Friday, August 22, 2008

2008 Season Predictions Part 2 -- Western Division

Be sure to read Part 1 to see how I am breaking the teams down.

Western Division:

1st Place: San Francisco Mechanics

Strongest Lineups:

1st / 2nd: Two of Wolff / Friedel / Bhat / Pruess / Donaldson
3rd: Shankland
4th: Naroditsky / Young

1st: Bhat
2nd: Pruess
3rd: Donaldson
4th: Naroditsky / Young

Strength / Flexibility: San Francisco continues to stick to the creed of "experience at the top, youth at the bottom", something which has served them very well all three seasons, and it seems probable to do so again this season. The Mechanics definitely have a good array of ways to fill their top two boards as only their Board Three flexibility seeming a possible issue, with it being very likely that Shankland will have to have the vast majority of the action there. However, given his rather over the top overall league performance in the past two seasons, it seems that it would be hard to find someone better suited for the task. Along with him, having World Under 12 Champion Naroditsky and US Junior Co-Champion Young to hold down the bottom board, things look as bright as ever for San Francisco this year. Score: 8.

Underrated Players: The Mechanics seem to have the league easily trumped in this regard. While having a fourth board (Naroditsky) who is around 150 points higher than his league rating might not that be unusual in the league, having a board three also with the same advantage (Shankland) gives them some lineups of really ridiculous strength (not dissimilar to the huge edge Boston had last year with Shmelov and Williams on the bottom boards which lead them to the League Finals). Add to that the fact that Bhat, who by every indication is unquestionably stronger than his league rating, a lineup with all three of them seems rather ridiculous when compared to its probable current strength. I think San Francisco trumps the rest of the league here. Score: 10.

Dedication: I have to also put the Mechanics higher than any other team in this category as I simply know of no other team who puts as much preparation into their matches as the Mechanics and that's really by quite a large margin. They certainly aren't lacking in the unity department either with several of their players training together on a regular basis. I think San Francisco trumps the rest of the league here as well. Score: 10.

Other Factors: The main possible worry for the Mechanics may be of similar nature to last season. With Wolff expecting a child soon along with them having three (!) Samford Fellows on the roster who may well be traveling abroad at some point for further chess pursuits, it's very possible their ability to use the rosters they would really want might be somewhat compromised (something which may well have happened in last year's heartbreaking Wildcard loss). Score: 5.

Total Score: 33
Projected Record: 7 – 3

2nd Place: Dallas Destiny

Strongest lineups:

1st / 2nd: Two of Boskovic / Zivanic / Kuljasevic / Bartholomew / Stopa
3rd: Shneider / Vedrickas
4th: Zorigt

1st / 2nd: Two of Zivanic / Kuljasevic / Bartholomew
3rd: Stopa
4th: Zorigt

Strength / Flexibility: Dallas definitely seems to have taken an unusual path with their roster; giving themselves a great amount of choices on how to fill out the top boards, but only a single way to ever fill out the bottom (except when using alternates). Granted Zorigt, being an All Star last year, is almost certainly not a bad choice to fill such big shoes, but it nevertheless does raise concerns about their general flexibility. I still really like their rosters in general, especially those with Stopa on Board Three (and such rosters certainly showcased their power last year on the way to the Championship). While the fact that Stopa didn't play an excessive amount last season might be a concern, he did in the most important matches for them, and if he's available to do so again, Dallas may well be the first repeat champions. Score: 8.

Underrated Players: Once again, with many of their players not having played a great amount in the US, it's difficult to gauge how accurate their ratings might be. One can however make some pretty reasonable assumptions based on their league play, and I think it's safe to say that both Kuljasevic and Stopa fit the bill here. Score: 7.

