Bishop Media Sports Network

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Lump Of Cole?

By: Kipp Branch

TheSouthernSportsEdition.com news services

The Braves continued with a dazzling array of off-season moves with the addition of LHP Cole Hamels.

Hamels signed a one year $18 million dollar deal this week. Hamels, who will be 36 years old on opening day, has been in the major leagues since 2006.

Cole Hamels will try to help the Braves get over the hump. The Braves won the past two division crowns, but haven’t yet managed to translate that success into the postseason.

Hamels will step in for Dallas Keuchel as a durable veteran, who has ‘been there and done that’ plenty of times over a long and prosperous career. Keuchel let the Braves down in the 2019 Postseason.

Following a long and successful run in Philadelphia from 2006-15, he was traded at the deadline to the Texas Rangers in a blockbuster that involved eight players, mostly prospects.

He was a summer trade target again, three years later, when the Cubs acquired him from Texas for three more players in July 2018.

He’s been a reliable member of Chicago’s rotation ever since, making 27 starts for the organization in 2019 and holding a 3.81 ERA and 4.09 FIP in 141.2 innings.

It was the 12th season of his career in which he was worth at least 2.5 WAR. Hamels was the 2008 World Series MVP for the Phillies, leading them to their first World Title since 1980. Hamels has a career record of 163-121 with a 3.42 ERA and a 7-6 postseason record with a 3.41 ERA.

This is the latest addition for the Braves, who have already added some nice pieces before the Winter Meetings even launch.

Hamels isn’t the top-of-the-rotation arm he once was, but his addition doesn’t rule out other moves. At this stage in his career look for Hamels to be a solid #2 or #3 starter in the Braves rotation in 2020. Now the focus moves to resigning Comeback Player of the Year Josh Donaldson at third base.

Is a 36-year-old Hamels going to be reliable for the Braves in 2020? With Stephen Strasburg and Gerrit Cole on the market you would think the Braves, who are set up for a World Series run, would have gone after one of these two studs to anchor the rotation.

The knock on Hamels is he possibly is wearing down. During the month of September last season Hamels never made it past the 5th inning in any of his starts. Does that sound familiar Braves fans; starting pitchers not making it through 5 innings?

Have the Braves gotten better by swapping Keuchel for Hamels?

Back to Donaldson, with the Braves using $18 million on Hamels will the Braves still try and sign Donaldson? Does this now mean that the Braves are finished dealing during this offseason?

The bullpen is now the best ‘on paper’ in baseball, and you bring in Hamels to help anchor a shaky rotation, but without re-signing Donaldson has this team really improved this offseason?

I for one hope the Braves are not done this offseason. This team is close to contending for a World Series title, but even with signing Hamels, I think the Braves need to get another top line starter to go with the awesome everyday line-up.

We know of all the young arms in the system, but will they be ready in 2020 to make a contribution?

Come on Braves finish the winter strong. Keep your eye on the prize.

More Cinderellas

By: Mike Anthony

TheSouthernSportsEdition.com news services

The first month of the NCAA basketball season has been wild as it pertains to the national polls.

For the first time ever, two No. 1 teams have lost home games to unranked opponents in the same season.

Four different teams claimed the top national ranking within the first five releasings of the national poll and the annual rush of marquee tournaments and made-for-TV matchups have delivered a handful of top-10 matchups already.

Without a doubt, the early weeks of the 2019-20 season have been filled with fireworks.

It’s just too bad that none of it will matter much over the next few months.

With nearly three times as many teams competing for the Division I basketball title than the FBS football championship, it stands to reason that more teams are involved in the final tournament. And over the last few decades, ‘March Madness’ has become a billion-dollar moneymaker for the NCAA.

But for all the buzzer-beaters and Cinderella stories that emerge each spring, the fact remains that the deck is stacked against the little guys of basketball as much as with any other sport overseen by the NCAA.

All 32 Division I conferences own an automatic bid to the tournament, but 21 of those leagues received just that one guaranteed bid, with two of the conference champion auto-bid recipients placed in the tournament’s play-in round.

