Braves - Yet again, Schuerholtz shows how to operate properly within the confines of a budget. The Braves are getting Edgar Renteria for three years at $6M per season, or less than half what the Dodgers are paying for Rafael Furcal. Here are Furcal's OPS numbers for the past three years: .710, .794, .758, .777. And here are Renteria's: .803, .874, .728, .721. Edgar is two years older than Furcal, so his last two seasons might be evidence of the beginning of his decline, especially if he's older than 30. However, is Furcal really worth twice as much as Renteria? I'm quite willing to write off Edgar's 2005 season to transition problems to the AL, as well as playing in a more demanding, negative environment (and Edgar has added the Fenway infield as a culprit,) but he mediocre 2004 with St. Louis is cause for concern that last year was not a blip on the radar. Giving up Andy Marte was inevitable, as he's blocked at third base by Chipper for the foreseeable future and he would lose some of his value at first or in the outfield. His pedestrian AAA numbers last year, along with his struggles in Winter Ball this year, make the loss of the Braves' former top prospect a little easier to live with.
The question now turns to the closer spot. The free agent market was never going to be a solution, since it is badly inflated at all positions this year, and especially at closer after the Blue Jays lost all sense of proportion with their signing of B.J. Ryan. (The Jays remind me of a teenager first learning to drink this off-season. It's like they get to do something new and they are showing their naivete by drinking 11 Gatorade & Vodkas in one sitting, not realizing where they're going to end up in a few hours.) One option might be to find a good starter and move Smoltz back to the closer spot, although I suspect that he'll resist that move. The second option is to trade for one and the Braves certainly have the chips to do so, although they would have to find a willing partner. The third option is to find a closer on the staff, but I'm not sold on the idea of rolling Joey Devine or Macay McBride out there right now.
Hawks - Was the solution for the team's woes a threatened ziggy for Mike Woodson? The team responded to the rumored demise of their coach by beating San Antonio, a team that was merely 13.5 games ahead of the Hawks one-quarter of the way into the season. The result illustrated the "Josh Childress as Rafael Furcal" hypothesis. JC was the best player on the court in the fourth quarter and the team rallied to its best win in ages. When Childress does not play well, which is unfortunately a majority of the time, the team loses. The result, in a weird way, also serves as something of an indictment of Mike Woodson. If his team is good enough to beat the best team in the league, or beat the Pacers on the road, then shouldn't it be good enough to be better than 3-16? Or do we simply chalk those wins up to "anything is possible in the NBA"? Is Woodson failing to motivate the team, so they play well where the motivation is provided by a quality opponent, i.e. the Michigan State factor? Who the hell knows.
The World Cup Draw - Grant Wahl had the same reaction that I did when the U.S. was drawn with the Czech Republic: this is just like the Portugal match from 2002. A talented European side without a World Cup pedigree, but coming off of a very strong performance at the most recent European Cup and led by an outstanding left-sided midfielder who's getting up there in years and this is therefore his last big chance on the biggest stage. Wahl's distinguishing factor is that the U.S. isn't going to sneak up on anyone after making the quarters in the last tournament. Mine is that the Czechs have Peter Cech, the best goalie in the world, between the sticks instead of the pedestrian Vitor Baia. The US is going to see Cech and Gianluigi Buffon in their first two matches, so quality shooting is going to be absolutely critical. (Seeing Kasey Keller in practice will be good preparation.) Italy is also not an overly imposing foe, at least in the group stages, because they traditionally start tournaments very slowly. Hell, in South Korea, they couldn't beat Mexico in their last group game when they needed a win and the Mexicans had already clinched the group, and then they failed to get out of their group at Euro '04 in Portugal. This team is not unbeatable. They are solid in the back and have some very good strikers, but they're soft in the middle.
All that said, the Czechs and Italians all have stars from the biggest leagues in Europe. Even Ghana has Michael Essien, who is better on the European stage than any American player. The U.S. is going to have to ride great goalkeeping and Bruce Arena's tactical nous (a term that I've never heard outside of the soccer context) to get out of the group. And if they finish second, then they almost certainly draw Brazil, so the US's suspect defensive right side can match up with Ronaldinho. Yay!