Monday, December 29, 2014

Man City Report - January 2015 Transfer Window Advice for Manuel Pellegrini

Following our last check-in, Man City played four EPL matches from mid to late December and found out their opponent for the knock-out stage of the Champions League.  Unfortunately Man City drew Barcelona in the knockout stages of the Champions League for the second year in a row.  You know that you support a club that is (almost) out of problems when the biggest complaint you have is about facing another world super power in the most prestigious club tournament in the world.  This kind of challenge for Man City, if they somehow best Barcelona in their home-and-home fixtures, is exactly what Man City needs to jump from an impressive domestic club (won two the last three EPL titles) to a a true world super power.

Man City continued their winning streak since my last recap in the first of those four EPL matches with a gritty 1-0 road victory over Leicester City. Apparently winning begets winnings because Man City followed that up with a 3-0 victory at home over Crystal Palace and a 3-1 victory on the road over West Brom.  Just two days later Man City hosted Burnley armed with the knowledge that if they won, they would join Chelsea at the top of the table since Chelsea tied Southampton 1-1 earlier in the day.  Man City went up 2-0 just over a third a way through the match but somehow conceded two goals to tie Burnley 2-2 at home to close out 2014 two points behind EPL leaders Chelsea.  10 out of a possible 12 points seems great but given the competition and the fact that Man City was up two goals on Burnley at home, they really should have taken a maximum of 12 points from those four fixtures.

Man City manager Manuel Pellegrini did a ton of business in the summer transfer window to help the club balance their books to comply with UEFA's Financial Fair Play Rules, which left Man City with only three and a half strikers with EPL experience.  I say three and half because youngster José Ángel Pozo played decent up top in his first team appearances but does not look like a threat to actually score in the EPL yet so I only count him as half a striker at this point.  Injuries to strikers Sergio Aguero and Edin Džeko forced Pellegrini to start midfielder James Milner as a "striker" since Stevan Jovetić was only available as a substitute since he is (again) rehabbing an injury.  That means Man City will need some help at striker till Aguero and Džeko return.

In Pellegrini's summer business he loaned out striker Alvaro Negrado to Valencia, which was the move that I was most skeptical about.  I know Negrado had a broken foot at the time but Negredo made 11 appearances for Valencia from late October to late December: five starts and six appearances as a substitute.  Sure Negrado only has one goal for Valencia so far this season but last season he had an amazing ability to find the back of the net as both a starter and a substitute for Man City.  Since Negredo is no longeran option, let's look a Man City's other striker options to acquire in the transfer window.

The most common striker targets linked with Man City are Christian Benteke (Aston Villa), Wilfried Bony (Swansea), Mario Mandzukic (Atletico Madrid), and Paul-Georges Ntep (Rennes).  The price tag on Ntep is reportedly $10 million while Benteke, Bony or Mandzukic would most likely be three or four times that amount.  If money were no object, Man City would have just kept Negrado and possibly still even signed Bony but money is an object because of UEFA's Financial Fair Play Rules.  The other drawback to Bony is that he will be at the African Cup of Nations, which is a bi-annual tournament between the best African countries, from mid-January to possibly as late as mid-February if Ivory Coast makes it to the final.  That is exactly when Man City would need Bony's services given the injury issues for Aguero and Dzeko.  Plus, once Aguero and Dzeko return from injury it could create a locker room issue to have Benteke, Bony, or Mandzukic as the 3rd or 4th striker option depending on how management feels about Jovetić.  As a result, I would add Ntep in the hopes of buying low on a long-term prospect that can be loaned out next season to a Championship side.  My guess is that Man City ultimately adds Bony and I have no doubt that he will perform well for Man City in the long-term, I just think that is not the most fiscally responsible move.

No matter what happens at striker, Man City definitely need to extend midfielder Frank Lampard's loan from their MLS "sister" club New York City FC because Lampard has been an absolute revelation for Man City.  When New York City FC loaned Lampard to Man City it looked like it was simply a way to keep Lampard in shape before he joined New York City FC for their inaugural season in the MLS.  Instead, Lampard went on to score an number of important EPL goals for Man City including the equalizer against his former employer Chelsea to give Man City a 1-1 tie at home and the only goal against Leicester City to give Man City a 1-0 victory.

