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For the Big Ten, the BCS Era was marred with lackluster BCS national championship game performances. The league as a whole won just one national title during the 16-year BCS Era and that title came all the way back in 2002.
But from a national awards standpoint, the Big Ten matches up with the best college football has to offer. During the BCS Era alone, the Big Ten's trophy case looks like this: Two Heisman Trophies, six Rimington Trophies, five Doak Walker Awards, five Outland Trophies, five Thorpe Awards, four Bednarik Awards, four Butkus Awards, three John Mackey Awards, three Maxwell Awards, three Ray Guy Awards, three Walter Camp Awards, two Biletnikoff Awards, two Davey O’Brien Awards, two Lombardi Awards, two Lott IMPACT Trophies, two Lou Groza Awards, two Ted Hendrick Awards, and one Nagurski Award.
Trying to narrow this list down to 25 names was nearly impossible but here are Athlon Sports' Top 25 Big Ten players of the BCS Era. The only stipulation is that you must have played at least one season between 1998-13 in the conference.
1. Drew Brees, QB, Purdue (1997-2000)
Stats: 11,792 yds, 90 TDs, 45 INTs, 61.2%, 925 yds, 14 TDs
The two-time Big Ten Player of the Year led Purdue back to the Rose Bowl and finished among the top four in Heisman voting twice (1999, 2000). He set the NCAA record for passes attempted in a game with 83 against Wisconsin in 1998 (broken in 2013) and is the Big Ten's all-time leader in completions (1,026), passing yards, passing touchdowns, total offense (12,692) and total touchdowns (104). His 39 touchdown passes in 1998 are still a single-season Big Ten record by a wide margin. He was a second-round pick of the Chargers in 2001, has posted four of the eight 5,000-yard passing seasons in NFL history and is a Super Bowl champion.
2. LaVar Arrington, LB, Penn State (1997-99)
Few college players were as intimidating as the rabid Nittany Lions linebacker. Arrington was an elite leader who helped Penn State to a 28-9 record during his three-year tenure in Happy Valley. He was named as the Butkus and Lambert Award winner as the nation’s top linebacker and was the recipient of the Chuck Bednarik Award as the nation’s top defensive player after 72 tackles, 20 for a loss, nine sacks and two blocked kicks in 1999. He was a consensus All-American and is credited with arguably the signature defensive play of the BCS Era when he leapt over the Illinois offensive line on 4th-and-1 to secure the win. Arrington consistently delivered crushing blows and wound up as the No. 2 overall pick in the 2000 NFL Draft by the Redskins.
3. Ron Dayne, RB, Wisconsin (1996-99)
Stats: 1,220 att., 7,125 yds, 71 TDs, 31 rec., 304 yds
Ricky Williams’ NCAA rushing record didn’t last for very long as the New Jersey native came along the very next year and put everyone in the history of the sport in his rearview mirror. Dayne is the only player in history with 7,000 yards rushing and is one of four players to score at least 70 rushing touchdowns. He carried the ball more than any player in NCAA history (1,220) and he owns multiple BCS bowl rushing records with his two Rose Bowl MVP performances. He capped his illustrious career with a magical 2,000-yard Heisman Trophy and Big Ten championship season. The consensus All-American won Big Ten Player of the Year, Maxwell, Walter Camp and Doak Walker recognition in his final season in Madison. His 2,109 yards in 1996 are still a Big Ten single-season record. His career 7,429 yards from scrimmage may never be broken.
4. Joe Thomas, OT, Wisconsin (2004-06)
One of the few big-time recruits from the state of Wisconsin, Thomas was a two-time All-American and Outland Trophy winner for a team that went 31-7 during his three seasons as the starting left tackle. He has rare foot speed, agility and overall athletic ability — and it’s why he has been to the Pro Bowl in all seven of his NFL seasons. He was taken No. 3 overall in 2007 by the Cleveland Browns and is the best Big Ten offensive lineman of the BCS Era.
5. James Laurinaitis, LB, Ohio State (2005-08)
Few players in the nation were as decorated, productive, talented and successful as the Minneapolis native. Laurinaitis won the Butkus, Nagurski, two Lambert Awards and two Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year awards while being a three-time All-American. He posted three straight seasons of at least 115 tackles and helped Ohio State win a share of four Big Ten titles, including two trips to the BCS National Championship Game. The Buckeyes' tackler was taken in the second round of the 2009 NFL Draft.
6. Antoine Winfield, CB, Ohio State (1995-98)
Winfield might be the most underrated defensive back in the history of all levels of football. The consensus All-American helped Ohio State win 43 games in four years and nearly (or should have) played in the first BCS National Championship Game in 1998. He was given the Thorpe and Tatum honors as a senior as the nation’s top defensive back before being selected 23rd overall in the 1999 NFL Draft.
7. Paul Posluszny, LB, Penn State (2003-06)
As a junior, the Nittany Lions tackler was recognized as the nation’s top LB when he posted 116 tackles (11.0 TFL) en route to a Big Ten championship, consensus All-American honors and both the Butkus and Bednarik Awards. He followed that up as a senior with a second Bednarik Award and second consensus All-American nod. The in-state Aliquippa (Pa.) Hopewell product was a second-round pick by the Bills in 2007. He left school as Penn State's all-time leading tackler with 372 total stops.
8. Braylon Edwards, WR, Michigan (2001-04)
Stats: 252 rec., 3,541 yds, 39 TDs
Not many players have three consecutive seasons with at least 1,000 yards and 10 touchdowns but that is what the Detroit native did at Michigan. He was uncoverable during his time at Ann Arbor, setting school records in every major receiving category. His 39 career touchdowns remain a Big Ten record. Edwards claimed Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year honors and the Biletnikoff Award as a senior in 2004. The consensus All-American finished 10th in the Heisman voting that season as well.
9. Greg Eslinger, C, Minnesota (2002-05)
Not many centers have an Outland Trophy on their mantle at home but Eslinger has one when he was named the best lineman in America in 2005. He was a freshman All-American in 2002, a third-team All-American as a sophomore, a first-teamer in '04 and earned consensus All-American honors as a senior. He won the Rimington Trophy as the nation’s top center and earned Big Ten Lineman of the Year honors in ’05 as well. The best stat for Eslinger, however, is that Minnesota never had a losing record during his four-year career and he helped lead the Gophers to their first 10-win campaign since 1905.
10. Andy Katzenmoyer, LB, Ohio State (1996-98)
His pro career notwithstanding, this Buckeye was one of college football’s greatest tacklers during his time in Columbus. He was the first true freshman to ever start at linebacker for the Buckeyes, won the Butkus and Lambert Awards as just a sophomore and nearly led OSU to the inaugural BCS title game in 1998. He started all 37 games of his college career and finished with 18 sacks and 50.0 tackles for a loss. He was a first-round pick by the Patriots in 1999.
11. Russell Wilson, QB, NC State/Wisconsin (2008-11)
Stats: 11,720 yds, 109 TDs, 30 INTs, 60.9%, 1,421 yds, 23 TDs
Not many players own school records for two different programs but Wilson excelled in both the ACC and Big Ten. He posted the single greatest season by a Wisconsin quarterback in history en route to a league crown and near national title berth. He owns the NCAA record for consecutive games with a touchdown pass (38) and the single-season mark for passing efficiency at 191.8. His 33 touchdown passes in 2011 are second all-time in B1G history to only Brees' 39. He was elite at NC State, elite at Wisconsin and has already led Seattle to its first Super Bowl championship. Needless to say, he is one of the greatest college quarterbacks in history.
12. Jamar Fletcher, CB, Wisconsin (1998-2000)
The Badgers’ coverman has as complete a resume as any during the BCS Era. He was a two-time, first-team All-American and three-time, first-team All-Big Ten selection. He helped Wisconsin to back-to-back Big Ten and Rose Bowl championships and was the only Big Ten defensive back of the BCS Era to be named the outright Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year. He holds UW’s all-time record with 21 interceptions and was named the nation’s top defensive back with the Thorpe and Tatum Trophies as a senior in 2000. He was a first-round pick in 2001.
13. Jake Long, OT, Michigan (2004-07)
The No. 1 overall pick in the 2007 NFL Draft by the Miami Dolphins was a two-time All-American and Outland Trophy finalist. He was a Freshman All-American in his first year and was named Big Ten Lineman of the Year twice (junior and senior seasons) — one of just two players to accomplish this feat during the BCS Era. The 6-foot-7, 320-pounder won a Big Ten championship as a freshman and has been to four Pro Bowls in his six-year NFL career.
14. Steve Hutchinson, OG, Michigan (1997-2000)
Starting for four seasons for the Wolverines, Hutchinson helped the Maize and Blue win the 1997 national championship. He capped his career with consensus All-American honors, was an Outland Trophy finalist and didn’t allow a sack in his final two seasons at Michigan. He was a first-round pick by the Seahawks in 2001 and earned seven Pro Bowl invites during his 12-year NFL career.
15. Charles Rogers, WR, Michigan State (2001-02)
Stats: 135 rec., 2,821 yds, 27 TDs, 110 rush, TD, 177 ret. yds, TD
The in-state product from Saginaw played just two seasons for the Spartans but was an All-Big Ten performer both years. He posted back-to-back seasons with at least 1,200 yards and 12 touchdowns, earning consensus All-American and Biletnikoff honors in 2002. He set an NCAA record with 13 straight games with a TD catch (since broken) and owns just about every Michigan State receiving record. His 1,470 yards in 2001 trail only one player in Big Ten history…
16. Mike Doss, S, Ohio State (1999-2002)
The Buckeyes safety was a rare three-time All-American, three-time, first-team All-Big Ten pick and was named co-Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year in 2002 for the BCS National Champions. Doss started 40 of 50 possible career games and was named the 2002 Fiesta Bowl MVP. He finished his career with 331 career tackles, eight interceptions, eight fumbles recovered and 6.0 sacks. He was a second-round pick in the 2003 NFL Draft.
17. Montee Ball, RB, Wisconsin (2009-12)
Stats: 924 att., 5,140 yds, 77 TDs, 59 rec., 598 yds, 6 TDs
Ball won’t ever be confused with the most talented running backs of the BCS Era but few have been as successful and productive. No one player in the history of the sport has scored as many touchdowns (77 rushing, 83 total) as the Missouri native. He also finished fourth in the Heisman balloting as a junior and won the Doak Walker Award as a senior while leading the Badgers to three straight Big Ten championships. His 39 touchdowns in 2011 tied Barry Sanders for the all-time single-season record and Ball earned consensus All-American honors in both seasons. He is fourth all-time in Big Ten history in rushing and is one of just five players in league history to top 5,000 yards in a career.
18. Larry Johnson, RB, Penn State (1999-02)
Stats: 460 att., 2,953 yds, 26 TDs, 65 rec., 681 yds, 7 TDs, 1,181 ret. yds, 3 TDs
The State College local prospect was starter for just one season, but it was special. He rushed for 2,087 yards (second all-time only to Dayne) and 20 touchdowns on 7.7 yards per carry in 2002, earning consensus All-American honors as well as the Doak Walker, Maxwell and Walter Camp Awards. He finished third in the Heisman Trophy race and brought elite size and speed to the backfield. His 327 yards against Indiana in '02 is the sixth-best single-game total in Big Ten history and his 2,655 all-purpose yards that year are still a single-season Big Ten record. He was a first-round pick of the Chiefs in 2002.
19. A.J. Hawk, LB, Ohio State (2002-05)
Yet another Buckeyes great, Hawk started 38 of his 51 career college games for Ohio State. He contributed to the 2002 BCS National Championship squad as a freshman before earning two-time consensus All-American honors in 2004-05. As a senior, Hawk earned the Lombardi and Lambert Trophies for his play and was named Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year. He finished his career with 394 tackles, 41.0 for a loss, 15.5 sacks and seven interceptions. He was the fifth overall pick in the 2006 NFL Draft by the Packers.
20. Dallas Clark, TE, Iowa (2000-02)
Stats: 77 rec., 1,251 yds, 8 TDs
The walk-on began his career as a linebacker but quickly developed into a star at tight end. He earned All-Big Ten recognition as a sophomore and then became the nation’s top tight end as a junior in 2002. The John Mackey Award winner caught 43 passes for 742 yards and four touchdowns while helping Iowa (11-2) to a Big Ten co-championship and Orange Bowl berth. The dynamic in-state talent was a first-round pick and proved in the NFL that his college career was no fluke.
21. Gabe Carimi, OT, Wisconsin (2007-10)
Carimi perpetuated the run of elite Badgers blockers by stepping in for the departed Joe Thomas and starting all 13 games as a freshman. By his senior season, Carimi was the Big Ten Offensive Lineman of the Year, the Outland Trophy winner as the best blocker in the nation, and was a consensus All-American. He started 49 games in his career, capping it with a Rose Bowl appearance and Big Ten championship in 2010. Carimi was a first-round pick by the Bears in 2011.
22. LaMarr Woodley, DE, Michigan (2003-06)
The Wolverines' terror off the edge posted 12 sacks as a senior en route to the Lombardi and Hendricks Awards as the nation’s best lineman and defensive end respectively. He was a unanimous All-American before being drafted in the second round of the 2007 NFL Draft by the Steelers. His 10 career forced fumbles are seventh all-time in Big Ten history and his work on the ’06 Michigan team that started 11-0 before losing to Ohio State in memorable fashion earned him Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year honors. Woodley also was a finalist for the Bednarik, Lott, Outland and Nagurski awards as well.
23. Malcolm Jenkins, DB, Ohio State (2005-08)
The Ohio State Buckeyes have a long tradition of great defensive backs and Jenkins is one of the most decorated. He was a three-time, first-team All-Big Ten pick, including twice as a starter for two unbeaten regular-season teams that made it to the BCS National Championship Game in both 2006 and ’07. He was a two-time All-American, Jim Thorpe winner and was the 14th overall pick in the 2009 NFL Draft.
24. Bob Sanders, S, Iowa (2000-03)
One of the hardest hitting players to ever suit up, Sanders made big plays all over the field during his time in Iowa City. He helped lead Iowa to the Orange Bowl in 2002 and was an All-American as a senior in '03. He finished his career with 348 tackles, 16.0 for loss, four sacks, seven interceptions and 13 forced fumbles (he led the nation in FF with six as a senior). The Colts took him in the second round of the 2004 NFL Draft and he went on to two Pro Bowls and also won a Super Bowl.
25. Troy Smith, QB, Ohio State (2003-06)
Stats: 5,720 yds, 54 TDs, 13 INTs, 62.7%, 1,168 yds, 14 TDs
Smith won the AP Player of the Year, Davey O'Brien, Walter Camp awards and is the only Big Ten quarterback to win the Heisman Trophy since Les Horvath won the award at OSU in 1944. Only Smith and Wisconsin's Ron Dayne won a Heisman for the Big Ten during the BCS Era. Additionally, his Heisman Trophy in 2006 was en route to a perfect season, Big Ten championship and BCS Championship Game berth against Florida. The consensus All-American was the first Buckeyes quarterback to go 3-0 against Michigan since the 1930s and is one of just four players in league history to throw at least 30 touchdowns in a single season. His career QB rating of 157.1 is the best in league history. The 2006 Fiesta Bowl MVP was a part of three BCS bowl teams and was a fifth-round pick in the '07 NFL Draft.
The Next 10:
26. Lee Evans, WR, Wisconsin (1999-2003)
Stats: 175 rec., 3,468 yds, 27 TDs
Despite missing extended time with a torn ACL, Evans is the best wide receiver to play at Wisconsin since Al Toon. His two-year run was as good as any in Big Ten history, posting a league-record 1,545 yards in 2001. He came back after the knee injury and nearly duplicated his numbers with 1,213 yards and 13 TDs in 2003. His 10-catch, 258-yard, 5-TD game against Michigan State might have been the best single performance by any Badger. Evans is one of two B1G players to ever catch five TDs in one game (Omar Douglas) and he is fifth all-time in Big Ten history in receiving yards.
27. Greg Jones, LB, Michigan State (2007-10)
The stabilizing force for four years in East Lansing, Jones was a three-time, first-team All-Big Ten selection and a two-time consensus All-American. In both of those seasons, Jones led the Big Ten in tackles and no one since 2005 has made more stops than Jones. He was named Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year in 2009. The star playmaker finished third in school history in tackles (465), second in tackles for a loss (46.5) and sixth in sacks (16.5). He started 46 of 52 career games for the Spartans.
28. Dan Connor, LB, Penn State (2004-07)
The Nittany Lions know something about playing linebacker and Connor is yet another elite tackler. He was a two-time All-American and won the Bednarik Award in 2007 as the nation's top defensive player. He was a leader and was huge part of the '05 Big Ten/Orange Bowl championship team before posting back-to-back 100-tackle seasons. He broke Posluszny's all-time school record with 419 career stops when he graduated in '07.
29. Tamba Hali, DE, Penn State (2002-05)
A unanimous All-American and Big Ten Defensive Lineman of the Year, Hali pushed Penn State to its last Big Ten championship as well as a win in the Orange Bowl following the 2005 season. He led the Big Ten with 17.0 tackles for a loss and 11 sacks and added 65 total tackles for a team that lost just once (in the final second) all season. The undersized end was picked 20th overall in the 2006 NFL Draft and has blossomed into one of the league’s top edge players.
30. Chris Borland, LB, Wisconsin (2009-13)
Few players have been as productive and as successful as the Original Honey Badger. He finished his career with 420 tackles, second most in the Big Ten since 2005, 17.0 sacks, 50.0 tackles for a loss and an NCAA-record 14 forced fumbles. He helped lead his team to three consecutive Big Ten championships and did just about everything for the Badgers, including fake punts, blocked kicks and returning kicks. He was a consummate hard worker and leader for Wisconsin and it earned him Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year and the Butkus-Fitzgerald Big Ten Linebacker of the Year award in 2013.
31. Antwaan Randle El, QB, Indiana (1998-2001)
Stats: 7,469 yds, 42 TDs, 37 INTs, 49.8%, 3,895 yds, 44 TDs
The electric athlete sparked the glory years of Indiana football. Well ahead of his time as one of the original dual-threat quarterbacks, Randle El had the top three rushing seasons in Big Ten history, including the only 1,000-yard season, by a quarterback until the likes Denard Robinson and Braxton Miller came along and topped his 1,270-yard season of 2000. The Hoosiers star is fifth all-time in Big Ten history with 11,364 total yards of offense and was named the Big Ten Player of the Year in 2001, finishing sixth in the Heisman voting. He was a second-round pick and is the only wide receiver to ever throw a touchdown pass in a Super Bowl.
32. J.J. Watt, DE, Wisconsin (2009-10)
The NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 2012 was dominant in his short stint in Madison. After originally signing with Central Michigan as a tight end, Watt emerged as a hidden gem for the Badgers. He posted an absurd 106 tackles, 36.5 tackles for a loss, 11.5 sacks, four forced fumbles and a number of big blocked kicks (see Arizona State). He won the Lott Trophy given to the most impactful defensive player in college football in 2010 before being picked with the 11th overall selection in the 2011 NFL Draft. He is arguably the best defensive end on the planet right now.
33. Tyrone Carter, S, Minnesota (1996-99)
The Florida native was a tackling machine for the Golden Gophers, finishing his career with an NCAA-record 584 total tackles and 414 solo stops He was a two-time, first-team All-American and won the 1999 Thorpe Award and Tatum Trophy as the nation’s top defensive back. Carter also was a return specialist, totaling over 1,800 combined punt and kick return yards. He was a fourth-round pick in the 2000 NFL Draft. The Gophers increased their win total every year of his four-year, 46-game career.
