Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Lions are locked in, for better or worse

By Blake Froling

A sudden realization hit us during Monday's episode of the SportsPen.

Sam Ali from ABC 10 and I were talking about the Lions, and how the expectation was that they need to make the playoffs and win a game. Then, Sam asked me, "Who gets fired if they don't? Does anyone?"

Well, surely someone has to be blamed, right? Someone has to go if they fall short of expectations once again. But who?

The Lions basically locked themselves into this core of coaches and players for the foreseeable future. Head coach Jim Caldwell signed a multi-year extension before the season started (but didn't tell anyone), so firing him would cost the team millions of dollars.

Quarterback Matthew Stafford surely isn't going anywhere after signing the richest contract in NFL history this offseason. He's also the best quarterback in the history of the franchise, so don't even think about it.

Can you blame offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter? He's been handcuffed by one of the league's worst rushing attacks all season. Firing Cooter would accomplish nothing when he can basically work with only half the playbook. Just weeks ago he was the darling of the NFL and some even whispered his name among those poised to become head coaches in the very near future. Now those same people blame his playcalling for the Lions' first-half woes.

What about defensive coordinator Teryl Austin? Nope. His defense has been decimated with injuries to the defensive line and linebackers, so the blame shouldn't fall on the scheme. Austin's name perennially comes up during hiring season in the NFL, and is again linked to another head coaching job, this time with Arizona State. No one blames Austin.

General manager Bob Quinn is only in his second season with the team, far too short a time-frame to judge his performance.

Quinn's strategy from day one has been to make a series of smaller moves to steadily improve the overall roster instead of overhauling it overnight. He has signed three higher-tier players in wide receiver Marvin Jones and offensive linemen TJ Lang and Rick Wagner, but overall his signings have been fairly conservative.

His drafting has been graded highly thus far. According to my non-scientific opinion, 10 out of 19 of Quinn's draft picks have made some kind of impact, and two more could in the future but have been held back by injuries.

Quinn has not been blamed for much of anything in his tenure, but one glaring error that falls squarely on his shoulders is the running game. Anyone who has watched the Lions the last four years knew the run game needed to be improved. Sign someone. Draft someone. Do something! Quinn did nothing, and now the Lions have the 30th-ranked rushing offense. Eight rookie running backs are averaging more yards per carry than Ameer Abdullah. This is the year of the rookie running back and the Lions missed out, because of Bob Quinn.

Is this a fireable offense? Not yet. The overall depth of the roster has improved and the drafting has improved. For now, Quinn is safe.

One thing to keep in mind as well is that the season isn't even over yet, even though this sounds more like a postmortem on another failure. Detroit has five games remaining, four of them against opponents with a losing record. At 6-5, they'd need to go at least 4-1 to have a shot at making the playoffs. That's doable. But that's only part of the equation.

The Lions also need to win a playoff game. No more "wait until next year" anymore. I said it at the beginning of the season and I still say it now, if the Lions don't win a playoff game, the season is a failure. Plain and simple.

All of this leads me back to my original question. What happens if the Lions fall short of those expectations, as Sam Ali expects them to? Who is gone? Stafford? Caldwell? Cooter? Austin? Quinn?

Nothing of significance will happen. No one of importance will be fired or let go.

They might fire some assistants and not re-sign a couple guys, but for the most part everything will remain the same. This means either the Lions finally have some stability in their organization, or it's just the Same Old Lions. Only time, and results, will tell us which.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Pistons season preview

By Blake Froling

We all know where the Pistons stand in the NBA hierarchy: not good enough to win a title, not bad enough to get a top-3 pick in the draft. Most likely, the Pistons won't inch any closer to either of those extremes this season. That doesn't mean you still can't enjoy the race for the playoffs, even if that means a likely first-round exit. Here are three questions that will be answered in the coming months.

Who will finish more games? Ish Smith or Reggie Jackson

On paper, Jackson is a better point guard than Smith. But knee problems and lack of chemistry made the Pistons worse off when Jackson was on the floor than when Smith ran the point. For the Pistons to be legitimate contenders, they need a fully healthy Jackson to be able to run the pick-and-roll with Andre Drummond and to be that fourth quarter "closer," something that is not Smith's specialty. That would be in a perfect world. We don't live in a perfect world.