Lampard's form is something that Liverpool should keep in mind as they are trying to decide whether the extend midfielder Steven Gerrard's contract, which is due to expire at the end of the season.  Sure some teams would rather move on a year too early than a year too late but not when you are talking about a club icon that icon goes on to thrive in the same league against you the following season.  Besides Lampard's impressive form, don't forget that Yaya Toure will be away from the club for almost a month at the start of 2015 for the aforementioned African Cup of Nations.  That leaves Man City with Fernandinho and Fernando as their only other true central midfielders.  Sure the likes of Milner and David Silva could fill-in but Lampard is the perfect offensive compliment to Fernandinho or Fernando.

The last couple years Man City has been reserved in the January transfer window but they've also been relatively healthy during the previous January transfer windows too.  Whatever young play-maker is doing well is always linked to Man City because of their deep pockets but again UEFA's Financial Fair Play Rules make it too risky to try to add a winger like Ross Barkley from Everton given that his price tag would be in the $60 to $70 million range.  The price always seems to go up whenever Man City is involved because of their deep pockets.  Sure Barkley would be nice to have given that he is a better winger than James Milner, Jesus Navas or even Samir Nasri but I am actually not sure Barkley is an upgrade over David Silva so sometimes the deals you don't make turn out to be the best ones.  Given the winger depth that Man City currently possess, I hope that Man City does not make any other expensive, borderline irrational move for a guy like Barkley or even Bony for that matter despite Man City's need for a healthy striker.

No matter what Man City actually does in the January transfer window, make sure to check back for full coverage in this space.  If Man City doesn't do any business, which would be shocking to me given their lack of depth at striker and the need to extend Lampard's loan stay, make sure to check back in the space for my thoughts at the close of the January transfer window.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Building The 15 - NBA General Manager Buyer's Remorse Day

Despite front offices becoming much more savvy in the last decade thanks to the use of advanced stats, there are still NBA owners (I'm looking at you Vivek Ranadivé) and general managers (I'm looking at your Billy King) that cannot help themselves from making short-sided draft picks or handing out ridiculous free agents contracts.  The number of owners and general managers that fit the description just provided is decreasing each year, which is too bad because those folks make a number of decisions that I love to second-guess.  December 15th marks the first day that teams can trade a player they signed in the off-season.  Although mulligans are not allowed on these deals, NBA teams love to trade bad contracts for bad contracts in hopes that one man's trash is another man's treasure.  As a result, I thought I would help Milwaukee Bucks general manager John Hammond wade through some of these bad contracts.

Although it seems like these bad contracts are going away, let's not forget that the NBA's revenue will dramatically increase in a couple years when their new nine-year, $24 billion national television contract kicks in, which means the salary cap will sky rocket too, so I hope NBA owners and general managers will revert back to their old ways of giving out more ridiculous contracts.  There is a very good chance that will happen given that some estimates have the salary cap going up as much as $21 million between the 2016-17 and the 2017-18 season from $66 million in 2016-17 to $87 million in 2017-18.  Besides being great economic news to NBA players and agents, this will also provide more silly decisions for people like me to second guess.

Here are a couple outlandish trades for Hammond to consider that involve players that signed a free agent contract last off-season:

Bucks trade Ersan Ilyasova (PF) & O.J. Mayo (SG) to the Phoenix Suns for Eric Bledsoe (PG/SG) and Archie Goodwin (SG):
Hammond would make this deal even if it meant giving up a future first round pick, something I rarely sign-off on doing, just on the off chance that he could steal a potential franchise player in Bledsoe.  Sure Bledsoe has a checkered injury history and is signed to what looks like an expensive long-term deal (five-years, $70 million) but given the impending increase in the salary cap, Bledsoe's deal might NOT be that expensive in a couple seasons.  Hammond will get very few chances to add a player of Beldsoe's caliber so he honestly has to take it.  Plus, I have a soft spot for young shooting guards that under perform when they first get into the NBA so getting Goodwin as a part of this deal is the cherry on top that allows the Bucks to acquire another cost-effective contract.  Although I wish this trade were possible, even if the Bucks include a future first round pick, realistically they will need to give up a better player to acquire Bledsoe.