Dedication: With UTD having won every Collegiate Championship one (at least me) can remember and their players basically all from those teams, obviously they have the knowledge of what it takes to win at team events and likely the team unity to match. Granted, this is probably a much more level playing field than they deal with in the college tourneys but still a key ingredient for them. One does often forget though that while the Dallas players are in something of a chess environment, they are still at the core all students whose most difficult part of the semester likely occurs around playoff time. Score: 7.

Other Factors: The previous two defending champions really didn't come close to repeating (neither making the Semifinals), and I'm sure Dallas is looking to change that. It is unfortunate for them that their Championship Roster from last season (Boskovic + Kuljasevic + Stopa + Zorigt) can't be used again this year, but given the addition of Zivanic and the continued presence of Bartholomew, that may well not be much of a detraction. Score: 8.

Total Score: 30
Projected Record: 6 – 4

3rd Place: Seattle Sluggers

Strongest Lineups:

1st: Nakamura
2nd: Serper
3rd: Readey / Lee / Sinanan
4th: May

1st: Nakamura / Serper
2nd: Tangborn
3rd: Mikhailuk
4th: May

1st: Nakamura / Serper
2nd: Tangborn / Mikhailuk
3rd / 4th: Two of Readey / Lee / Sinanan

(can't use Nakamura + Tangborn + Readey + Lee)

Strength / Flexibility: One can only postulate about how much Nakamura might play, but assuming he does so regularly, the double GM lineups Seattle can throw at their opponents look very dangerous. Even if that doesn't happen often, Seattle still has a very flexible collection of lineups headed by a single GM which have always been very solid in the past, and there's no reason why that should change now. Score: 8.

Underrated Players: Seattle has really had their big trumps on Board Four in this category in the first two seasons, and they have one again with May, but this year they seem to have also spread this luxury out a bit. Adding the highest rated player in the league, Nakamura, to the team, Serper who has turned in near All Star performances in both seasons, and the still underrated Lee, now probably mostly playing on Board Three, they seem to have a good distribution of underrated players to take advantage of in every spot. Score: 8.

Dedication: With their top player Nakamura residing a few hours away, it seems unlikely there will be much preparation involved when using him. I know he has stated his desire to do better this season, and I'm sure most hope along with me that that is indeed the case, as if he can perform at his true strength, Seattle could well be the best team in the league. While of course there are reasons to be skeptical if that will be true, I think the rest of the Seattle team has shown a good amount of dedication in their first two seasons so they should have no reason to fear. Score: 5.

Other Factors: Seattle, due in large part to their late starting matches, has always been one of the lesser watched teams. However, the addition of Nakamura seems likely to take them from the low end of the spectrum to the top in a hurry. If the Sluggers can feed off the general energy that his playing is certain to create while also maintaining their general solid nature, the mix could provide what Seattle needs to rise back to the top in 2008. Score: 7.

Total Score: 28
Projected Record: 5.5 – 4.5

4th Place: Miami Sharks

Strongest Lineups:

1st: Becerra
2nd / 3rd: Two of Martinez / Lopez / Lugo / Perea
4th: Perez

1st: Becerra
2nd: Martinez / Lopez / Lugo / Perea
3rd: Galofre
4th: Rodriguez

1st / 2nd / 3rd: Three of Martinez / Lopez / Lugo / Perea
4th: Galofre / Rodriguez

(can't use Martinez + Lopez + Galofre here)

Strength / Flexibility: Another very unusual roster as the Sharks seem to be somewhat sacrificing strength for a huge amount of flexibility. Using a player of rating 1860 (though 1960 currently) is simply unheard of in the league. It's really tough to tell how using a lineup of a 2650, two 2500s, and an 1860 (Becerra + Martinez + Lopez + Perez) would really fare in the long term against the more traditional lineups of other teams but that will undoubtedly be put to the test this season. Hopefully the Sharks can also finally field a lineup without their star Becerra which isn't at a severe rating disadvantage as they've really suffered the few times in the last two seasons when they've had to play without him. Score: 7.