Smith has been the best performer on the team during the preseason and said he worked with Tim Hardaway during the offseason to improve his game. He couldn't shoot to save his life last year (47.7 percent true shooting percentage, 362nd in the NBA), but maybe that offseason work will improve his numbers. Players seemed to enjoy being on the floor with Ish more than Reggie last year, and the tension in the locker room was well documented. 

I think Ish will take that next step and become a better option at the point than Jackson. This will allow Stan Van Gundy to rest Jackson during the second night of a back-to-back or to restrict his minutes and keep him fresh. That all adds up to Smith starting more games than Jackson. However, the really intriguing thing to look for is who finishes more games. That's when you find out who SVG trusts in clutch situations. I think that will be Smith.

Check out Blake's interview with Detroit News Pistons writer Rod Beard here.

Can Avery Bradley stay healthy?

The most important offseason addition for the Pistons was clearly Avery Bradley. He's essentially the same player as Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who signed with the Lakers in free agency, only better. Bradley is widely regarded as one of the top perimeter defenders in the NBA and posted career highs in points, rebounds and assists last season with Boston. The only problem was that he missed 27 games with a strained Achilles. 

Bradley has never played all 82 games in a season and has missed a combined 109 games in the last six seasons. With another injury-prone guard in Jackson, the Pistons need Bradley to be the constant in the backcourt; Someone who can play with both Jackson and Smith but more importantly, just play a whole season. KCP only missed an average of 3.25 games per season in four years, and the Pistons need Bradley to be that consistent as well. 

In Detroit, Bradley has an opportunity to have a career year. He can now be the centerpiece of the offense for the first time ever. He's been used to playing with Isaiah Thomas, a ball-dominant guard, and before him the Big Three of Ray Allen, Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce. In Detroit, he can be leaned on as the go-to scorer in clutch situations, and I expect him to thrive. The only question will be if he can stay on the floor.   

Will Andre Drummond become elite?

Haters will say this is impossible. They'll be silenced when LeBron picks Andre to be on his team in the new All-Star draft. They'll be silenced when he shoots over 50 percent from the free throw line. I can't wait to silence the haters.

If you can't tell, I'm all aboard the Drummond bandwagon. 

He's already an elite rebounder -- he led the NBA in rebounding percentage last season. He's got all the physical tools to become the most dominant post presence in the NBA. Andre's also only 24 years old, still not even in his prime. His performance seemed to dip last season, in large part due to the absence of his pick-and-roll buddy Jackson. A lack of  decent shooters around him also limited his open looks. And we can't ignore the often-horrifying attempts at hook shots and other inefficient post moves too far away from the rim. 

This year, Drummond came into camp 30 pounds lighter and with two working nostrils. This should allow him to play with higher energy and intensity, something that was perhaps his second-biggest downfall last year. This should also help with his effort level on defense, which made him a liability last season. A man with his physical gifts and raw athleticism should never be a liability on defense.

Drummond's main downfall, obviously, was his horrendous free throw percentage, which was the worst in the NBA. In the preseason, Drummond made me and other Pistons fans giddy with anticipation as he sank 80 percent of his shots from the line. Maybe his mechanics changed, maybe his mindset changed. Whatever it was, he might have found the fix. Might.

This 80 percent mark is definitely not sustainable in any way. If Drummond can stay above 50 percent, or even approach the 60 mark, he'll be able to stay on the floor in late-game situations for the first time in his career. Then we'll really see what kind of player Drummond is, and what he can become.


Record: 41-41

Playoffs: 7 seed, loss in first round to the Boston Celtics

All-Stars: Andre Drummond

Drummond free throw percentage: 55 percent

NBA Finals: Cleveland vs. Golden State

NBA Champion: Golden State in six games 

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Lions need 4th quarter mentality all game

Blake Froling

I hope everyone knew it wasn't sustainable.

Matthew Stafford's late-game heroics always entertain us, and eight times last season actually brought the Lions a win. But it was never going to be sustainable. We're seeing that already this year through six games. It's called regression to the mean.