34. Jim Leonhard, S, Wisconsin (2001-04)
A cult hero walk-on in Madison, Leonhard was a two-time, first-team All-Big Ten pick before even earning his first collegiate scholarship before his senior season. He went on to a third first-team All-Big Ten selection and All-American honors in his final season. He led the nation with a Big Ten single-season record 11 interceptions as a sophomore and broke the Big Ten record for punt return yardage with 1,347 yards (since broken). He played every game of his career, starting 39 times and registering 281 tackles and a Wisconsin-record 21 career interceptions (tied with Fletcher) — which is good for fourth all-time in Big Ten history and the most by any B1G player during the BCS Era.
35. David Baas, C, Michigan (2001-04)
The interior blocker was a three-time, first-team All-Big Ten selection and capped his career with a Rimington Trophy as the nation’s top center. He also earned consensus All-American honors, was named the Big Ten’s top lineman and was an Outland Trophy finalist. Baas was a second-round pick by the San Francisco 49ers in the 2005 NFL Draft.
A region-by-region preview of this year's NCAA Tournament, complete with a rundown of March Madness' top teams, Sweet 16 sleepers to watch out for, potential first-round upsets and Cinderella stories from this year's Big Dance.
Top Team – Florida (1)
The Florida Gators (32–2, 18–0 SEC) are fresh off a perfect 18–0 SEC regular season followed by the SEC Tournament title. Florida is the top No. 1 seed in the Big Dance, their first No. 1 seed since 2007 — when the Gators chomped their way to a second straight national championship with Joakim Noah and Co. This year’s team has just two losses — at UConn (on a fluke finish) and at Wiconsin (in the season’s second game). The Gators have not tasted defeat since Dec. 2, 2013 — beating Kansas, Memphis and every team in the SEC since then. In this one-and-done era, UF has the rare star-studded senior class led by point guard Scottie Wilbekin (13.0 ppg, 3.7 apg), leading scorer Casey Prather (14.3 ppg, 5.0 rpg) and monster in the middle Patric Young (11.0 ppg, 6.2 rpg). Oh yeah, and the Gators are coached by two-time NCAA champion Billy Donovan. Florida is clearly the team to beat.
Sweet 16 Sleeper – Ohio State (6)
The Buckeyes have a tough in-state Round of 64 matchup with Daytona in a 6-11 potential trap game. But if Ohio State can avoid the fate of Goliath, it will face the winner of Syracuse and Western Michigan. On one hand, Cuse has gone 2–5 since opening the season with a 25–0 record. On the other hand, WMU is a No. 14 seed for a reason. The Buckeyes would have to feel good about their chances, either way. The next loss will be the last for OSU senior point guard Aaron Craft. Don’t be surprised if the overly scrappy guard hustles his way to the second weekend of the Big Dance.
Upset Alert – Stephen F. Austin (12) over VCU (5)
Wait a minute, isn’t VCU the underdog that could? Not this time. Southland champion Stephen F. Austin is on a 28-game winning streak that dates back to Nov. 23, 2013. The Lumberjacks have five players who average 9.6 points or more, including a pair of wings — Jacob Parker (14.2 ppg, 7.1 rpg) and Thomas Walkup (12.9 ppg, 5.0 rpg) — who both shoot over 54 percent from the field. Obviously, Shaka Smart and VCU will bring the havoc. But SFA will be ready to keep chopping wood.
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A region-by-region preview of this year's NCAA Tournament, complete with a rundown of March Madness' top teams, Sweet 16 sleepers to watch out for, potential first-round upsets and Cinderella stories from this year's Big Dance.
Top Team – Arizona (1)
The Arizona Wildcats (30–4, 15–3 Pac-12) opened the season with a 21–0 mark, including impressive wins over Duke, Michigan and UCLA. Although the Wildcats went 9–4 to close out the season — losing to UCLA in the Pac-12 Tournament title game — this is still a team to be reckoned with. Junior guard Nick Johnson (16.2 ppg), freshman phenom forward Aaron Gordon (12.1 ppg, 7.8 rpg), and sophomore big men Kaleb Tarczewski (10.1 ppg, 6.6 rpg) and Brandon Ashley (11.5 ppg, 5.8 rpg) make UA a matchup nightmare. Coach Sean Miller has yet to lead a team to the Final Four, despite coming painfully close in Elite Eight losses at Xavier (2008) and Arizona (2011). This could be the year Miller finally breaks through for Zona’s first Final Four since Lute Olson’s Cats cut down the nets in 1997.
Sweet 16 Sleeper – Oklahoma State (9)
The Pokes will have to outlast Gonzaga in the 8-9 game and take down the best out West in Arizona. But that is doable. O-State has been a different team since Marcus Smart returned from his three-game suspension following a run-in with a fan at Texas Tech. The Cowboys are 5–2, with both losses coming in overtime, to Iowa State and Kansas, respectively. Along with Smart (17.8 ppg, 5.7 rpg, 4.7 apg, 2.8 spg), OSU features senior Markel Brown (17.1 ppg, 5.3 rpg) and junior Le’Bryan Nash (14.2 ppg, 5.7 rpg), giving coach Travis Ford’s team three players capable of taking over offensively. Then again, the Cowboys have looked good on paper all year, but that hasn’t translated on the court most of the season.
Upset Alert – Nebraska (11) over Baylor (6)
Warren Buffett’s billion-dollar perfect bracket may be a 1-in-128 billion longshot. But the Oracle of Omaha could get a priceless matchup in the Round of 32 if Nebraska can take down former Big 12 rival Baylor and No. 3 seed Creighton can hold serve against No. 14 seed Louisiana-Lafayette. The Cornhuskers played solid basketball since hitting rock bottom on a five-game losing streak from Dec. 28 until Jan. 12. The Huskers have wins over Michigan State, Ohio State and Wisconsin since those dark days and appear capable of upsetting Baylor.
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A region-by-region preview of this year's NCAA Tournament, complete with a rundown of March Madness' top teams, Sweet 16 sleepers to watch out for, potential first-round upsets and Cinderella stories from this year's Big Dance.
Top Team – Wichita State (1)
The Wichita State Shockers (34–0, 18–0 Missouri Valley) had an impressive encore following last season’s unbelievable run to the Final Four. Coach Gregg Marshall’s team ran the table with a perfect 34–0 regular season record that included wins over five teams — Tulsa, BYU, Saint Louis, Tennessee and NC Central — in this year’s NCAA Tournament field of 68. Led by senior big man Cleanthony Early (15.8 ppg, 5.9 rpg) and sophomore guards Fred VanVleet (12.1 ppg, 5.3 apg) and Ron Baker (13.1 ppg), Wichita State has the balance, talent and experience to make a repeat trip to the Final Four. And if it comes down to free throw shooting down the stretch, the Shockers’ top three scorers all shoot over 82 percent from the charity stripe.
Sweet 16 Sleeper – Kentucky (8)
The preseason No. 1 team in the country didn’t enjoy the 40–0 season some in the Big Blue Nation hoped for, but the Wildcats could take down a team that still has a shot at an undefeated 2013-14 campaign. If UK can sneak past Kansas State in the 8-9 game, the Cats will go toe-to-toe with a Wichita State team that has yet to play a team as talented — at least on an individual level — as Kentucky. Coach John Calipari’s team was a botched final possession away from potentially upsetting No. 1 Florida in the SEC Tournament. The notoriously young Wildcats may be maturing at just the right time.
Upset Alert – Arizona State (10) over Texas (7)
Historically, 7-10 games are ripe for upset — and so is Texas coach Rick Barnes, who has lost a combined 10 of his 20 career NCAA Tournament Round of 64 matchups at Texas, Clemson and Providence. Even when Barnes had Kevin Durant on his roster, the Longhorns only advanced to the Round of 32. Arizona State is a difficult draw, thanks to the underrated backcourt duo of point guard Jahii Carson (18.6 ppg, 4.5 apg, 4.0 rpg) and sharpshooter Jermaine Marshall (15.0 ppg, 40.0 3P%).
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A region-by-region preview of this year's NCAA Tournament, complete with a rundown of March Madness' top teams, Sweet 16 sleepers to watch out for, potential first-round upsets and Cinderella stories from this year's Big Dance.
Top Team – Virginia (1)
The Virginia Cavaliers (28–6, 16–2 ACC) became the first team other than Duke or North Carolina to win the ACC regular season conference title outright since Maryland in 2002 — the same year the Terrapins were crowned NCAA Tournament champs. The Wahoos also swept the ACC Tournament title before earning their first No. 1 seed since the days when Ralph Sampson patrolled the paint in Charlottesville. Coach Tony Bennett’s team may not be the most exciting to watch and the Cavs roster doesn’t read like an NBA Draft preview, but UVa has proven capable of beating any team in the country on any stage. With a methodical style of play, suffocating defense and backcourt — Malcolm Brogdon (88.6 FT%) and London Perrantes (82.9 FT%) — that knows how to ice a game in the closing minutes, Virginia will be a maddeningly tough out in March, or maybe even early April.
Sweet 16 Sleeper – North Carolina (6)
It’s been a roller coaster ride for Tar Heel hoops fans this season. UNC jumped out of the gate with a loss to Belmont, then reeled off wins over Louisville, Michigan State and Kentucky, followed by a 1–4 start to ACC play. A 12-game winning streak was halted by back-to-back losses — at Duke and vs. Pitt — heading into the NCAA Tournament. But with heady point guard Marcus Paige (17.4 ppg, 4.3 apg), forward James Michael McAdoo (14.2 ppg, 6.7 rpg) and two-time NCAA champion coach Roy Williams, the Heels have the pieces to dance into the Sweet 16.
Upset Alert – Harvard (12) over Cincinnati (5)
The Crimson don’t play like a stereotypical Ivy League champ. Tommy Amaker’s club is not going to small-ball and backdoor-cut like the great Princeton teams of yesteryear. Harvard can go blow-for-blow with some of the best in the nation, as it did during a five-point loss at Connecticut and a 15-point win over Boston College earlier this season. The Crimson have six players who average at least 9.3 points per game, led by wingman Wesley Saunders (14.0 ppg, 4.7 rpg, 3.9 apg), point guard Siyani Chambers (11.1 ppg, 4.7 apg) and active big man Steve Moundou-Missi (10.5 ppg, 5.8 rpg).
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Midwest Region Preview
As usual, the first surprises of the NCAA Tournament start with Selection Sunday. The brackets you’ve just printed may still be warm, and a few teams are still in shock.
NC State is in. SMU is out. Virginia is No. 1. And Louisville is not happy.
Those aren't the only teams taking a long look at the next three weeks. Here's what stood out from the Selection Show and what we learned about the NCAA selection committee this time around.
No one will doubt Wichita State if the Shockers advance
The Shockers maybe hoped to get Kansas as the No. 2 seed in their region. They won’t get the Jayhawks, but they’ll get darn near everyone else. Provided Wichita State advanced to the round of 32, the Shockers will draw Kansas State ... or an eighth-seeded Kentucky team filled with McDonald’s All-Americans. Also in Wichita State’s region: Big Ten regular season champion Michigan, Duke and defending national champion Louisville. The Midwest is arguably the toughest region.
Virginia got the last No. 1 seed
Florida, Arizona and Wichita State had been sure things for No. 1 seeds for at least two weeks. The wild card was the last one that went to ACC regular season and tournament champion Virginia over Michigan, Villanova or Wisconsin. Anyone who started following the season in January would think this makes perfect sense since Cavaliers went 16-2 in the league and defeated Syracuse, Duke and North Carolina. Anyone who paid attention back in November and December might be perplexed. The earlier version of Virginia lost to VCU, Wisconsin, Green Bay and by 35 to Tennessee.
Louisville is the defending national champion, the American Tournament champion, fifth in the polls and second in Ken Pomeroy’s ratings. Yet the selection committee slapped the Cardinals with a No. 4 seed. The seeding is more in line with Louisville’s rank of No. 18 in the RPI. Rather than Louisville’s recent results, the Cardinals’ overall body of work, which includes the 149th-ranked non-conference schedule, played a role here. The committee also hammered American Athletic Conference co-champion Cincinnati with a No. 5 seed.
NC State was the most shocking name in the field
And this is funny because the argument against ACC leading scorer T.J. Warren winning league player of the year was that he played for a team going to the NIT. The Wolfpack benefitted from a late push that included a win over Pittsburgh on the road and against Syracuse in the ACC Tournament. NC State will face Xavier in the First Four.
SMU was the biggest snub
Congratulations, NIT, you’ll have a ranked team in your event. SMU is 25th in the Associated Press poll but won’t be in the NCAA Tournament field. SMU only two RPI top 100 teams out of conference, losing to Virginia and defeating Arkansas. The flimsy non-conference schedule and weak bottom half of the American Athletic Conference contributed to 22 games against teams outside the RPI top 100. Losses to three of those (Houston, Temple and USF) certainly didn’t help.
Florida’s region will be interesting, but we’re not sure if it will be competitive
The Gators benefited from being the No. 1 overall seed by drawing a region with a No. 2 seed in Kansas with an ailing Joel Embiid and a No. 3 seed in Syracuse that has lost five of its last seven since starting 25-0. The first two weekends also have their share of flawed teams: The 8-9 winner will be either a Colorado team without point guard Spencer Dinwiddie or a Pittsburgh team with one top-50 win all year.
Arizona got the 8-9 game no one wanted
Oklahoma State seemed destined for an 8-9 game since Marcus Smart returned from suspension and proved the Cowboys were a solid NCAA team. The Pokes will face Gonzaga in the round of 64 before a likely matchup against Arizona.
Dayton will not play at home ... but Xavier kind of will
A major question for a Dayton team on the bubble was if the selection committee would allow the Flyers to play on their home court in the first four. Sending Dayton to Buffalo to face Ohio State to prevent a First Four game. Instead, the committee pegged No. 11 seed Xavier in the First Four, playing NC State 46 miles away from campus.
Best round of 64 games
• VCU vs. Stephen F. Austin: The Lumberjacks are a threat to be a Cinderella ... against a VCU team that knows about surprises.
• Ohio State vs. Dayton: Flyers coach Archie Miller faces his old boss in Thad Matta.
• Kansas State vs. Kentucky: Bruce Weber’s Wildcats are the kind of tough defensive team that will give Kentucky trouble.
• Cincinnati vs. Harvard: Much of the same cast that upset New Mexico last season returns.
• North Carolina vs. Providence: Big East tourney champs have a superstar guard in Bryce Cotton.
Best potential round of 32 games
• Wichita State vs. Kentucky: The team that hoped to go 40-0 vs. the team that can actually do it.
• Cincinnati vs. Michigan State: Provided the Bearcats can get past Harvard
• Creighton vs. Nebraska: A state title game pitting Doug McDermott against coach Tim Miles.
• Villanova vs. UConn or St. Joseph’s: Nova draws either a former Big East foe or a Big 5 rival.
• VCU vs. UCLA: UCLA couldn’t pry Shaka Smart from the Rams before hiring Steve Alford.
• Arizona vs. Oklahoma State: Marcus Smart faces Aaron Gordon and a tough Wildcats defense.
Preparations for the 2014 Athlon Sports preview magazines have started, and this season, we’re taking you inside the debates that shape our rankings.
The first in a series that will cover every major conference covers the Big 12. Athlon Sports writers and editors Braden Gall, David Fox and Steven Lassan cover every team in the Big 12 and what we’re watching in the league.
Oklahoma and Baylor have separated themselves as favorites, but there’s some debate as to which team should be the preseason pick in the league. We also debated what Texas can expect in its first season with Charlie Strong and if this will be a down year for Oklahoma State.
The podcast can be found on athlonsports.com, iTunes and our podcast RSS feed.
Please send any comments, questions and podcast topics to @AthlonSports, @BradenGall, @DavidFox615 and @AthlonSteven on Twitter or email email@example.com.
Short on their normal offensive production and long on injuries to their rotation in 2013, the Texas Rangers have their fingers crossed that a revamped lineup will hit again and that their starting pitchers will remain healthy this year, although the good health part is not off to a rousing start. Prince Fielder, acquired in a blockbuster trade for Ian Kinsler, is expected to put pop into a lineup that managed a relatively low 176 homers in 2013. Shin-Soo Choo was added a month later as the everyday left fielder and leadoff man. Matt Harrison, a former 18-game winner, is expected to return to the rotation after missing all but two starts, and the Rangers are hoping that Alexi Ogando can stay healthy, too. Harrison’s back is balky and that could prevent him from making his first start until mid-April. Lefthander Derek Holland may miss half the season after knee surgery. The only major piece missing from this team entering spring training was a closer, but Joakim Soria and Neftali Feliz are still competing for the job. Manager Ron Washington has indicated he may use both depending on situations, at least until one proves worthy of the job full-time. Even with health issues in the rotation and a question of closing, this team has enough talent to contend in the American League West for a sixth straight season.
Yu Darvish led major league baseball in strikeouts (277) and finished second in American League Cy Young voting. Darvish also held opponents to an AL-best .194 average and posted the fourth-best ERA (2.83). His critics point to multiple starts in which he surrendered late leads, as well as an over-reliance on his slider. The Rangers have urged him to work on his fastball command. Holland, one of three lefthanders in the rotation, logged a team-high 213 innings but was only 10–9 after another roller-coaster ride. Included were two complete-game shutouts, but also wins in only two of his final 14 starts and a 1–3 mark in September. He will be a welcome addition for the second half. Lefty Martin Perez is facing his first full season after holding onto a rotation spot after a June 22 call-up. He won 10 games and was the Rangers’ starter in their tie-breaking game against Tampa Bay. The biggest questions marks are Harrison and Ogando. Harrison was the Opening Day starter in 2013 but made only two starts before having back operations in April and May for a herniated disc. He later had surgery for thoracic outlet syndrome in his right shoulder. Ogando, meanwhile, hit the disabled list three times with arm issues. He returned as a starter in September and pitched well enough to again convince management that he belongs in the rotation. Ogando has thrived as a starter in his career (19–12, 3.40 ERA in 48 starts). But many believe he is better suited as a reliever. The Rangers signed veterans Tommy Hanson and Joe Saunders to fill in gaps until all health issues are resolved.
The Rangers aren’t sure about their closer after Joe Nathan, who saved 80 games the past two seasons, wasn’t re-signed. Joakim Soria and Neftali Feliz, former All-Star closers, should be near the form they showed before undergoing Tommy John surgery in 2012. Tanner Scheppers, who emerged as a top-flight setup man in 2013, could grab the job. The team’s primary lefty relievers will be Neal Cotts, coming off a terrific comeback season, and Robbie Ross, a starter in the minors who will be given a chance in the spring to return to that role. Jason Frasor, who finished with a flurry last year, re-signed early in the offseason and is the bullpen’s veteran presence along with Soria. A third veteran could be Jose Contreras if he makes the team as the long man. A pair of lefties, Joe Ortiz and Michael Kirkman, will be among the competitors for that spot.
After a season of biding his time, 21-year-old Jurickson Profar will be an everyday player in 2014. Profar, a shortstop in the minors, played well defensively in flashes at second base when Kinsler was out of the lineup, but his bat lagged. Profar, baseball’s top prospect entering 2013, hit only .234 in 286 at-bats, and the switch-hitter batted only .188 from the right side. He’ll have Elvis Andrus as a double-play partner. Andrus, one of the longest-tenured Rangers (six years with the team) at just 25, is the face of the franchise. He opened the second half in 2013 with a 16-game hitting streak and ended up hitting .313 in his in final 64 games. Andrus finished with a .271 average, down 15 points from 2012, but he drove in a career-high 67 runs and stole a career-best 42 bases. The Rangers would like to see him drive the ball more.