Underrated Players: I often chastised Miami, like Baltimore, for not having a strong underrated player on the bottom board. Well they definitely have attempted to satisfy me, but I wasn't really anticipating they would do it in this fashion. Perez, while obviously an underrated and improving player, will still clearly be at a severe rating disadvantage in nearly all his games. On the other hand, if he can score a reasonable amount, Miami nearly by necessity will be a super powerful team, especially with two time MVP Becerra leading them. Score: 7.

Dedication: This has undoubtedly been the area where the Sharks have had huge problems with in the past couple of seasons, with many players canceling last minute putting them at a huge disadvantage both in terms of average rating and time penalties. That along with other responsibilities distracting their regulars (Miami Open and the Puerto Rico tournament) has been apt to put the Sharks in a hole. It's fervently hoped that the former issue will not be occurring again this season with their revitalized lineup, but the latter still seems likely to cause some issues. Score: 6.

Other Factors: Miami was definitely last year's Cinderella story, overcoming a 1 – 4 start to make it to the Semifinals. The league only seems to grow stronger as time passes which inevitably make it more difficult for any team to dig themselves out of a big early season hole. I have a feeling the first few matches showcasing the new Miami team will be very telling as to what path they will take this season. Score: 6.

Total Score: 26
Projected Record: 5 – 5

5th Place: Arizona Scorpions

Strongest Lineups:

1st: Barcellina / Altounian
2nd: Aldama
3rd: Harper
4th: Martinez

1st: Barcellina / Altounian
2nd: Ginsburg / Rensch
3rd: Adamson
4th: Harper

(can't use Barcellina + Ginsburg here)

1st: Aldama
2nd / 3rd: Two of Ginsburg / Rensch / Adamson
4th: Harper

1st: Barcellina / Altounian / Aldama
2nd / 3rd: Two of Ginsburg / Rensch / Adamson
4th: Martinez

Strength / Flexibility: The Scorpions seem to have taken on a similar path as the Destiny – giving themselves a large number of possibilities on the top three boards, but will largely rely on a single person for most of the Board Four responsibilities (not in entirety like Dallas but still very often). Although they do have a good degree of flexibility on the top boards that may in some sense be something of an illusion as physical location may be more of a determination of what lineup they happen to use in a particular week instead of what they feel to be the optimal choice (as Arizona will sometimes play from Phoenix and sometimes Tucson). Hopefully this does not impact them to the point where they end up having to use clearly suboptimal lineups, but it seems almost certain to hamper their choices to some degree. Score: 6.

Underrated Players: Unfortunately, it's hard to give the Scorpions much credit here, as other than Rensch and Haerper who have made some marginal ground in comparison to their league ratings, their players generally seem to be at fairly stable ratings. Score: 4.

Dedication: In one sense, I think Arizona may be one of the top teams in this regard as they've clearly shown their tremendous dedication both in getting a team to begin with and how enthusiastic they've been in other regards (most notably blogging). I can only assume these qualities will translate to appropriate preparation and team unity. While I still have concerns about how physical location may affect their ability to prepare as a team, I still give them high marks here. Score: 8.

Other Factors: Arizona may have both expansion team blues as well as player rust to contend with as it seems several of their players, most notably Barcellina, have not been especially active on the tournament scene recently. Once again, I think Arizona seems to be dedicated enough that they will be determined not to let either of those issues hinder them, but determination is not always enough. Score: 7.

Total Score: 25
Projected Record: 4.5 – 5.5

6th Place: Chicago Blaze

Strongest Lineups:

1st: Mitkov
2nd / 3rd: Two of Van de Mortel / Felecan / Tate / Pasalic / Young
4th: Meerovich / Strunk

(can't use Van de Mortel + Felecan here)

1st: Van de Mortel / Felecan
2nd: Tate
3rd: Pasalic
4th: Young

Strength / Flexibility: Chicago is very strong in this regard, having available rosters very similar to others with a GM, two IMs, and an improving youngster on Board Four. They also though have access to a very unusual roster, namely the four IM roster I alluded to at the beginning of this article (perhaps not four IMs in actuality, but given Pasalic is an IM-elect, close enough for my purposes). I have no idea how much they intend to use that roster, but having access to it definitely seems like it could pay dividends. Score: 8.