If the Lions are going to be serious contenders, they need to win games from start to finish, and do it consistently. This Sunday's game against New Orleans is the latest example of a team that digs itself a huge hole, then climbs back when the opposing defenses lay off the gas pedal. While Stafford and company should be applauded for not giving up in those situations, it's concerning that they have to do this every single week.

In the Lions' three losses this season, they've been outscored 95-57 in the first three quarters, then outscored their opponents 31-14 in the fourth quarter. Maybe last year those are wins, but those last-second comebacks that seemed to fall in Detroit's favor are now stalling out, and the Lions are 3-3.

If this year is going to be different, if the Lions are going to win the NFC North for the first time since 1993, then they need to show up in the first three quarters. Being a "good fourth quarter team" isn't going to take this team farther than another first-round exit in the playoffs. If that's ok with you, then sit back and watch Stafford chuck the ball around when he's down 21 and see what happens.

If you look at the consistently good teams, the Super Bowl winning teams, they have occasional fourth quarter comebacks, but they don't live off them like the Lions do. Until that changes, they'll never be a Super Bowl contender.

Don't get me wrong, cutting a 35-point deficit to seven like the Lions did Sunday against the Saints is impressive, but good teams wouldn't have been down 35 points in the first place. Regardless of how healthy Stafford really is, that should never happen.

So what's the problem in the first three quarters? Good question.

Right now, the Lions have a paper-thin offensive line that limits the plays offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter can call. Stafford usually doesn't have enough time in the pocket to let deep plays develop. The calls get conservative, the offense stagnates, and the Lions fall behind. Stafford gets beat up in the process.

In the fourth quarter, when opposing teams have the lead on the Lions, the defenses get more conservative and bring less pressure in hopes of avoiding the big play. This allows Stafford more time to throw, the offense gets aggressive, and points start racking up. If the Lions can have a fourth quarter mentality all game, maybe they can be a Super Bowl contender. Maybe.

Part of this will (hopefully) be fixed when left tackle Taylor Decker recovers from his shoulder injury, because Greg Robinson is atrocious. Plain and simple. Getting rookie wide receiver Kenny Golladay back should also open things up for Stafford.

Don't bury the Lions just yet, even if it sounds like I just did. The bye week comes at a perfect time. Stafford has the week off to recover from his high ankle sprain and whatever else he's dealing with, the offensive line can heal up, Golladay can come back, and maybe things can go back to how they looked earlier in the season.

The NFC North is wiiiiiiide open with the possible season-ending injury to the Packers' Aaron Rodgers. The four quarterbacks in the division are now Brett Hundley, Case Keenum, Mitchell Trubisky, and Matthew Stafford. Advantage Lions.

Maybe Jim Caldwell and Jim Bob Cooter will spend the next two weeks trying to dissect the first half woes better than I can, and stop relying on the comebacks to sustain their season. Because they won't. And the Lions will only break your heart once again if things don't change.

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.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Ailing Tigers can't catch a break

By Blake Froling

Detroit second baseman Ian Kinsler finally returned to the lineup after a nagging hamstring injury kept him out for five games. Right fielder JD Martinez is expected to make his season debut Friday after he suffered a  Lisfranc sprain in his right foot during spring training. Brad Ausmus was supposed to have his first fully healthy lineup of the season, something he almost never had last year. Then one swing ruined it.

Right fielder Jim Adduci hurt his oblique during batting practice before Thursday's game against the Los Angeles Angels. He's now on the disabled list. With Martinez returning to the lineup, Adduci was expected to move to center field, where he played for two years in the Korean League. Tigers fans were supposed to finally get a glimpse at what this team's potential could be in perhaps the last season before a rebuild. That glimpse will have to wait now.

Coming into Friday's game with the Angels, Detroit is 17-16. Nicholas Castellanos is the only player to appear in every game so far, and we're not even halfway through May. This year was supposed to be different. The Tigers would be finally healthy and show their true potential, give it one last run at a World Series before general manager Al Avila breaks up the band. But they're having the exact same issues as last season, so why should we expect a different result?

