Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Lions love, Packers loathe week 2 primetime

By Blake Froling

Two primetime games, two very different results.

It's not really fair to compare the Lions' win with the Packers' loss. Atlanta is far superior to New York right now and let's be honest, the Falcons simply own the Packers. The Giants were dealing with a depleted offensive line that couldn't block me and receivers who couldn't catch the ball. The Falcons looked nearly flawless against the Packers in the first half. Two completely different situations. Let's look at them one at a time.

Lions beat Giants 24-10
It definitely wasn't a pretty game to watch. Matthew Stafford did just enough to put the Lions ahead with touchdown passes to Marvin Jones and Eric Ebron, but threw for just 122 yards. 122 yards??? Did the Lions run the triple option the whole game or something?

Despite his low passing yards, Stafford looked impressive. He continues to surprise people with his scrambling ability, something he was dreadful at during the first few seasons of his career. Stafford also seemed more in control at the line of scrimmage than in recent years, and Jon Gruden made sure to point it out several times on the ESPN broadcast. He engineered the win more with the intangibles than the stats last night.

Running back Ameer Abdullah showed improvement running the ball against the Giants after a lackluster performance against the Cardinals. He looked like the elusive back we saw in his rookie year and ripped off a couple big runs, finishing with 86 yards on 17 carries. Believe it or not, that’s the most rushing yards for a Lions running back since Joique Bell had 91 yards against the Bears on Thanksgiving 2014. There's your sad Lions stat of the day.

The Lions have shown now that they are committed to the run, whether it's successful or not, and they’ll need more performances like that out of Abdullah if they're going to keep defenses honest.

On defense, Ziggy Ansah and company exploited the Giants’ paper thin offensive line and sacked Eli Manning five times. I almost felt bad for Manning a couple times after seeing the sad attempts his offensive line made to protect him. Let's just pretend I didn't pick the Giants to win their division.

The front four for Detroit, which had been maligned as the weak spot of the team going into the season, has gotten to the quarterback for six sacks and allowed just 107 rushing yards through two games. Ansah has already surpassed his sack total from a year ago, when he was dealing with a high ankle sprain. I, along with many other fans, was worried about how Ansah would play early in the season after being M.I.A. for most of training camp and the preseason. Through two games, it's safe to say he's back.

The secondary looked extremely impressive for most of the night, minus one breakdown in coverage in the red zone that led to a touchdown. Giants receivers had no space to work, Eli constantly ran out of time to throw and Odell Beckham Jr was held in check.

That secondary will be tested even more on Sunday when the high octane Atlanta Falcons come to town. They effortlessly dropped 34 points on the Packers and have a stable of talented receivers to spread out the Lions defense. Add in two great running backs with Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman, and this will be the toughest game on the Lions schedule this season. Speaking of those Falcons...

Falcons beat Packers 34-23
I bet if you Google who owns the Packers, instead of seeing thousands of Green Bay residents, you'd get Matt Ryan. At least that's what it should say. Ryan surgically picked apart the Packers' revamped secondary early in the game. I had flashbacks to the NFC Championship game last year where he basically did the exact same thing. I certainly didn't mind.

The absence of Jordy Nelson completely derailed this powerful Packers offense. It's clear that despite having a bevvy of talented receivers, Aaron Rodgers depends on Nelson the most, and without him, things go wrong. It also doesn't help when you have two starting offensive linemen out, and your best defensive tackle, and two members of the secondary.

Injuries cost the Packers a real shot at a Super Bowl last season, and they're already threatening to do the same this year. We still don't know the severity of these injuries yet, so don't jump to conclusions, but if this becomes a trend, they'll have to wait another year to get over the hump.

Maybe this is me reading into things too much, but if the road to the Super Bowl runs through Atlanta again, does Green Bay even have a chance? Right now, I'd say no. Whatever adjustments Dom Capers made from the NFC Championship game to Sunday night clearly didn't work. For all the talk the young secondary gets and how great the "nitro" defense is, will it ever be good enough to beat these Falcons? I have serious doubts.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Week 2 Mid Pen Poll

By Blake Froling

After the hotly debated debut of the Mid Pen Preseason Poll, we're back for more! Here are the results of the week two Mid Pen Poll, as voted on by Ryan Stieg (Mining Journal), Sam Ali (ABC 10), Jake Durant (Local 3), Seth Wells (TV 6) and Adam Niemi (Iron Mountain Daily News).

