Phillies sign Cuban pitcher

After years of ignoring the international market, the Phillies made a big splash when the signed Cuban right-handed pitcher Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez to a deal worth up to $60 million Friday.

There are a lot of varying reports about Gonzalez, with some teams seeing him with the potential of a No. 2 starting pitcher while others see a reliever. If the latter is true, that’s a lot of money to give a guy who might pitching 60-75 innings per year. Then again, with how awful the Phillies bullpen has been the past two seasons (opposed to how good it was during their playoff run of 2007-2011) maybe it wouldn’t be such a bad thing if Gonzalez ended up in the bullpen.

It’s a lot of money for a guy who seems to be more of a mystery than anything else, but it tells others that the Phillies will finally start paying attention to international players (at least the ones who will demand top dollar to sign) and they might not be done. They’ve been linked to Luis Encarnacion, a Dominican third baseman who will probably demand at least a $1 million bonus when he’s eligible to sign when he turns 16 on Aug. 9. And, no, Gonzalez’s deal isn’t a reaction to missing out on Dodgers “phenom” Yasiel Puig, who chose the Dodgers because they offered him twice what every other team did.

As far as the Phillies are concerned, this is a move that could pay off as soon as next year. With only Cole Hamels cemented in the rotation next year, bringing in Gonzalez is smart. If Ruben Amaro Jr. finally takes off the blinders then he will make some major trades before next Wednesday, with Michael Young, Chase Utley and Carlos Ruiz at the top of the to-go list. Throw in Cliff Lee (but only if a team is willing to part with its top prosect, two more top-10 prospects and only ask for a year’s worth of salary relief from the Phillies) and dangle Kyle Kendrick, who has been up-and-down this year but could make $6-8 million in arbitration next year, and you see where Gonzalez is really needed.

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US Open third-round coverage

I’m not at Merion today, but catch up with the Pocono Record’s third-round coverage of the U.S. Open.

Phil Mickelson holds a one-shot lead over three players, looking to win his first U.S. Open after a record five runner-up finishes. Jason Day is back in contention, just three strokes behind Mickelson.

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Second-round US Open coverage

Now that the second round of the U.S. Open is finally over, take a look back at a brutal Friday that saw Phil Mickelson and Billy Horschel as the only players still under par and the struggle Chris Williams, the world’s top amateur, faced at Merion.

If you want to look back to Thursday’s play and stories on Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy then have at it.

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First-round US Open stories

In case you missed the Pocono Record’s U.S. Open coverage, Phil Mickelson finished with the best score Thursday and most fans at Merion were behind Sergio Garcia, who fought back to save his opening round after an awful start.

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Some US Open reading while you wait

Play at the U.S. Open, which was stopped at 8:36 a.m., will resume at 12:10 p.m. That means all tee times, including the 1:11 p.m. group of Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy and Adam Scott, will be pushed back 3 hours and 34 minutes. And with more severe weather expected in the afternoon it’s unlikely those guys will play at all.

While you wait for play to get back under way check out my stories on Woods and McIlroy that ran in the Wednesday and Thursday Pocono Records.

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Eagles draft thoughts

Here is the column I wrote on the Eagles draft for Friday’s paper.

While the returns from this year’s class won’t be known for a few years, the Eagles theoretically did quite well for themselves in last week’s NFL draft.

I’m not much for grading picks, since none of the players selected has even taken a snap during a mini-camp, but getting value for each selection is key and the Eagles did as well at that as any team in the league.

With six offensive linemen chosen in the first 11 picks, the Eagles secured the draft’s third best tackle in Oklahoma’s Lane Johnson at No. 4. While Johnson has only been playing tackle for two years — he was a quarterback, tight end and defensive end before growing into an O-lineman — he has as much upside as any player in the draft.

The best athlete of the linemen, Johnson will start his career with the Eagles at right tackle and eventually slide over to the left side when Jason Peters’ time in Philadelphia ends. Peters is coming off multiple Achilles tendon tears and it’s unknown if he can return to the level of play that made him the NFL’s top linemen in 2011, so having Johnson is a good fallback option should Peters struggle.