The perennially dominant leagues like the ACC, Big Ten, SEC and Big 12 routinely end up cutting down the nets. And no one can argue that the top teams from any of those conferences should be thought of as top seeds and favorites in any given tournament.

But for the sake of parity and fair play, those conferences really need to stop sucking up all the air in the bracket.

While some conferences are admittedly weaker and should only get one bid into the national tournament, that number of conferences certainly doesn’t comprise two-thirds of the national landscape.

Far too often, the tournament selection committee gets it in its head that a certain conference will only get one team into the bracket and is then left scrambling for reasons to justify snubbing a dominant team with 25-plus wins that just happened to fall short during its conference tournament on the way to an auto-bid.

The plight of smaller conferences won’t find much sympathy outside of leagues with similar problems, but the growing gap between the haves and have-nots is hurting the game itself.

For every extra at-large bid a power conference vacuums up in March, the sport as a whole becomes less relevant during the regular season.

Sure, bid scarcity will fuel some incredible regular season and tournament games in smaller conferences, but for every intense game with huge repercussions in small conferences, there will be a dozen more regular season meetings between middling power conference teams that routinely sleepwalk through some games with the assumption that even a modest record will be enough.

That’s not what the NCAA tournament should be about.

Each season, the NCAA churns out dozens of highlight reels, making sure to emphasize the little guys and tout ever punch a David can deal out to a Goliath. The NCAA and its tournament would do even better by all parties involved to include a few more of those long shots.

No one remembers the 8-9 game between two power conference also-rans. Meanwhile, the upsets and names involved with them are talked about decades after the fact.

The same elite group of programs are likely to contend for – and win – the title each season. But there’s no reason not to ensure that every good team gets a fair chance at tournament glory.

The New Magic Show

By: Robert Craft

TheSouthernSportsEdition.com news services

The Orlando Magic continue to get glimpses of what they can be, but injuries and inconsistent play is making this season like a roller coaster.

With Nikola Vucevic being out for a minimum of 4 weeks with a high ankle sprain, I’m excited to see what player steps up in his place and how the team responds.

Vucevic is Orlando’s only All-Star player and last season he led the Magic to the playoffs. Vucevic led the team in 2018 in scoring (20.8 per game) and rebounding (12 per game). Vucevic left some big shoes to fill.

Magic forward Jonathan Isaac is now one of their featured players offensively and his main assignment is defending the opponent’s best player.

How Isaac responds to the additional responsibility could determine how the Magic fare over the next four to six weeks.

The Magic are pushing the ball more for Isaac and rely on him to accomplish more on the offensive end of the court.

In the absence of Vucevic, Isaac has become impossible to ignore. He is a dominating defender and has become a crucial offensive force. Isaac is average on the stat sheet, just under 15 points per game, 3 blocked shots per game, and 9 rebounds since the Vucevic injury.

Isaac’s play has created some room for Coach Clifford to trust him a little more on the offensive side of the court. Isaac has shown improvement in his 3-point shooting, ball handling, and footwork.

Markelle Fultz, the first pick in the 2017 NBA draft by the Philadelphia 76ers, became the starting point guard for the Orlando Magic just six games into this season.

Fultz has only played 33 NBA games coming into the 2019-2020 season due to injuries. In case you don’t remember, Fultz was traded to the Magic in February 2019, in exchange for Jonathon Simmons and two second round draft picks.

Since Fultz’s addition to the starting lineup, the Magic’s offensive efficiency has ranked 18th in the league, scoring an average 108 points per game, which is a significant improvement from the first 6 games.

Fultz has been aggressive at getting to the paint, finishing at the rim, and finding guys open for easy baskets.

And on the defensive side of the ball, Fultz has been a disrupter. His 6’4” frame with a 6’9” wingspan has caused defections and steals.

Fultz needs to keep improving on his mid-range jumper and three-point shot. He’s shown flashes of why he was the number one pick in the draft. Due to injuries, this year has essentially been Fultz’s rookie season.

Fultz was diagnosed with the nerve condition Thoracic outlet syndrome. Many NBA experts did not think Fultz would ever play again. He has had plenty of doubters since he made it into the league, and he isn’t going to let them get to him.

Markelle Fultz, at the age of 21, and Jonathan Isaac, at the age of 22, are two young pieces stepping up for the Orlando Magic.