Underrated Players: The Blaze, like most teams, have youthful players anchoring on the bottom board. However, unlikely many other teams, it's tough to reasonably ascribe their anchors, who while likely improving, as really being "underrated" when the team is using very recent ratings as their league ratings. More promising may be both Tate and Young, both who have had ratings far higher than their league ratings at many stages of their career. Whether their recent drop represents a decline, inconsistency, or a bad run is really anyone's guess, but if Chicago can gain an edge in this phase, it likely would be through them. Score: 4.

Dedication: Unfortunately, Chicago's pre-season took a disturbing turn when their top two players ended up leaving the team. While that might simply have been a personal issue of the players, it can't help but raise serious concerns about just how dedicated the rest of their roster might really be to the team and just the general excitement and unity the team has if something like that can happen right before the season. While their fans and promoters seem more excited about the league than perhaps any other team, if the players are not so as well, that doesn't seem to equate to success. It's also hard to know how Tate will fit into the roster given his distance, but that can naturally cause further preparation and unity issues. Score: 5.

Other Factors: When I saw Chicago's original roster, I really felt that they might well be reasonable candidates to hold the top spot in the West. While, as mentioned, recent events have definitely troubled me as to what the future really holds for them, that nevertheless seems to be something which is really in their own hands. They still definitely have very strong lineups and players and to me the first few matches will be very telling as to whether the recent unrest will end up being a mere nuisance or a catastrophe. Score: 7.

Total Score: 24
Projected Record: 4 – 6

7th Place: Tennessee Tempo

Strongest Lineups:

1st: Ehlvest
2nd: Burnett
3rd: Andrews / Bereolos
4th: Bick / Wheeler / McCarthy / Larson

Strength / Flexibility: For the first time the Tempo have four players on their roster that together would not be a legal lineup. Obviously, this indicates what a great stride they have taken to heal their general strength issue which has been a monkey on their back for both seasons. While that's obviously a great first step, it's still tough to give them very good marks when it comes to flexibility as they still need both Ehlvest and Burnett in every roster to really match other teams in the league rating-wise. It's also really anyone's guess how much Ehlvest might actually play, given he only played four matches in 2006 when competing for Philadelphia. That, along with the fact that there is a much greater distance involved for him to compete this year, makes it seem unlikely to me that he will play in the majority of their matches. I personally hope I'm wrong, but objectively I really can't give Tennessee a high mark in this category until I know for sure. Score: 4.

Underrated Players: As a team of mostly grizzled veterans, this is another place where Tennessee has never had many assets in. While that certainly changes with the addition of the high rated Ehlvest, especially if he can perform at the level he did in 2006, I'm not sure they have any bright spots here other than him. Score: 4.

Dedication: The Tempo have always been one of the most dedicated teams in the league, and now that they have moved to the point where they can be clear playoff contenders, I would anticipate that such motivation would only grow. While it's unlikely their top player will be a part of that preparation, I still give Tennessee high marks here. Score: 8.

Other Factors: To me there have really been two major issues which have held the Tempo back from being a far better team in their first two seasons. The first obviously lies in their inherent rating disadvantage which hopefully they have solved for a good portion of their matches this season. However, the second issue has been a constant knack for blundering late in their matches when they often appeared to be on the verge of winning or drawing. If the Tempo can solve that issue as well, they might well be completely unrecognizable in 2008. Score: 6.

Total Score: 22
Projected Record: 3 – 7

Stay tuned for Part 3 to see who I think will emerge victorious at the end!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Wow, the West division is stacked this year. Definitely the toughest division.