On the surface, losing a right fielder who's a career minor leaguer shouldn't be a big blow to the Tigers. But Adduci has been a revelation for the team, posting an impressive .318/.338/.500 line in 13 games since being called up from triple-A Toledo. The combination of Tyler Collins, Mikie Mahtook and JaCoby Jones, three guys who were supposed to lock down center and right field for the time being, have hit a paltry .202. Jones was so bad at the plate that the Tigers decided to keep him in Toledo after he came off the disabled list.

In all, five starters have hit the disabled list at some point this season, make it six now with Adduci. It's actually a miracle that Detroit is above .500 at this point with all these injuries and weird lineups Ausmus has had to use, and that should give Tigers fans hope. If they can hang around while they deal with these injuries, they could pounce when (if) they get healthy. 

Knock on wood, the pitching staff has been largely unscathed by the injury bug so far. If the starting rotation starts to get banged up, Detroit doesn't have much of a backup plan. We could be faced with a situation where *gasp* Anibal Sanchez  has to make a spot start, and you can just chalk that up for a loss right now. Things may seem depressing now, but always remember, it could be worse. Anibal Sanchez could be your starting pitcher.  

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Lions will pay Stafford. Get over it

By Blake Froling

Matthew Stafford might be the most polarizing athlete in Detroit sports. Many people love the gunslinger, many say he can't win big games and want him gone. But one thing is clear: he will become an even richer man sometime soon, thanks to the Lions.

Stafford is entering the final season of his contract and is looking for an extension, which is currently in the preliminary stages of negotiation. The thought is that Stafford wants to become the highest-paid quarterback in the NFL at about $25 million per year. If the Lions are smart, and I think they're getting smarter, they'll give it to him.

Carlos Monarrez, who covers the Lions for the Detroit Free Press, recently wrote that signing Stafford to a big contract would cripple the team. I think just the opposite, that not re-signing Stafford would cripple the Lions.

Yes, $25 million is a ton of money. Is Stafford the best quarterback in the NFL? No. Maybe not even top-five in some people's minds. But because of how the market works, he can demand to be paid the highest salary in the league. Stafford has given the Lions unprecedented stability at the quarterback position, something they haven't really had since the days of Bobby Layne. Why would you want to throw that away over a few million dollars?

Should the Lions try to get him to sign for less? Of course, that's all part of the negotiating, and the best-case scenario would be if he took less than $25 million. But don't expect Stafford to take a hometown discount. He shouldn't have to, and it's not selfish of him. It's business. Deal with it.

Do you remember the last Lions quarterback to start three playoff games like Stafford has? Erik Kramer in the early 90's. How many quarterbacks have started for the Lions since? 17. Do you really want to go back to that? I didn't think so.

Look at all the bad teams in the league and they all have one thing in common: poor quarterback play. Look at the disaster that is the Cleveland Browns, and you'll be counting your lucky stars that you have Stafford as your quarterback. 

The Houston Texans were so desperate to find a quarterback that they grossly overpaid an unproven Brock Osweiler, only to beg the Browns to take him away a year later.

The Chicago Bears gave Mike Glennon, who had attempted 11 passes in the last two seasons, a three-year, $45 million contract because they were so desperate to get rid of Jay Cutler. 

In his article, Monarrez said "as the winning quarterbacks of four of the past five Super Bowls have proved, teams can be successful with the 18th overall pick, a third-rounder and even a sixth-rounder playing quarterback." 

Do you trust the Lions to find a diamond in the rough at quarterback? That worked really well with Jon Kitna, Jeff Garcia, Shaun Hill, Dan Orlovsky and Daunte Culpepper, didn't it? The Lions were literally the worst team in NFL history with three of those guys under center. Do you really want to go back to that just because Stafford can't beat Green Bay, or hasn't won a playoff game yet? I don't. 

Stafford isn't perfect. His decision-making can be questionable at times. Injuries were a concern at the beginning of his career. But he is still the best quarterback in franchise history, which doesn't say much.

Don't overthink this. Just re-sign Stafford and move on. 