Bucks trade Brandon Knight (PG) & Ersan Ilyasova (PF) to the Phoenix Suns for Eric Bledsoe (PG/SG) and Archie Goodwin (SG):
This iteration of the trade most likely alleviates the need for Hammond to throw in a draft pick to make the deal work but it also means the Bucks give up two of the three best players in the trade.  Despite the fact that the Suns just signed the Morris twins to contract extensions, Ilyasova seems like the perfect stretch four that can shoot well from anywhere on the floor (I know he has struggled with his shot this season but I blame all the injuries he has had to with with) to round out their roster.  The problem with this working in practice is that Knight is due a huge contact extension that might be as large as Bledsoe's deal after this season so although the Suns move Bledsoe's five-year, $70 million contract, they are actually taking on even more long-term money in this deal.  Clearly the Suns would say no first to this deal, which probably makes it a non-starter but still fun to think about especially if you are a Bucks fan.

Bucks trade O.J. Mayo (SG) to the Charlotte Hornets for Lance Stephenson (SG):
The ghost of Ray Allen has hung over the franchise for nearly a decade since the artist formerly known as the Seattle Supersonics stole him from the Bucks, which is why I continually search for a franchise shooting guard for the Bucks.  My buy-low candidate the last few years was Eric Gordon but thankfully that never worked out for the Bucks since Gordon's injury issues make Bledsoe look like the healthiest player in the NBA.  With Gordon no longer in my sights, I think it makes sense to turn to Stephenson.  At one point last season there was talk that Stephenson could be a max contract guy if he hit free agency.  That was a cute thought if you were Stephenson or his agent but the rest of the NBA knows that he is an absolute head case, which ultimately lead to his departure from the Indiana Pacers via free agency.  In terms of comps, Chandler Parsons signed a three-years, $46 million deal with the Dallas Mavericks.  That felt like it was the floor for Stephenson but he ultimately signed a three-year, $27 million contract with only the first two years guaranteed so the third year is a club option.  I know this next statement makes me captain obvious but boy did the market fall out for Stephenson in the last year, I just wonder whether it was too big of a fall or a proper market correction.  Even though Mayo is playing much better this season than last season, this is essentially a $2 million gamble (Mayo earns $8 million each of the next two seasons while Stephenson earns $9 million per year) on getting a franchise shooting guard.  Don't forget the Bucks acquired the perfect veteran in Jared Dudley, which could actually help keep Stephenson in check.  I know that is a tall order for Dudley but let's not forget that Stephenson is just 24 years old too so there is an outside chance that he could still mature.  Despite all of Stephenson's issues both on and off the court, this is the kind of swing for the fences trade that I know Hammond will never do but would love to see him at least entertain.

Bucks trade Jerryd Bayless (PG/SG) to the Sacremento Kings for Ben McLemore (SG):
ESPN's NBA Trade Machine does NOT allow you to include draft picks but the Bucks would have to part with at least one of their multitude of extra second round picks from the next few draft to make this trade work.  Keep in mind that the Bucks still have all of those extra second round picks even though they threw away two when they acquired head coach Jason Kidd.  I say threw away because although Kidd has been a much better coach this season than I ever thought he could be, it was clear that the Brooklyn Nets wanted Kidd out so they might have even fired Kidd before the Bucks showed interest.  For real NBA junkies, which you clearly have to be if you are reading this post (or a member of my immediate family), had a great behind-the-scenes look at the 2014 NBA Draft for the Sacramento Kings.  I love their new owner, the aforementioned Vivek Ranadivé, repeatedly "asking" if Nic Stauskas was the right pick and getting the entire room to say "Nic Rocks" on their welcome conference call with him after they foolishly took him over Elfrid Payton.  That means McLemore's days in Sacramento are numbered even though he is their starting shooting guard this season.  Bayless and a second round pick may seem like a low-ball offer but NBA teams see the writing on the wall with McLemore so it might be better for the Kings to get something for McLemore if Stauskas is truly the person they envision as their long-term shooting guard.