The combination of Fielder at first base and Adrian Beltre at third gives the Rangers a top pair of corner infielders. Fielder fell out of favor in Detroit after a lousy postseason and a sub-par regular season, but he still hit .279 with 25 homers and 106 RBIs. The Rangers will take that at first, where Mitch Moreland has struggled. Most believe that Fielder, a left-handed slugger, will flourish at Rangers Ballpark. Beltre was the Rangers’ MVP after leading them with 30 homers, 92 RBIs, a .315 batting average and a .509 slugging percentage. Defensively, though, Beltre was off his game, possibly because of persistent leg injuries, and missed out on a third consecutive Gold Glove. He still is considered one of the best defensive third basemen in the game. The Rangers, though, will take a hit defensively with Fielder at first.
The Rangers filled a significant lineup hole just before Christmas. They reached a seven-year, $130 million agreement with Choo, who will be the left fielder and leadoff man. He should score more than 100 runs if he gets on base as frequently as he did last season (.423 OBP). Leonys Martin and Alex Rios will join Choo. Martin, the center fielder, has one of the top arms in the game. He needs more patience at the plate, but he is a serious threat to steal bases. So is Rios, who stole 16 of his 42 bases with the Rangers after an August trade from the White Sox. The right fielder swatted 18 homers with 81 RBIs, and he figures to bat fifth in the lineup.
Geovany Soto will be the regular catcher after playing behind A.J. Pierzynski in 2013. Soto thrived in September and became the catcher pitchers preferred behind the plate. In particular, Darvish favored Soto, who is considered a better receiver than Pierzynski. Soto batted .440 in September, another reason for his promotion. That’s 246 points higher than his backup, J.P. Arencibia, batted in 2013 with Toronto. Once a franchise cornerstone, Arencibia fell out of favor in Toronto after hitting .194 with 148 strikeouts and only 18 walks in 2013. Still, he hit 21 home runs and is viewing his stint with the Rangers as a fresh start.
The Rangers turned away several teams that were interested in Moreland, who lost his job at first base to Fielder but will be the top choice at designated hitter against right-handed pitching. Moreland has power (23 homers), but he hasn’t been able to find a consistent stroke at the plate. He batted only .232 — .194 over his final 98 games — in 2013. Arencibia is the primary backup catcher, but Robinson Chirinos can catch as well as play first and third. Adam Rosales is a valuable utility infielder. Engel Beltre is a speedy defensive ace who can play all three outfield spots.
Washington enters his eighth season as manager. Fans continue to belly-ache about his love for the bunt and question his bullpen management, but no other manager in franchise history has won more games or achieved more in the postseason. Tim Bogar replaces Jackie Moore as bench coach. Jon Daniels has control over all baseball moves, and his recent track record suggests he has been among the game’s best general managers.
Any worries among the fan base, and possibly inside the organization, about the 2014 season were quieted in December with the addition of Choo. He fills a big hole in the lineup and puts the Rangers in a position to score a bunch of runs — as usual. Now, the worry turns to the pitching staff, where the rotation needs to stay healthy.
LF Shin-Soo Choo (L)
The Rangers love his knack for getting on base, and his power and speed fit well atop the lineup, too.
SS Elvis Andrus (R)
Batted .313 in 64 games after the All-Star break to prevent the worst offensive season of his career.
1B Prince Fielder (L)
Four homers, 15 RBIs and a .592 slugging percentage in 13 career games at Rangers Ballpark.
3B Adrian Beltre (R)
Collected 14 homers, 40 RBIs in July and August 2013, but only two homers, 10 RBIs in September.
RF Alex Rios (R)
Fit in seamlessly after August trade, hitting .280 with 19 extra-base hits and 16 steals in 47 games.
DH Mitch Moreland (L)
Woeful stretch in final 98 games (.194) has sent him from regular first baseman to part-time DH.
C Geovany Soto (R)
Fewer tweaks in his swing produced a .440 September average and faith that he can return to All-Star form.
CF Leonys Martin (L)
Hit .281 in 2013 in 108 games as the No. 8 or No. 9 hitter in 2013, but only .238 in 31 games atop lineup.
2B Jurickson Profar (S)
The former top prospect struggled in his first year, but the belief is he will flourish with regular playing time.
C J.P. Arencibia (R)
A lousy 2012 (.194, 148 Ks) led to his breakup with Toronto. The Rangers like his power and durability.
OF Engel Beltre (L)
Out of options, the speedy defensive ace could take on the same role as Craig Gentry the past few years.
INF Adam Rosales (R)
Rangers liked this high-energy player who can play all four infield spots enough to claim him twice in ’13.
UT Robinson Chirinos (R)
He can catch and play the infield corners, and his presence could allow Soto and Arencibia to DH some.
RH Yu Darvish
The Cy Young runner-up led baseball in strikeouts and is on the verge of becoming a true ace.
LH Matt Harrison
Coming off of three surgeries, the former 18-game winner is the key to this rotation’s success in 2014.
LH Martin Perez
He finally showed the promise the Rangers had seen in the minors, and now he’s a rotation fixture.
RH Al exi Ogando
Despite three stints on the disabled list, Ogando is in the rotation plans, though some see him as a reliever.
RH Tommy Hanson
Was a consistent starter for the Braves from 2009-12, but struggled with the Angels last season with a 5.42 ERA and 1.548 WHIP.
LH Derek Holland
After knee surgery, the Rangers don’t expect him back until around the All-Star break.
RH Neftali Feliz (Closer)
Worked in winter ball to help regain his pre-Tommy John velocity. Could get first chance to close.
RH Joakim Soria
The former All-Star has the experience and work ethic the Rangers want at the back end of pen.
RH Tanner Scheppers
A candidate to be the closer, Scheppers excelled as a setup man in 2013 and is likely to start 2014 there.
LH Neal Cotts
Returned to the majors for the first time in four seasons and won a league-high eight games in relief.
LH Robbie Ross
Don’t be surprised to see this lefty start games, but early in the season his value will be as a reliever.
RH Jason Frasor
The veteran re-signed early in the offseason, hoping the Rangers can put him in the postseason again.
LH Joseph Ortiz
Lefty opened 2013 on the roster but bounced between Triple-A after hitting some rookie road bumps.
2013 Top Draft Pick
Alex Gonzalez, RHP
The Rangers ended four straight years of using their first pick on a high school player by taking Gonzalez, a righthander from Oral Roberts, and he advanced enough after his professional debut to be considered among the organization’s top prospects. Gonzalez had a few early hiccups in July, a result of missing up in the strike zone, but was pitching in the High-A playoffs two months later. He could very well open 2014 at Double-A. Gonzalez’s best pitch is a cut fastball that was hailed by some experts as the best in the draft. He throws a slider that has more tilt and depth than the cutter, and continues to work on a changeup that could become a plus pitch. Gonzalez is part of the next wave of pitchers in the Rangers’ system. The problem, though, is that they are all at or on the cusp of Double-A. That could play into the favor of Gonzalez, who has more polish.
OF Lewis Brinson (19)
The 29th overall pick in 2012 impresses with his athleticism, arm and power, but he is a strikeout machine who needs to make more contact.
2B Rougned Odor (20)
Loaded with talent and desire, the Venezuelan could eventually push Jurickson Profar for a big-league job.
C Jorge Alfaro (20)
He will likely open 2014 at High-A Myrtle Beach after a big 2013 at Low-A Hickory and a strong Arizona Fall League.
RHP Luke Jackson (22)
After finishing 2013 with a flourish at Double-A, Jackson rates as the minor-league pitcher closest to joining the Rangers.
3B Joey Gallo (20)
The top power hitter in the minors, Gallo crushed 40 homers in 2013.
SS Luis Sardinas (20)
Injury-plagued early in his career, Sardinas is finally showcasing his talents.
Beyond the Box Score
No more Nolan Nolan Ryan resigned as the Rangers’ CEO in October and sold his small ownership stake, ending a tumultuous year in which his role was put into question after general manager Jon Daniels added president of baseball operations to his title. The Rangers went 536–437 during Ryan’s six seasons with the organization.
Strange pick The Rangers made the biggest splash of the annual Rule 5 Draft at the winter meetings when they selected second baseman Russell Wilson — the same Russell Wilson who stars at quarterback for the Seattle Seahawks. Wilson was drafted in the fourth round by Colorado in 2010 and played parts of two minor-league seasons. He was on the Rockies’ inactive list when drafted by the Rangers, who admire his character and hope to show him off at spring training to their minor leaguers as an example of the kind of makeup it takes to be successful.
New career? Lefthander Derek Holland, known as much for his baseball accomplishments as his off-the-field quirkiness, landed a small role in the opening scene of the movie “Dumb & Dumber To”. Holland was captured with former teammate Justin Grimm re-enacting the tuxedo scene from the original move starring Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels, and the producers invited him after seeing clips of his performance. The movie is scheduled to be released later this year.
Boot camp In the second inning of the Rangers’ Sept. 26 game against the Angels, three players combined for four errors, all with two outs, to help turn a 3–1 lead into a 4–3 deficit. Mitch Moreland started it by bobbling a grounder at first base, and former second baseman Ian Kinsler booted a grounder and threw a ball away two batters later. An Adrian Beltre throwing error on the next play capped the sloppiness.
Walk-off Wonders The four-error inning didn’t cost the Rangers as they beat the Angels on a walk-off homer for the fourth straight game at Rangers Ballpark. The streak started July 29, as Geovany Soto won it with a solo homer in the ninth, and Leonys Martin hit a three-run game-winner in the 10th the next night. Adrian Beltre took his turn July 31 with a leadoff homer in the ninth, and Jurickson Profar started the ninth on Sept. 26 with a pinch-hit shot to right field.
It’s been a rollicking offseason in the Pacific Northwest that began, actually, in the final week of September when manager Eric Wedge exited in a public pique over his failure to receive a long-term contract extension. Wedge elaborated on his frustration to the Seattle Times in an early December article that portrayed the Mariners’ front office as a meddling, dysfunctional mess. That story ran after general manager Jack Zduriencik hired Lloyd McClendon to replace Wedge but before the club finalized details on the winter’s most eye-popping move: signing free-agent second baseman Robinson Cano to a 10-year deal for $240 million. The Mariners were, in fact, linked to virtually every major free agent on the market along with several intriguing trade targets (including Rays pitcher David Price and Royals designated hitter Billy Butler). They did sign free-agent first baseman/outfielder Corey Hart and acquired Miami first baseman/outfielder Logan Morrison prior to the holidays, but Zduriencik and his staff entered the new year with a roster imbalance that suggests further moves are necessary to turn a 71–91 club into a postseason contender.
Any rotation that starts with Felix Hernandez and includes Hisashi Iwakuma has a chance to be special. Now add two of the game’s top prospects, Taijuan Walker and James Paxton, and the Mariners have the potential to run out one of the game’s better units. A few complications cropped up during spring training. Iwakuma has a finger injury that could cost him a month or more. Walker’s shoulder is flaring up. The club hopes it’s nothing serious, but Walker will take it easy this spring. Veteran righthander Scott Baker will fill in for at least a handful of starts at the beginning of the season. The mix for more permanent spots at the back end of the rotation includes Brandon Maurer, Erasmo Ramirez and Blake Beavan.
Last season left some painful memories for the relief corps. The bullpen coughed up 13 walk-off losses and 14 more defeats in which the winning run scored in the opponent’s final at-bat. The M’s also set a franchise record with 15 extra-inning losses. That’s a lot of bad bullpen work. Seattle signed former Rays closer Fernando Rodney to rescue the group. After excelling in the World Baseball Classic, Rodney struggled for much of last season. He was almost unhittable in 2012 with a 0.777 WHIP and 0.60 ERA. He converted 48 of 50 save chances. Last season was bit of a different story. He blew eight chances, saved 37 with a 3.38 ERA and 1.335 WHIP. The M’s believe he can return to his 2012 form. Rodney’s setup mates will be Danny Farquhar, who secured 16 saves in 18 chances after becoming the closer in early August, and former closer Tom Wilhelmsen. The latter was erratic last season, which is why he lost his job, but he was a reliable option a year earlier in compiling a 2.50 ERA in 73 games. So there’s bounce-back potential there. Yoervis Medina produced a solid rookie season with a 2.91 ERA and 71 strikeouts (but 40 walks) in 68 innings. Lefty Charlie Furbush held opponents to a .199 average and struck out 80 in 65 innings. That hope isn’t necessarily hopeless.
Adding Cano, one of the game’s premier players, is a game-changer. The arguments against his massive deal, and there are plenty, are generally aimed at its long-term risk, i.e., how long he can remain a dominant player. But right now? There’s not much not to like. Cano, 31, is durable and has averaged 25 homers and 99 RBIs along with a .307/.358/.508 slash over the last seven years. He is a five-time All-Star, a two-time Gold Glove winner and a five-time Silver Slugger recipient. Adding Cano turns former first-round pick Nick Franklin into a trade chip. Franklin showed potential last season as a rookie, and club officials say it’s possible he battles Brad Miller for duty at shortstop or even shifts, like Dustin Ackley, to the outfield. More likely, Franklin heads back to Triple-A Tacoma for regular playing time (he has options) until the Mariners find an acceptable trade. Miller became the shortstop at midseason, which is when the M’s could no long tolerate since-departed Brendan Ryan’s ultra-anemic bat. Miller is the anti-Ryan; he has hit throughout his minor-league career, and batted .265 last year in 76 games, but generally rates below average in advanced defensive metrics.
Third baseman Kyle Seager was picked by the Seattle chapter of the BBWAA as the club’s MVP for each of the last two seasons. That says a lot about the Mariners, because his numbers, while solid, are hardly All-Star quality. Still, the problem isn’t Seager; it’s what the Mariners have put around him. Speaking of which … check the crowd at first base. Incumbent Justin Smoak’s size and swing seems to offer enviable switch-hitting power potential, and he has hit 39 homers over the last two seasons. But he’s also batted .227 with a .387 slugging percentage. The Mariners’ response was to sign Hart and acquire Morrison in a trade for reliever Carter Capps. McClendon says that Smaok is his guy at first base — for now anyway. The general view outside of Seattle is it’s a matter of time before Smoak gets traded, and Hart and Morrison split time at first base and DH. For now, converted catcher Jesus Montero, the erstwhile franchise cornerstone, appears ticketed for Tacoma.
The Mariners hope Ackley follows the route that Alex Gordon blazed in Kansas City in rising from a disappointing can’t-miss prospect into an All-Star by shifting from the infield to the outfield. Like Gordon (2005), Ackley (2009) was a No. 2 overall pick in the draft. Early indicators are promising. Ackley batted .285 with a .354 on-base percentage in 68 games after returning June 25 from one month of outfield training at Tacoma. He probably fits best in a corner. The center field job could fall to Abraham Almonte, a rookie who flashed potential over 25 late-season games. Michael Saunders is versatile enough to play any of the three spots but must rebound at the plate to get regular time. Defensively, McClendon doesn’t want to use Hart or Morrison in the outfield, but he may have to at times.
Mike Zunino batted just .214 with five homers and 14 RBIs as a rookie last year in 52 games after not doing much better earlier in the season at Tacoma. His ratings in the major defensive metrics aren’t pretty either. Even so, club officials see Zunino, the third overall pick in the 2012 draft, as a long-term answer behind the plate. The M’s had better be right, and Zunino had better stay healthy (he missed more than a month last season because of a broken hand). The tentative backup is veteran John Buck.
The DH plan is to rotate Hart, Morrison and Smoak. Veteran Willie Bloomquist returns to serve as the utilityman. He’s a solid addition who can do everything but pitch and catch. After Franklin Gutierrez announced he would sit out this season dealing with gastrointestinal issues, the door opened for Cole Gillespie, who batted .203 in limited time with the Giants and Cubs last season.
Zduriencik deserves credit for paring down a bloated payroll to the point where he could attempt to remake the club through a series of high-profile moves. But he’s entering his sixth season, and it’s time to show progress.
Adding Cano makes any team better. Adding Hart, Morrison and Bloomquist should help a roster that last year often appeared overly young and overmatched. The rotation has the potential to be among the league’s best. But is this a playoff contender as the roster is currently set up? Not unless a lot of things go right.
LF Dustin Ackley (L)
Second pick of the 2009 draft regained status last
season as key part of future.
CF Abraham Almonte (S)
Lefty-heavy lineup could push him toward top. Hit .314 and slugged .491 in Triple-A.
2B Robinson Cano (L)
How will he respond to always being in spotlight? The pressure will be on the $240 million man.
RF Corey Hart (R)
Knees a concern because his righty bat is big element. Hit 87 HRs over last three seasons in Milwaukee.
3B Kyle Seager (L)
Consistent performer — has hit .258, .259, .260 last three seasons — should improve with better cast.
1B Justin Smoak (S)
Had only 50 RBIs despite hitting 20 HRs last year.
DH Logan Morrison (L)
Acquired from Miami in a December trade. Not a great fit in outfield but must play somewhere.
SS Brad Miller (L)
Has decent pop for a middle infielder but needs to improve defensively to solidify infield.
C Mike Zunino (R)
Rookie year wasn’t great but has tools to be a top-flight catcher.
C John Buck (R)
The durable veteran has logged at least 398 plate appearances in nine of last 10 seasons.
UT Willie Bloomquist (R)
Solid veteran should help in many areas. Drafted by the Mariners in both 1996 and ’99.
OF Cole Gillespie (R)
For his career, he’s a .207 hitter as a starter but that jumps to .294 coming off the bench.
OF Michael Saunders (L)
Could regain regular spot if bat bounces back. He hit .236 in 2013.
RH Felix Hernandez
Prototype for a No. 1 starter. ERA has been under 3.10 in four of the last five seasons.
RH Hisashi Iwakuma
By end of last season, nobody anywhere was better. Allowed only three earned runs in last five starts. A sprained tendon in his finger will delay the start of his season.
RH Taijuan Walker
There’s a reason other teams keep asking about the No. 43 pick in the 2010 draft. Shoulder inflammation during the spring has management a bit concerned.
LH James Paxton
If not for Walker, would be getting a lot more attention. Shined in four starts last season.
RH Erasmo Ramirez
23-year-old native of Nicaragua is the best bet to win starting job in spring training.
RH Scott Baker
After missing 2012, Baker made three starts for the Cubs late last season — two of them were very good. He’ll fill in for Iwakuma and Walker until they are pronounced healthy.
RH Fernando Rodney (Closer)
Considering last season was a bit of a struggle, 37 saves isn’t too shabby. He should enjoy pitching in spacious Safeco Field.
RH Danny Farquhar
Was 16-for-18 in save opportunities after getting job. Struck out 79 in 55.2 innings.
RH Yoervis Medina
Command still an issue but projects as top setup man. Allowed 49 hits in 68.0 innings as a rookie.
LH Charlie Furbush
A power arm — struck out 80 in 65 innings in ’13 — who should be top lefty setup man.
RH Tom Wilhelmsen
Looking for bounce-back year after rocky 2013 in which ERA increased from 2.50 to 4.12.
LH Lucas Luetge
Fits well as unit’s situational lefty on a staff that lacks southpaws.
RH Brandon Maurer
Likely swingman if he fails to win job in the starting
rotation. Made 14 starts last season.
RH Stephen Pryor
Will the hard-throwing righthander be recovered from his back injury by Opening Day?
2013 Top Draft Pick
D.J. Peterson, 3B
The 12th overall pick, Peterson, 22, quickly validated the Mariners’ assessment that he provides impact potential as a right-handed power bat before his season ended in a beaning that resulted in his jaw being wired shut. Prior to that, he had a .303/.365/.553 slash with 13 homers in 55 games at short-season Everett and Low-A Clinton. Club officials will watch closely to see how Peterson, who played collegiately at New Mexico, responds in his return. Assuming no problems, he’ll be back on a very fast track. It’s not impossible that he gets a late look this season, although 2015 seems more likely. Some scouts aren’t sold on his defensive skills at third base and believe he’ll eventually shift to a corner outfield spot.
LHP Danny Hultzen (24)
Was one of the top lefty pitching prospects in baseball entering 2013 but could miss all of 2014 while recovering from surgery on rotator cuff and labrum.