1. Gladstone (1-0) - 7 first-place votes - 35 points - last week: 1

Last week: 42-0 win @ Gwinn
This week: Friday vs. Manistique (0-1)

The Braves made easy work of Gwinn in their first game, winning 42-0 on the road. Darin Johnson proved to be the explosive force many expected him to be and the Modeltowners simply had no answer. The newcomer to the Mid Pen looks to be perched atop the polls until someone can find a way to slow down Johnson. Expect them to slice and dice Manistique's defense this Friday. 

2. Ishpeming (1-0) - 28 points - last week: 4

Last week: 34-7 win vs. Iron Mountain 
This week: Friday @ Norway (1-0)

The Hematites made the biggest jump of all the teams in the poll. The voters also received the most criticism for ranking Ishpeming at No. 4 last week. After dispatching Iron Mountain 34-7, confidence is high around Jeff Olson's squad. Now they face an extremely tough test this week when they travel to Norway to face the former Mid Pen Knights. Norway crushed Northern Elite (WI) 34-7 in week 1 and they should be a contender right away in the Mid Eastern Conference.

3. Negaunee (0-1) - 24 points - last week: 2

Last week: 51-13 loss @ Boyne City
This week: Thursday vs. Calumet (1-0)

The Miners stumbled out of the gate in week 1 against a tough Boyne City team that made the playoffs last year. They hope young quarterback Jason Waterman can learn from that loss, and in a hurry with a short week. They'll be playing in what could be the game of the week against rival Calumet, who knocked them out of the playoffs each of the last two years. Oddly enough, Negaunee has beaten the Copper Kings five times in a row in the regular season, so this should make for some entertaining football. 

4. Westwood (1-0) - 21 points - last week: 5

Last week: 22-6 win vs. Munising
This week: Thursday @ Houghton (0-1)

The Patriots' ground game was strong against the Mustangs, with quarterback Nathan Beckman and running back Ashton Bergman each eclipsing the 100-yard mark. They controlled time of possession against Munising, which will be even more important against Houghton, who will only suit up 14 players for the game. Many coaches and media members said Westwood could be the sleeper team of the Mid Pen. 

5. Gwinn (0-1) - 15 points - last week: 3

Last week: 42-0 loss vs. Gladstone
This week: Thursday vs. Iron Mountain

Things did not go well for the Modeltowner defense last week, but coach Dion Brown said all the mistakes were correctable and nothing surprised him in the game. He also had to play without his top cornerback Marlin Motrin, who was a all-conference first-team defensive back last season. They play against a more physical Iron Mountain that's short on numbers, like Gwinn, and short on the explosive skill players they had to contain against Gladstone. 

6. Iron Mountain (0-1) - 12 points - last week: 6

Last week: 34-7 loss @ Ishpeming
This week: Thursday @ Gwinn

The Mountaineers hung tough with Ishpeming in the first half, only trailing 12-7 for most of the third quarter before the floodgates opened. Iron Mountain fumbled on three straight possessions in the second half to doom any chance at a comeback. If they play like they did in the first half and eliminate the turnovers, they will give Gwinn a dogfight of a game. 

7. Manistique (0-1) - 5 points - last week: 7

Last week: 49-8 loss vs. Newberry
This week: Friday @ Gladstone

The Emeralds are in a rebuilding phase under new/old coach Todd Kangas and they're getting away from the spread offense they ran a year ago. Patience is key with Manistique. 

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Young Patriots look to learn from tough season

By Blake Froling


Last season: 2-7, 1-5 in Mid Pen


Playoffs: None


Only six players in the Mid Pen Conference who earned all-conference honors last season are returning this year. Westwood has two of them.