What Johnson’s selection does in the short term is allow Todd Herremans to kick inside to guard, by far his best position, and signal the end of the road for first-round bust Danny Watkins, who has been an utter failure after being a monumental reach in the 2011 draft.

The Eagles made a luxury pick in the second round by taking Stanford tight end Zach Ertz, but that’s OK because they stuck to their board instead of forcing a pick for need like they did two years ago in the second round by taking Temple safety Jaiquawn Jarrett. Ertz will team with Brent Celek to form a duo that can attack teams short (Celek) and deep (Ertz). A notch behind Notre Dame’s Tyler Eifert as the draft’s best tight end, Ertz gives the Eagles a threat down the seam they haven’t had in ages. He has a ways to go as a blocker, but in today’s NFL, blocking tight ends are a thing of the past.

Third-round pick Bennie Logan out of LSU was the only pick that didn’t sit well with me. Logan is a talented defensive tackle, but his effort at LSU ran hot and cold and guys like that raise red flags. It’s hard to count on a guy playing harder once he’s gotten paid, but in the third round it’s a bit easier to live with a player like Logan. He can spell nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga at times and also provide depth as a defensive end when the Eagles employ a three-man front.

Unlike Logan, I had zero issues with the Eagles spending a fourth-round pick on USC quarterback Matt Barkley. If he had come out as a junior Barkley might have gone in the top five, but he returned for his senior season and it was a disaster.

USC came into the season ranked No. 1, but the Trojans severely underachieved on their way to a 7-6 season. To make matters worse, Barkley hurt his shoulder, which caused him to miss the Notre Dame game and the Trojans’ bowl game. I won’t call Barkley the Eagles quarterback of the future (those aren’t usually found in the fourth round), but they only gave up a seventh-round pick to move up four spots to draft someone the Eagles ranked as one of the top 50 players in the draft.

While Barkley doesn’t have the strongest arm, he’s accurate, is a leader and was a four-year starter at USC. I don’t see him playing much this season, but Barkley adds intrigue down the road.

Fifth-round safety Earl Wolff was a three-year starter at N.C. State. He was highly productive for the Wolfpack (361 tackles and eight forced fumbles) and ended his career as an All-ACC first-team selection. Wolff has good size (5-foot-11 and 209 pounds) and speed (4.44 seconds in the 40-yard dash a the combine). So why did he fall to the fifth round?

He plays a bit reckless at times in both run support and coverage, and only had six interceptions in 51 games in college. That said, Wolff will contribute immediately on special teams and bring a physical presence in the secondary.

Defensive ends Joe Kruger and David King weren’t sexy picks, but in the seventh round both offered good value. Kruger won’t turn 21 until June 4 so there’s potential to add bulk to his 6-6, 269-pound frame and he comes from good bloodlines (he’s the brother of Paul Kruger, the former Baltimore Raven who signed a huge free-agent deal with the Cleveland Browns).

King played at a high level at Oklahoma, and while he won’t add much for the pass rush (5 ½ sacks in 43 games), he has the size (6-4, 281) to play as a 3-4 defensive end.

Another good value pick in the seventh round was Oregon State cornerback Jordan Poyer. A productive player for the Beavers (13 career interceptions), Poyer played better than he tested (4.65 in the 40 caused his draft slide).

He’ll be another special teams contributor (he was the gunner on the punt team at Oregon State) who can also help in the return game (Poyer averaged 14.1 yards per punt return and 27.8 yards per kickoff return in college).

The Eagles undrafted free agent class has potential. LSU punter Brand Wing had as much talent as any punter but also had some off-the-field issues. Stony Brook running back Miguel Maysonet ran for 1,964 yards and 21 touchdowns as a senior and defensive end Damion Square made 31 starts for Alabama.

The Eagles did great job of adding talent to their roster on paper. We should know in three years if it translated to the field.

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Sixers can blame themselves

Here is the column that I wrote for Friday’s paper.

While 16 teams compete in the NBA playoffs, the Philadelphia 76ers sit at home left to stew over how a season that started with such promise unraveled so dramatically.

