Clippers-Nuggets Preview

Neither the Los Angeles Clippers nor Denver Nuggets had it easy in the first round of the NBA Playoffs.  Both teams were tasked with stopping the ascension of a superstar to levels previously unseen.  Luka Doncic was magical against the Clippers, highlighted by his buzzer-beater in Game 4, but Dallas just couldn’t muster enough firepower once Kristaps Porzingis went down and Los Angeles’ defense locked in.  Donovan Mitchell was equally spectacular against Denver, putting up two 50 point performances over the course of seven games, a feat that had only been done by two others in NBA history (Allen Iverson and Michael Jordan).

But the hindrance of the series for Utah wasn’t something they could totally control.  It was who they couldn’t stop.

Ironically, Denver’s win against Utah was due to the fact that their own superstar ascended to a level even higher than Mitchell did for the Jazz.  Jamal Murray matched Mitchell’s feat of scoring 50 twice in the same series, and subsequently became the fourth player ever to do so.  Murray somehow hit tougher shots than Mitchell did, and overcame his team’s pitiful defense at the same time.

Murray has a new challenge this round.  While the point guard breached his playoff consistency block against Utah, it remains to be seen how much he can truly make up for it with his shot making and overall impact.  This series will be the tell-all.

The Clippers aren’t Utah.  Sure, the Jazz were better offensively than projected against Denver, but ultimately it was Mitchell, a surprising outburst from Rudy Gobert, and the heat check of Jordan Clarkson that powered them.  That’s it.

Kawhi Leonard isn’t any of those guys, and the Nuggets defense against the Jazz doesn’t offer us any hope that they can even begin to slow him down.  Jerami Grant offers the length and athleticism, but that’s just one body.  Immediately slapping Gary Harris – who is just getting back into form – on him could backfire.  Michael Porter Jr. is a stiff.  Paul Millsap has looked the 35 years old that he is.

There’s also Paul George, who offered a lot of reasons to not worry about him in the first round, but rediscovered himself in Game 5 by putting up 35 points on 12-18 shooting. 

Whether George is a factor or not, the Leonard puzzle still isn’t solved, and threats still exist aside from him.  If Grant is put on Leonard, Harris probably gets the Lou Williams assignment late in games.  That would seem to give George open shots and and allow Montrezl Harrell to work against the slower, bigger Nikola Jokic.  Harrell’s role has decreased though, and LA has opted to play Marcus Morris late at times instead.  Additionally, Ivica Zubac is probably a better matchup against the Joker than Harrell thanks to his size.  Jokic’s defense isn’t fantastic, but the downside is that Zubac’s offense could hurt late in games.  That’s a chess match the Clippers will have to play.  Harrell could get bodied, but Zubac could get hunted.

If Denver’s defense can’t hold, it’s up to Murray.  The Clippers overall swath of wings should be able to put the Nuggets star back in his place a bit, but he’s hot to a degree that’s hard to quantify right now.  It’s close to where Damian Lillard was during the seeding games – no defense is going to truly shut him down.

Putting your best wing on a fiery guard has a complicated success rate.  The Rockets just swallowed Oklahoma City’s three guard lineup in multiple games during their seven game series, most notably late in Game 7.  But Murray cooked the long, athletic Royce O’Neal throughout Denver’s series with Utah, as the Jazz found him to be their best option after Murray ripped through Mitchell.

Leonard is different, obviously.  He’s the best perimeter defender of all-time.  Paul George is still a good defender despite his poor play.  The Clippers have a plethora of lineups they can play that can switch every matchup, giving Murray different looks.  

This series will be a test of how high Murray can truly elevate.  Is he now one of the 15 best players in the league?  Top 20?  Top 30?  We’ll know where he falls after this series.  How long he drags it on will give us our answer, because it seems as if Michael Porter Jr won’t be able to contribute in the way he could.  That would be a nice boost, and at least put to work the Clippers best weapons to work.

Murray is going to have at least one game where he makes nothing else matter.  The Clippers had plenty of laspes in defensive effort against Dallas, and that will surely occur again.  How much Murray benefits from that determines the length of this series.

Prediction: Clippers in 6

2020 MLB Trade Deadline Recap

No matter what their record turned out to be, the San Diego Padres couldn’t lose this season.  

If they missed the playoffs or had a record that was worse than expected, an easy pivot into next season – where their young pitchers and positions players had another year under their belts and the debut of highly touted arms – awaited.  San Diego was just going to be a year away, and that was just fine.

Or, the Padres could have emerged as one of the most fun, and perhaps even best teams in baseball.  Their youth was going to shine, and the pitching would have been performing just well enough or started to blossom as well.  If that was the case, the Padres would emerge as potentially contenders in this wonky, 60 game season where virtually anything seems possible.

