2009 NEXT Candidates: The Back and Forth

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You can always visit the entire 2009 NEXT candidates page by going here.

Voting for NEXT 2009 begins on Monday. This week, we've laid out a bunch of content for ya: nominations, photo galleries, equating Joey Logano to Leonardo DiCaprio in Titanic, four videos and much more (it's all on that link above). Now, we're letting four experts and fans hash out the central issue here: who should be NEXT? (To familiarize yourself with "The Back and Forth" as a concept, go here.)

Your reps: ESPN The Magazine senior writer Ryan McGee (dude is all over NASCAR) will be arguing for Logano; Atlanta Magazine writer Jay Busbee is gonna handle Matt Ryan (Busbee has a NASCAR blog at Yahoo, so picking Ryan over Logano was a labor of the heart in deference to his beloved Falcons); blogger Larry Brown, who watches more baseball than the guys Billy Beane made irrelevant, will be arguing for David Price and a combination of Magazine producer/editor Ted Bauer (who knows nothing) and an international basketball scout (who doesn't want to be named, but knows a lot) will be arguing for Ricky Rubio.

Here we go now.

Well, first things first. I need the rest of you to speak up so I can hear you over the 800-horsepower engine of Joey Logano's #20 Home Depot Camry.

That's just my point, Ryan. Didn't JGR get busted for cheating at Michigan? I'm not convinced it's Joey Logano making the difference behind the wheel so much as it is racing for JGR. Take the #20 car in the Nationwide Series this yearyou could stick anyone behind the wheel and it would win. What makes Logano any more special than Tony Stewart, Kyle Busch, or Denny Hamlin? We'll find out what Logano's made of next year when he's racing with the big boys, which he hasn't done too good of a job at so far (no higher than 32nd in three Sprint Cup races). Now if anyone is NEXT, it's David Price.

The Rays phenom hasn't even thrown 20 innings in his big league career but he's already proven he's the real deal. I don't have to say anything further than Game 7 of the ALCS. The 23-year-old (he still qualifies as a rookie next season!) struck out J.D. Drew with the bases loaded in a 3-1 game to end the 8th, and then finished off the defending champion Red Sox for a four-out save to send his team to its first World Series in franchise history. Price went a combined 12-1 in the minors this year and rose from single-A ball all the way to the majors where he pitched in the freaking World Series. Not only did he dominate at the low levels, but Price was equally dominant against the highest level of competition on the highest stage you can possibly get. With that 96mph fastball coming out of his intimidating 6'6" frame and a slider that makes hitters' knees buckle, Price has already shown us he's the second coming of Randy Johnson, and that's why he's NEXT.

Aw Larry, you know better than that. Saying Logano can win only because he's in a JGR cheated-up ride is like saying David Price couldn't throw strikes until he pitched under the O-Rings at The Trop.

When Logano was a preteen racing Legends Cars, basically souped-up go-karts, Mark Martin took one look at him and declared Joey "the future of NASCAR." Pretty heady stuff from a Hall of Famer who was watching his own son get whipped by the kid they now call "Sliced Bread," as in "best thing since&"

Long before Coach Gibbs gave him a contract, it was just Joey and his Pops building their own cars and towing them to short tracks in New England and Georgia. When he won his first Nationwide Series pole and race this summer in his second and third races, it was just verification that he was indeed as fast as advertised.

Give him a grocery cart with a lawn mower engine and I bet he would have still made the show at Michigan.

Price was astounding in October. Logano's potential is limitless. But neither one of them has had to bear the burden of relaunching an entire franchise. If Matt Ryan had just made it through this season without turning cannibal, he'd have done enough to put distance between the Falcons and M------ V----. But he's doing what everyone hoped but nobody really expectedbecoming the new face of a franchise before Atlanta's disbelieving eyes.

Take the Philadelphia game this season. The Falcons got jobbed on a blown call, a muffed-punt-that-wasn't that cost Atlanta the ball with three minutes left in the game. To a fan, everyone believed that if Matty Ice got the chance, he'd have put together a game-winning drive. That wasn't just chuck-it-up-and-pray hope, that was the fervent belief that in just half a season, Ryan has already developed the composure to march the Falcons down the field to victory.

Take Price away from the Rays, and you've still got a postseason-quality team. (For the moment.) Take Logano away from JGR, and you've still got two Chase-level drivers in Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin. But take Ryan away from the Falcons, and you'd think about taking the "under" on a one-win season. If he's not NEXT, it's only because he's already here.

Ryan, love that line about the grocery cart and lawn mower engine. I'm not saying Logano can't win, I'm saying until I see him win on the Sprint Cup series, he's not NEXT. We've already seen Price perform at the highest level and under the greatest amount of pressure, that's why I'm convinced he's NEXT. Jay, I think you're right that Matt Ryan's already here. We've seen quarterbacks do well in their first year of action, but that was after sitting for a while (see Carson Palmer, Aaron Rodgers). You hardly ever see a rookie quarterback start Week 1 of the season and have the type of success he's had, especially considering the perceived lack of talent on the Falcons. I really am in awe of what Ryan's doing for Atlanta and can't think of any other rookie who had his type of success recently, save Ben Roethlisberger, and Big Ben had great talent around him.