While seemingly every team in the conference suffered heavy attrition from graduation, Westwood was barely affected. The Patriots started six sophomores, four juniors and only one senior for the most part last season, according to head coach Scott Syrjala. The playing time for the underclassmen was invaluable, even though they certainly took their lumps -- a 35-0 loss to Chetek-Weyerhaeuser to open the season, a 30-0 drubbing from Ishpeming, a 34-0 loss to Gwinn and a 28-0 loss to Negaunee to end the season, just to name a few.


Syrjala said he can see the experience is already showing in the preseason.
“I can tell just through our camp here a little bit our kids are moving faster, they're knowing things, they’re a little bit smarter, so yeah it has helped,” said Syrjala after a joint practice with Bark River-Harris in July.


Syrjala also noticed a greater number of players working out in the offseason than in years past, coming in to lift weights as a team year-round. Instead of getting discouraged by a losing season, they dedicated themselves to getting better in the winter and summer months.


“They see how strong they have to be and how fast they have to be,” said Syrjala, “and if it wasn't a good group of kids, they wouldn't have responded in the offseason the way they have.”

Listen to Scott Syrjala's full interview here

One of the players leading the charge in the offseason was Nathan Beckman, who started at quarterback as a sophomore and also earned all-conference honorable mention at defensive back. Being such a young starter last season, he struggled at times, but Syrjala has been impressed with his dedication in the offseason.


“This is a kid that would go in for basketball practice and then lift afterwards,” said Syrjala. “He would ask to come in on Saturdays and Sundays and I’d have to tell him, ‘Becks you have to take a break, you have to rest your body a bit.’”


Beckman completed 45 percent of his passes and threw for 610 yards, ranking third in the conference. He also tossed eight touchdowns and only three interceptions. Syrjala said Beckman isn’t making some of the simple mistakes he did as a sophomore and is ready to take the next step.


“The game is starting to slow down for him, and he’s starting to make his reads and go through his progression,” said Syrjala. “His footwork is getting better, he worked on his footwork in the offseason, and I expect big things out of him this year.”


Westwood also returns three of its top four receivers from last season, which should boost an offense that was stagnant at times. Junior Jacob Adriano caught 11 passes for 144 yards and three touchdowns. Speedy senior Ethan Burke averaged an incredible 24.9 yards per reception and found the end zone three times.


The defense is just as young as the offense as well. Burke, Beckman and Adriano had an interception each, and junior defensive end Sam Gilles earned all-conference honorable mention last season. But their inexperience showed as they allowed fewer than 28 points in a game only twice, their two wins against L’Anse and Manistique.

In a year when the Mid Pen Conference might be perceived as being “down” due to the exodus of talented seniors from last season, it could turn into the perfect landscape for the young but more seasoned Patriots to shoot up the standings. Syrjala doesn't have any specific expectations for his team -- he'd prefer to focus on the little things.

"It would be foolish to say 'well, we can only win six games this year.' You're almost setting yourself up there," said Syrjala. "Let's be a solid defensive team, know our blocks, know our assignments, make sure we're in position to make plays. You do those things, we start little, we keep continuing to build on it, then hopefully the wins will come. And once those wins start coming and if you worry about the little things and break the game down for the kids, then maybe bigger things will be on the horizon."

Thursday, July 13, 2017

How the Quintana trade affects Tigers

By Blake Froling

The Chicago Cubs made the first splash of the MLB trade season, nabbing pitcher Jose Quintana from the Chicago White Sox in exchange for OF Eloy Jiménez, RHP Dylan Cease, 1B Matt Rose and INF Bryant Flete. This trade has ramifications for the Detroit Tigers as well, both positive and negative.

The negative of this trade is that the Tigers lose out on a possible trade partner. The Cubs had been reportedly interested in the likes of Justin Verlander, Michael Fulmer and Daniel Norris, but talks never got too serious. Now Chicago filled its pitching need. The Cubs were seen as a potentially perfect trade partner for the Tigers to dump Verlander because they aren't afraid to spend big money and they have a deep farm system. Now that Chicago is off the table, the likelihood that Verlander gets dealt just plummeted.