Both players have shown great instincts of both ends of the court. With time and effort both will start to get closer star-player-status in the NBA.

Pick Away

By: Kenneth Harrison

TheSouthernSportsEdition.com news services

The NFL regular season is winding down. We know who the contenders are and the teams that need to try again next year.

I’m going to take a look at the projected NFC South draft order and team needs.

Pick #5 Atlanta: The biggest team needs are edge rusher, defensive back and offensive line.

The Falcons have struggled to protect their $150 million quarterback Matt Ryan. In the Thanksgiving game against New Orleans he was sacked nine times (tying a career high). Atlanta failed to sack Drew Brees, which brings the team’s needs in the trenches into focus.

Ohio State defensive end Chase Young is by far the best pass rusher in the draft. I do not expect him to be around when the Falcons pick, so I think Iowa edge rusher AJ Epenesa will be their pick. He had double-digit tackles for loss the last two seasons. He had 10.5 sacks in 2018 and 9 in 2019.

Pick #12 Carolina: Their biggest team needs are DB, OL and defensive line.

Quarterback might also be a need since Cam Newton has not played since Week 2. Kyle Allen has stepped in but he has not played well. His QBR is 38.3, which is 30th, and he’s thrown double digit interceptions.

The Panthers defense cannot stop the run, ranking 29th in run defense. Alabama cornerback Trevon Diggs would be a good pick. He has great size standing at 6’2 and 208 pounds. He has 3 interceptions and 8 pass breakups this season.

Pick #14 Tampa Bay: The Buccaneers biggest team needs are QB, RB, OL and DL.

Jameis Winston is in the final year of his rookie contract and he’s still struggling. He’s been a turnover machine his entire career and this season is no different.

Winston leads the league with 20 interceptions. That would be too much for a rookie but he’s in his fifth season and he has also had off the field issues.

The Bucs have several other areas of concern but I believe they will prioritize drafting a franchise quarterback.

Oregon QB Justin Herbert could be the answer. He has prototypical size at 6’6 and 237 pounds. He’s a senior so he has a lot of experience which is invaluable.

Herbert helped bring the Ducks program back to a national title contender. This season he has 31 touchdowns with only 5 interceptions, so we know he can protect the football.

Pick #29 New Orleans Saints: The Saints are truly Super Bowl contenders so this might turn into the 31st or 32nd pick.

The biggest needs are WR, interior OL and DB. Michael Thomas is great but he could use another receiver to help stretch the field. Thomas is a true possession receiver and he is the focal point of the defense.

A player with speed would be explosive and they could make teams pay for covering him one on one.

Three of the seven Saints defenders who have played the most snaps in 2019;  Vonn BellEli Apple and P.J. Williams happen to be members of the New Orleans secondary. All three are scheduled to become free agents in 2020.

Clemson receiver Tee Higgins would be a great addition, assuming he’s still on the board.

Lucky Dawg

By: JJ Lanier

TheSouthernSportsEdition.com news services

The first scenario that has Georgia making it to the college playoffs is pretty straightforward- beat LSU in the SEC Championship game and you’re in. Nothing very complicated about it, except for, you know, the fact they have to beat LSU.

What’s more intriguing to me is whether or not there’s a scenario where Georgia could still make the playoffs, even if they lose to the Tigers; something I assume most Georgia fans have already begun contemplating.

To start with, let’s go ahead and assume Ohio State, Clemson, and LSU all win their respective title games and are in. That leaves the winner of the Big-12 matchup (Oklahoma or Baylor) and possibly the winner of the Pac-12 (Utah or Oregon) that the Bulldogs would have to contend with for the final spot.

I’m going to just skim right over Oklahoma and Oregon because if they Sooners win, they’re in. And if Oregon happens to win, I think they would end up behind either Big-12 winner and Georgia since they’ll have two losses and the Pac-12 is basically regarded as an inferior spin-off of a better conference.

Where it gets interesting is if both Baylor and Utah win. The argument for putting Georgia in ahead of either of those two teams begins and ends with one thing; name recognition.