There is less than a 1% chance that any of the trades above happen but it is still fun to speculate.  If Hammond actually does make a move, make sure to check back for full coverage in this space.  If Hammond doesn't make a move, make sure to check back in early 2015 for my updates to The 15.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Building The 53 - Gaston & Banjo In, Robinson & Lattimore Out

The Arizona Cardinals are currently the top seed in the NFC thanks almost entirely to their defense.  Sure their offense doesn't turn the ball over but they also don't score a ton of points either given that they are currently trotting out Ryan Lindley at quarterback after they lost Carson Palmer for the season and Drew Staton until at least the start of the playoffs.  Why all the discussion of the the Cardinals you ask?  Well after the Green Bay Packers pounded the Atlanta Falcons in the first half on Monday Night Football, their defense struggled in the second half and almost gave the game away.  Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones finished the game with 11 catches for 259 yards and a touchdown.  Every time Jones caught a pass I was having uncomfortable flashbacks to wide receiver Plaxico Burress (11 catches for 215 receiving yards) torching the Packers in the 2008 (following the 2007 NFL season) NFC Championship Game.  Unfortunately for the Falcons, Jones missed the end of the game with an injury, which helped the Packers hold on.  If the Packers are going to make a Super Bowl push, they need to clean things up on the defensive side of the ball.

Green Bay Packers general manager Ted Thompson made two moves on the defensive side of The 53 in the last week.  Unfortunately I don't think either move neither of which will help prevent another Jones-esque performance though.  First, Thompson placed defensive tackle Luther Robinson on injured reserved and replaced Robinson on The 53 with defensive tackle Bruce Gaston.  Second, Thompson placed linebacker Jamari Lattimore on injured reserved and replaced Lattimore on The 53 with safety Chris Banjo.

Robinson was an unlikely member of The 53 that made five appearances and registered just 2 tackles.  Robinson's most notable play as a member of the Packers came in his first game on The 53 against the Minnesota Vikings on Thursday Night Football when his pressure lead to a hurried throw by Vikings quarterback Christian Ponder that was intercepted and returned for a touchdown by outside linebacker Julius Peppers.  I know this will seem like I am asking a ton but the Packers clearly need another 3-4 defensive lineman that can play the run and pass.  Given Robinson's lack of playing time despite that glaring need shows he is not in the team's long-term plans.

The Packers started the season with A.J. Hawk and Brad Jones as their middle linebackers.  After Jones struggled in the season opener in Seattle, the Packers turned to Lattimore.  I honestly thought Lattimore had a chance to become a difference maker in the middle for the Packers because he showed flashes of being the violent presence in the middle that the Packers sorely need.  Unfortunately those flashes were surrounded by tons of nondescript, average play.  Given that Lattimore is set to become an unrestricted free agent, how well Barrington plays to close out 2014 will have a huge impact on whether the Packers bring back Lattimore next season. No matter what, hopefully Sam Barrington and A.J. Hawk can turn into a formidable tandem at middle linebacker for 2014.  Given this is most likely Hawk's last season in Green Bay that will give the Packers a chance to build around Barrington and someone else in 2015 and beyond.

In Gaston, the Packers added a 6'2", 310 pound run stuffing rookie out of Purdue.  Gaston was cut by the Cardinals following training camp and spent time with the New England Patriots and Miami Dolphins before he returned to the Cardinals as a member of their 53 before he was was cut and resigned to their practice squad.  Thompson rarely signs players that were member of other team's rosters but clearly Gaston was too good to pass.  Hopefully some of the Cardinals' defensive mojo will come to Green Bay with Gaston.