The Padres entered Friday, Aug. 28 with a record of 20-14, four games behind the Dodgers in the NL West and sat as the NL’s fourth seed in the new playoff format.  It was basically their best case scenario.  San Diego had their stars shining – Fernando Tatis Jr. is in the mix for the NL MVP as a 21-year-old.  Manny Machado has been playing up to the $300 million contract they handed to him before the 2019 season.  Wil Myers and Eric Hosmer have had good years, which seems to be a 50-50 proposition most seasons.  Jake Cronenworth has came out of nowhere and produced 1.6 WAR in 30 games.

San Diego’s success has came without the pitching producing like we expected.  Chris Paddack – figured to be the Padres’ ace – has struggled with a 4.43 ERA in eight starts (An ERA+ of 99 is encouraging, though).  Garrett Richards hasn’t been good on the flyer contract San Diego gave him.  Zach Davies and Dinelson Lamet – somehow – have been excellent, but they’ve been the only reliable starters in the rotation.

All of this resulted in an opportunity seen by GM AJ Preller, who’s been no stranger to massive, win-now overhauls.  Preller likely figured that if the team is this good with this many holes, then filling those holes could result in something the rest of MLB doesn’t want to see.

That’s what San Diego did at the trade deadline, making five trades in the span of Friday to Monday’s 1 PM AZ time deadline.  The Padres landed Mike Clevinger from the Indians, Jason Castro from the Angels, Mitch Moreland from the Red Sox, Austin Nola from the Mariners and Trevor Rosenthal from the Royals in a redux reminiscent of the 2014 Winter Meetings.

It’s worth considering whether makeovers and win-now moves are really worth it this season.  As the deadline passes, the Miami Marlins and Colorado Rockies are currently in the playoffs.  The Detroit Tigers, who aren’t actually trying to win games, are .500.  The Arizona Diamondbacks look like the worst team in baseball.  The Padres could actually win the World Series.

After battling with it in the season preview, sixty games just doesn’t seem like it’s going to be legitimate, which begs the question of whether the World Series winners are going to be – or should be – treated as true winners.  If the Padres do win this World Series, are we always going to associate it with an asterisk because the Padres won?  What if the Dodgers win it?  Does that change things?

We’ll probably not know the answer until the time comes – how it feels in the moment will determine the true answer.  That’s what scary about some of the deals San Diego made.  Why are you mortgaging your future to win a potentially faux title that won’t carry the legacy of other World Series?  In addition, you can’t even make the postseason ticket revenue since the series will likely be played in the Rangers new stadium in Texas.

That’s what makes some of San Diego’s moves this deadline puzzling.  Moves like giving up young outfielder Edward Olivares – who was expected to play a large role for the Friars – for Trevor Rosenthal are risky.  Sure, Olivares had struggled so far this year, but moving on from someone you had high hopes for who’s had only 13 bad games in his career feels abrupt.  The same case can be made for Hudson Potts and Jeisson Rosario, who were the 16th and 19th best prospects in the Padres system, respectively, according to  Flipping both of them for another bat in Mitch Moreland seems unnecessary when Josh Naylor and Ty France were both on the roster and producing (Naylor was obviously moved to Cleveland for Clevinger).

France shouldn’t have gone anywhere.  San Diego’s trade with Seattle for Austin Nola, Austin Adams and Dan Altavilla was completely unnecessary and an overreaction to the team’s catching woes.  The addition of simply Adams and Altavilla would have been welcomed, considering San Diego’s need for bullpen help and the duo’s likely much lower cost.  But the acquisition of Nola isn’t justified by Francisco Mejia’s health and struggles this year – Mejia hit well last season, and at catcher you’re not necessarily expecting big time production anyways.

The trade for Jason Castro was fine.  It didn’t cost anything, and he’s likely an upgrade over Austin Hedges, who’s dove off a cliff.  But a duo of Castro and Mejia at catcher would have worked and still featured an upgrade.

In addition to just not needing him, Nola cost a lot.  His inclusion in the deal added Taylor Trammell – a super intriguing center-field prospect who could be Jackie Bradley Jr. with a bat – and Luis Torrens, who at catcher had a tough path in front of him regardless but could have been flipped to Cleveland instead of Naylor, perhaps.

Trammell is the hard sell.  This is a guy who just last summer was the centerpiece of a deal that included Trevor Bauer, and with Wil Myers’ inconsistency, Trammell could’ve had a path to starting soon.  He also gives Seattle a loaded crop of outfield prospects, which features Kyle Lewis (who’s not really a prospect anymore), Jarred Kelenic and Julio Rodriguez.  The Mariners are operating with an embarrassment of riches thanks to San Diego.

On top of that, the Padres added Andres Munoz to the deal, who throws a million miles per hour.  San Diego has unreal pitching depth among its prospects, but when you combine the amount of talent they gave up, the return of Nola and the arms just feels underwhelming.