It would be easy to blame all the woes of a 34-48 campaign on Andrew Bynum, and while his large absence in the middle was a big reason for the Sixers’ struggles, there are many reasons why this year was one to forget in south Philadelphia.

There were awful free-agent signings, a coach who admitted he didn’t feel like coaching any longer around Christmas and a former No. 2 overall draft pick who again failed to take big steps forward.

The biggest blunder by far was the decision to give a two-year contract to Kwame Brown, who has to be in the discussion of worst No. 1 picks in NBA draft history, with the second year a player option. One of the many horrible personnel decisions made by Michael Jordan, Brown was picked by the Washington Wizards in front of All-Stars and Olympians Tyson Chandler and Pau Gasol in 2001.

Not only did Brown’s long history of laziness make signing him a bad move by the Sixers, but there was no reason why they needed another big man with Spencer Hawes and Lavoy Allen already on the roster. What did the Sixers get out of Brown for the $2.8 million they paid him? Twenty two appearances in all, while many games he remained on the bench as “did not play, coach’s decision.” With Brown all but certain to exercise his player option, the Sixers will be forced to negotiate a buyout with him because he is not the kind of player you want around a young team.

While Nick Young was far more productive than Brown, he was another player with questionable character that Doug Collins, who had final say on personnel moves, chose to bring in. Throughout his career, Young has never had a problem scoring, averaging 11.4 points per game for three teams during a six-year career, but scoring seems to be the only thing he cares about and that reflects in his other career numbers — he has averages of 1.9 rebounds, one assist, .5 steals and .2 blocks over that time. That didn’t change in Philadelphia, but the Sixers gave him a one-year deal so he won’t be back.

That Collins chose to resign at the end of the season three years into a four-year deal that paid him $4.5 million annually wasn’t a big surprise. Collins had never lasted more than three years at any of his previous three coaching stops, but it’s quite disturbing that he told the media last week that he knew around Christmas that he no longer wanted to coach. Over the past few months he repeatedly preached about how he put his all into his job, staying up nights trying to think of better ways to do his job or get more out of his players, while chastising his players for not doing the same. After a loss to Orlando in February, Collins delivered a tirade about how his team didn’t give enough effort while he was expending all his energy. You really have to wonder how truthful he was being after he mentally quit on his team less than three months into the season.

The only comfort I can take about Evan Turner was that no player drafted after him at No. 2 overall in 2010 has become a perennial All-Star. Yes, Indiana’s Paul George has made an All-Star team and is a very good player, but he was never in the discussion at No. 2. What frustrates most fans about Turner is his questionable shot selection, an inconsistent effort and the inability to progress to being an impact player his draft position says he should be. There’s no guarantee Turner will be back either as a new coach and general manager may try to trade him in the offseason.

Now to Bynum, who draws the ire of most for this season’s failures.

Trading for him in the first place was a gamble because of his injury history and questionable work ethic. Fully understanding that when healthy Bynum is one of the top-five centers in the NBA, the price of Andre Iguodala, Nicola Vucevic, Moe Harkless and a 2015 first-round pick was way too much. Ending the relationship with Iguodala was the right move because the Sixers weren’t going to go any further with him, but Vucevic was a player who had a variety of skills, Harklass had just been chosen in the first round by the Sixers and future first-round picks are a valuable commodity. Of course, everyone knows the outcome as Bynum never played a minute thanks to two balky knees, the right one injured bowling while he was supposed to be rehabbing the left knee. Now Bynum is a free agent, after collecting more than $16 million from the 76ers, and he’s looking for a big payday. Will the Sixers try to bring him back? A two-year deal with an option for a third year might make sense, but if Bynum is looking for a max contract the Sixers have to let him go.

Where do the Sixers go from here? They’ll have more than $20 million in cap relief, but it’s hard to see free agents like Dwight Howard or Chris Paul being interested in coming to Philadelphia. What they can’t do is take another gamble or make mistakes in free agency like they did a year ago.

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Phillies not down yet

Here is the column I wrote for Friday’s paper:

Contrary to what has been said the Phillies’ season is not over.