LHP James Paxton (25)
Has big-time potential and is penciled into rotation but could end up back to minors if command issues surface.
RHP Victor Sanchez (19)
Draws strong marks for strike-throwing skills at his age after allowing just 18 walks last season in 113.1 innings.
LHP Tyler Pike (20)
Command is an issue, but he’s on fast track after yielding only 73 hits in 110.1 innings at Low-A Clinton.
SS Chris Taylor (23)
Has made quick progression in two pro seasons; ended last year at Class AA Jackson. Has .411 on-base percentage in 183 games.
RHP Edwin Diaz (20)
Made major jump last year in allowing only 18 walks and 45 hits in 69 innings while compiling 1.43 ERA at short-season Pulaski.
Beyond the Box Score
Eight and counting Felix Hernandez has recorded at least 150 strikeouts in each of his first eight full big-league seasons. The only other pitchers to achieve that feat are in the Hall of Fame: Walter Johnson (1908-15) and Bert Blyleven (1971-78). Johnson ran his streak to 11 years; Blyleven did it in his first 10 full seasons.
Century mark When Hernandez got his 100th career victory April 22 in a 7–1 win at Houston, he became the sixth-youngest pitcher, at 27 years and 14 days, to hit triple figures since the divisional era began in 1969. Those who were younger: Dwight Gooden (24, 215 days), Bert Blyleven (25, 76 days), Fernando Valenzuela (26, 162 days), Don Gullett (26, 199 days) and Vida Blue (26, 361 days).
Youthful achievement Taijuan Walker became the youngest starting pitcher in franchise history to record a victory when he worked five scoreless innings Aug. 30 in a 7–1 victory at Houston. Walker was 21 years and 17 days old. The previous record belonged to Travis Blackley at 21 years, 240 days on July 1, 2004, in an 8–4 victory over Texas at Safeco Field.
Historic slam Kyle Seager became the first player in big-league history to hit a game-tying grand slam in extra innings when he went deep with two outs in the bottom of the 14th inning on June 5 against White Sox closer Addison Reed. It merely prolonged the agony. The Mariners lost 7–5 in 16 innings. It was one of a club-record 15 losses in extra innings.
1-2 punch Hisashi Iwakuma (2.66) and Hernandez (3.04) combined for a 2.84 ERA at the front of the Mariners’ rotation. That marked the lowest combined ERA by two starting pitchers (who pitched sufficient innings to qualify for the ERA title) in franchise history. Those marks were also the fifth- and sixth-lowest qualifying ERAs in franchise history. Hernandez holds the club record at 2.27 in 2010.
Iron man Robinson Cano has not only been one of the best second basemen in baseball since breaking into the Yankees lineup in 2005, he’s also been one of the most durable players in the game. Cano has played in at least 159 games in seven straight seasons and started at least 150 games at second base in each of those seasons.
The A’s won two straight division titles and followed with a bunch of offseason moves. It was business as usual for a team with a relatively tiny payroll, so-so attendance and an antiquated ballpark. The A’s don’t rebuild. They recreate — even when they’re good, and they were good in 2013 en route to winning 96 games and running away with a division that included the high-spending Rangers and Angels. GM Billy Beane still felt the need to deal for relievers Jim Johnson and Luke Gregerson and outfielder Craig Gentry and sign starting pitcher Scott Kazmir and utility infielder Nick Punto. With ace Bartolo Colon and closer Grant Balfour (Oakland’s two All-Stars last season) lost to free agency, the A’s again must prove themselves against the big boys of the division, which welcomes the Mariners’ Robinson Cano. Given their track record, the A’s seek nothing less than an AL West three-peat.
With Colon no longer around, the co-aces figure to be Sonny Gray, 24, and Jarrod Parker, 25. A.J. Griffin and Dan Straily are in the same age group, which makes Kazmir the old man at 30, a decade younger than Colon. The rotation ranked second in ERA in the AL and first in complete-game shutouts and opponents’ batting average, and Gray was around for only 10 starts. Oakland’s latest phenom to hit the rotation, Gray won the division-clinching game and threw eight shutout innings in a memorable playoff duel with Justin Verlander. A’s fans are eager to see the Vanderbilt product over a full season. He has a 96 mph fastball, wicked 12-to-6 curve and bulldog mentality that makes up for a slight frame. Parker has had time to rest after ending his season with fatigue and a forearm strain, coming in the wake of a 19-start unbeaten streak, the longest by an A’s starter since Lefty Grove in 1931. The Kazmir signing (two years, $22 million) made Brett Anderson, who started the 2013 opener, expendable, and he was dealt to Colorado. But Kazmir is a risk, considering that he struggled in independent ball in 2012 before making 29 starts for Cleveland last year.
The A’s broke ground when acquiring Johnson as their closer. They have a history of creating closers, including Balfour and Andrew Bailey and going back to Jason Isringhausen and even Dennis Eckersley. With Johnson, they’ve got a ready-made closer who saved 101 games the past two years for Baltimore. The bullpen was deep, and now it might be deeper with the addition of Johnson, who’s replacing Balfour (38 saves), and Gregerson, who boasts one of the game’s most effective sliders. Returning setup men Ryan Cook, Sean Doolittle and Dan Otero combined for a 2.52 ERA. With the absence of Anderson and Jerry Blevins, who was dealt to the Nationals, Doolittle won’t have much left-handed company unless Tommy Milone — an effective starter in 2012 who fell from grace in ’13 —former Rockie Drew Pomeranz or Fernando Abad, acquired from the Nationals in November, is in the mix. An ace in the hole down the stretch could be former Brave Eric O’Flaherty. The accomplished lefty setup man is coming off Tommy John surgery last May, so he could be back in top form for the second half.
Jed Lowrie is the undisputed shortstop. Not necessarily a defensive whiz, Lowrie makes the routine plays and is coming off his most durable and productive season, appearing in 154 games, 57 more than his previous high. He was the projected second baseman last year but played mostly short, because Hiro Nakajima of Japan spent the season in the minors. The A’s finished 2013 with an Eric Sogard-Alberto Callaspo platoon at second and added Punto. Sogard is something of a cult figure with his spectacles and aggressive style, prompting fans to embrace “Nerd Power.” But the double-play combination won’t wow you — the A’s turned only 112 DPs, fewest in the majors and fewest by an Oakland team in a non-strike season. Meantime, big-time prospect Addison Russell was solid in the Arizona Fall League and could play some shortstop for the A’s by season’s end.
Third baseman Josh Donaldson and first baseman Brandon Moss give the A’s plenty of pop. Donaldson might have been the majors’ best position player not to make an All-Star team or win an MVP or Gold Glove. But in Oakland, he was cherished. The former catcher had a breakout year and was especially adept in clutch situations, hitting .336 with runners in scoring position and going 8-for-12 with the bases loaded. His All-Star chances improved with the news that Detroit’s Miguel Cabrera, the league’s MVP, was moving from third to first. Moss is a dead pull hitter who hit 30 homers and struck out 140 times. Nate Freiman, a Rule 5 acquisition, platooned with Moss for much of the season and could continue to hang around for at-bats against lefties unless Callaspo — mentioned by manager Bob Melvin as an option at first base — supplants him. Lefty-swinging Daric Barton, the team’s longest-tenured player, was re-signed to a non-guaranteed contract. He’s a better defender than Moss, so his presence allows Moss to DH.
Left fielder Yoenis Cespedes and right fielder Josh Reddick seek bounce-back years. Reddick should be stronger after undergoing postseason surgery on his right wrist, which bothered him last summer. Cespedes is more of a mystery. The Home Run Derby champ had similar power numbers to 2012, but his average slipped 52 points to .240, and his on-base percentage dropped 62 points to .294. It has been speculated the A’s might trade Cespedes, but they were 165–96 the past two years with him in the lineup, 25–38 without. At 34, Coco Crisp remains a valuable leadoff man and defensive center fielder, bringing oomph to the lineup when healthy. He’ll get some help. Gentry was acquired from Texas, where he posted a .373 OBP. He should be an upgrade over last year’s fourth outfielder, Chris Young, whose OBP was .280.
The A’s wouldn’t mind some stability. Last season began with a Derek Norris-John Jaso platoon. It ended with Stephen Vogt as the No. 1 catcher. Vogt is a nice story, having been acquired on the cheap from the Rays to provide depth in the minors. Jaso sustained a concussion and Norris broke a toe, and suddenly Vogt was playing (and succeeding) in the majors, hitting well and shedding his image as an iffy defender. Pitchers are comfortable throwing to Vogt. Once again, it’s likely that Jaso and Norris will see most of the time, with Jaso also getting some at-bats as DH.
At times last season, Melvin platooned at four spots, and it could be more of the same in 2014. Gentry will get significant time as the fourth outfielder, considering the health record of the top three guys. The A’s snagged two other outfielders from the Nationals: Corey Brown, whom they drafted in 2007 and shipped to Washington in the Josh Willingham trade, and Billy Burns, who stole 74 bases in 81 attempts in the minors. The switch-hitting Punto could find himself anywhere on the infield, perhaps mostly at second. Tampa Bay catcher Chris Gimenez was claimed off waivers as insurance. The lefty-swinging Jaso could get plenty of DH at-bats, but Melvin plans to rotate other players at DH, including Moss, Cespedes and Crisp.
No one works a roster quite like Melvin, who was named AL Manager of the Year in 2012 and finished third in the voting last year. Melvin platoons at several positions, relies heavily on left-right matchups and again has a group of versatile players furnished by Beane. No GM was busier in December than Beane, who pulled off five trades and a free-agent signing over nine days. In one 48-hour stretch, Beane traded for Johnson, Gregerson and Gentry and signed Kazmir, in the process replacing free agents Colon, Balfour and Young.
The A’s appear at least as well-rounded as last year. The bullpen is deeper with Gregerson, and the bench is deeper with Gentry and Punto. As always, it starts with the rotation, and the A’s must prove they can flourish without Colon, who had 18 wins and a 2.65 ERA. The A’s finished 5.5 games ahead of the Rangers, who added Prince Fielder and Shin-Soo Choo. Oakland’s most expensive acquisition was Kazmir at $22 million, but the A’s never try to keep up with their free-spending division foes. They simply try to outplay them, which they have designs on doing for a third straight year.
CF Coco Crisp (S)
Energizes lineup. Set career highs in homers, walks and runs and played errorless ball.
3B Josh Donaldson (R)
Can he improve on finishing fourth in MVP voting? His 174 hits were A’s most since Mark Kotsay’s 190 in ’04.
SS Jed Lowrie (S)
Coming off career year (.290, 15 HRs, 75 RBIs). Eligible for free agency after the season.
LF Yoenis Cespedes (R)
Average dropped by 52 points and slugging dipped from .505 to .442 from first to second MLB season.
1B Brandon Moss (L)
Grip and rip, and never mind a two-strike approach. Led A’s with 30 HRs, 140 strikeouts.
RF Josh Reddick (L)
Coming off wrist surgery, looking for bounce-back season after his homers total dipped from 32 to 12.
DH John Jaso (L)
Life is safer as a DH. Missed final two months with concussion, which left his catching career in jeopardy.
C Derek Norris (R)
Season hit detour with broken toe suffered in August. After returning, hit .325 in 40 at-bats.
2B Eric Sogard (L)
Hit himself onto roster in spring training (.444) and stuck all year, appearing in 130 games.
OF Craig Gentry (R)
Superior runner and defender, and he can play any spot in the outfield.
INF Nick Punto (S)
Could share time with Sogard at second and play short or third when Lowrie or Donaldson rest.
INF Alberto Callaspo (S)
Candidate to platoon at either first or second. Played six positions in big-league career but never at first.
1B Daric Barton (L)
The seven-year veteran had 488 plate appearances in 110 games at Triple-A Sacramento last season; just 120 in 37 games with Oakland.
RH Sonny Gray
Huge expectations for the kid who was selected over Bartolo Colon to start Game 5 of ALDS.
RH Jarrod Parker
Fatigued late last season. Diagnosed with forearm strain that didn’t require surgery.
LH Scott Kazmir
Will he live up to the highest average annual value ($11 million) ever for an A’s starter?
RH A.J. Griffin
Entering second full season. Won 14 and led staff with 200 innings, finished with elbow tendinitis.
RH Dan Straily
Trying to avoid the Sacramento shuttle, which he took several times in 2013. Still managed 27 starts.
RH Jim Johnson (Closer)
Struggled early last season for the Orioles, but a 50-save season is a 50-save season.
LH Sean Doolittle
Tough against both righties and lefties. Would have been good closer option if A’s hadn’t acquired Johnson.
RH Luke Gregerson
Accomplished setup man with mean slider. In five years with Padres, had 2.88 ERA and 1.092 WHIP.
RH Ryan Cook
Posted 2.54 ERA but allowed 50 percent (15 of 30) of inherited runners to score. He’s dealing with shoulder inflammation during the spring.
RH Dan Otero
Worked way into a setup role by yielding three earned runs in final 35.1 innings (0.76 ERA).
RH Jesse Chavez
You know you’ve got a quality long reliever when he throws the final 5.2 innings in an 18-inning win.
LH Drew Pomeranz
Hoping to improve away from Coors Field. Could make team as reliever/spot starter.
2013 Top Draft Pick
Billy McKinney, CF
The A’s love on-base percentage, and McKinney’s was .585 as a senior at Plano West Senior in Plano, Texas — 36 walks, just six strikeouts in 130 plate appearances. After McKinney was selected 24th overall in the draft, his parents rented “Moneyball,” the movie that offers a slightly fictionalized portrayal of GM Billy Beane’s behind-the-scenes work during the A’s 2002 season, including emphasizing OBP. “Awesome movie,” said McKinney, who quickly signed and accumulated a .387 OBP in 55 games in rookie league and Low-A. Scouts love his left-handed swing, which he modeled after Josh Hamilton’s, having grown up in Texas close to the Rangers’ ballpark. McKinney played center in his first pro season, but he could be moved to a corner. In 243 plate appearances as an A’s minor leaguer, 15 of his 70 hits went for extra bases: nine doubles, three triples, three homers.
SS Addison Russell (20)
The 2012 first-round pick hit .302 with .389 OBP in first two pro seasons; could be A’s shortstop by 2015 with Jed Lowrie’s contract expiring after 2014.
RHP Michael Ynoa (22)
Signed as 16-year-old in 2008. Progress slowed by injuries but had a 2.14 ERA in 15 starts at Class A Beloit last year.
SS Daniel Robertson (19)
In Russell’s shadow, also from 2012 draft (34th pick overall). Hit .277 with Beloit. Could switch positions down the road.
CF Billy Burns (24)
Obtained in Jerry Blevins trade. Stole 74 bases in 81 tries in Nationals’ farm system last season.
3B Renato Nunez (19)
Collected 19 homers and 85 RBIs in A-ball three years after being signed out of Venezuela.
1B Matt Olson (19)
The 47th overall pick in 2012 had low average (.225) but hit 23 homers with 93 RBIs at Beloit.
Beyond the Box Score
Consistency The A’s were the only team in the majors with winning records all six months of the regular season. In fact, the streak is 10 months, dating to June 2012. Problem is, they’ve had two straight losing Octobers, dropping the Division Series in five games to Detroit in back-to-back seasons.
Couple of pros Nate Freiman, who hit .274 as a rookie, isn’t the only athlete in his family to reach the pro ranks. His wife, Amanda Blumenherst, was on the LPGA tour for several years, and Freiman served as her caddy in offseasons. They met at Duke, where they were the school’s senior athletes of the year in 2009. How’s Freiman’s golf game? “I can’t even shoot under 100. I’m the least competitive person on the golf course,” he says. Blumenherst stepped away from the tour late last year to travel with her husband.
Clean shaven Josh Reddick trimmed his long beard in November, having lost a “beard off” to pro wrestler Daniel Bryan. Reddick made the announcement by sending his cleaner-looking mug out on Twitter. The right fielder had a breakout 2012 with 32 homers and 85 RBIs. In 2013, a bearded Reddick hit 12 homers and 56 RBIs, but the reason for the decline wasn’t about facial hair as much as a sore wrist that required postseason surgery.
Quick start The A’s have been known as a second-half team, amping it up when the weather warms up. But last year, they had two solid halves. Of the franchise’s last eight playoff teams, dating to 1992, only last year’s club was in sole possession of first place at the All-Star break. The A’s were 56–39 at intermission and weren’t bad after, either, going 40–27 and leading the majors in second-half homers for the second straight year.
Back, back, back Bob Melvin usually throws batting practice to Yoenis Cespedes but took a break in July. Cespedes was invited to the Home Run Derby, and Melvin wasn’t planning to be in New York for the All-Star Game. So third-base coach Mike Gallego became Cespedes’ designated batting-practice pitcher. Gallego threw to Cespedes in the days before the derby. At the big event at Citi Field, he served up 32 home run pitches. Cespedes easily won it, beating Bryce Harper in the final round.
This is your daily link roundup of our favorite sports and entertainment posts on the web for March 14.
• Take a seat: Great MLB strikeout faces.
• Louisville beat Rutgers by 61. Rick Pitino's advice to Knights coach Eddie Jordan? Go have a drink.
• How's this for an occupational hazard: Fox Sports’ Mike Greenlay took a hockey stick to the face and bled all over his shirt.
• For a smart guy, Richard Sherman gets in a lot of stupid Twitter beefs.
• The Marlins mascot shoved a pie in some guy's face. This concludes your Marlins highlights for 2014.
• Remember that doughnut shop that Golden Tate snuck into? They're sorry to see him leave Seattle.
• Charles Barkley almost nodded off at work. That's fine, except he was on the air at the time.
-- Email us with any compelling sports-related links at firstname.lastname@example.org
Each week, Geoffrey Miller’s “Five Things to Watch” will help you catch up on the biggest stories of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series’ upcoming race weekend. This week, Kasey Kahne’s and Tony Stewart’s opposite run of results at Bristol, the effect NASCAR’s revamped title format will have on the amount of in-race aggression at the bullring and an overdue qualifying tweak are just a few of the major topics leading us into Sunday’s 500-lap race at Bristol Motor Speedway.
1. Kasey Kahne an easy pre-race favorite at Bristol
It doesn’t take studying of loop data to see that Kasey Kahne figures to be up front Sunday at Bristol Motor Speedway. Mr. Blue Eyes had a combined average finish of 1.5 last year at the half-mile track after winning the spring race and falling just short of Matt Kenseth in the fall night race.
“I can’t wait to race there,” Kahne said this week in a video posted by Hendrick Motorsports. “It’s a track we’ve performed really well at for a while. We won the spring race last year and had the best car there in the fall race — I just didn’t get by Matt.”
A win for Kahne would start to reveal his No. 5 as the contender that it should be this season. He is, after all, driving one of Rick Hendrick’s Chevrolets.
Kahne was stung by pit road penalties and a crash in the season-opener at Daytona before landing inauspicious finishes of 11th and eighth at Phoenix and Las Vegas, respectively. He’s led just two laps this season.
That number just might change at a track where he started and finished both races better than seventh last season.
2. Does points system really give drivers an incentive for Bristol aggression?
Much has been made over the last few days about the role that NASCAR’s newest points system played on Steve Letarte’s decision to gamble on fuel mileage and go for the win with Dale Earnhardt Jr. last week at Las Vegas. All told, that’s an argument set to NASCAR’s desired narrative and not grounded in fact.
Still, it’s fair to wonder if NASCAR will be forced to reckon with driving more rambunctious than usual Sunday on Bristol’s high banks. While points certainly still do matter in the regular season, the new scoring style does play to the favor of drivers not really expected to be Chase players come September. And in those drivers’ favor is the fact that Bristol’s short track characteristics can provide a more even playing field amongst low-budget and top-tier teams.