The Padres partially made up for it, though.  The Clevinger deal was an absolute steal, thanks to Cleveland’s supposed ask of mostly major-league talent.  While Naylor probably would have been nice to have instead of surrendering more prospects for Moreland, he’s arguably the biggest asset in the deal.  Cal Quantrill has had a great year, and is still young at 25, but likely wasn’t going to fit into the Padres long-term plan with pitchers like Mackenzie Gore, Adrian Morejon and Luis Patino on the way.  Those three, along with Paddack, make up 4/5s of the rotation, and Clevinger is the final piece (Though obviously not the fifth starter).  The Quantrill case can also be made for Joey Cantillo, who’s basically the Cooper Manning of the Padres farm system with the talent ahead of him.  Gabriel Arias – who’s a nice get for Cleveland – was forever blocked by Tatis Jr. at shortstop, and Hedges was basically a throw-in considering San Diego didn’t need him anymore.

It’s just a home run deal.  Clevinger has sneakily been one of the best pitchers in baseball the past few years, and provides insurance incase one of the prospects doesn’t pan out (which, by the way, is almost a guarantee to happen).  He’s seasoned at almost 30 years old, which is something the Padres likely don’t have enough of in their clubhouse.  

For Cleveland, it’s not a disaster, but it feels like more could have been done.  They’re operating at a starting pitching surplus, but that also didn’t mean they had to trade their best one in exchange nothing all that special.  For them, they get an offensive boost they desperately needed in Naylor and their likely Francisco Lindor replacement in Arias.  Cantillo and Quantrill, though probably less talented than those currently in the rotation, only add to the starter snag.

It’s interesting that Clevinger was the pitcher who was moved.  While he, theoretically, should have brought back the most value, Zach Plesac seemed more likely to be moved given his less-than ideal handling of him and Clevinger breaking team rules by going out to dinner.  Perhaps other teams saw that video and were just out.  

Moving Clevinger was fine, but for this haul it, some deeper digging into the Padres prospect pool would have been nice.

Now for some quick hits on the other moves throughout the MLB up to the deadline:

  • The Diamondbacks feel like the worst team in baseball due to the fact that they 1) suck and 2) acted like it Monday, which was the right thing to do.
  • At the same time, the fire-sale they enacted came back incredibly empty-handed.  The Starling Marte deal with Pittsburgh looks like an absolute disaster now, with Caleb Smith being the centerpiece of the deal that flipped Marte to Miami.  Smith is 28 and has never been good in his major league career as a starter, and a bout with COVID-19 has limited him to just one game this season.  Smith is likely a fourth starter at best, though a bullpen role might actually be most intriguing.  Either way, him being the top asset in exchange for a player that saw last year’s first round pick Brennan Malone and highly touted shortstop prospect Liover Peguero get shipped for makes it a give away.  Humberto Mejia is a fine inclusion, but the D-backs shipped out top-end talent for a premium outfielder in Marte, and basically flipped him for nothing when he was their best asset as sellers.
  • Their second best asset moved was Archie Bradley, who’s actually redeemed himself quite nicely in 2020 after struggling mightily at times last year.  Trading anybody from the bullpen feels like a death sentence, but Bradley figured to net some actual return.  That didn’t happen.
  • Arizona received Josh VanMeter, a Reds utility man who didn’t have anywhere to play in Cincinnati and doesn’t have anywhere to do so as well with the Diamondbacks.  Arizona already has Andy Young, Seth Beer and Josh Rojas all as viable utility men, and Beer and Rojas aren’t even getting at-bats yet in a year where anyone and everyone should be getting them considering where the offense is at.  They also got an outfield prospect in Stuart Fairchild, who’s already 24, has never made it past Double A and was even playing with the Reds Arizona Fall League team in 2019.  That’s a breeding ground for high school draft picks, typically.
  • The D-backs best moves of the day probably consisted of dumping off long-time pitchers who have ran their course.  Andrew Chafin was sent to the Cubs, who are either giving back cash or a prospect depending on a trip to the postseason.  Robbie Ray was traded to the Blue Jays, who completed a rotation overhaul we’ll address later.
  • The Ray trade was legitimately Arizona’s best move of the day.  To get any value out of him is a win.  Ray’s been a complete mess this year, thanks in part to a combination of weight loss and the windup changes he’s made to account for that.  The control was as bad as ever, and it got to the point where every start he made was almost a guaranteed loss for the team.  
  • Arizona squeezed Travis Bergen out of the Blue Jays, who, while nothing special, is at least a new arm the D-backs can throw into the bullpen and take for a test run.  If he’s bad, then they got off of Ray.  If he’s anything else, the trade is a massive win.
  • Enough angry D-backs thoughts.
  • The Rockies had an interesting slew of moves, getting Mychal Givens at a steep price from Baltimore and Kevin Pillar for practically nothing from Boston.
  • The Givens trade was unbelievable for Baltimore – getting two highly ranked prospects from an aggressive team is always a good idea.  It was a steep price for the Rockies, but it gives them a solid boost for what is looking to be a playoff run.
  • Pillar doesn’t offer much in terms of a bat, but his power can be plentiful in spurts, and for the price of basically nothing, putting him in Coors is worth a shot.
  • The Red Sox did well there too – getting international bonus money in a selling move is great business.  They’ll actually use it, unlike Colorado.
  • The Cubs adding two more bullpen arms – who have both sucked – in Josh Osich and Chafin feels unnecessary when they’ve used 22 pitchers this year, but when you get them for nothing and are that desperate, well, who’s counting?
  • With Albert Almora struggling, Cameron Maybin could slide in decently as a fourth outfielder.
  • The Marlins side of the Marte deal is maddening to write about.  He gives Miami only one outfield spot to worry about with Corey Dickerson in one of the corners.  He’s arguably the best batter on their team from a talent standpoint, and they were a game under .5o0 without him.
  • As covered with Arizona, Miami doesn’t really lose anything either with this move.
  • The Jonathan Villar trade was surprising, but reports have him being a bit of a nuisance for them, which doesn’t bode well for the middle infielder considering Toronto is his fifth team.
  • Miami’s somehow going to get away with this, because Eddy Alvarez and Isan Diaz can hold down the fort.
  • As for Toronto, the concern about Bo Bichette’s injury is clearly real, though Villar’s bat has produced an OPS+ of 90 this year.
  • Toronto’s pitching makeover is not what you’d expect to see from a team four games over .500 and currently in the playoffs.  Granted, what they did has a high ceiling, and the risk was quite low.  
  • They got Taijuan Walker – who pitched well in his debut with the Blue Jays Saturday – for a PTBNL or cash from Seattle.  He’s had a nice rebound year, and that is seemingly not going to be interrupted in Toronto.
  • They also added Ross Stripling from the Dodgers, in a move that was a bit surprising considering it came in almost an hour after the deadline.  Stripling’s valuable because he can start or be a bullpen option, and he’ll likely pitch well in both roles.  2020 has been a down year for the versatile righty, which might’ve contributed to the two PTBNL’s the Dodgers shipped him away for, but regardless, it’ll be hard for Toronto not to lose that deal.
  • Ray is anyone’s guess.  A change of scenery will be nice for him, but there’s clearly been a change in mechanics and confidence with the long-time Diamondback.  Toronto likely needs to hit the reset button with him, and counting on someone like that in rotation right away is scary.
  • The Dodgers side of the Stripling deal is worth addressing.  It moves Tony Gonsolin into the rotation, who Los Angeles probably feels they have a higher ceiling with in that spot than Stripling, which is fair.  He was a candidate to be in that mix at the beginning of the season.
  • Texas didn’t move off of Lance Lynn, who reportedly had a sky-high price, but they did move Mike Minor to Oakland.  Minor and Lynn have essentially switched production this season compared to last, so Texas having to sell low on Minor was disappointing.  Him helping the A’s rotation seems unlikely, but this is a low risk, change of scenery move by Oakland.
  • The Mets just can’t help themselves.  They found themselves buying again either though they’re 15-20 and have a bullpen that seems irredeemable.  General Manager Brodie Van Wagenen needs the car keys taken away.
  • There was literally no need for Robinson Chirinos or Todd Frazier.  While it didn’t cost them much, how are either going to get at-bats?  The Mets are fine at catcher and third base, and don’t have DH at-bats left.
  • The Miguel Castro trade arguably made sense given their bullpen struggles, but they had to actually part with something substantial in order to make it happen, which seems like something New York shouldn’t be doing.
  • Van Wagenen probably knows he’s getting fired, so he likely just didn’t care this deadline.
  • Going back to last week, the Rays essentially have essentially flipped Matthew Liberatore for two PTBNL, which ties back to their winter deal with the Cardinals.  That doesn’t seem great.  The Jose Martinez trade to the Cubs was pitched as a way to get more at-bats for Randy Arozarena, who came with Martinez in exchange for Liberatore, but finding those at-bat still seems a bit tough in the Rays lineup.  What a trade for Chicago, and the aggregate for the Rays looks bleak.
  • The A’s giving up on Franklin Barreto so early was surprising in their move for Tommy LaStella.  That was aggressiveness among the likes of San Diego there.  Sure, Barretto had struggled to hit in his career so far, but the A’s marketed this year as his to emerge, and those struggles at the plate have came in only 95 career games.  Talk about not ever getting a chance.
  • Barreto is a fantastic buy low move for the Angels.  They nailed that one.