Sure, Cole Hamels has been shelled, Roy Halladay is a shell of his former self, the team blew two four-run leads at home, the bullpen allowed 12 of their first 13 inherited runners to score and Ryan Howard is hitting a paltry .200 with 12 strikeouts in 35 at-bats.

Still, Cliff Lee has been fantastic, Chase Utley is off to a great start, the Phillies managed a ninth-inning rally againstKansas Citywhen all looked lost, they just won two of three against the Mets and they head toMiamifor a three-game series against the hapless Marlins with a chance to get over .500.

A lot will have to go right for the Phillies to return to the postseason, but with two wild cards there’s plenty of reason to believe they can do it.

Lee has been the ace of the staff through his first two starts following a year in which he won just six games despite having an ERA of 3.16 and a WHIP of 1.11. In 16 2-3 innings this year, Lee has allowed just three runs (two earned), has struck out 14 batters and walked nobody. Lee, who didn’t win his first game until July 4 last season, even threw in an RBI single in Tuesday’s 8-3 victory over the Mets.

Utley, in the final year of a seven-year $85 million contract, has 11 hits in his first 33 at-bats, but the best news is that he’s driving the ball like he used to. Both of his home runs went to center field and a .636 slugging percentage shows that his balky knees, which limited him to just 186 games over the past two seasons, are finally well enough for him to perform at a high level.

Another good sign is that Michael Young, who was acquired in the offseason fromTexas, is 12-for-32 to go with five walks for an on-base percentage of .459. While his defense has been far from spectacular, Young hasn’t been the butcher at third base many claimed he was while with the Rangers.

There are still plenty of concerns that make some believe this could be a long season in southPhiladelphiawith the biggest issue being Halladay, the two-time Cy Young winner who has been beaten to a pulp in his first two starts.

Even with the drop in velocity (down to 89-91 mph from the 93-95 he was at when he first came to the Phillies in 2010), Halladay has enough stuff to still be a top-of-the-rotation starter. The problem he’s had early in the season has been the command of his pitches, especially his curveball. Take Monday for instance: with two runners on base (one whom he hit with a 1-2 sinker) he opened with two curveballs to Mets catcher John Buck and neither was even close to being a strike. Halladay had no choice but to throw a fastball and he paid dearly when Buck smoked an 89 mph meatball into the right-field seats. Halladay, who has allowed 12 earned runs in 7 1-3 innings, is being hit at a .353 clip and has walked six, which is unheard of for guy who walked a combined 65 hitters in 484 1-3 innings in 2010-11.

There is reason to be hopeful about Halladay, who just two years ago was one of the best pitchers in all of baseball. While the fastball isn’t what it used to be, at times it still shows the downward sink Halladay needs it to have to be successful. On competitive spirit and guile alone, Halladay should still be one of the top-10 pitchers in the National League and you’d like to think he’ll figure it out sooner than later.

The biggest worry at the plate is Howard, who continues to show zero discipline. I have no idea why an opposing pitcher would even throw him a strike because Howard doesn’t seem to mind swinging at balls. While his home run Tuesday and two-hit game Wednesday are reasons for optimism, the fact that 12 of Howard’s 28 outs have been made without putting the ball in play is worrisome. I’d be fine with that number if he was also drawing walks, but Howard has just two walks, so he clearly isn’t seeing the ball well or he’s putting too much pressure on himself to hit.

The season is just nine games old and while the Phillies should be 6-3, they very well could be 1-8 if not for Lee and Kevin Frandsen’s two-out, three-run double that beat the Royals on Saturday. While there are legitimate concerns, there are also reasons for hope and optimism. I do know from firsthand knowledge, though, that those are tough words for Philly sports fans to believe in.

 

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Flyers stand pat

I meant to post this a few days ago, but I forgot (memory is the first thing to go, right? or is it hearing?).

Anyway, I wrote a column for Friday’s paper about the Flyers standing pat (except for one minor trade) at the trade deadline and it being a good idea. Here it is in all its glory (I swear its much better than the Flyers’ embarrassing second period against Winnipeg on Saturday).