That means drivers like AJ Allmendinger, Marcos Ambrose, or Kyle Larson — remember how good Larson was in the Bristol Nationwide Series race last spring? — could be looking to push, pull and generally consider bulldozing as an option to gain track position in Sunday’s race. A win could be their Chase ticket, and they won’t have too many more opportunities.
3. Bristol not a good place for Tony Stewart’s rebound
After three races and only 48 total points collected, Tony Stewart has landed 27th in points without a single top-10 finish, a single lap led and only one lead-lap finish. Those are numbers that are probably worse than Stewart even expected to launch with in 2014 despite coming back from serious injury.
We wondered before Phoenix in this column if Stewart was physically ready to compete on the circuit’s demanding racetracks and the jury remains out. The tight confines of Bristol won’t be especially kind to him if physical pain or strength is making a difference in his ability to tune in the race car.
Even without the injury, Stewart has been woeful at BMS of late. Sunday’s race marks the four-year anniversary of Stewart finishing second at the track. Since then, he’s finished 19th, 28th, 14th, 27th and 31st. (Last season, of course, he missed the August race with the leg injury.)
Voice of Vito: Proving how the new Chase isn't "Chad-Proof"
4. NASCAR averts substantial qualifying issue
We may never known why it took NASCAR until midweek between the Las Vegas race and this weekend’s event at Bristol to finally listen to basically everyone in the garage and a make a change to make qualifying safer. But NASCAR did finally come to its senses and Friday’s session won’t have the extra hazard of slow-driving cars trying to keep engines cool.
That’s because NASCAR changed protocol and will now allow teams to attach cooling hoses from a pit box to valves hidden just under the hood cowl flaps. The hoses will supply cold water to the car’s radiator and engine cooling system while pulling hot water out — allowing teams to make more runs during the “knockout” style qualifying sessions.
It’s a move that makes sense and one that came about two weeks too late. Fortunately, NASCAR avoided any serious incidents in the process despite drivers worried about the generous speed difference between cars trying to cool down while motoring slowly around the track and cars on hot laps. The problem would have been exacerbated at Bristol thanks to the short track having substantially less room for cars to operate.
5. Joe Gibbs Racing a recent Bristol force
The Cup Series has raced three times at Bristol since the resurfaced track had its upper groove altered by a grinding process. The intent was for racing to move down to the bottom of the corners, but that never happened. Instead, drivers live at the top of Bristol’s high-banks and rarely venture down.
The style of racing has seemed to suit Joe Gibbs Racing pretty well. In those three races, JGR has two wins, a second-place and has led 42.9 percent of the laps raced. Was it not for a crash a year ago that knocked Matt Kenseth out of contention — he couldn’t avoid Jeff Gordon when the No. 24 blew a tire — JGR very well could have been three-for-three.
There are no guarantees how Kenseth, Kyle Busch or Denny Hamlin will roll off in Sunday’s race or if they’ll actually compete. But if the last three races are an indication at all, JGR should play in the mix at some point during the 266.5-mile race.
Los Angeles Angels
Owner Arte Moreno’s millions have bought only dysfunction and disappointment the past two years. The mega-millions additions of former MVPs Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton have not gotten the Angels closer to their first playoff berth since 2009. The two have been expensive busts, failing to justify the Angels’ investments and handcuffing GM Jerry Dipoto’s ability to make other moves. The farm system has gone fallow, and Dipoto’s attempts to assemble a pitching staff within the confines of a budget strained by the commitments to Pujols and Hamilton have been failures, forcing him to expend other resources — young trade chips Mark Trumbo and Peter Bourjos — in a desperate search for pitching. This winter’s moves had better get the Angels back into contention, or another winter of discontent lies ahead.
As debilitating as the twin failures of Pujols and Hamilton were last year, the main reason the Angels have been among baseball’s biggest underachievers the past two seasons has been the crumbling of their pitching staff. Only C.J. Wilson and Jason Vargas (now gone via free agency) performed adequately in 2013. Wilson was outstanding, going 17–7 with a 3.39 ERA and giving the Angels their only 200-inning starter. Sidelined for a chunk of the season by an elbow injury, staff ace Jered Weaver took a step back in 2013. Wilson and a healthy Weaver represent the only reliable pieces in the Angels’ rebuilt-for-2014 rotation. Dipoto’s acquisitions a year ago — Joe Blanton, Tommy Hanson and Vargas — were more bust than boost. This year, he is rolling the dice on three young pitchers to fill out the rotation — homegrown righthander Garrett Richards and lefties Hector Santiago and Tyler Skaggs, both acquired in a three-way trade that cost the Angels Trumbo. Santiago must overcome control issues. Skaggs was made available by the Diamondbacks after losing velocity from his fastball last season.
The sagging rotation in 2013 replaced the bullpen as the biggest problem area on the Angels’ pitching staff. After a sad performance in 2012, the relief corps got only marginally better last season as Dipoto swung and missed on a series of moves — trading Jordan Walden for Hanson and signing Ryan Madson and Sean Burnett. Madson (Tommy John surgery) never threw a pitch for the Angels, and Burnett gave them fewer than 10 innings due to his own arm issues. Dipoto will try again this year. He acquired one-time closer Fernando Salas in the trade that brought third baseman David Freese from St. Louis and signed setup man Joe Smith to a three-year deal. Ernesto Frieri will once again close after converting 37-of-41 save chances last season. Kevin Jepsen, Dane De La Rosa and Michael Kohn return to the mix — as will Burnett. De La Rosa is fighting through a forearm strain that will delay his season.
Erick Aybar and Howie Kendrick will return for another season as the Angels’ primary keystone combination — and that is a surprise. Going into the offseason, Kendrick was considered more valuable to the Angels as a trade chip to obtain front-line pitching. The winter didn’t play out that way, and he returns as a steady, complementary bat in the Angels’ lineup and an improved defensive player. Meanwhile, the Angels are still waiting for Aybar to develop into a top-of-the-order hitter. It hasn’t happened, and the switch-hitter has settled in at the bottom of the order with a series of uneven seasons since his .312 breakout in 2009. Defensively, Aybar’s arm and range make him an asset at shortstop.
The last time Pujols and Freese were paired together across the diamond, the St. Louis Cardinals won a World Series title. Things have not gone very well for either in the two years since. The Angels knew they would be getting the worst years of his Hall of Fame career when they signed a 32-year-old Pujols for 10 years two winters ago. They just didn’t realize they’d be getting them at the front end of that contract as well as (almost assuredly) at the back end. Leg and foot problems were largely at fault in 2013 as Pujols put up career lows in every statistical category, including games played (99). Greater DH time should be in order — but the Angels traded away their best alternative at first base (Trumbo) in search of pitching. That leaves the Angels hoping for a return to health to buoy Pujols’ production in 2014. Freese, on the other hand, remains more of a mystery. After his postseason heroics in 2011 and an All-Star selection in 2012, he was discarded by the Cardinals following a power drop-off and whispers of lost bat speed in 2013. Still, he represents the Angels’ best hopes for a productive third baseman since Troy Glaus left as a free agent following the 2004 season.
As cloudy as the past two seasons have been for the Angels, Mike Trout has been the bright silver lining. At age 22, Trout has already stamped himself as the best player in baseball (status disputed only by Miguel Cabrera’s legion of supporters) with a two-year big-league arrival that ranks among the best in baseball history. After nearly winning a Rookie of the Year-MVP double in 2012, Trout was actually better in some ways last season, finishing as the MVP runner-up to Cabrera for the second consecutive season after leading the AL in runs and walks while posting a .323/.432/.557 slash line. If you like your statistics more New Age, Trout has led the majors in WAR in each of his two full big-league seasons. Trout will be back in his comfort zone, center field, full-time after moving to left field for Peter Bourjos at times in 2013. The Angels plan to flank him with Kole Calhoun and — they earnestly hope — a more productive Hamilton. Hamilton’s massive drop-off for most of 2013 was one of the biggest mysteries in baseball last season. But he did show signs of coming around as the dismal season wound down. The Angels can only hope his .329 average and .518 slugging percentage (albeit with just five home runs) over the final 45 games of last season augurs a rebirth in 2014. Hamilton has been dealing with a calf strain, which has prevented him from working out much of spring training.
Satisfying Mike Scioscia’s defensive demands and still contributing offensively has proved too much for a generation of Angels catchers. Chris Iannetta hasn’t been able to do it. He hit just .225 last season, and it might be time for the Angels to give former first-round pick Hank Conger a larger share of the workload. Conger’s defense has been a work in progress for the past three seasons spent largely on the bench. But he at least holds out the possibility of offensive contributions.
The ideal situation would have Pujols spending a far greater portion of his playing time at DH, putting less wear and tear on his legs, which have broken down each of the past two years. But Pujols doesn’t want that. So, the Angels signed 41-year-old Raul Ibanez to handle most of the DH duty. Behind Ibanez and Conger (who will share catching duties with Iannetta), the Angels’ bench is not likely to offer much. The team signed veteran Carlos Pena, who could spell Pujols at first at times.
The Angels’ dysfunction was not confined to the roster last season. Scioscia and Dipoto have not meshed well since Dipoto was hired before the 2012 season. The expectation was that last season’s failures would cost one or both their job. Instead, it was a couple of minor heads that rolled (coaches Rob Picciolo and Jim Eppard), and both Scioscia and Dipoto return. If the Angels’ playoff drought extends to a fifth season, though, it’s hard to see the status quo continuing.
The decade that followed Scioscia’s arrival as manager was the most successful in franchise history, including the Angels’ only World Series title in 2002. The franchise has drifted away from the foundation upon which that success was built, however. Moreno’s luxury spending binge on stars (Pujols and Hamilton) and other decisions have decimated the farm system and produced a dysfunctional roster that has more name recognition than functional strengths. The Angels now find themselves pinning their hopes on comeback seasons from three players (Pujols, Hamilton, Freese) who almost certainly have passed their best days — the kind of misguided strategy that too often characterized the franchise’s first four championship-less decades.
LF Kole Calhoun (L)
A .402 on-base percentage during his minor-league career makes him a candidate to fill leadoff void.
CF Mike Trout (R)
Only he and Willie Mays ever had consecutive seasons with a .320 AVG or better and at least 25 HRs, 30 SBs.
1B Albert Pujols (R)
Since moving from St. Louis to Anaheim, Pujols’ OPS has dropped more than 200 points as an Angel.
RF Josh Hamilton (L)
Batted .329, raised his average 33 points over final 45 games of 2013 — giving Angels hope for the future.
3B David Freese (R)
Freese would be a hero to Angels fans if he gave them their first prototypical 3B since Troy Glaus.
DH Raul Ibanez (L)
The Angels are banking on the 41-year-old Ibanez being able to keep Father Time at bay for another year.
2B Howie Kendrick (R)
Nearly traded to the Dodgers in midseason and dangled for pitching in the winter.
C Chris Iannetta (R)
The combination of Iannetta and Hank Conger produced pretty much the MLB average for catchers last year.
SS Erick Aybar (S)
Seems to be regressing offensively with his lowest batting average (.271) since 2010.
C Hank Conger (S)
Is it time to take off the “water wings,” as Mike Scioscia likes to say, and let him play?
OF J.B. Shuck (L)
Made defensive play of the year in 2013, tumbling into the outfield seats at Angel Stadium to rob a home run.
OF Collin Cowgill (R)
Journeyman gives Angels coverage in the outfield and some experience off the bench — but little else.
INF Grant Green (R)
A’s soured on their 2009 first-round pick, but Angels have to be more open-minded about his potential.
1B Carlos Pena (L)
Since leading the AL with 39 homers in 2009, Pena has hit just .206 with 83 home runs in four different uniforms.
RH Jered Weaver
Fractured elbow biggest reason for sub-par 2013, but Angels have to be worried about his shrinking velocity.
LH C.J. Wilson
Pillar of stability amid the shambles of the 2013 rotation, essentially matching his All-Star season of 2011.
RH Garrett Richards
GM Jerry Dipoto wanted Joe Blanton and Tommy Hanson in the 2013 rotation instead of Richards.
LH Tyler Skaggs
Dipoto has acquired Skaggs in trades twice (with the Diamondbacks and Angels).
LH Hector Santiago
Needs to harness his stuff or get bumped to the pen; has averaged 4.5 walks per nine IP in the big leagues.
RH Ernesto Frieri (Closer)
Fastball-reliant closer is vulnerable to the big mistake (11 HRs in 2013) but saved 37 games.
RH Joe Smith
After five successful seasons in Cleveland (a 2.76 ERA), Smith moves West to Anaheim.
RH Fernando Salas
Had 24 saves for the Cardinals in 2011 but fell out of favor and back into the minors the past two seasons.
LH Sean Burnett
Gave the Angels less than 10 innings last year before undergoing season-ending elbow surgery.
RH Kevin Jepsen
Has never developed into reliable back-end bullpen presence, but 8.2 career K rate makes him valuable.
RH Dane De La Rosa
Big surprise last year with 6–1 record, two saves, 2.86 ERA and 1.16 WHIP over 75 appearances.
2013 Top Draft Pick
Hunter Green, LHP
Free-agent compensation for their big-ticket signings have robbed the Angels of high draft picks and left their farm system ranked 30th out of the 30 clubs. With that backdrop, the Angels were thrilled to find Green — who had signed a letter of intent to pitch at the University of Kentucky — available in the second round. The Bowling Green, Ky., native made just a handful of appearances in the Arizona Rookie League after signing last summer, going 0–1 with a 4.32 ERA and 11 strikeouts in 16.2 innings. But the 18-year-old already ranks as the Angels pitching prospect with the highest upside in a system thoroughly devoid of high-end pitching.
RHP R.J. Alvarez (22)
Could rise quickly after posting 1.24 WHIP, 3.08 ERA and striking out 117 in 76 innings at Class A level in 2013.
1B C.J. Cron, 1B (24)
Top hitting prospect in system won Arizona Fall League batting title (.413). His path to big leagues is clearer with Mike Trumbo traded.
3B Kaleb Cowart (21)
Took big step back in Class AA (.221/.279/.301). His road to the big leagues now blocked by David Freese’s acquisition.
2B Taylor Lindsey (22)
Offense-minded infielder has hit at every level, showing newfound power (17 home runs) at Class AA last season.
RHP Mark Sappington (23)
The Angels have high hopes for 6'5" righthander who went 11–4 with a 3.38 ERA in Cal League before late-season promotion to Class AA last year.
2B Alex Yarbrough (22)
Ole Miss product blossomed in hitter-friendly Cal League last year — a .313 average, 11 HRs, 80 RBIs, 14 stolen bases.
SS Jose Rondon (20)
Venezuelan hit .293 with 50 RBIs and 13 stolen bases in 68 games in rookie ball last year.
LHP Ricardo Sanchez (17)
He’s young and he’s small (about 160 pounds), but his fastball hits 90 and he’s got an advanced curveball.
Beyond the Box Score
Tough words During his brief tenure on a sports talk radio show in St. Louis last year, former big-leaguer Jack Clark accused Angels slugger Albert Pujols of using performance-enhancing drugs. Clark said he knew for certain that Pujols was “a juicer.” In the aftermath of his comments, Clark’s show was cancelled, and Pujols sued for defamation of character, saying the accusations were “malicious, reckless and outrageous falsehoods.” Clark’s attorney responded by saying his client would be willing to undergo a lie-detector test — if Pujols agreed to do the same.
Big crowds Though attendance dropped slightly for the third consecutive season, the Angels topped three million in attendance for the 11th consecutive season in 2013. Only one team in the American League (the New York Yankees) can match that streak. But last year’s total of 3,019,505 fans drawn to Angel Stadium was the lowest of Arte Moreno’s decade as owner. Not coincidentally, the Angels have missed the playoffs each of the past four seasons.
Staff shakeup Despite speculation throughout the season that he might be fired, Mike Scioscia survived and returns for his 15th season as Angels manager. But his staff underwent some major renovations. Hitting coach Jim Eppard and bench coach Rob Picciolo were dismissed. Dino Ebel moves from third-base coach to bench coach, and two former Angels returned to the fold. Don Baylor was hired as hitting coach and Gary DiSarcina as third-base coach. In addition, the Angels added two positions — assistant hitting coach (Dave Hansen) and player information coach (Rick Eckstein). Both Hansen and Eckstein have been hitting coaches at the major-league level before.
Stadium talk The Angels have begun a potentially acrimonious negotiation with the city of Anaheim over a new lease for the team at Angel Stadium. Amid veiled threats from ownership about building a new stadium elsewhere, the Anaheim City Council agreed to open negotiations on a new lease and grant the Angels an extension on their opt-out clause from 2016 to 2019. The current lease runs through 2029, and the Angels are seeking massive concessions from the city in order to finance approximately $150 million in renovations.
For the Astros, it’s time to move forward. Coming off three consecutive 100-loss seasons, including a club-record 111 losses last year that included a franchise-record 15-game losing skid to end the season in their first year in the American League, the Astros are poised to take a step forward in their rebuilding process after bringing in some pieces this winter that should make them more competitive. In 2014, they should have the makings of a legitimate major-league lineup and bullpen to go along with a promising young rotation. The Astros finished the season with a payroll of about $13 million following years of trading away established players — including pitcher Bud Norris last year — in exchange for prospects. That allowed them to rebuild their minor-league system into one of the best in baseball, which should set them up well for the future. But knowing they couldn’t afford another 100-loss season while they waited on the kids to arrive in Houston, the Astros opened their pocketbook and added about $30 million in payroll by signing starting pitcher Scott Feldman to a three-year, $30-million deal and inking relief pitchers Jesse Crain, Chad Qualls and Matt Albers to bolster baseball’s worst bullpen. The team also made a trade to acquire center fielder Dexter Fowler from the Rockies and plan to plug him into the leadoff spot, giving the Astros a solid 1-2-3 combo at the top of the order with Fowler hitting first, second baseman Jose Altuve hitting second and All-Star catcher Jason Castro batting third.
The Astros have built a wealth of young starting pitching in their system over the last few years, and a few of those promising arms were anchoring the youngest rotation in baseball at the end of the season. What was missing was an established veteran, which led to the signing of Feldman, who split last year between the Cubs and Orioles. For much of the second half of 2013, the Astros went with a six-man rotation in which all were 25 years old or younger. That included rookie sensation Jarred Cosart, who flirted with a no-hitter during his July 12 major-league debut against Tampa Bay and wound up going 1–1 with a 1.95 ERA in 10 starts. He’ll be joined in the 2014 rotation by lefty Brett Oberholtzer, who was 4–5 with a 2.24 ERA in 10 starts (two complete games). Also returning is lefty Dallas Keuchel, who was 6–8 with a 4.90 ERA as a starter and tied with Lucas Harrell for the team lead in innings. The Astros signed veteran Jerome Williams — yes, he’s still in the league — in early February to add depth. It appears Williams will begin the season in the rotation. The highly regarded Brad Peacock, who was 4–3 with a 3.67 ERA in his last 12 starts, and Harrell, who had a disastrous 2013 after a breakout 2012, will be back pushing for a spot.
This was by far the Astros’ weakest link last year, especially after the club traded veteran reliever Jose Veras to the Tigers at the deadline. What followed was a series of late-inning meltdowns, as manager Bo Porter threw a bevy of young arms into closing roles without any success. The Astros led the majors in blown saves and had the highest bullpen ERA, so adding some veteran arms to the mix was the team’s No. 1 task in the offseason. The Astros signed Qualls and Albers — both of whom were drafted and developed by the Astros — and veteran Crain. Houston traded for Anthony Bass. None of the four has closing experience, however. While taking their lumps in the bullpen last year, the Astros did get a good look at arms with some upside in rookies Josh Fields, Chia-Jen Lo, Josh Zeid and Kevin Chapman. They should play even bigger roles during their second seasons in 2014. Alex White, who missed all of last year following Tommy John surgery, is competing for a spot as well.