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Pistons, Palace disrespected on national television

Yersterday's NBA matchup between the Detroit Pistons and the Washington Wizards was meaningless for most of the country. The Pistons are out of playoff contention and have been unloading their bench in recent games. The Wizards already locked up their playoff spot and their best player, John Wall, didn't even dress for the contest. Yet the game was still on TNT, and was treated like any other regular season game.

But it wasn't any other regular season game for Pistons fans. Last night was the last game at The Palace of Auburn Hills, as the team will be moving downtown to Little Caesars Arena next season. The night was filled with memories, reunions and tributes, former fan favorites returning to the stadium they used to call home, but you wouldn't know it by watching on tv.

TNT did a horrible job of showing these ceremonies or even discussing the building much at all. It's a travesty that this was a national game, and the local fans got ripped off. Kevin Harlan is one of my favorite basketball broadcasters, but he could only do so much. At one point, he mentioned how the city of Detroit was on the banks of Lake Michigan.


Chris Webber, a Detroit native, was even more disappointing. If anyone on the broadcast could have told stories about the team or the building on its last night, it should have been Webber. But he stumbled along the broadcast with Harlan. It was awkward, disappointing and frustrating all at the same time.

I get it, most of the national audience doesn't really care about the Palace, so focusing heavily on it would have probably alienated many of the viewers. That's why Fox Sports Detroit, and more specifically legendary Pistons broadcaster George Blaha, should have been on the call.

Blaha and FSD have done a tremendous job covering the "Best of Seven" series that the Pistons have been running this season, with halftime ceremonies during games against teams that have a historical connection to the Pistons. Blaha has been the host of all these ceremonies and made them a treat to watch for Pistons fans at home. Not to mention his knowledge of the history of the organization and his passion for the team is second to none. He and Greg Kelser would have made the game so much more fun and so much more meaningful to Pistons fans.

What were fans treated to last night? A 20-second montage of former players walking onto the court and bland interviews of Isiah Thomas and Chauncey Billups. TNT mailed it in and disrespected the Palace, the Pistons and their fans. Just look at the tremendous job FSD did for Joe Louis Arena's last game. Extensive pregame coverage, interviews with former players and that incredible postgame ceremony that fans could watch in its entirety, not a 20-second montage.

Did the studio crew of Charles Barkley, Kenny Smith and Shaq (who might remember a certain five-game sweep) trade stories of their trips to the Palace, or memorable games they had against the Pistons? Nope. They instead focused on this:

As a Pistons fan, this was supposed to be one of the most meaningful games of the season, regardless of the win-loss record of the team. I had been looking forward to watching this game ever since the Pistons announced they were headed to Detroit. But TNT took it away, trampled all over it and left Barkley to laugh at us.

Thanks a lot, TNT.

Monday, April 3, 2017

Detroit Tigers season preview: playoffs?

By Blake Froling

Today is the day.

Opening Day.


Is there reason for optimism for these Tigers? Of course there is. This is virtually the same roster that came within a hair of the wild card last year. But their core superstars of Victor Martinez, Miguel Cabrera, Justin Verlander and Ian Kinsler are an average age of 35 and will be making a combined $85 million, or nearly half of the Tigers' payroll. What does that mean? This could be the last chance this group has to win a World Series before Al Avila breaks up the party. It could be too late already.

I talked about the pitching in the last blog, now I'll talk about everything else.

Budding superstars?

Nicholas (not Nick anymore!) Castellanos is poised to have the best season of his career. He was pegged early on as a potential superstar, destined to be the next great Tiger ever since he was drafted. Now is the time for him to take on that role.

Castellanos posted a .285/.331/.885 split last year (batting average, on base percentage, on base plus slugging percentage, or OPS) with 18 home runs, all of which were career-highs. Castellanos missed 52 games last year however, mostly due to a fluke injury when he was hit by a pitch right on his hand, breaking it. He missed just 20 games the previous two seasons combined, so I expect him to return to that.

Look for Castellanos to be an All-Star. He's got the power, now he's hitting for average and he'll play a full season this year. If his fielding can improve (he was -11 in defensive runs saved according to FanGraphs), then he can become a bonafide superstar within a year or two.