In the case of Fulmer, the Cubs had plenty of top prospects to give up in order to land him, as seen with the Quintana trade. This might seem like a blow to the Tigers, but there is a positive way to look at this. Fulmer is younger, cheaper and having a better season than Quintana, which means his trade value should be higher. If the White Sox were able to get this impressive of a haul for Quintana, the return for Fulmer should be even greater, if the Tigers decide to deal him.

I was against the idea of trading Fulmer initially, but seeing the Quintana deal might change my mind. Jiménez is the No. 5 prospect in the MLB, according to Baseball America, and Cease is No. 83. The White Sox are writing the book on how to do a quick and effective rebuild, and the Tigers should be taking notes. The Sox now have seven of the top 100 prospects, according to Baseball America, and only one of them was originally signed by the organization. The rest were acquired via trades like this one and the Chris Sale deal with the Boston Red Sox.

The argument against trading Fulmer, which I used, was that it would be trading the future for an uncertain future. But if the haul included at least two top 100 prospects plus maybe a major leaguer and another lower-tier prospect, that would be a huge boost for Detroit. It would replenish their farm system and signal that the Tigers are finally committed to an actual rebuild.

Other names that could be thrown into trade conversations would be closer Justin Wilson, outfielders JD Martinez and Justin Upton, and catcher Alex Avila. But by far the most valuable commodity in Detroit's organization is Michael Fulmer, and the Tigers absolutely have to listen to any and all offers for the young ace.

The only caveat is that general manager Al Avila must make sure he doesn't take a lesser deal for Fulmer just for the sake of making a deal. After striking out last offseason, he might be more desperate to pull the trigger. If he doesn't get the same or better return for Fulmer as the Sox got for Quintana, it would be a complete failure and could set the rebuild back drastically. What Avila does in the coming weeks could determine his future and the future of the organization.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Keeping tabs on Tigers prospects

By Blake Froling

The Detroit Tigers' season is effectively over.

They have no hope of making the playoffs and a rebuild is looming. Things may look depressing in the present, so let's take a look at the future. Most Tigers fans in the past never cared who was in the Tigers' farm system because they were rarely needed. Why develop the next Miguel Cabrera when you can just trade for him?

Those days are over, and the homegrown talent will shape the future of the organization, for better or worse. Let's take a look at some of Detroit's top prospects, according to MLB Pipeline.

No. 1: Matt Manning, RHP, Connecticut Tigers, single-A short season)

Manning was the Tigers’ 9th overall pick in the first round of the 2016 draft. He’s thrown just 10.1 innings so far, giving up seven hits and two earned runs with 15 strikeouts. He’s projected to make the MLB in 2020, so there's really not much to report yet.

No. 2: Christin Stewart, LF, double-A Erie SeaWolves
Stewart has been flexing his muscles big time. He’s hitting .282 with a team-leading 19 home runs and 60 RBIs. Those gaudy stats earned him a spot in the Eastern League All-Star game, along with OF Mike Gerber (No. 7 prospect), 3B Gabriel Quintana and LHP Jario Labourt (No. 19 prospect), who is also playing in the futures game. Stewart was the 34th pick of the 2015 draft and is projected to make the big leagues sometime next season. Look for him to possibly move to triple-A late in the season and get a shot at making the big league roster next spring training, especially if the Tigers trade JD Martinez or Justin Upton.
No. 3: Beau Burrows, RHP, single-A Lakeland Flying Tigers

Burrows has a dazzling 1.23 ERA in 11 starts. The 20-year-old was Detroit’s first-round pick in 2015 and hasn’t disappointed since. He’s also struck out 62 batters in 58.2 innings of work. MLB Pipeline projects him to make it to the big leagues by 2019 and he'll be representing the Tigers in the MLB Futures Game during All-Star Weekend in Miami.

No. 4: Tyler Alexander, LHP, double-A Erie SeaWolves

Alexander was drafted out of TCU in the second round of the 2015 draft and has ascended the Tigers' organization very quickly. He seems to have hit a bit of a rough patch this season though. Alexander is 4-6, with a 4.85 ERA in 15 starts. Opponents are hitting .311 against the southpaw through 72.1 innings. But at age 22, bumps in the road are expected. MLB Pipeline projects him to reach the majors sometime this season, though that seems way too optimistic at this point.