Altuve slipped a little both offensively and defensively in 2013 following an All-Star campaign the season before, but the club liked him enough to sign him to a budget-friendly four-year contract extension in July. When he’s hot, there may not be a tougher out in the league. While former No. 1 overall pick Carlos Correa, a shortstop, makes his way through the minors, the club plans to get an extended look in 2014 at shortstop Jonathan Villar. The speedster made his debut at 22 last year and hit .243, but he stole 18 bases in 58 games and dazzled with his speed. He also struggled mightily on defense, making16 errors, and didn’t always make the best decisions on the bases.
The Astros found their third baseman of the future, thanks to a breakout 2013 season by Matt Dominguez, acquired in 2012 from the Marlins in the Carlos Lee trade. Dominguez was one of the best defensive third basemen in the AL and hit .241 with 21 homers and 77 RBIs at 23 years old for much of the season. Across the diamond at first base, things aren’t quite as settled. Brett Wallace, Chris Carter and Carlos Peña split playing time at first base last season, and only Carter returns. The slugger provided most of Houston’s punch with 29 homers and 82 runs batted in, while also setting the club record with 212 strikeouts The Astros acquired Jesus Guzman as an option to share time with Carter. Slugger Jonathan Singleton, one of the club’s top prospects, should be in the mix at some point this year.
Fowler will patrol the spacious center field of Minute Maid Park after doing the same at Coors Field the previous six years. He came to the Astros via trade and instantly becomes one of the club’s best offensive weapons and gives them a legitimate leadoff hitter. Astros leadoff hitters had a combined on-base percentage of .310 last year; Fowler's was .369. Robbie Grossman figures to start in left field, and he did enough during the second half of his rookie season to deserve a longer look. He struggled in his first stint with the club (hitting .198) but came back to Houston and hit .322 from July 28 to the end of the season and showed a little pop. Right field figures to be a mix between L.J. Hoes and Marc Krauss, although top prospect George Springer could play his way into the lineup. Springer is a center fielder, but the addition of Fowler means the club could move him to right field.
A former first-round pick by the Astros, Castro was finally healthy last year and wound up having an All-Star season. He should hit third in the lineup in 2014 after batting .276 with 18 homers and 56 RBIs last year. He missed the final three weeks of the season after he had a cyst removed from the surgically repaired knee that he injured prior to the 2011 season. Switch-hitting Carlos Corporan has proven to be a solid backup both offensively and behind the plate for Castro, and the club is also high on rookie Max Stassi, who suffered a concussion in his second career game last year and wound up playing only three games at the major-league level.
Krauss should get the bulk of the at-bats at the designated hitter. The bench isn’t deep. Corporan is a steady hand at catcher. Veteran Cesar Izturis is a solid defender in the middle infield, but provides very little offense thus can’t be counted on as a pinch-hitter. Krauss and J.D. Martinez are power threats who can play outfield and DH.
This will be the third year of general manager Jeff Luhnow’s ambitious overhaul of the roster. The organization has made huge strides in the minor leagues, but with the farm system stocked and the franchise now willing to spend some money, the pressure mounts on Luhnow to start winning more games. Porter made some rookie mistakes, but he held a young team together during 111 losses.
The Astros will probably be bottom-feeders in the league once again, but they have improved and should benefit from the arrival of more of their top prospects, including Springer, Singleton and pitcher Asher Wojciechowski. The veteran additions they made should make them more competitive on a nightly basis, but meaningful baseball in Houston in September is still a few years away.
CF Dexter Fowler (S)
New acquisition gives the Astros a dynamic presence at top of lineup with a career OBP of .365.
2B Jose Altuve (R)
Finished last season with a .283 batting average and 35 steals after a torrid stretch in September.
C Jason Castro (L)
The team’s MVP in 2013 when he hit .276 with 18 homers and 56 RBIs and was an All-Star.
1B Chris Carter (R)
Carter set the club record for strikeouts in a season with 212, but he mashed 29 homers and drove in 82.
3B Matt Dominguez (R)
A steady hand at third base, Dominguez showed surprising power in ’13 with 21 homers and 77 RBIs.
DH Marc Krauss (L)
The broad-shouldered Krauss made his debut last year and flashed some impressive raw power from left side.
RF L.J. Hoes (R)
Acquired from the Orioles in the Bud Norris trade, Hoes is still trying to establish himself in majors.
LF Robbie Grossman (S)
Grossman got better with more playing time and wound up hitting .268 with a .332 on-base percentage.
SS Jonathan Villar (S)
His speed makes him one of the most exciting players to watch, but he needs more discipline in his game.
C Carlos Corporan (S)
Did a solid job while backing up Jason Castro, hitting .225 with seven homers and 20 RBIs.
1B Jesus Guzman (R)
The Astros acquired him in a trade from the Padres as a right-handed option at first base with Brett Wallace.
OF J.D. Martinez (R)
The Astros removed him from 40-man roster after tough 2013, but he had a big winter in Venezuela.
INF Cesar Izturis (S)
The veteran won a Gold Glove and made an All-Star team back in the mid-2000s. More recently, he hit just .225 in only 143 games for four different teams over the past three seasons.
RH Scott Feldman
The lone veteran in the rotation; the Astros needed someone to eat innings and mold youngsters.
RH Jarred Cosart
Former top prospect had a dazzling debut in 2013. Now we’ll find out what he can do in a full season.
LH Brett Oberholtzer
Not considered one of the club’s top minor-league arms, but opened eyes with his solid debut season.
LH Dallas Keuchel
Bounced between the rotation and bullpen last year as the Astros shuffled starters. He’s better suited to start.
RH Jerome Williams
After being out of baseball in 2010, Williams set a career high in innings in 2012, then surpassed that total last season in 25 starts for the Angels.
RH Chad Qualls (Closer)
Returns to Houston as most experienced member of a young bullpen and the likely candidate to close games.
RH Matt Albers
Albers, who was traded from Astros in 2007, returns to hold down a back-end spot. He’s a strike-thrower.
RH Josh Fields
Former Rule 5 Draft pick was only Astros reliever to last entire season on roster, and showed promise.
RH Jesse Crain
Veteran put up tremendous numbers during All-Star season before injuries forced him to miss second half.
LH Kevin Chapman
Will take over as the situational lefty in the bullpen following the departure of Wes Wright.
RH Josh Zeid
Made 24 relief appearances in final two months of last season, posting a 1.23 ERA in September.
RH Lucas Harrell
Pitched in long relief last year after struggling as a starter, though he could wind up back in rotation.
2013 Top Draft Pick
Mark Appel, RHP
After taking a 17-year-old infielder out of Puerto Rico with their first pick in the 2012 draft, the Astros took Appel, a polished right-handed pitcher from Stanford, with the top selection last year. He was drafted high by the Pirates a year earlier and chose to return for his senior season at Stanford, where he was 10–4 with a 2.12 ERA. Appel, who was born in Houston and has tons of family in the area, made 10 combined starts between Class A Quad Cities and short-season Tri-City, going 3–1 with a 3.79 ERA. Appel, 22, will come to major-league camp this spring, but he’s not going to be competing for a spot in the rotation. Expect the Astros to allow him to pitch a full season in the minor leagues before they hope he becomes the ace of their staff sometime in 2015.
SS Carlos Co rrea (19)
Was the second-youngest player in the Midwest League and still led league in OPS (.872) and was third in batting average (.320).
OF George Springer (24)
Put together a monster season, hitting combined .303 with 37 homers, 108 RBIs and 45 steals between Double-A and Triple-A.
2B-OF Delino DeShields Jr. (21)
Will make the move to center field at Class AA this year after hitting .317 as a second baseman at Class A Lancaster.
1B Jonathan Singleton (22)
Should make major-league debut following tough 2013 season that included 50-game suspension for violating minor league baseball’s drug policy.
RHP Lance McCullers Jr. (20)
First full pro season for fire-baller resulted in 117 strikeouts in 104.2 innings at Class A Quad Cities.
RHP Mike Foltynewicz (22)
One of the hardest throwers in the system, he should begin the year in starting rotation at Triple-A.
SS Nolan Fontana (22)
An on-base machine, Fontana drew 102 walks in 104 games for Class A Lancaster in ’13.
RF Domingo Santana (21)
Has a big-time arm and can hit for power, mashing 25 homers at Double-A last year.
Beyond the Box Score
Junior Express Reid Ryan, the son of Hall of Fame pitcher Nolan Ryan, was named the Astros’ president of business operations on May 17. Ryan founded the Double-A Corpus Christi Hooks (Astros) and Triple-A Round Rock Express (Rangers) and was hired by owner Jim Crane to help restore some goodwill in Houston.
See you in court Crane filed a lawsuit in November against former owner Drayton McLane, Comcast and NBC Universal, saying the team had lost tens of millions of dollars or more because of what the plaintiffs contend to be an inflated television deal that was negotiated by McLane, Comcast and the owner of the NBA’s Houston Rockets. McLane sold the Astros to Crane’s group in November 2011.
Springer has sprung Outfielder George Springer had one of the finest seasons in minor-league history en route to Texas League Player of the Year honors. In 2013, he became the first minor leaguer in franchise history and the first since Grant Desme in 2009 to hit 30 homers and steal 30 bases in the same season.
Coaching turnover The Astros made a few changes to their coaching staff for 2014. Brent Strom returns to the Astros as pitching coach, the same role he held in 1996. Pat Listach (first-base coach) joined the organization, and Craig Bjornson returned as the bullpen coach for the second time in three years. Dave Trembley, who served as third-base coach, took over as bench coach, with former bench coach Eduardo Perez moving to the third-base box.
Top pick three-peat For the third consecutive year, the Astros will have the first pick in the MLB Draft in June. After taking shortstop Carlos Correa with the first pick in 2012, the Astros took Stanford pitcher Mark Appel with the top pick in 2013. They are the first team to have the No. 1 pick three years in a row.
Celebrating equality The Astros will play host to Major League Baseball’s Civil Rights Game on May 30 at Minute Maid Park against the Orioles. The game, which will be televised nationally on MLB Network, was developed by MLB to pay tribute to those who fought on and off the field for equal rights for all Americans.
Hope for the future? The Astros set a franchise record by putting six of their minor-league affiliates in the playoffs. Class A Quad Cities and short-season Tri-City both won their respective league championships.
They’re the cream of the major championship crop, circa 2014 — the Athlon Major Championship Dream Team. Leading up to The Masters, we'll be unveiling Athlon Sports’ 30 players to watch for majors season, with commentary on each from the Golf Channel’s Brandel Chamblee.
No. 22: Graeme McDowell
Born: July 30, 1979, Portrush, Northern Ireland | Career PGA Tour Wins: 2 (9 on European Tour) | 2013 Wins (Worldwide): 3 | 2013 Earnings (PGA Tour): $2,174,596 (28th) | World Ranking: 15
Brandel Chamblee's Take
Graeme McDowell is good at everything — and by everything I mean dealing with the media, multitasking business concerns while managing a world class game and being, well, just a good guy to have a beer with. All of this makes him popular, but may not necessarily make him as good as he can be at golf, which takes a selfishness he doesn't appear to possess. Nonetheless, he won three times in 2013, once on the PGA Tour and twice in Europe. At his best, he hits some of the coolest irons in the game, and it was the strength of that iron play that made him a U.S. Open champion in 2010. If his short game improves in 2014, besides being a thorn in the side of U.S. players at the Ryder Cup he will make the media rooms a whole lot more fun to be in.
Major Championship Résumé
Masters - Cut
U.S. Open - Cut
British Open - T58
PGA Championship - T12
Best Career Finishes:
Masters - T12 (2012)
U.S. Open - Won (2010)
British Open - T5 (2012)
PGA Championship - T10 (2009)
Top-10 Finishes: 4
Top-25 Finishes: 14
Missed Cuts: 12
Athlon's 2014 Golf annual provides in-depth previews of this year's four majors, including the top 30 players to watch this season. One of these elite players, Dustin Johnson, also takes you tee to green with full-swing instruction and short game essentials. BUY IT NOW.
The Madness is upon us. March is here and the NCAA tournament is less than a week away from tipping off. And with the Oscar’s recently concluding, I thought I would have a little bit of fun at some basketball coach’s expense.
Elite college basketball coaches often look the part of modern day mobsters. Expensive perfectly tailored suits, demonstrative sideline behavior, rockstar status in the community and, at times, questionable business practices (yes, I said it, basketball recruiting is dirty).
Obviously I am not suggesting that Bo Ryan likes to knock off banks in his spare time or that John Beilein is a drug dealer on the side. No, I am simply taking two of my all-time favorite things — the NCAA Tournament and The Godfather Trilogy — and putting them together (ideally) for your enjoyment.
So this is my editorial disclaimer: This is for fun. It’s entertainment. Not journalism. No coach’s egos were harmed in the making of this piece so please enjoy as such.
Rick Pitino, Louisville: Vito Corleone
Pitino has been to the top of the mountain and felt the warm glow of a championship wash over him like the Tuscan sun. Yet, he didn’t stick around too long in Act I as the game began to pass him by. He disappeared for a while but returned to play a prominent and possibly more successful role in Act II – whether that is beating Michigan in one of the most memorable championship games in history or making Charles Barkley look foolish on CBS’ television set. He is a champion of the highest caliber and doesn't let a little geographical rivalry get the better of him. With seven Final Four showings and two national titles at three different schools, it's hard to argue that Pitino isn't the Godfather of college hoops. Additionally, Vito taught his prized pupil how to operate, recruit, coach, fund-raise and dress – as both a player and coach.
Billy Donovan, Florida: Michael Corleone
After heading off to war to hone his craft (in the MAC), "Mikey" could not help but return to his father’s former arena of business (the SEC). When the son of the legend took over, he exceeded all expectations, but this time in a new zip code. After learning on the job the hard way, Michael grew the empire to levels Vito could not achieve and with eyes on a distinguished and . Even beyond all expectations, Mikey exists now in a dangerous what-have-you-done-for-me-lately world of guerilla war-cruiting. He is constantly looking over his shoulder – and possibly losing hair for it – but a fourth trip to the championship game would keep him on top of the family business. Plus, his name is Donovan.
Bill Self, Kansas: Tom Hagen
He walks, talks, acts, dresses and recruits like his Italian brethren, but has had to prove himself doubly due to his status as an “outsider.” After finally earning his chance with many years of loyal hard work - and a Mario Chalmers three-pointer - Hagen is named acting Don instead of Corelenone’s actual brother, Fredo. Yet, no matter how much he does for the family, he will likely never get the full credit - mostly because he does his livestock decapitation routine west of the Mississippi (looking at you Austin, Texas). Through all of the family’s turmoil, however, Hagan perseveres and continues to come out on top… for 10 straight years.
Mike Krzyzewski, Duke: Hyman Roth
Roth is the biggest of the big fish who everyone loves to hate. Yet, you never hear too much about the inner-workings of his business dealings. He has been wildly successful across many generations and is a key player in many of the family’s enterprises – domestic (Durham) and abroad (USA Basketball). Yet, somehow he manages to keep his quiet little home nice and tidy. He is untouchable and the primary antagonist for… everyone in the country that doesn’t love Duke. Originally named Hyman Suchowsky, Don Coreleone pseudo-orders him to simplify his name. So he becomes Hyman Roth – a scene that was originally removed from the theatrical release. It's not called "Krzyzewski Court" is it? And if need be, he can call on thousands of Crazies to come to his back.
Bo Ryan, Wisconsin: Captain McCluskey
The aged and grizzled veteran of the game didn’t get where he got because of lack of brains. He is savvy leader who has accomplished much in his time. McCluskey’s rise to Captain of the police force happened because he isn't scared to club a few knees to win games. He is an elite success in his realm but when faced with the talent and upside of the Corleone family, he generally comes out on the losing end.
John Calapari, Kentucky: Fredo Corleone
Coach Cal has proven that he will do whatever is humanly possible to win. And, until Anthony Davis came along, he had come so very close only to have all he worked for snatched from within his fingertips (in one case, by Tom Hagen's senior point guard). Fredo’s inability to maintain institutional control over his immediate family forced Michael to strip his brother of any trust he may have. So he aligned himself with Johnny Ola, a shady, backroom character with deep roots in the seedy, worldwide underbelly, and one casual slip of the tongue cost him everything. He was given a tradition-laden, historic family name and, unlike Fredo, returned it to the top of the college basketball mountain (as long as he continues to watch his tongue).
Bob Huggins, West Virginia: Sonny Corleone
Talented, charismatic, hard-working and loyal. But, at times, a total buffoon who allows his temper to get the better of him. Sonny has been successful at every stop along the way - partly because his rage translates well on the defensive side of the ball. But he lacks the overall wherewithal to be truly great, so he will likely end up sitting in line at the toll plaza listening to the big game on the radio.
Gregg Marshall, Wichita State: Sal Tessio
The smarter, savvier and more ruthless capo works a solid beat and makes himself quite a fortune in the upper mid-major ranks of the family. And after a lifetime of hard work and loyalty, he thought he deserved the big seat when Vito passed away. So in an effort to land his dream job, he makes more than a few clandestine rendezvous with the rival families. After rolling off 34 straight wins, Marshall will most certainly get courted and offered other jobs at other programs. This won't make an already abrasive guy any easier to be friends with and he may have to learn the hard way about swimming in the deep waters of high major basketball.
Frank Martin, South Carolina: Carlo Rizzi
Rizzi has somehow, someway befriended someone somewhere to earn the right to sit at the family table. Apparently, that person is Sonny Coreleone, whose coat-tails he rides all the way into the family business. He doesn’t exactly know what is happening out there on the court, but he has a great view of the action and is making quite a living. Eventually, Rizzi's temper gets the better of him.
Jim Larranaga, Miami: Peter Clemenza
Clemenza is the jollier, well-respected caporegime who sort of skates through his entire career largely untouched and generally unknown to outsiders. But with one drive into the city - or to the Final Four with George Mason - the Don's general made the most of his one shining moment: “Leave the gun, take the cannoli.”
Rick Barnes, Texas: Moe Greene
He believes he is building the empire out west - and he has plenty of talent and natural resources to do so. He has climbed the ladder and has himself a very cushy job. Yet, he has never really accomplished much of anything and always finds himself with an early ticket home when he messes with the wrong people.
Steve Alford, UCLA: Jack Woltz
The supposed King of Hollywood, Woltz worked his way to the top of his profession. He lives a posh, lavish lifestyle in the city of lights with all of the benefits that come along with one of the best jobs in the world. However, when the brutal East Coast comes calling, the Bruins have generally crumbled in key situation.
Jay Wright, Villanova: Johnny Fontane
This one is a lay-up. The best-dressed man in the business makes ladies swoon with his sweet singing voice and signature slicked back hair style. He never really plays a prominent role in any of the most critical scenes but his appearances are normally extremely memorable and always popular. Because, frankly, everyone seems to love this guy.
Tom Izzo, Michigan State: Philip Tattaglia
Is the head of the one of the top programs in the nation and has built a vast empire of wealth and fame. He is always the first to act and is downright ruthless in crunch time. (A bit of a stretch but Izzo had to make the list.)
The Bowl Championship Series is dead. But even the harshest of BCS detractors must acknowledge that the 16-year run was arguably the best era of college football in the history of the sport.
The era was highlighted by the advent of the BCS Championship Game, conference realignment and mega-dollar contracts for conferences, programs and coaches. But the elite athletes had a huge, if not the biggest, hand in the unprecedented growth of college football over the last two decades.
So Athlon Sports is looking back on the players that made the BCS Era great — conference-by-conference, position-by-position.