JD Martinez is also right on the cusp between good and great, but injuries will be the difference. He's already on the disabled list, an ominous start to the season considering his injuries last season. The Tigers desperately need him to stay healthy this year, considering the sad state of center field. If he can match or surpass his 2015 numbers (38 HR, 102 RBI) then the rest of the lineup will benefit. But his health will remain a concern until he proves that it's not.

Will the real Justin Upton please stand up?
Which Justin Upton will show up this year? The one who struck out at an astonishing rate and got benched, or the one who caught fire and belted 22 home runs in the final 68 games? I have no idea. Past performance would indicate the latter, but past performance really doesn't mean much, does it?

Final prognosis
Everyone on the team realizes that the playoff window is rapidly closing. I think that desperation will drive the Tigers to make the playoffs. No selling at the trade deadline, but they won't be loading up either. They'll be healthier than last season, which is pretty easy to do. I see a wild card appearance in their future, but not much else. After this season, we could be in for a few lean years as Avila rebuilds the roster and the farm system. Enjoy this last ride

Record: 87-75
Playoffs:Wild Card
All-Stars: Nicholas Castellanos, Ian Kinsler, Miguel Cabrera, Michael Fulmer

World Series: Cleveland Indians vs. Chicago Cubs - Indians win in 6 games

Friday, March 31, 2017

Detroit Tigers season preview: Pitching

By Blake Froling

The unofficial national holiday of the spring, Opening Day, is nearly upon us. The Detroit Tigers are coming off a season in which they missed the playoffs by 2.5 games and had a chance to get in on the last day. An abysmal performance against the lowly Atlanta Braves crushed those hopes.

The offseason was not one that Tigers fans or general manager Al Avila might have envisioned. Center fielder Cameron Maybin, coming off his best season in his career, was traded away for a minor league pitcher, and that was it. No additions to the ailing bullpen, no slashing of payroll, no hoarding of prospects. The market forced the Tigers to stay in win-now mode with an aging roster that might not have another run in it. Or does it? It's time to look in my crystal ball and make some predictions for the upcoming Tigers season, starting with the pitching.

I have a complete lack of faith in Jordan Zimmermann. He is supposed to be the new ace of the staff, he says he's feeling better after a neck injury derailed his 2016 season, but I'm still not sold. If he can be at least decent (mid-3 ERA, 150-plus innings), it would go a long way towards helping the Tigers' playoff chances. But until I actually see it, I won't believe it will happen.

Listen: Tigers radio announcer Dan Dickerson talks Tigers on the SportsPen

Justin Verlander had a bounce back season last year, maybe good enough to win the Cy Young, but he's 34 years old with a ton of mileage on his arm. 16-9, 3.04 ERA, 254 strikeouts, vintage Verlander. But are those numbers sustainable? He has adapted his pitching style in his later years, no longer able to simply blow hitters away with a high-90's fastball. He's not to the point of "crafty veteran" yet, but he's on his way. He'll be good, but there will be some regression.

The back end of the rotation features three players all age 26 or younger in Michael Fulmer, Daniel Norris and Matt Boyd. Fulmer is the gem of the group, winning AL Rookie of the Year last season with a 3.06 ERA. Is he due for a sophomore slump? Yes and no. I don't see him sustaining those numbers this season, mainly because there is a year's worth of film on him for other teams to study. He won't be taking anyone by surprise. But he'll still be Detroit's second-best pitcher behind Verlander.

Boyd and Norris should both make nice jumps from last season. Norris made 14 appearances last year without giving up more than three earned runs in any of them, which is remarkable. But he only made one start from April until the middle of June and missed most of July with injuries. With the shaky and expensive Anibal Sanchez as your sixth starter and long reliever, the Tigers need more innings out of Norris.

Boyd earned the fifth spot in the rotation over Sanchez with a solid spring. But if the young lefty falters, manager Brad Ausmus might be forced to give Anibal another shot. That's something that Tigers fans fear. I have confidence in Boyd to improve on his ERA of 4.53 from last season. He could be an x-factor in this rotation.