As much as the NCAA wants us to believe the committee is choosing the four most deserving teams, they’re not. What they’re looking for are the four biggest named teams ($$$) that they can realistically justify putting in the playoffs. I mean, how else do you explain their love affair with Alabama and their FCS looking schedule?

The committee will play their part and acknowledge that Georgia will ultimately have one more loss than either Baylor or Utah, but then I imagine they’ll argue Georgia comes from a tougher conference (they do), had a better overall season (debatable, especially considering the South Carolina loss), and that the Dawgs pass everyone’s favorite metric, the eye test (probably true), as reasons as to why the Bulldogs made the cut ahead of the other two.

When the teams were announced for the college playoffs inaugural season in 2014, there was a large contingent of fans arguing Ohio State only made the playoffs, not on their merits, but because of their national recognition. It would be no different this year; Ohio State vs. Georgia is much more appealing on paper than OSU vs. Baylor/Utah. (By the way, I went ahead and put Ohio State as the overall #1 seed because if this scenario actually plays out, just watch the committee place Ohio State ahead of LSU. But, remember, this whole thing is purely objective and nothing is based on matchu…….hahaha, I can’t even finish typing it out.)

Look, I’m not promising this is what will happen, or even that it’s what should happen, I’m just so skeptical when it comes almost everything the NCAA touches, that I almost expect that’s the way things will turn out. After all, it’s a business, and Georgia is better business.

Of course, this all changes if UGA gets steamrolled by LSU, or best-case scenario for Bulldog fans, they happen to win Saturday.

That said, if the latter takes place, and Oklahoma winds up winning the Big-12, it may bring up an even more interesting question- what does the committee do with LSU?

Either way, don’t be shocked if a one-loss Baylor or Utah team is on the outside looking in. I know the NCAA won’t be.

Becoming A Man

By: TJ Hartnett

TheSouthernSportsEdition.com news services

I’m friends on Facebook with this guy I went to college with and after every single Atlanta Hawks game, he posts the exact same status update: “Trae Young is the best PG in the league!” After every single game.

Whether or not that statement is true might be debatable, but Young is certainly an incredible player. Young became the second player in NBA history to have at least two 49+ point games before turning 22 years old.

And just to make sure you’re following: that means that Trae Young is only 21.

Those 49 points tied a career high for the young Hawk (Young Hawk, even); he also matched a career best with eight three-point shots, his third time reaching that mark.

Despite the team’s overall struggles (the Hawks are 4-15, tied for dead last at the bottom of the Eastern Conference pile with the New York Knicks), Young has emerged as a bona-fide superstar.  He is the kind of home-grown talent that the Hawks have been yearning for and missing out on for years.

Atlanta may be losing, but it’s nothing to do with their star point guard. In fact, both of Young’s 49-point master classes have come in games that Atlanta has lost.

He’s top ten in the league in points and top five in assists, having massively improved upon a rookie campaign that was in equal turns fascinating and frustrating.

All last season, Young had critical eyes on him. He wasn’t Luca Doncic might’ve been the consensus; and he’s a smaller player, so how’s going to play on defense? Will his scoring translate to the NBA?

All that chirping had to have put a chip on Young’s shoulder, and he’s playing like that chip lit a fire under him, if I may mix my metaphors.

He finished up his first year in the league on a high note but has gone far beyond simply picking up where he left off. All of his offensive stats are higher than last season’s. Atlanta is starting to grow accustomed to 25-30 points per game with double-digit (or close to it) assists.

Does he need to improve his defense? Sure. But with his offense game so stellar, it’s something he can afford to work on.

He also has work to do on midrange shots. While his size disadvantage doesn’t really matter when he is drilling threes, the closer he gets to the basket the tougher it is for him to produce.

But even there he’s showing improvement, from 10 feet from the hoop to the 3-point line, Young has been shooting over 5 percent better this season than last. For a player that has the ball as much as he does, even that small improvement goes a long way.

His maturity and leadership are a big part of his game as well. He’s made these improvements and broken out, not just with a struggling team, but with a vastly different one than he started with last season.

With so much turnover on the roster, it would have made sense for Young to need time to get acclimated to his new teammates. Instead, he’s been hot right from the first tip-off.