The Big 12 is known for its elite quarterback play, record-setting wide receivers and innovative offenses. This tends to put a lot of pressure on the defensive backs and secondary coaches in the Big 12 to stop these powerhouse offenses. Here are the best the league had to offer during the BCS Era.
Note: Must have played at least one season between 1998-13 in the conference.
1. Roy Williams, Oklahoma (1999-2001)
One of the biggest hitters in college football history, Williams dominated college football during his time in Norman. He helped lead the Sooners to an unbeaten BCS National Championship in 2000 while setting the school record for tackles for loss by a defensive back (12.0). The following year, he claimed the Thorpe Award as the nation’s top defensive back as well as the Nagurski and Jack Tatum Trophies and Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year honors. He was a unanimous All-American, first-round pick of the Cowboys in 2002 and will go down in Red River Shootout lore for this spectacular play in the Cotton Bowl.
2. Terence Newman, Kansas State (1999-2002)
Newman did a little bit of everything for Bill Snyder and Kansas State. He returned kicks and punts and even played some wide receiver. The lockdown cornerback was a two-time All-Big 12 pick, a unanimous All-American, the Jim Thorpe Award winner as the nation’s top DB and a first-round pick by the Cowboys in 2003. The 2002 Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year also was a two-time Big 12 outdoor track champion in the 100 meters and the league champ in the indoor 60 meters.
3. Derrick Strait, Oklahoma (2000-03)
As the Big 12 Defensive Newcomer of the Year, Strait helped lead an undefeated (13-0) Sooners team to the BCS National Championship as a freshman. By his senior season, Strait had led Oklahoma back to the BCS national title game and was recognized nationally with the Thorpe and Nagurski Trophies as the nation’s top defensive player and top defensive back. Strait also was the Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year in 2003 and finished his career with 14 interceptions returned for a Big 12-record 417 yards and three touchdowns. Strait was selected in the third round of the 2004 NFL Draft.
4. Michael Huff, Texas (2002-05)
The superstar safety from Texas was a Freshman All-American in 2002 before earning back-to-back first-team All-Big 12 honors as a junior and senior. Huff was a unanimous All-American on the 2005 BCS National Championship team and was named the Jim Thorpe Award winner as the nation’s top defensive back. He posted 87 tackles, 9.0 for loss, two sacks, two interceptions and three forced fumbles on the historic ’05 squad. Huff was the seventh overall pick in the 2006 NFL Draft.
5. Aaron Ross, Texas (2003-06)
Ross was a bit of a late bloomer but played a key role on the 2005 BCS National Championship squad. He capped his career in Austin with a stellar '06 campaign in which he won Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year honors and the Thorpe Award as the nation’s top DB. Ross played 51 games during his career but only started 15 times, posting 205 tackles and 10 interceptions. He also was a dynamic punt returner, finishing his Longhorns career with 893 return yards and three touchdowns. Ross was a first-round pick in the 2007 NFL Draft.
6. Earl Thomas, Texas (2008-09)
Thomas redshirted and played only two seasons in Austin or he could have been the best defensive back in the Big 12 during the BCS Era. He started all 27 games, posting 135 tackles, 10 interceptions, 29 passes defended, five forced fumbles and two return touchdowns. He was a freshman All-American in 2008 and was a consensus All-American in ’09. Thomas skipped his final two seasons in Austin and was the 14th overall pick in the 2009 NFL Draft. He has blossomed into one of the NFL’s finest safeties.
7. Aqib Talib, Kansas (2005-07)
Along with Todd Reesing and others, Talib is responsible for the “glory” years of Kansas football. The two-time all-conference pick won the Tatum Trophy as the nation’s top DB and was a unanimous All-American in 2007 — the year KU went 12-1 and won the Orange Bowl. Talib is a troubled individual who has dealt with serious off-the-field issues but his 162 tackles, 13 interceptions and seven total touchdowns (two defense, five offense) made him one of the Big 12’s top playmakers. He was a first-round pick in the 2008 NFL Draft.
8. Prince Amukamara, Nebraska (2007-10)
Quarterbacks stayed away from this flamboyant coverman during his four-year career. After a monster junior season (64 tackles, two sacks, five interceptions), the entire Big 12 avoided The Prince in 2010. His work as a senior earned him consensus All-American and Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year recognition. The two-time All-Big 12 pick was a first-round selection by the New York Giants in the 2011 NFL Draft.
9. Jason Verrett, TCU (2011-13)
The star cornerback started 34 of his possible 37 career games at TCU. He posted 160 tackles, 10.0 for loss, 34 passes broken up and nine interceptions during his three-year career after coming to TCU from junior college. Verrett was a first-team All-Big 12 selection in both seasons he played in the league and was named co-Defensive Player of the Year in 2013.
10. Ralph Brown, Nebraska (1996-99)
Brown was a member of the All-Decade All-Big 12 team after being named first-team All-Big 12 three times as a Cornhusker. He intercepted 11 passes for 253 return yards and set a school record with 50 passes deflected. He was a consensus All-American in ’99 for the last Nebraska team to win a conference championship.
Just missed the cut:
11. Quentin Jammer, Texas (1998-2001)
The consensus All-American was a two-time, first-team All-Big 12 selection while at Texas. He finished his career with 195 total tackles and seven picks before being selected fifth overall in the 2002 NFL Draft by the San Diego Chargers.
12. Mike Brown, Nebraska (1996-99)
The Huskers' star safety was a two-time, second-team All-Big 12 pick and a first-team selection as a senior on the last Nebraska team to win a league title. He set a school record for tackles by a defensive back with 102 stops as a junior before his stellar final season that featured 96 tackles, six forced fumbles, five interceptions and two sacks. He was a second-round pick by the Bears.
13. Quinton Carter, Oklahoma (2006-10)
He played sparingly in his first three years but was an important contributor for the 2008 Big 12 champs that played in the BCS title game. He posted 88 tackles as a junior and 96 as a senior with four interceptions in each of his final two seasons. Carter was a consensus All-American in 2010 and was a fourth-round draft pick in '11.
14. Michael Griffin, Texas (2003-06)
Griffin played a big role on the 2005 BCS title team, posting 100 tackles on that historic squad. He made 88 tackles and picked off four passes as a junior en route to first-team All-Big 12 honors. He had a knack for making big plays — try nine forced fumbles and seven fumble recoveries.
15. J.T. Thatcher, Oklahoma (1997-2000)
Originally a wide receiver, Thatcher excelled as an All-American defensive back and all-world special teamer. He is one of just three players in Big 12 history to earn the Mosi Tatupu Award as the nation’s top special teams player. He was a first-team All-Big 12 pick and a consensus All-American on the historic 2000 Sooners team that won the BCS National Championship.
Best of the Rest:
16. Terrence Wheatley, Colorado (2003-07)
17. Ty Zimmerman, Kansas State (2010-13)
18. William Moore, Missouri (2005-08)
19. Nathan Vasher, Texas (2000-03)
20. Josh Bullocks, Nebraska (2002-04)
21. Darrent Williams, Oklahoma State (2000-03)
22. Aaron Colvin, Oklahoma (2010-13)
23. Kenny Vaccaro, Texas (2009-12)
24. Nigel Malone, Kansas State (2009-12)
25. Darcel McBath, Texas Tech (2005-08)
Three weeks ago, Athlon Sports profiled the the top contenders for coach of the year in every league. This is not that story.
For every yin there’s a yang, and these are what we’re going to call the Not Coach of the Year for every major conference.
In general, we’ve tried to stay away from programs where things have happened beyond their control such as injuries or coaches of programs expected to be bad this season.
To be a Not Coach of the Year, the coach probably saw his program slip below expectations to a major degree. A few probably won’t return for 2014-15. But others are fine coaches who have just had one of those seasons where anything and everything could go wrong.
League-by-League Not Coach of the Year
Contenders: Jeff Bzdelik (Wake Forest), Steve Donahue (Boston College)
Not coach of the year: Donahue
Bzdelik continues to be the king of ACC hot seats, even though Wake Forest defeated both Duke and North Carolina this season. The nod, though, has to go to Donahue despite one of the most out-of-nowhere upsets in 2014 when the Eagles beat then-undefeated Syracuse in the Carrier Dome. Boston College scheduled aggressively in the non-conference, facing Providence, UMass, Toledo, UConn, Purdue, USC, Maryland, VCU and Harvard. BC lost them all. Boston College had two veterans in Olivier Hanlan and Ryan Anderson but few other players able to hold up during the ACC season. Despite hopes for playing in a postseason of some kind, Boston College finished 8-24.
Contenders: Fran Dunphy (Temple), Eddie Jordan (Rutgers)
Not coach of the year: Jordan
Even in a rebuilding year, Dunphy had to expect better than 9-22 at Temple. Rutgers and Jordan, though, inched ahead of Dunphy and Temple with a 92-31 loss to Louisville in the American Tournament. The Scarlet Knights had one top 100 win all season — over Canisius on Nov. 18 — and their last three wins were over USF. Jordan, a former NBA coach, now has to take this broken team into the Big Ten.
Contenders: Trent Johnson (TCU), Travis Ford (Oklahoma State)
Not coach of the year: Ford
When Marcus Smart was suspended for three games for a fan altercation, Smart and the Texas Tech fan took plenty of criticism. But Travis Ford didn’t come out of that incident looking great, either. Teammates, not Ford, escorted Smart from the playing surface or from the bench, where he lingered until the end of the game. The combustable situation never escalated beyond the original shove, but the possibility of the incident becoming uglier remained. Since then, Oklahoma State more or less recovered from that incident after Smart’s return, but this has still been a disappointing season nonetheless. Ford dealt with a short bench for most of the season without an injured Michael Cobbins and dismissed Stevie Clark. The result was an 8-10 Big 12 season from a team that expected to contend for the league crown.
Contenders: John Thompson III (Georgetown), Buzz Williams (Marquette)
Not coach of the year: Thompson
It’s tough enough to contend for a conference title after the do-it-all league player of the year (Otto Porter) heads to the NBA. Georgetown, though, never found a groove this season and wasn’t helped by the dismissal of Greg Whittington in November and ineligibility of Josh Smith in January. With the possibility of the NCAA Tournament still alive, Georgetown flopped against DePaul, handing the last-place Blue Demons their first Big East Tournament win since 2009.
Contenders: Tom Crean (Indiana)
Not coach of the year: Crean
A drop off was inevitable for Indiana, which lost two top-four picks off of last year’s team (Cody Zeller and Victor Oladipo). Still, this team had enough returning veterans including Yogi Ferrell and Will Sheehey and a decorated freshman class led by Noah Vonleh to make the NCAA Tournament. After going 17-15, Indiana will head to the NIT only a year after being a No. 1 seed. The Hoosiers found a way to lose to Northwestern, Penn State and Nebraska all at home.
Contenders: Ken Bone (Washington State)
Not coach of the year: Bone
In recent decades, only Tony Bennett and Kelvin Sampson have won at the toughest job in the Pac-12. In the last two seasons at Washington State, Bone went 23-40 overall and 7-30 in the Pac-12.
Contenders: John Calipari (Kentucky), Anthony Grant (Alabama), Frank Haith (Missouri), Johnny Jones (LSU)
Not coach of the year: Calipari
Was the preseason No. 1 ranking premature for Kentucky? Certainly. But it was understandable. The Wildcats brought in the most decorated signing class in college basketball history with six McDonald’s All-Americans with a coach who had won a national title with a freshman-laden class two seasons earlier. This Kentucky team never found a way to play together and became the first preseason No. 1 team to fall out of the rankings since 1980. It’s rare for a preseason No. 1 to fall out of the top 10 during the course of the season. Kentucky hasn’t been there since Dec. 2.
The NCAA Tournament is about to tip off. And while only one person will win your office bracket pick 'em pool — probably the girl who makes her picks based on colors, mascots and hot dude-bros, not the nerd alert with KenPom.com bookmarked — everyone can have a funny March Madness bracket team name. Here are 68 names that should get a chuckle from the First Four to the Final Four.
99 Problems, Embiid's Back Is One
When I Think About You I Touch Bill Self
Not In Kansas Anymore
Shock It To Me
Shock and Awe
March Mad Men
Fast Breaking Bad
Ball So Hard University
Definitely In My Izzone
Yes! Yes! Yes!
Boom Shaka Shaka
One Man Wolf Pack
Teach Me How to Dougie
Anthony Benedetto's Wahoos
I Left My Heart in Charlottesville
Church of Bracketology
Stretch Final Fours
Jim Boeheim's Jacket
Horace Grant's Nephew
Rakeem Christmas Present
Two Ferns, One POTUS
POTUS > Clark Kellogg
Billy the Kid is the Man
Greatest Recruiting Class Ever
Calipari's Recruiting Budget
Big Bluegrass Nation
Pitino's 15-Second Drill
Italian Sausage Stuffed Snapper
Coach K's Stool
Jay Bilas Follows Me
F--- 'Em Bucky
Jerry's House Party
Oracles of Omaha
Warren Buffett's Bracket
Full Metal Bracket
Big Dancin' For Money
One Shining Moment
College basketball, especially this time of year, is all about mismatches.
In general, that means a power forward with quickness or a big guy who can step out to take a 3.
With 351 teams in college basketball, the sample size leads to size mismatches between a 5-foot-8 guard and a 7-6 center. And we’re not kidding. This is a matchup that actually happened.
That leads us to the Tall-America team, a collection of the best players at every height from a 5-7 point guard to a 7-6 center.
For sake of consistency, we used only the heights provided on school rosters for this season. We’re not ignorant to schools adding an inch or two to each player, but we also don’t have exact heights from the NBA Draft.
CLICK IMAGE TO ENLARGE
Athlon Sports 2013-14 Tall-America Team
5-7 Christopher Anderson, San Diego
Others: Keon Johnson (Winthrop)
San Diego coach Bill Grier has described Anderson with a word associated with most 5-7 players who thrive in college basketball: Fearless. The 150-pound point guard led the West Coast Conference in assists (5.9 per game), tied for the lead in steals (1.8) and shot 43.7 percent from 3-point range.
Photo courtesy of Brock Scott
5-8 Kendall Anthony, Richmond
Others: Johnathan Loyd (Oregon)
The 2012 A-10 Rookie of the Year set a career high with 16 points per game as a senior. With a shorthanded roster, Richmond moved Anthony to the starting point guard spot late in the year.
5-9 Chaz Williams, UMass
Others: Dre Mathieu (Minnesota), Nic Moore (SMU)
The standout career for Williams, who started his career at Hofstra, will finally end in the NCAA Tournament. Williams has shown a knack to take over games with his scoring (15.8 points per game) or passing (7.1 assists, third nationally).
5-10 Jahii Carson, Arizona State
One of the quickest guards in the country, the sophomore Carson is leading Arizona State to its first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2009. Carson has averaged 18.7 points per game in his two seasons with the Sun Devils.
5-11 Fred VanVleet, Wichita State
Others: Keifer Sykes (Green Bay), Anthony Hickey (LSU)
After coming off the bench for 16 minutes per game as a freshman on Wichita State’s Final Four team, VanVleet is the floor general for the Shockers’ undefeated team heading into the Tournament. VanVleet averages 5.3 assists per game and 3.9 assists per turnover.
6-0 Russ Smith, Louisville
Others: Yogi Ferrell (Indiana), Trevor Releford (Alabama)
“Russdiculous” is having a season just as good as last year when the Cardinals won the national title and Smith earned Ken Pomeroy’s National Player of the Year award. The season has included highlights such as the game-winning shot against Cincinnati and 13 assists on Senior Night.
6-1 Shabazz Napier, UConn
Others: Joe Jackson (Memphis), Marcus Paige (North Carolina), Bryce Cotton (Providence), Scottie Wilbekin (Florida)
The American Athletic Conference player of the year leads the Huskies in points per game (17.8), assists (5.2), steals (1.8) and rebounds (6.0) as a point guard.
6-2 Tyler Ennis, Syracuse
Others: Billy Baron (Canisius), Aaron Craft (Ohio State)
Ennis’ torrid pace cooled near the end of the season like the rest of Syracuse’s roster, but there are few players who should be more trusted with the ball in his hands at the end of the game. Ennis had more than two turnovers in a game only once in his first 18 games.
6-3 Xavier Thames, San Diego State
Others: Ryan Arcidacono (Villanova), Ron Baker (Wichita State), Nick Johnson (Arizona)
One of the nation’s biggest surprises this season, Thames led San Diego State to a 27-3 season and a Mountain West championship. A role player the last two seasons, Thames emerged to average 16.9 points per game a senior.
6-4 Sean Kilpatrick, Cincinnati
Others: DeAndre Kane (Iowa State), Marcus Smart (Oklahoma State)
Kilpatrick has led Cincinnati in scoring for three seasons, culminating this season with an AAC-best 20.9 points per game.
6-5 Tyler Haws, BYU
Others: Lamar Patterson (Pittsburgh), Malcolm Brogdon (Virginia), Jordan Adams (UCLA)
Haws is sixth in the nation in scoring, topping 20 points per game for the second consecutive season. He’ll try for a third season above the 20-point milestone as a senior.
6-6 Melvin Ejim, Iowa State
Others: K.J. McDaniels (Clemson), Roy Devyn Marble (Iowa), Nik Stauskas (Michigan), Terran Petteway (Nebraska)
The 6-foot-6 group includes both the Big 12 player of the year (Ejim) and the Big Ten player of the year (Stauskas). Our nod will go to Ejim, who averaged 18.2 points and 8.6 rebounds.
6-7 Alan Williams, UC Santa Barbara
Others: Ethan Wragge (Creighton)
The UCSB star is the only player in the country averaging better than 20 points and 10 rebounds at 21.6 points and 11.5 rebounds.
6-8 Doug McDermott, Creighton
Others: Jabari Parker and Rodney Hood (Duke), T.J. Warren (NC State), Andrew Wiggins (Kansas)
The 6-8s are loaded: The national player of the year, the ACC’s leading scorer and perhaps the top two players to be taken in the NBA Draft. The nod can’t go to anyone but McDermott, though, who is one of eight players to top 3,000 points in his career.
6-9 Cameron Bairstow, New Mexico
Others: James Michael McAdoo (North Carolina), Ryan Anderson (UCLA), Julius Randle (Kentucky)
The Australian forward went from never averaging double figures to averaging 20.3 points and 7.2 per game for a team that finished 24-6.
6-10 Adreian Payne, Michigan State
Others: Noah Vonleh (Indiana)
Payne was injured for parts of 2013-14 but still managed 16.1 points per game. Most impressive has been the addition of long-range shooting to his game in the last year and a half.
6-11 Chad Posthumus, Morehead State
Others: Chris Otule (Marquette), Nnanna Egwu (Illinois), Amir Williams (Ohio State)
Posthumus is a fine player (9.7 points, 11 rebounds per game), but the limited group of 6-11ers may indicate most anyone who is close gets rounded up to 7 feet in the media guide.
7-0 Joel Embiid, Kansas
Others: Kaleb Tarczewski (Arizona), Frank Kaminsky (Wisconsin), Willie Cauley-Stein (Kentucky)
A shame Embiid may not be available until the later rounds of the NCAA Tournament if Kansas makes it that far. For a stretch this season Embiid was Kansas’ most impressive freshman, not Andrew Wiggins. Embiid averaged 11.2 points, 8.1 rebounds and 2.6 blocks per game this season.
7-1 Alec Brown, Green Bay
Others: Isaiah Austin (Baylor)
Green Bay appeared to be one of the top mid-majors that could make noise in the NCAA Tournament. After losing in the Horizon championship, Brown, who has averaged 13.4 points per game in his career, and the Phoenix will try to make noise in the NIT.
7-2 Jordan Bachynski, Arizona State
The Pac-12’s career leader in blocks had 24 blocked shots in a three-game span against Oregon State, Oregon and Arizona at one point this season.
