White Sox

Ramirez is neither the best hitting nor best defending shortstop in the AL, but he is top three in both categories. He gets the start over Kansas City’s Alcides Escobar because he has a bit more pop in his bat while still being a good defender at his position.

Third Base

Josh Donaldson, Oakland Athletics

Donaldson is an MVP candidate in his own right and the best third baseman in the AL. He starts over Kyle Seager of the Mariners because he has a more proven bat and better defense at the hot corner; Seager is his injury replacement.
Outfield

LF — Michael Brantley, Cleveland Indians
CF — Mike Trout, Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
RF — Jose Bautista, Toronto Blue Jays

Brantley has had an amazing start to the 2014 season at the plate; he is clearly the best left fielder in 2014 so far at the dish. It’s tempting to name Alex Gordon of the Royals to the team in his place, but the AL can sacrifice some defense in left for the offense Brantley provides. Gordon is his injury replacement.

In center, Trout is the best player in baseball and would be the starter in either league at whatever position he played. Baltimore’s Adam Jones makes the team as the fourth outfielder.

It has not been a particularly good season for right fielders in the AL except for Jose Bautista, making him another easy choice. It helps that he’s also the best hitter among all outfielders except for Trout. Houston’s George Springer is his injury replacement.

Designated Hitter

Victor Martinez, Detroit Tigers

Martinez’ comeback from a brutal first half of 2012 has been remarkable, and he’s the easy choice here, even despite how well Baltimore’s Nelson Cruz has been hitting. If Martinez’ recent rib injuries pop back up, Cruz would be the injury replacement.

Bench

Yan Gomes, C, Cleveland Indians
Alcides Escobar, SS, Kansas City Royals
Edwin Encarnacion, 1B/DH, Toronto Blue Jays
Adam Jones, OF, Baltimore Orioles

Jones makes the team over Gordon because he can play anywhere in the outfield if needed; similarly, Escobar will enter the game at shortstop and shift Ramirez over to second base in any situation that calls for defensive replacements.

Starting Pitchers

Felix Hernandez, SP, Seattle Mariners
Masahiro Tanaka, SP, New York Yankees
Yu Darvish, SP, Texas Rangers
Chris Sale, SP, Chicago White Sox
Phil Hughes, SP, Minnesota Twins

Hernandez is the starter for the All-Star Game. Tanaka, Darvish and Sale’s seasons all speak for themselves; the top four names here are all candidates for the Cy Young Award. Mark Buehrle and Jon Lester are their injury replacements. Phil Hughes makes the team because it requires a representative from the Twins.

Bullpen

Danny Duffy, SP, Kansas City Royals
Dellin Betances, RP, New York Yankees
Wade Davis, RP, Kansas City Royals
Jake McGee, RP, Tampa Bay Rays
Sean Doolittle, RP, Oakland Athletics
Greg Holland, RP, Kansas City Royals
Koji Uehara, CL, Boston Red Sox

Though Duffy is a starter, on this roster he will be used out of the pen as a lefty specialist. Davis, McGee and Betances throw middle relief, while Holland and Doolittle are setup men for Uehara. Both the Yankees’ David Robertson and Seattle’s Fernando Rodney were under consideration to make the team as well. Uehara will serve as the closer, but if not him, it could easily have been Doolittle. A key trait they share which Rodney and Robertson do not is a pronounced aversion to walking batters.
National League

Catcher

Jonathan Lucroy, Milwaukee Brewers

A less difficult choice than in the AL, though were either Lucroy or Yadier Molina in the other league they would be starting over Perez. Lucroy is having an MVP candidate season at the plate and is very good behind it, if not as outstandingly so as Molina.

First Base

Paul Goldschmidt, Arizona Diamondbacks

Goldschmidt, the team’s lone Diamondback representative, makes the club on merit despite how poorly Arizona’s season is going. Chicago’s Anthony Rizzo makes the team’s bench, so the Braves’ Freddie Freeman is Goldschmidt’s injury replacement.