The team is going through growing pains but that isn’t a surprise.

Even if the Hawks could have predicted the huge steps Young would take this early in his career (and they certainly couldn’t have foreseen this), the team wasn’t going to be a contender; at least, not yet.

But they know they’ve got a centerpiece around which they can build a winning team. They’ve got at least a sense of the player Trae Young can be. Which is to say: the sky is the limit.

Broken System

By: Mike Anthony

TheSouthernSportsEdition.com news services

The latest College Football Playoff rankings are out and – just as all of these releases are, up until the final one – it’s just a song and dance meant to drive argument and interest in the race for the four spots in the championship postseason.

It really doesn’t matter that Ohio State is ahead of LSU. The Tigers could very well pull ahead with a win, in what will be perceived as a tougher matchup in its conference championship game.

It really doesn’t matter that Georgia is fourth while Alabama is fifth. A win for the Bulldogs in the SEC title game will guarantee them a spot – and a higher seed – in the playoff, while Alabama knows all about sitting out of a conference championship game and moving up by default.

It really doesn’t matter that Clemson has pinballed around the rankings so far. They’re the defending national champions and they’ll be in the playoff so long as they remain undefeated.

In the end, everything seems to be on a crash course for yet another round of bashing the selection committee for including one team while leaving out another. And when you look at the big picture, the NCAA has brought a lot of that scorn upon itself.

Of the 10 conferences in FBS football, there is a split between the ‘Power 5’ and the ‘Group of 5’. Those names weren’t originally created by the NCAA, but the association acknowledged the split several years ago when it set special stipulations to mandate that at least one G5 team is represented in the six major New Year’s bowls.

But, by doing that, the NCAA has stepped in an even bigger puddle. There is now a de facto admission that five conferences are seen as superior and will get preference in rankings and bowl allotments.

That much isn’t so bad as the ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac 12 and SEC consistently put forth the best teams in the country. But the problem arises when elementary math takes over and there are five power conference champions and only four playoff spots.

It’s as if a ship named five officers and only provided four lifejackets to go between them. Regardless of anyone else on board who is deserving of a vest, it’s impossible for anything other than a power struggle to result.

There have been plenty of years in which a P5 conference hasn’t produced a national championship-caliber team. And there have been years where one P5 conference has objectively had two of the best four teams in the nation that both deserve to play on.

Of course, there are also about a half-dozen instances dating back to the BCS days where a G5 team went undefeated and wasn’t even allowed the ability to keep playing toward a national championship before being dismissed and cast aside while P5 schools battled it out.

With P5 conference members given more of a benefit of the doubt for losses and those same teams mostly controlling who and when and where they play any non-conference game, it’s almost guaranteed that every season will end with a couple of shoe-in playoff teams, along with about a half-dozen other P5s with solid cases to make and a few G5s who can’t get the time of day due to their PERCEIVED lack of schedule strength.

It’s past time for the playoff to expand. If the P5 schools are so far above the rest, then each of the conference champions should have a chance to play for a title. And when great G5 teams get bashed for their schedule, it should be taken with a grain of salt since obviously no P5 squad wanted to bring them in for a perceived easy win.

There are too many teams and not enough weeks to work out a perfect regular season that produces a unanimously agreed upon playoff field. So, it’s up to the powers that be to come up with something that isn’t designed to ensure plenty of legitimate contenders left on the sidelines each fall.

GHSA 7A

By: Kenneth Harrison

TheSouthernSportsEdition.com news services

We’re down to the final eight teams in Georgia high school football. Let’s take a look at the Elite Eight in AAAAAAA.

# 10 Mill Creek vs # 6 Marietta: Mill Creek blew out their first two playoff opponents (Newton & Roswell). The Hawks (10-2) are very good but they have been outclassed by superior talent this season. They were crushed 45 – 3 by # 4 North Gwinnett last month.

Marietta (10-2) is the most talented team in the state. They beat the defending state champs, # 9 Milton in the second round. The Blue Devils are led by five-star tight end Arik Gilbert, an LSU commit. Gilbert has 1,343 receiving yards and 12 touchdowns.