Last season Banjo spent the entire season on The 53 mostly because of how thin the Packers were at safety.  After the Packers drafted Ha Ha Clinton-Dix in the first round of the 2014 NFL Draft and moved cornerback Micah Hyde to safety, all of the sudden that became one of the deepest positions on The 53 with Morgan Burnett, Ha Ha, Hyde, and Sean Richardson in the fold.  Given all that depth at safety, Banjo did NOT make The 53 to start the season but was singed to the practice squad where he spent the entire season until he was signed to The 53 earlier today.  Banjo was a special teams ace last year when he finished second on the team with 10 special teams tackles.  Hopefully that is the only place that Banjo plays this year unless he gets some garbage time snaps on defense with the Packers up big, otherwise that means the Packers suffered a rash of injuries at the safety position.

As I alluded to above, I can't say I am too excited about any of the moves that Thompson made because it basically shuffles the deck at a couple backup spots on defense. I know it is borderline impossible to add a game changer to The 53 in the middle of December but the Banjo move seemed so uninspired.  The Packers know what they have in Banjo and he might actually make The 53 in 2015 if Richardson leaves as a free agent so why not give another player a look.  The Packers do not yet know what they have in Gaston, which makes that move the most intriguing because if Gaston preforms well, it could spell the end of B.J. Raji's tenure in Green Bay

If Thompson makes any more moves, make sure to check back for my full breakdown in this space.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Man City Report - On Fire Thanks to Six Wins in Six Matches

Following the third international break of the season, Man City had six matches from late November through early December: four EPL matches and two UEFA Champions League group stage matches.  Man City won two of the last three EPL titles so the next logical step for them to become one of the most successful clubs in the world is to win the Champions League, which is why the sixth of those six matches was the most important on the road against Roma in the Champions League.

The international break did some good for Man City because in the first of their six matches following the international break they beat Swansea 2-1 at home in the EPL.  Man City's Champions League chances were kept on life support thanks to a hat trick by Sergio Aguero to beat Bayern Munich 3-2 at home.  That qualify form carried over into the EPL as Man City trounced Southampton 3-0 on the road to jump leapfrog them into second place in the EPL standings.  Man City followed that up with another road victory in the EPL, this time 4-1 over Sunderland.  Man City returned home for a hard fought 1-0 victory over Everton in the EPL just hours after Chelsea lost to Newcastle to narrow Chelsea's lead in the table to just three points.  Man City not only won their sixth match in a row with a 2-0 road win over Roma in the Champions League but thanks to a CSKA loss to Bayern Munich, Man City improbably qualified for the knockout stages of the Champions League thanks to taking 6 points in their last two Champions League matches after they earned just two points in their first four matches.

Here are my updated player rankings for Man City following their best six match stretch (so far) of the 2014-15 season:

6) Samir Nasri (M, LR 7): If Man City are somehow able to win the Champions League this year, there is no doubt that Nasri's howler that put Man City up 1-0 over Roma will go down as one of the more important goals in club history.  Last year I was bummed that Man City finished second in their group to Bayern Munich because it mean that they faced Barcelona in the knockout stage.  This year, I am just happy to see Man City progress to the knockout stage.  Given Champions League knockout stage rules, since Man City finished second in their group they will face one of the eight group winners but cannot face the team from their group (Bayern Munich) or another club from their country (Chelsea), which leaves six other teams that Man City could face in the knockout stage.  Here are my rankings of the match-ups from best to worst for Man City: FC Porto, AS Monaco, Athletico Madrid, Borussia Dortmund, Barcelona, and Real Madrid. It is all gravy in the Champions League at this point given how dire things looked just two matches ago in the group stages.  As long as Man City do NOT have to face Real Madrid or Barcelona in the knockout stages, I like their chances to move onto the quarterfinals and one step closer to a Champions League title.