No. 5: Joe Jimenez, RHP, triple-A Toledo Mud Hens
Jimenez, thought to be the heir to the closer role in Detroit sometime in the future, dealt with some nagging injuries early in the season. Since returning to Toledo on June 18, the 22-year-old has made 10 appearances, throwing 7.2 innings and giving up 8 hits and 4 earned runs. That’s not too encouraging, but Jimenez hasn't given up a run in his last six appearances, so things could be turning around for one of Detroit’s brightest prospects.

Other notables in the minors
Outfielder Jim Adduci was activated from the disabled list and sent to Triple-A Toledo after recovering from an oblique strain. Since returning to the Mud Hens’ lineup on June 26, Adduci is hitting .171 with 4 RBI and 9 strikeouts. Depending on what the Tigers do at the trade deadline with JD Martinez and Upton, we could see Adduci back with the big league club soon. But before that happens, his bat needs to wake up.

LHP Matt Boyd was optioned to Toledo after struggling in the first couple months of the season for the big league club, and he seems to have regained his confidence in the minors. In six starts with the Mud Hens, Boyd is 3-1 with a 2.48 ERA and 39 strikeouts in 36.1 innings of work. Fellow southpaw Daniel Norris has been battered lately and could be demoted to the minors after the All-Star break. If that happens, look for Boyd to take his spot.

Center fielder JaCoby Jones had a cup of coffee in the MLB this season, but a shot to the head knocked him out of the lineup and back to Toledo. His abysmal hitting kept him there. Since then, Jones' bat has been a bit better. He's hitting .250 with 6 homers and 23 RBI, much better than his .137 average in 51 major league at-bats. Jones' outstanding fielding will keep him in the mix if an injury occurs to a Tigers outfielder, but his bat needs to be more consistent before he gets called up full-time.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Pistons, Red Wings prepare for very different drafts

By Blake Froling

Detroit sports fans have two drafts to pay attention to this week: the NBA Draft on Thursday and the NHL's Expansion Draft, with picks being revealed on Wednesday night. One team has the opportunity to add to its core, while the other will be losing a piece from theirs. There are opportunities for both teams in each draft.

Losing a player sounds bad on the surface, but it could turn into a positive for the Red Wings, depending on who is taken. They decided not to protect goalie Petr Mrazek, a move that surprised most experts. Mrazek is only 25, eight years younger than Jimmy Howard, and makes less money than his elder. But the Red Wings might actually be hoping Vegas takes Mrazek.

He struggled to find consistency in net last year with a mediocre 3.04 goals against average and .901 save percentage, both of which ranked 42nd among 44 qualified goalies. When Howard went down with a knee injury early in the season, he was playing some of the best hockey of his career. When he came back months later, he continued that trend. The Wings are hoping that version of Howard will return this season, and that the injury was just a fluke.

If Vegas doesn't pick Mrazek, Detroit will be in a tough situation. They'll have two spots available for three goalies and nearly $10 million tied up to one position group. Detroit would likely be forced to place either Mrazek or Jared Coreau, who made 14 appearances for the team last year, on waivers. If Vegas selects Mrazek, his $4 million cap hit is wiped from the books and Detroit can use it to try to bolster their blue line. The only problem is that there are better goalies on other teams that were exposed to the draft, so Mrazek will likely stay in Detroit.

The Red Wings are hoping for addition by subtraction. The Pistons might be doing the same.

The Pistons might look to trade the No. 12 pick in Thursday's draft, and maybe a player such as Andre Drummond or Reggie Jackson, for a veteran that can help them in the short term. With a ballooning payroll that's only going to get gaudier when the team re-signs shooting guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (yes, I guarantee they will sign him), the Pistons are almost forced to be in win-now mode. Having a top ten payroll and a lower tier team usually isn't good for job security.