His quarterback Harrison Bailey is committed to Tennessee and a four-star player. He’s thrown for 3,378 yards and 36 touchdowns.

The Blue Devils have another LSU commit on defense, defensive end BJ Ojulari. Marietta was my preseason pick to win the state championship and my opinion has not changed.

# 3 Grayson vs # 1 Lowndes: Lowndes (12-0) has dominated all season and they are nationally ranked. The Vikings have won every game by double digits. The closest margin of victory was 11 points against Colquitt County. They are the only remaining team not in Metro Atlanta.

The interesting thing about Lowndes is that as good as they are, they don’t have a player ranked in the top 100 in Georgia in the class of 2020.

They are led by sophomore quarterback Jacurri Brown. He’s the team’s leading rusher with 1,150 yards and 16 TD’s. He also passed for 1,066 yards and 6 touchdowns.

Grayson (10-1) steamrolled their first two playoff opponents. The Rams lone loss was a blowout loss at home to Colquitt County (31-7). Since that is a common opponent for both teams it does not look good for Grayson.

Senior quarterback CJ Dixon is a four-star recruit and he should keep Grayson in the game. I expect Lowndes to continue doing what they have done all season and win this game by double digits.

# 8 Archer vs # 7 Parkview: This is a matchup of two Gwinnett county schools. Parkview (11-1) is a traditional powerhouse that fell on hard times, but they are back. The Panthers have won four state championships. They won three consecutive championships and were undefeated from 2000-2002.

Their only loss was at home against Lowndes, 38 – 7. They did beat Colquitt County in the second round, 40- 21.

Colquitt had reached the quarters or better each season since 2009.

Junior running back Cody Brown is a four-star recruit and the offense goes through him.

Archer (9-3) had a tough schedule with all three losses coming to ranked teams. Their biggest loss was by three points.

I expect this to be a close game, but Parkview should win.

            # 2 McEachern vs # 4 North Gwinnett: McEachern (12-0) is the other undefeated team in 7A. The Indians also have several talented players like their crosstown rival, Marietta.

The best player on the team is senior four-star wide receiver Javon Baker. He’s committed to Alabama. McEachern has only had two games won by single digits so they have been dominant.

North Gwinnett (11-1) lost the season opener to Colquitt County. They have not lost since then. The Bulldogs won the state title in 2017 and they hope to get back there this year.

I’m picking North Gwinnett for a slight upset win.

 

Changes In The South

By: JJ Lanier

TheSouthernSportsEdition.com news services

When you look at the stability, or really instability in most cases, when it comes to head coaches and quarterbacks throughout the NFL, the NFC South in many ways is the exception.

Two of the divisions head coaches, Sean Payton and Ron Rivera, have been with their respective organizations for at least nine years.

Dan Quinn is currently in his fifth year with Falcons, whose predecessor, Mike Smith, was with the organization for seven years. In fact, the Buccaneers seem to be the only divisional team that has head coaches come and go as if they’re a seasonal employee at Target.

The quarterback position has been even more stable, with Jameis Winston being the shortest tenured of the bunch, at five years in the league.

Longevity is always great when you’re in the midst of it, but like all things, it eventually comes to an end; the NFC South may begin to see that stability start to falter at the end of this season.

The biggest changes will more than likely be seen within the Carolina Panthers organization. As it looks right now, the only person less likely to be the Panthers starting quarterback at the beginning of next season than Cam Newton is Colin Kaepernick.

As much of a lightning rod as Newton has been- some legitimate, some petty- it’s all but a certainty that the best quarterback in franchise history won’t be back for a tenth season.

Meanwhile, Rivera, who began his head coaching career the same year Newton entered the league, is trending towards sharing the same fate as his QB.

The 2-time Coach of the Year has dodged the pink slip in the past due to his team finishing the season strong, but I’m not sure that could even save his job this time around.

The end of an era in Carolina is starting to look less like a possibility and more like an inevitability.

There isn’t going to be a change at quarterback for the Falcons, at least not this year, but the same can’t be said for their head coach.

There is the slight possibility that Quinn could pull a “Rivera” and keep his job if Atlanta were to finish the season strong, but I doubt it.