Second Base

Chase Utley, Philadelphia Phillies

Utley is in the same boat as Goldschmidt: he is the only Phillie on the roster, but he is not on the roster because it needs a Phillie. Daniel Murphy is hitting a bit better (and is Utley’s injury replacement), but Utley is still the best defensive 2B in the National League.

Because his bat is so impressive, it’s easy to forget that Troy Tulowitzki is an outstanding defensive shortstop as well. (Getty)

Shortstop

Troy Tulowitzki, Colorado Rockies

The only way Tulowitzki wouldn’t be here is if Mike Trout was a National League shortstop, and even then it’d be very, very close. His injury replacement is Jhonny Peralta of the Cardinals.

Third Base

Todd Frazier, Cincinnati Reds

Real All-Star voting has just about every good-to-great third baseman except Frazier still in the hunt for this position, but while David Wright will make the team to represent the Mets, Frazier has been the best 3B in the National League this year and accordingly will be the starter.

Outfield

LF — Yasiel Puig, Los Angeles Dodgers
CF — Carlos Gomez, Milwaukee Brewers
RF — Giancarlo Stanton, Miami Marlins

Thanks to the fact that all the outfielders are selected together on the All-Star Ballot — and this process is observing those ballot restrictions — Yasiel Puig will play left, which is the only way to fit him into a packed NL outfield. His injury replacement is Bryce Harper of the Nationals, now that he’s healthy again.

The choice between Carlos Gomez and Andrew McCutchen for the starting center field job is a tough one, with the runner-up guaranteed a spot on the National League bench. In the end, while McCutchen can field his position and more than makes up for any defensive shortcomings with his bat, Gomez is a plus defender in addition to being a monster at the plate, and that gets him the nod.

Stanton is the only player in the league that could move Puig out of right field and into left; not only is his bat superlative, but he has an all-around defensive package that Puig can’t match, regardless of how good the Dodger sensation’s arm is. His injury replacement is Puig moving over from left; were both to bow out, Jason Heyward would play in right opposite Bryce Harper.

Bench

Yadier Molina, C, St. Louis Cardinals
Anthony Rizzo, 1B, Chicago Cubs
Dee Gordon, 2B, Los Angeles Dodgers
David Wright, 3B, New York Mets
Andrew McCutchen, CF, Pittsburgh Pirates

Though technically a bench player for the NL, Rizzo plays in any situation requiring a DH. Dee Gordon is on the roster because he can play both middle infield positions, at least in theory, and Molina due to his experience and excellence both this year and in past seasons. McCutchen is all the outfield bench the team needs.

Starting Pitchers

Clayton Kershaw, SP, Los Angeles Dodgers
Johnny Cueto, SP, Cincinnati Reds
Adam Wainwright, SP, St. Louis Cardinals
Stephen Strasburg, SP, Washington Nationals
Jake Arrieta, SP, Chicago Cubs

Kershaw gets the start. Cueto and Wainwright’s presence is self-explanatory, given that they’re the best two starters in the league who have been healthy all season. Strasburg makes the list both with raw talent and to represent the Nationals. Arrieta makes the list because he’s been one of the most valuable pitchers in baseball in 2014 despite only recently returning from the DL.

Bullpen

Jean Machi, RP, San Francisco Giants
Pat Neshek, RP, St. Louis Cardinals
Tony Watson, RP, Pittsburgh Pirates
Tyler Clippard, RP, Washington Nationals
Joaquin Benoit, RP, San Diego Padres
Aroldis Chapman, RP, Cincinnati Reds
Craig Kimbrel, CL, Atlanta Braves

Machi makes the team as the representative from the Giants, but also because he’s allowed only five earned runs this year. Neshek is having an exceptional season so far getting out hitters on both sides of the plate. Those two, Watson and Clippard throw middle relief, while Benoit and Chapman are the setup men.The choice between Kimbrel and Chapman is a difficult one, but in the end Kimbrel’s got slightly better command over the course of his career and keeps the ball in the yard slightly more often.

* * *

So in the end, who wins? In a single game, I’m picking whoever’s got Clayton Kershaw toeing the rubber, but in a best-of-five series, I think the American League team assembled here has the slightly better pitching and defense to persevere.

 

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