Rod Beard of the Detroit News said on the SportsPen that the "win-now veteran" could be someone like a Dwayne Wade. Not necessarily Wade himself, but an older player with playoff experience that can possibly get the young Pistons over the hump and past the first round of the playoffs. Detroit is hoping a deal like this will materialize before the draft, but just like the Red Wings, I don't think the Pistons will get their wish.

The Pistons, for better or worse, will be stuck with the 12th pick. I don't think that's a bad thing at all; I'm still not sold on this "win-now veteran" idea. That didn't work so well with Josh Smith or Ben Gordon or Charlie Villanueva or Allen Iverson or Tracy McGrady or Chauncey Billups the second time (I could go on and on).They'll end up drafting some teenager who will help them in three years or so but provide limited impact in the short term. The Pistons will be better than last season (I guaranSheed it) but not much better. They're doomed to NBA purgatory unless they blow it up or they strike gold with their recent picks. Sounds a lot like the Red Wings right now...

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Tigers might be selling, but who's buying?

By Blake Froling

After an up-and-down start to the 2017 campaign, the Detroit Tigers might finally be breaking up the band.

Fox's Jon Morosi reported that if the Tigers are below .500 by the end of June, the front office would go into full sell mode. Basically, do what they tried (and failed) to do last offseason. So if the Tigers really are selling, who's buying?

I can't imagine general managers lighting up Al Avila's phone with offers for Justin Verlander. The 34-year old is owed $28 million per year through the 2019 season with a $22 million option in 2020. That's a hefty price to pay for an aging ace with a 4.87 ERA this season who can't keep the ball in the park on the road.

Teams won't be knocking down Avila's door to trade for designated hitter and noted bunt specialist Victor Martinez. He's 38 and is owed $18 million next season.Yes, he's a year removed from hitting 27 home runs and three years from his best statistical season of his career. But at his age, the decline comes fast. This season, he's going nearly twice as many at bats per home run than a year ago,. which means his power is all but gone. No power and no speed is not a great combination for a designated hitter.

What about Miguel Cabrera? Surely someone will want one of the best right-handed hitters of all-time, right? Detroit certainly won't give away the face of their franchise for pennies on the dollar. He has six years and $184 million left on his mammoth contract, with two options after that. He's also 34 and is going through a slow start this season, hitting just .266 with five home runs in 38 games.

For the Tigers to make a deal happen, they'd likely have to pay a chunk of his contract, similar to the Prince Fielder trade (they're still on the hook for $6 million per year until 2020 for that one). With the MLB gravitating towards younger, faster teams, power hitters like Cabrera might get left behind. Now, I'm not saying his career is over by any means. But in terms of his trade value, what the Tigers would want for him and what teams would give for him are likely two very different things.

Nicholas Castellanos is tanking his trade value so far. Before the season, his value was one of the highest on the team. He was destined to make an all-star team and emerge as one of the premiere young third basemen in the MLB. Since then, he's been hitting .212 with four home runs and 58 strikeouts, second on the team.

Who's first in strikeouts, you ask? That would be $132 million dollar man Justin Upton. If it weren't for an incredible September last season in which he clubbed 12 home runs and batted .307, he'd be known as one of the worst free agent signings in recent memory. He has four years and over $88 million left on his contract after this season, and last time I checked, no one wants to pay that kind of money for a player to lead your team in strikeouts.

It's not all doom and gloom for Avila. He does have an upper-tier left-handed reliever in Justin Wilson who still has another year of arbitration before hitting free agency. Right fielder JD Martinez has been one of the hottest hitters in baseball since his return from the disabled list and he's a free agent after this year. Some teams might be interested in the leather-flashing shortstop Jose Iglesias, but his .226 batting average will certainly hurt his value.

Is a rebuild a good idea for the Tigers? Absolutely. I think it should have happened this offseason. But Avila realized the market doesn't value expensive, aging stars like it used to. If the sell-off does happen, don't expect him to be able to pull any Dombrowski-esque highway robbery. The Tigers will likely get mid-level prospects and return to their pre-2006 losing ways. That's the price you pay for years of going all-in for a World Series and failing.