As for Ryan, his job obviously isn’t in jeopardy, but he is starting to get up there in age and I wouldn’t be surprised to see a new head coach looking to begin grooming his replacement.

As for Tampa, I think Winston’s time there is over, but who knows. Would you really be all that surprised if they brought him back? And Bruce Arians isn’t going anywhere as of now, but he’s not the long-term solution, so the smart money is on that dynamic looking dramatically different within the next year or two.

Then there’s the Saints, the organization that has been the most stable in both areas. I imagine at some point Brees will contemplate retirement, if he hasn’t already, but he’s still got a few good years left, so don’t expect that coach/qb combo to change anytime soon.

The NFL specializes in turnover, so it really is a testament to the teams in the NFC South that they’ve gotten as much consistency out of the two most important positions on a football over the past decade.

Just don’t be surprised when those familiar faces start to change; sooner rather than later.

Hall Of Fame Steal

By: TJ Hartnett

TheSouthernSportsEdition.com news services

The ballot for the Baseball Hall of Fame is always a fascinating thing to unpack and dissect as we examine the bona fides of the newly eligible and reevaluate the careers of those who have remained on the ballot from the previous year’s attempt.

Several former Atlanta Braves populate the several dozen potential Hall of Famers eligible for induction in the summer of 2020, including the first (and, sadly, probably last) appearance of popular shortstop Rafael Furcal.

With Furcal, we have the spark that started off games for the last six years of Atlanta’s legendary 14-straight NL East Division wins.

‘Fookie,’ as Hall of Fame manager Bobby Cox called him (would ‘Raffy’ have probably been better? …yes.), exploded onto the scene in 2000, making the leap straight from Single A to the Major League ballclub thanks to an offseason injury to then shortstop (now bench coach) Walt Weiss.

Furcal hit .295 with 40 stolen bases that season en route to a Rookie of the Year award.

He was a consistent presence at the top of the lineup after that, never hitting below .275 and never swiping fewer than 22 bases. Other highlights during his time with the Braves include hitting three triples in a game (tying an MLB record) and recording the 12th-ever unassisted triple play in 2003.

When he left Atlanta, Furcal put in five and a half solid years (one of which – 2005 – was pretty spectacular) with the Los Angeles Dodgers, before being traded to St. Louis in 2011, where he won the World Series.

His career did not end with the same pop with which it began – a 9-game stint with Miami in 2014 – but he hung his cleats up with a .281 batting average, a .748 OPS, and 314 stolen bases. Is it enough to make the Hall?

It isn’t. This will undoubtedly be Furcal’s only season on the ballot – it’s too overcrowded with better candidates for him to get the necessary 5% of the vote to stick around another year.

It’s a shame, too, because while Furcal didn’t have the kind of eye-popping numbers that merit induction, he was an indispensable piece of winning teams for his entire career (almost every winning team has a player like this – essential to the team and overshadowed by his teammates).

There were plenty of factors that led to the end of the Braves’ 14-season winning streak, but the fact that Furcal leaving coincided with that end is no coincidence.

The fact that Furcal’s teams made the playoffs in 10 of 14 seasons is no coincidence either (10 out of 13 if you discount that week and a half he played for the Marlins). Fookie was a winning player, and that’s not nothing.

Unfortunately, it also isn’t going to be enough. Furcal’s biggest skillset was his speed – both bat speed and baserunning speed – and that’s a skill that conveniently doesn’t slump (hence his consistency) but inconveniently doesn’t age well (hence his numbers beginning to dwindle at age 33 and his retirement at age 36).

Maybe if Furcal’s seasons of peak production had stretched out a little longer, he’d have a better case; but alas, it isn’t so.

It also can’t help that headlining this year’s new Hall of Fame candidates is one of the best shortstops of all time, Derek Jeter.

Furcal pales in comparison, though, to be fair, so do most players at any position. Jeter is likely to be the second unanimous election come January (now that we’re done with that no-unanimous-elections nonsense – what a joke that was for decades).

Despite the fact that he won’t be immortalized in the Hall, Furcal should be able to rest easy knowing that he was a crucial and cherished part of winning teams for his whole career. It’s not a plaque in Cooperstown, but it’s enough to be proud of.

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