2014-15 Player Rankings 3.0
1. Sergio Aguero (F, LR 1)
2. Vincent Kompany (D, LR 2)
3. Yaya Toure (M, LR 3)
4. David Silva (M, LR 4)
5. Pablo Zabaleta (D, LR 5)
6. Samir Nasri (M, LR 7)
7. Edin Dzeko (F, LR 6)
8. Joe Hart (GK, LR 8)

9. James Milner (M, LR 9)
10. Jesus Navas (M, LR 10)
11. Eliaquim Mangala (D, LR 15) 12. Stevan Jovetic (F, LR 13)
13. Aleksandar Kolarov (D, LR 11)
14. Fernandinho (M, LR 12)
15. Fernando (M, LR 14)
16. Gael Clichy (D, LR 16)
17. Martin Demichelis (D, LR 17)

18. Bacary Sagna (D, LR 18)
19. Willy Caballero (GK, LR 19)
20. José Ángel Pozo (M, LR 23)
21. Dedryck Boyata (D, LR 20)
22. Scott Sinclair (M, LR 22)
23. Matija Nastasic (D, LR 21)
24. Sinan Bytyqi (M, LR 24)
25. Frank Lampard (M, LR 25)
26. Richard Wright (GK, LR 26)
18) Bacary Sagna (D, LR 18): Given that Gareth Barry and Javi Garcia were sold this summer, I really had to stretch to find a current member of Man City besides Frank Lampard that looks likely to play for Man City's MLS "Sister" club New York City FC.  Despite the fact that Sagna joined Man City on a free transfer from Arsenal this summer, Man City signed Sagna to a three-year, $235,000 a week contract.  That weekly contract is way too rich for a striker as a designated player, let alone a right back so I would be shocked if Sagna left for New York City FC till after his contract expires after the 2016-17 season.  This is really an elaborate ruse to recap New York City FC's expansion draft results couched under a description of a current Man City player so instead of trying to continue this ruse, let's just look at New York City FC's expansion draft results.  Subject to a number of rules, Orlando and New York City FC were each able to select 10 players in the expansion draft.  Here are the players that NYCFC selected: Ned Grabavoy (M, Salt Lake), Patrick Mullins (F, New England), Jason Hernandez (D, San Jose), Daniel Lovitz (M, Toronto), Tony Taylor (F, New England), Mehdi Ballouchy (M, Vancouver), George John (D, Dallas), Thomas McNamara (M, D.C. United), Sal Zizzo (M, Kansas City), and Chris Wingert (D, Salt Lake).  I will do my best to brush up on the list above because before today I had never heard of any of those guys besides Mullins and John.  I am the same guy that gets up at the crack of dawn on the weekends to catch EPL matches so I am not sure if that is more of an indictment on me or the MLS that I only know two of the ten MLS players selected by New York City FC in the MLS expansion draft.

20) José Ángel Pozo (M, LR 23): With Sergio Aguero out until at least the start of 2015 and possibly longer, the third striker available to Pellegrini is Pozos, which seems downright crazy given that Man City is one of the richest clubs in the world.  Some referred to Pozos as "Mini Messi", in the words of Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers R-E-L-A-X.  Sure Rodgers used relax differently than I am using it here but let's keep in mind that Pozos is only 18 years old while Messi is arguably the best club striker of all-time even though he is only 27 years old.  Before you get too excited, note the use of the word "club".  I know Messi has NOT won a World Cup with Argentina, which is why I said he is the most successful club striker.  If Messi were to somehow win a World Cup in 2018 in Russia or 2022 in Qatar, with all due respect to Pele, he will go down as the best striker of all-time.  Back to Pozos, the fact that he is the third option at striker with Aguero out is exactly the reason that I did NOT support Man City's decision to loan out striker Alvaro Negredo to help comply with UEFA Financial Fair Play Regulations.  Let's hope that Pozos can grow up fast or Aguero can recover from injury sooner rather expected, otherwise Man City's title chase could be over before the start of 2015 because of Man City's packed but relatively easy EPL slate for the rest of 2014: road against Leicester, home against Crystal Palace, road against West Brom, and home against Burnley.  That does NOT mean Man City should get complacent though because anything less than 12 points will be a disappointment.

Check back following Man City's match at home against Burnley for my thoughts on how Man City manager Manuel Pellegrini should approach the January transfer window.