7-3 Boris Bojanovsky, Florida State
The center from Slovakia averaged 5.9 points per game and 1.9 blocks in his first extended action for the Seminoles this season.
Despite efforts, we couldn’t find a top player at the 7-4. Tweet us at @AthlonSports or leave a comment if we missed a good one.
7-5 Sim Bhullar, New Mexico State
At 360 pounds, Bhullar is huge, of course, but he’s also quite productive at 9.9 points, 7.6 rebounds and 3.5 blocks per game. He also has a “little” brother on the New Mexico State roster, Tanveer, who is 7-3.
7-6 Mamadou Ndiaye, UC Irvine
The center from Senegal led UC Irvine to a Big West championships, averaging 8.2 points, 6.1 rebounds and 3.0 blocks in 20.7 minutes per game.
Ndiaye photo courtesy of UC Irvine
College football’s new playoff format has encouraged better scheduling among BCS teams, and Texas A&M and UCLA continued that trend with an announcement of a two-game series.
The Aggies and Bruins will play in 2016 at Kyle Field and 2017 at the Rose Bowl.
Assuming both teams continue on their recent trajectory, this should be one of the top non-conference games during those two seasons.
However, let’s also hope this leads to more Pac-12-SEC matchups – especially in the bowl season.
Heading into the new playoff format, there’s no Pac-12-SEC bowl matchup scheduled. Shouldn’t the top two conferences in the nation play each other in a bowl? Even if the postseason matchups don't transpire for a while, it's good to see high-profile teams like Texas A&M and UCLA playing non-conference games.
Equipment manufacturers have gone back to the future, dusting off some iconic brands with new versions. Adams Golf has resurrected the Tight Lies fairway wood, the club that took the small company to new heights in the 1990s. COBRA Golf has launched a new line of easy-to-hit drivers, fairways, hybrids and irons for men and women called the Baffler XL, a family of clubs that takes inspiration from the original Baffler driver built 40 years ago. PowerBilt is offering a contemporary version of the Countess, a women's set that originally debuted in 1968. Most intriguing of all, Callaway Golf revived the Big Bertha with two new drivers in 2014, the Big Bertha and Big Bertha Alpha. Phil Mickelson already has one in his bag.
The retro theme has certainly raised some eyebrows in the golf industry, but new ideas and concepts continue to dominate the marketplace. Here’s a look at a handful of hot products for 2014:
Cleveland Golf 588 Woods – The 460cc titanium head of the 588 Custom Driver offers the greatest combination of distance, forgiveness and accuracy of any driver Cleveland Golf has ever made. An adjustable hosel creates 12 different settings to precisely tune loft, lie and face angle. The back of the sole has an adjustable weight screw to optimize swing weight. The line includes 588 Fairway woods and 588 hybrids. Variable face thickness helps both maximize distance and playability. The hybrid features a slightly offset face and Gliderail Technology. Website: www.clevelandgolf.com.
TaylorMade Golf SpeedBlade Irons - The ‘Speed Pocket’ of the SpeedBlade irons is wider and longer than the successful Rocketballz line. The handlebar-shaped slot in the sole of the 3-7 irons enables a large area of the face to flex and rebound at impact, resulting in faster ball speed, higher launch and better feel. This improvement allows shots hit below the center of the face, where most golfers miss, to come out higher and longer. More skilled players might gravitate toward the newer Tour Preferred MB, Tour Preferred MC and Tour Preferred CB irons released in January. Dustin Johnson used the Tour Preferred MB irons at the 2014 Hyundai Tournament of Champions on Maui. Website: www.taylormadegolf.com.
Adams Golf New Idea Hybrid irons – High handicappers can rejoice that Adams Golf continues to look after their needs. A revolutionary wraparound slot helps these new hybrid irons generate higher ball speeds and more forgiveness, especially on mis-hits. Extensive research revealed that 15-plus handicap golfers make the majority of contact nearly a half-inch toward the toe. These irons enhance the face speed in the area. Adams recently signed Ernie Els to an endorsement contract, proving that its equipment can satisfy the game’s elite, too. Website: www.adamsgolf.com.
Scotty Cameron Futura X Dual Balance mallet putter – Master craftsman Scotty Cameron has created another magic wand that coaxes balls into the hole with striking consistency. The club’s advanced perimeter stability weighting in the head, a 50-gram counterweight in the butt of the shaft and the 15-inch grip that reduces hand action all work together to promote a smoother, more stable stroke. The proper length of a Dual Balance putter is 38 inches, three inches longer than a conventional putter length. Two of the hottest players in golf, Adam Scott and Jordan Spieth, use Scotty Cameron putters. Website: www.scottycameron.com.
Miura K-Grind Wedge – The distinctive fluted sole of this popular 56-degree wedge is known for producing high-spin exits from bunkers. Two new recently introduced lofts, 52 and 60 degrees, make this short-game weapon more versatile than ever. Katsuhiro Miura, a one-man wizard of craftsmanship, has built Miura Golf, Inc., based in Vancouver, Canada, into the world’s preeminent maker of quality forged golf clubs. Its wedges are second to none. Website: www.miuragolf.com.
Nicklaus Golf Balls – Jack Nicklaus has thrown his hat into the competitive golf ball industry. Forget about launch monitors and ball testing. Players choose their Nicklaus ball — the Nicklaus Black, Nicklaus Blue and Nicklaus White — based on the color of the tees they tend to play from. A percentage of every golf ball sold will be donated directly back to the Nicklaus Children's Health Care Foundation to support pediatric programs and hospitals nationwide. Balls sold through the website listed below will be cheaper — the Black for $32 and Blue and White for $28 — than those sold at pro shops nationwide (costing between $46-$50) to encourage consumers to donate to the cause. Website: www.Nicklaus.com.
NIKE Golf RZN Golf Balls - For the second time in three years, Nike Golf has unveiled another industry first. Building on the success of the 20XI ball, Nike Golf has introduced its innovative Speedlock RZN core technology with four golf balls — the RZN Platinum, RZN Black, RZN Red and RZN White — designed to deliver more distance, better feel and a more consistent, stable ball flight. The new Speedlock RZN core technology features an interlocking core that connects with the compression layer to form a tighter bond. This ‘Speedlock’ harnesses energy for more explosive results. Website: www.nike.com.
adidas Golf adizero one shoes – Weighing less than 10 ounces, the second generation of the adizero line weighs 10 percent less than last year’s innovative Tour shoe, already among the lightest in golf. The seven spikes strategically located on the sole are three fewer than the Tour shoe, yet still maintain traction and stability on the ground. Seven flashy color patterns will be available by May 1. Website: www.adidasgolf.com.
Ecco Street EVO One – Ecco dominates the casual street shoe market with a stylish look that functions at a high level. The Street EVO One comes in high-grade cow leather or genuine camel leather versions. Both combine the award-winning ECCO-Dynamic Traction System (E-DTS) with an array of stabilization and weather-resistant features. Its design cups and cushions the heel, delivering comfort and support. The Danish company owns its own factories, a key component in delivering a quality product. Website: http://us.shop.ecco.com.
Tommy Hilfiger Golf - Preppy, with a splash of attitude, defines Tommy’s fashions. Its spring 2014 golf collection celebrates the energy and spirit of coastal destinations like California’s trendy Monterey Peninsula all the way to the traditional country clubs of East Hampton in New York. A palette of tonal blues and turquoise accents color certain polo shirts and sweaters inspired by the California lifestyle. Other pieces toned in sophisticated greens, navy blues and whites mimic the classic look of East Coast heritage. Special fabrics and cottons combine comfort with performance. Website: www.tommy.com.
TravisMathew – The Spring 2014 Huntington Collection hearkens back to California of the 1960s. As children of the postwar baby boom became teenagers, the so-called “Age of Youth” became a time of freedom and exploration. The Huntington Beach-based golf outfitter wanted to capture what it calls “A Wonderful Time” with its hip patterns, styles and colors. These cool and casual golf outfits can be worn on the course and to the party afterward. Website: www.travismathew.com.
Sunice Pro Sport Collection – This Canadian sportswear company makes cold and wet weather tolerable with lightweight and fashion-driven layering pieces. The new Triberg, a super lightweight and four-way stretch jacket, is the category’s most breathable piece. It’s 100 percent windproof and highly water repellent. The sharp Malaga vest incorporates the same features. The Harvey, York, and Huntley all provide new design options for Sunice’s Windstopper-lined sweaters. Website: www.sunice.com.
Sun Mountain H2NO Golf Bags – This line’s popularity in Europe comes down to its walker-friendly design and waterproof characteristics. The integrated handles on top and swinging legs make it easy to pick the bag up or set it down. The E-Z Fit Dual Strap System distributes weight equally across each shoulder. The bag bottom still fits snug into a golf cart for riding. Multiple pockets organize and store items with ease. Website: www.sunmountain.com.
Bushnell Golf – Three new Bushnell products help golfers answer the age-old question: What club should I use? The NEO XS Golf GPS Watch is not only preloaded with over 33,000-plus courses in more than 30 countries, but it also features market-leading battery life and can be used as an odometer on the course or while exercising away from golf. The Pro X7 range finder and the more compact Tour Z6 JOLT use JOLT Technology, where vibrations alert golfers when they’ve hit the pin, and Second Generation E.S.P. (Extreme. Speed. Precision.) for faster, more accurate readings. Website: www.bushnellgolf.com.
Under Armour Fire Sunglasses – Made for the elite athlete such as spokesman Hunter Mahan, the new UA Fire offers a wide field of view through its ArmourSight Shield lenses. Adjustable nose pads create a snug fit. They’re versatile enough for baseball as well as golf. Website: www.underamour.com.
Oakley Belts – Oakley’s unique custom belt program launched last year, allowing customers to mix and match belt buckles with leather straps of all colors. The new aluminum Golf Pro Series Buckles ($25) are interchangeable with the Premium Belt Straps ($70) or the Reversible Leather Belt Strap ($45), which has stripes on one side and a solid color on the other. Website: www.oakley.com.
SKLZ - Want to hone your game at home? Create your own practice range just about anywhere with the Glide Pad and Quickster Net by SKLZ, an innovative company of sports training equipment located in Carlsbad, Calif. The Glide Pad (costing $99.99) gives way when golfers strike it, allowing them to hit down and through. Its sliding mechanism simulates natural turf movement and helps reduce shock and injury during practice. The 6-foot-by-6-foot Quickster Net ($99.99) is easy to set up and take down. Website: www.sklz.com.
There have been better players with prettier swings. But there has never been a more important golfer than The King, Arnold Palmer. He almost single-handedly quadrupled purses, grew the game beyond the country clubs and brought it into our living rooms, and assembled an Army of devoted followers. He won — and lost — with more flair than any other athlete.
As hard as it might be to believe, this spring marks the 50th anniversary of Arnold Palmer’s last major championship victory. He won the 1964 Masters at Augusta National, earning his fourth green jacket in seven years and giving him a seventh professional major title.
Although there would be several close calls, there would be no more major titles, although Palmer kept contending for another decade, winning his last PGA Tour event, the 62nd of his illustrious career, at the Bob Hope Desert Classic in 1973. He would keep competing into his 50s and go on to support the Champions Tour for years.
Today, at age 84, Palmer remains a top earner in the golf endorsement world and one of the game’s most prominent figures, a beloved elder statesman. In addition to myriad business interests, Palmer hosts his own PGA Tour event, the Arnold Palmer Invitational, which will be contested for the 36th straight year at the Bay Hill Club in Orlando.
Athlon gained an audience with The King to ask him a variety of questions on all manner of subjects.
Athlon Sports: What current player reminds you most of yourself?
Arnold Palmer: I’ve had a lot of people remark on who might be a lot like I am, and the name that comes up most of the time is Phil Mickelson. He’s left-handed and I’m right-handed, so we’re not similar there, but the compliments that he gets and the way he treats the fans and a lot of the way he plays the game … I suppose if I look I can see some things I enjoy doing and did in my career. I think he’s a very thoughtful guy, and that is certainly in his favor as far as my thoughts are concerned. And he’s a good closer. He’s had some unfortunate things at the U.S. Open, but he has finished very well most of the time.
Athlon: Speaking of Mickelson, what do you make of his British Open win and the way he won it at Muirfield?
Palmer: That was a great victory. He came on very good. He seemed to be playing with a consistent desire to win the championship. It was positive throughout. That was obvious in his play.
Athlon: What is your take on the anchored putter debate? Such a stroke is scheduled to be banned starting Jan. 1, 2016.
Palmer: I’m a little outspoken as far as the anchored putter is concerned. I’m opposed to it. You shouldn’t need to or be allowed to anchor a club against your body in any part of the golf swing. Of course you can find people who will argue with that and find fault with my opinion. When you touch your body you’re getting an aid that isn’t meant to be in the golf swing.
Athlon: Speaking of the rules, a new Decision (18/4) was enacted for 2014 that stipulates if a high definition video or replay is the only way to determine that a ball moved, the player will not be penalized. (Tiger Woods got a two-stroke penalty under a similar scenario at the BMW Championship.) Do you like this change?
Palmer: I think I go back to the rules of the game. It’s the player's responsibility to charge himself with the penalty. If he thinks he has done something wrong, it’s a penalty — whether he sees it with the naked eye or with HD isn’t the matter. It’s his own opinion of what he did during that transaction.
Athlon: Who is in your dream foursome, among people you have played with?
Palmer: It is very difficult to narrow it down. I certainly have people I’ve enjoyed playing golf with. One of the things I’ve always said is if you play 18 holes of golf with a person, you have an opportunity to really get to know that person. A lot of the people I have played with I have really come to that conclusion; it is a way of getting to learn about a person. So who would they be? My father would be one of the most interesting people in my group. Dwight D. Eisenhower would be one I enjoyed being with and playing golf with. I could go down a list. Jack Nicklaus, of course — people like that. Gary Player. People I have respected and enjoyed through the years. I could name hundreds of people I have enjoyed being with. I think of Bob Hope as another one. These are people I have thoroughly enjoyed.
Athlon: Who’s left that you wish you could play with?
Palmer: I was on my way one time to play golf with Jack Kennedy in Palm Beach. He hurt his back the day before and had to cancel the golf. That was not long before he was killed and I never played with him. I would have enjoyed that and trying to get to know him better.
Athlon: Do you regret that you didn’t get to play with today’s equipment in your prime? Do you think modern equipment has been good for the game?
Palmer: I suppose I have mixed feelings about that. Having played as far back as wooden shafted golf clubs and now seeing what they are doing with shafts alone, titanium … wood is a thing of the past now in golf clubs. So I’m not sure sometimes how things might be different. It’s very difficult to say. One day I did a competition with myself and I used the old model golf clubs with wooden shafts and leather grips and played one ball, and the other I used all the modern stuff, the graphite shafts, the titanium heads and so forth. The difference for nine holes was 2 strokes. But the modern stuff won…
I do think the modern golf ball, the modern shafts, the heads, the technology that has been put into the game is certainly an opportunity to improve your performance. And I think that is good for the game, for those trying to play the game.
Athlon: Do you feel it would still help to have the golf ball reined in?
Palmer: I think there is no question about the fact that some day in the near future we’re going to have to bring the ball back, cut it down. Bring it back to a more playable situation as far as distance is concerned. If technology continues to improve… and that takes in a lot of territory — dimples of golf ball, type of material we use, composition of the golf ball. I feel strongly those things will have to be adjusted.
Athlon: It's a Ryder Cup year. Are you surprised that the Ryder Cup has evolved into one of the biggest events in golf?
Palmer: Not really. I think the Ryder Cup was something that started with the rivalry of the nations involved. It’s a good competition, and I thought it was from the beginning. It will continue to be a good competition. I suppose it will continue to improve, and maybe there will be different rules or means of selecting teams. But that is progress and that will be something that is probably inevitable.
Athlon: Could someone today serve as playing captain as you did? (Palmer was the last U.S. playing captain, at the 1963 Ryder Cup at East Lake.)
Palmer: It was certainly fun for me. It was something where I was thoroughly honored to be the captain and to be playing on the same team. It was a lot of fun. And of course I enjoyed the competition and I enjoyed my team. They were very supportive in the matches that we were playing. I’m not sure how that would work out today.
Athlon: Why do you think the U.S. has struggled in the Ryder Cup? (Europe is 7-2 going back to 1995.)
Palmer: I think golf is becoming more international as days go by. The international community and golf community is certainly getting better and better all the time. The competition will be something that we all have seen grow and take note of, and it’s been great for the Ryder Cup.
Athlon: Do you get into the Ryder Cup as fan?
Palmer: I certainly am interested. Some of these matches, as a fan, you’ve got to have an interest in what’s happening. And if you know the golf courses and those situations, it becomes exciting and interesting.
Athlon: Is the Golf Channel everything you hoped it would be? (Palmer helped found the channel, which launched in 1995.)
Palmer: I always thought the Golf Channel was something that would be great. I have to admit that in the early days I was skeptical of what you would do for 24 hours. Working with that as I did, it was quite interesting. Of course I think the Golf Channel has done marvels for the game and the golfing public. It has been a godsend. And it’s something that will continue to be healthy for the golf public.
Athlon: If you had to pick one career highlight, what would it be?
Palmer: I don’t think there is one. I’ve had some good and bad. Certainly I’ve been very fortunate that I was able to win a lot of golf tournaments, including a lot coming from behind. I’ve lost a few, too, that have taken me down. And in all instances I feel it’s a great opportunity that I’ve had to be able to play and compete in those circumstances to way back in the middle 1950s.
Certainly I’ve been very fortunate that I was able to win a lot of golf tournaments, including a lot coming from behind. I’ve lost a few, too, that have taken me down. And in all instances I feel it’s a great opportunity that I’ve had to be able to play and compete in those circumstances to way back in the middle 1950s.
Athlon: Is there a biggest disappointment?
Palmer: I haven’t won the PGA Championship. That is certainly one that I immediately think of. I would have loved to have added it to my resume. But I had a lot of success with the PGA Championship. I had a couple that I finished second in and some other close calls. (Palmer had six top-10s at the PGA, including two runner-up finishes.) I literally just didn’t make the shot that I needed to make at the right time. It’s sort of like how Sam Snead never won the U.S. Open.
Athlon: What is your take on reigning Masters champion Adam Scott’s future?
Palmer: I think he is a wonderful young man. I think he has a fantastic future in the game. He’s got a great golf swing, great personality. He’s learned to compete around the world. I feel very strongly about him. I am very pro Adam Scott.
Athlon: Tiger Woods will be trying to win your tournament for the ninth time at Bay Hill. To what do you attribute his success?
Palmer: I think he knows the golf course very well. He came here and played as a junior and won, won on this golf course as an amateur. He is very familiar with playing golf in the central part of Florida. And of course Bay Hill is a course that is somewhat tuned to his game. That is quite obvious given his number of victories.
Athlon: Do you have a personal recipe for an Arnold Palmer?
Palmer: I made the whole thing. I did it for a special reason and it has worked out very well. I am very pleased with the drink, I am very happy that people have supported it and enjoyed it. I put the combination together originally and that is what we do. And that is a secret!
This interview appears in the 2014 edition of Athlon Sports Golf Annual, on newsstands now. Order your copy today.
This is your daily link roundup of our favorite sports and entertainment posts on the web for March 13.
• On the mic for the new college football national championship game: Chris Fowler and Kirk Herbstreit.
• The headline says it all: Fans Sue Arena After Video Reveals Large and Small Beers Are Same Size.
• The decline and fall of the Rick Reilly empire continues — the once-great columnist is giving up his online column and will be a strictly on-air personality for the worldwide leader.
• Today's amusing cheap shot: 14 reasons why Phil Jackson will not win a title with the Knicks.
• I know people are tired of Blake Griffin, but I never get tired of watching him do this.
-- Email us with any compelling sports-related links at email@example.com