While I already think Matt Ryan has arrived and that he's the real deal, I give Price the nod as being NEXT because I see Price as being more dominant at what he does. I see a few Cy Youngs, crazy strike out totals, and a few 20-win seasons from the Rays' lefty. Although Ryan has already enjoyed success in the league, I don't see him as a 4,000 yard or 30 touchdown quarterback that will not only win, but also dominate statiscally. I think Price will do both and that's why I give him the edge.

Look, picking 'NEXT' can be a tricky thing. Even though Kordell Stewart is doing swimmingly as an ESPN analyst right now, he probably shouldn't have shared that first cover with Kobe, A-Rod and Lindros, given the output of the other three. It's a tough task to even select the nominees, and all four of these dudes seem pretty legitimate. You've got a future franchise pitcher, a future franchise QB and a future franchise racing team anchor. So, someone in these offices is doing something right.

With Rubio, we've heard about the globalization of the game for years now. The San Antonio Spurs have four rings with teams that consist of a good deal of international players generally, and Dirk did lead the Mavericks to the 2006 NBA Finals. The Utah Jazz, who may have more Europeans than some New York sidewalk cafes, are perpetually knocking on the door. Rubio is in a position to continue this trend, and give the NBA a bona-fide youthful international superstar. We're not saying Duncan, Manu, Tony and Dirk AREN'T superstarsthey are in many respects. Rubio has all the skills to take it to an even higher level, andDavid Stern and Adam Silver breathe easy, Josh Childress and Brandon Jennings be damnedmake the flow of talent go the way it's supposed to go, that being Europe ----- > USA.

We'll reference two quick co-worker stories on Rubio, because aren't co-workers the driving force of everything you know anyway? Our man Max Klinger once did a ten question interview with D-Wade. He slipped in a Rubio/Jennings question regarding the 2009 Draft and what did Wade say? Read it here, although if you don't like clicking on links, a summary: "He goes at about a hundred miles per hour." As for Magazine general editor Chris Sprow, Washington-raised? Says the other day in the office: "My dream is for Seattle to get a team back in time to get Rubio." Former Finals MVP praising his game? Dejected Seattle fan anointing him as the future? Sounds like NEXT to us.

Regarding Rubio: absolutely right! Rubio's the greatest! An immortal! A player for theoh, wait, this isn't 2012? Sure, Rubio is looking good on grainy YouTube videos, but until he starts delivering night after night against the greatest talent in the world, the "Darko" anchor will hang around his neck.

Price is undoubtedly major-league talent, but still cruising on the first-time-through-the-league high. It's undeniable that he made one of the finest postseason debuts in baseball history, but then so did Andruw Jones, and he never again approached his two-homers-in-his-first-game heights.

Logano is tougher to pigeonhole, since he's been racing with less-than-top-flight equipment and without the essential all-star crew that he'll have next season once Tony Stewart has moved on. Still, his average start has been 37th, and his average finish37th. Three races isn't much of a sample, granted, but he's got a ways to go before he's in NEXT territory.

Which leaves us with Ryan. Check these names: Peyton. Roethlisberger. Kerry Collins of the undefeated Titans. All of them have lower QB ratings than Matt Ryan. He's led the 5-3 Falcons to four more wins than anyone expected. He's already succeeding against the first rank of competition, and if he somehow manages to put the Falcons in the playoffs, heck with NEXTclear off a space in Canton for the guy.

I'll see your Peyton, Roethlisberger, and Kerry Collins and raise you a Bobby Labonte, Tony Stewart, Denny Hamlin, and Kyle Busch. Those are the drivers that have preceeded Logano at JGR, two Cup champs and two nubile phenoms. I was up at the Gibbs shop a couple of weeks ago and to a man (and woman) they all say that Sliced Bread is the best they've ever seen.

Of course they can't say that to Busch and Hamlin because both of those guys have shorter fuses than Yosemite Sam&but they said it to me and now I'm saying it to you. Best they've EVER seen.

That's good enough for me.

"Nubile phenoms"now I've got Kyle Busch and the swimsuit pictures of Danica from Sports Illustrated all mixed up in my head. Thanks, McGee. Thanks a lot.

Heck, maybe there is an argument for Price. ESPN The Magazine has already written features on Rubio (here), Logano (here) and Ryan (here). They talked about Price in their 2007 MLB Draft package, but it wasn't a "feature well" piece.

So, if the other guys have "arrived" in the form of national magazine coverage, they can't be NEXT, can they?

But wait a secondwouldn't you argue that shutting the door on the Red Sox, probably the best baseball team of the last five years, in Game 7 of the ALCS, means you've already arrived as well? Heck yes it does. Randy Johnson coulda done that when he was young too. Price is here. He can't be NEXT.

Same with Ryan. As weird as this sounds, the Falcons might make the playoffs! And he was darn good at BC too.

Logano? Dude gets more hype than Jimmie Johnson, it seems.

The big enigma in the 2009 NEXT discussion is Rubio. People kinda think he could be awesome, maybe think he could be the best international baller ever, but no one really knows. Isn't part of the glory of the NEXT concept that you're throwing something out there based on careful study, but more than anything, you're excited for the games to play out so that you can find out if you're right? That's what makes it fun! We already know about three of these guys. We still have to dance the dance of intrigue with Ricky and that's why you gotta choose him as NEXT.