Detroit parted ways with mediocre-at-best Mike Pelfrey late in the spring, but will still be on the hook for his $8 million salary, along with Mark Lowe's $5 million. Money well spent, huh?

For whatever reason, the Tigers did not make any upgrades to their bullpen this offseason, although you could say releasing the awful Lowe is a plus.

The bullpen's ERA was 24th in the MLB at 4.22. Most would say that means you need to make some upgrades. Al Avila apparently is not one of those people. K-Rod is getting old and can be a roller coaster every time he steps on the mound. Look for Bruce Rondon to possibly usurp Rodriguez as the closer by August at the latest. He had the best season of his young career last season with a sub-3 ERA and a strikeout rate of 11.15 per nine innings.

The Wilsons will be a key component of the Tigers' bullpen.

Justin Wilson had a shaky second half last season  while Alex Wilson was probably the best arm in the 'pen all year, with a 2.96 ERA in 73 innings of work. If the rotation falters and the bullpen is called on more and more, those two will be called on to hold the Tigers together in the middle to late innings.

Prospect Joe Jiminez could be called up to the majors at some point this season if one of the relievers gets hurt, or if his play warrants it. Jiminez rose quickly through the Tigers' minor league system last season, going from class-A Lakeland all the way to triple-A Toledo, all while owning a 1.51 ERA. I can't wait for this guy to get to the Show.

As for the rest, just close your eyes and cross your fingers.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Surviving my first winter in the UP with basketball

By Blake Froling

I was warned many times about taking a job in the Upper Peninsula, especially since I had never even been there before.

"Do you know how cold it is up there?"

"They get so much snow up there!"

"Summer lasts about a month up there! What are you going to do?"

People tried to scare me about coming to the UP, but obviously those people have never spent much time here. The picture they painted was bleak: Marquette would be a one-stoplight town, they might have to fly in groceries until the ice roads form, you'll have to use sled dogs to get to work. Surprisingly, none of that turned out to be true.

Even once I got to the UP, people tried to scare me.

"Oh, just wait until the real snow comes."

"This is a piece of cake compared to what I'm used to."

It turned out to be a piece of cake for me, too. Never needed sled dogs to get to work, never got stuck in a snowdrift, didn't hit any deer and I didn't get frostbite. I actually enjoyed my first winter up here in the UP. Most of that was due to basketball, of course.

I didn't really know what to expect in terms of the level of play in high school basketball in the UP. There is a general bias downstate that UP basketball players can't compete with players below the bridge, they were all slow and nonathletic and overall the games would be boring. Those people obviously haven't heard of that unbeaten North Central team. They obviously haven't seen Carson Wonders or Trent Bell play. Those sentiments couldn't be further from the truth.

The intensity level of every game far surpassed most of the high school basketball I watched back home. My first game behind the mic turned out to be one of the most exciting: an overtime thriller between Westwood and Gwinn, complete with a buzzer-beater, plenty of lead changes and bruising inside play. It only took that one game to get me excited for UP basketball.

The excitement in the stands at every game and in the cities around high school basketball was something I wasn't used to. Just about every team has a commercial radio station covering their games, unheard of in metro Detroit. If there was a close game, it made the front page of the sports section the next day, unheard of in metro Detroit. High school games dominated the sports segments of news shows, something that also took me by surprise. People talked about games all over the UP, told me about all these great players I had to go see from all over the UP. All of this made my job a whole lot easier and much more enjoyable.

Every coach I've met so far was genuinely excited about their team and it showed in every interview. Westwood fans fondly remember Kurt Corcoran's emotional post-game speech after his Patriots beat undefeated Norway on the road (they still won't let him forget that he cried on the radio). You don't see that kind of passion and genuine love for the game in many places, but I definitely saw it here. The Gwinn girls started the season 0-12, but you'd never know it listening to coach Ben Olsen talk about his players every week on the Coaches Show. He gave one of the most heartfelt, honest and inspiring senior night speeches I could remember.

That kind of passion is what makes me excited to cover all these basketball games and to call the UP my new home. You can try to scare me all you want about how brutal next winter will be, but it's not going to work. Those hours in the gym will keep me warm through whatever impending blizzard you predict will hit Marquette.