Wednesday’s NHL trade deadline came and went with the Flyers making the smallest of moves that won’t drastically improve the team now or down the road and that’s OK.

General manager Paul Holmgren wisely didn’t mortgage the future for the short term to get a much-needed defenseman because there just wasn’t a game-changing one on the market. Instead the Flyers, who are five points out of the last playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, shipped out one backup goaltender for another (Michael Leighton along with a 2015 draft pick to Columbus for Steve Mason).

Nothing Holmgren could have done would have solved the woes of his defense, which has been the Flyers’ biggest issue this season. Part of that is poor performance, part is bad personnel decisions and the last part is the organization’s continued run of bad luck with concussions to franchise players.

When the Flyers traded for Chris Pronger in 2009 they thought they had shored up their defense and point on the power play for seven years (the length of the contract the Flyers gave Pronger when they acquired him from Anaheim). The move paid off immediately when Pronger helped the Flyers reach the Stanley Cup finals in 2010, but everything came crashing down at the beginning of the 2011-12 season when Pronger sustained a concussion after being hit in the eye with a stick.

Pronger, who was the Flyers’ captain for just 13 games before the concussion, hasn’t played since thanks to post-concussion symptoms and will likely never take the ice again. That puts him in an unenviable class of past Flyers captains like Eric Lindros and Keith Primeau, who both saw their careers destroyed by concussions.

With one hand tied behind his back thanks to Pronger’s hefty salary, Holmgren succeeded in adding young scoring punch as he tries to bring a Stanley Cup to Philadelphia for the first time since 1975.

He did well by getting rid of Mike Richards, Jeff Carter and their God-awful contracts prior to last season, netting Brayden Schenn, Wayne Simmonds, Jakub Voracek and a draft pick that became Sean Couturier in return. Holmgren also strengthened his blue-line by trading talented, but underachieving forward James van Riemsdyk to Toronto for defenseman Luke Schenn prior to the start of this season.

It’s Holmgren’s move for goalie Ilya Bryzgalov prior to last season that has netted the harshest response from media and fans, although a bit unjust.

Bryzgalov, whose exclusive free-agent rights Holmgren traded for from Phoenix before giving him a nine-year, $51 million contract last year, hasn’t been the equivalent of Martin Brodeur or Henrik Lundqvist (who is really?) during his short stay in Philadelphia, but he’s been good enough that the shortcomings of the Flyers shouldn’t only rest on his shoulders. There is some thought the Flyers might amnesty Bryzgalov and give Mason a shot, but that would be a huge gamble.

Where Holmgren has really struggled, though, is assembling a defense in front of Bryzgalov minus Pronger.

The backline Holmgren has put together is either old (Kimmo Timonen), immobile (Nicklas Grossmann) or bad (Braydon Coyburn and Bruno Gervais, who are combined minus 25 this season). The worst part is Coyburn, Grossmann and Timonen are all signed through next year thanks to contract extensions given to them by Holmgren. There’s no top prospect on the way either and this year’s free-agent defensemen class doesn’t inspire much confidence (Edmonton’s Ryan Whitney would be a nice addition, but he’s 30 and will command top dollar, and that’s not available with money already committed by the Flyers).

Holmgren’s only chance to get a defender who can help the Flyers challenge for a Cup would be to use a talented young scorer (Matt Read, Brayden Schenn or both, maybe?) as a trade chip, but I’d only be guessing as to who would be available. Like pitching in baseball, teams aren’t exactly lining up to give away talented defensemen either.

One smart thing Holmgren did do was to stand pat Wednesday and that’s a good start.

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Breakdown of Eagles free agent signings

I’m going to keep this short (I want to link a story more than anything), but here is a fantastic breakdown of the contracts the Eagles gave to the eight free agents they signed over the last week or so.

Of the eight signings the only one I’m not a huge fan of is cornerback Carey Williams, who got a three-year deal worth $17 million including $10.5 million guaranteed. I don’t hate the deal because I like the toughness Williams brings to the Eagles secondary (which was softer than jello last year), but I’m not sure he’s worth that kind of money.

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