Articles By All

All taxonomy terms: Denver Nuggets, NBA
Path: /nba/denver-nuggets-have-fired-head-coach-brian-shaw
Body:
In one of the least surprising firings of recent years, the Denver Nuggets have dropped head coach Brian Shaw, as reported by Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports.

 

The relationship between Shaw and his 20-39 team has been bad since he took the helm last fall. Often, it was comically so — reports eventually came out that he tried to relate to his team by reading books about the millennial generation. Even more cringeworthy was his attempt to win over the Nuggets by performing scouting reports by way of rapping them.

 

That would all be okay if the results on the floor were good, but they weren’t. Shaw collected a 56-85 record, good for just a .400 winning percentage. To be sure, the Nuggets have had a bad roster of mismatched parts and middling talent since general Masai Ujiri skipped town for the Toronto Raptors in 2013, so Denver’s mediocrity shouldn’t all fall on their departed coach’s shoulders.

 

David West of the Indiana Pacers (where Shaw was previously an assistant) had this to say when he heard of the news:

 

West is at least partly right — whoever replaces Shaw in Denver won’t have much better results unless Denver goes all-in on a player mixup. They started one by trading Arron Afflalo, Nate Robinson, Timofey Mozgov and JaVale McGee before the deadline — mostly for draft assets — but the Nuggets are still rich with misdirected talent.

Assistant Melvin Hunt will replace Shaw on an interim basis, while Sam Amick of USA Today reports that Mike D’Antoni has interest in the job for next season.

 

Shaw didn’t do a great job, but his experience also proved that the job in the Rockies isn’t exactly the most desirable one around. The Nuggets are in need of a lot more than one new face on the bench.

 

— John Wilmes

@johnwilmesNBA

Teaser:
Post date: Wednesday, March 4, 2015 - 10:44
Path: /mlb/cleveland-indians-2015-preview-and-prediction
Body:

The Indians have the pitching to make a run at the postseason this year despite the new muscle that has been added to the AL Central. Led by AL Cy Young Award winner Corey Kluber, the starting rotation posted a 2.95 ERA after the All-Star break, second lowest in the big leagues last year. Emerging closer Cody Allen and a fleet of talented arms form a solid bullpen that manager Terry Francona used a league-record 573 times in 2014.

 

The factors that will determine whether they are able to return to the postseason will be how well they hit and how well they field. Nick Swisher (knees), Michael Bourn (hamstring), Jason Kipnis (oblique, hamstring, finger) and Ryan Raburn (knee, wrist) must bounce back from injuries. Newcomer Brandon Moss is coming off right hip surgery.

 

Defensively, the Indians led the big leagues in errors. Third baseman Lonnie Chisenhall, catcher Yan Gomes, departed shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera, a range-challenged Kipnis at second base and an immobile Swisher at first made every ground ball an adventure in 2014.

 

If injured Indians hitters can return to full strength, and a revamped defense can catch the ball, this team has a chance to do some damage in October. Despite an offense that barely averaged three runs per game after the All-Star break, the Indians pitched so well that they were not eliminated from wild card contention until game No. 159 last season. 

 

Rotation

Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, Trevor Bauer, Danny Salazar, T.J. House, Zach McAllister and Josh Tomlin give the Indians as talented a group of young starters as they’ve had in several years. GM Chris Antonetti added depth to the rotation by signing veteran righthander Gavin Floyd to a one-year $4 million deal. If Floyd makes it through spring training healthy after experiencing two big right elbow injuries over the last three years, Antonetti has promised him a spot in the Opening Day rotation, along with Kluber, Carrasco and Bauer. Salazar, House, McAllister and Tomlin will compete for the fifth spot. McAllister, Carrasco and Bauer are out of options. If McAllister doesn’t make the rotation, he could open the season in the bullpen. 


Bullpen

With Francona, the road to victory runs straight through the pen. He had eight relievers at his disposal through much of last season, and sometimes more because of the flexibility of his position players. Allen stepped in as the closer when John Axford faltered in May, and Francona didn’t hesitate to use him before the ninth inning. Francona expertly manipulated Allen and setup man Bryan Shaw, along with Scott Atchison and Marc Rzepczynski in the late innings. Shaw led the majors with 80 appearances, while Allen (76) and Rzepczynski (73) ranked in the top five in the AL. Lefties Nick Hagadone and Kyle Crockett and righty C.C. Lee are emerging as bridge builders from the starters to the late-inning relievers. Veteran lefty Scott Downs will be in camp on a minor league deal.

 

Middle Infield

When Cabrera was traded to Washington on July 31, rookie Jose Ramirez replaced him and almost immediately improved a bad defense. Behind Ramirez, the Indians have top prospect Francisco Lindor with another shortstop in Erik Gonzalez looming. Ramirez is expected to open the season at short with Kipnis at second, but the Indians’ depth could force a change if Kipnis doesn’t rebound from last season. Kipnis injured the ring finger on his left hand in November while lifting weights. While Kipnis is expected to be ready for the season opener on April 6, he won’t be able to swing a bat in the early parts of spring training.

 

Corners

When last season ended, the Indians talked about moving Chisenhall or Kipnis to the outfield, a direct reflection on how poorly they played defensively. Such talk was shelved, but it’s clear the Indians are expecting better play from Chisenhall at third. Offensively, Chisenhall showed the same inconsistency, hitting .393 (66-for-168) through June 11, but .219 (68-for-310) for the rest of the season. Carlos Santana will open at first base, his third different Opening Day position in as many years. He was the starting catcher in 2013 and starting third baseman last year. Offensively, the move from third to first helped Santana, who led the Indians in homers with 27. Swisher and Moss are also expected to see time at first.

 

Outfield

In a crowded outfield, Michael Brantley is expected to start in left field following his breakout season. Bourn, who made three trips to the disabled list last year because of his left hamstring, will be in center. There is a logjam in right field with Moss, Raburn, David Murphy, Tyler Holt and Zach Walters all looking for playing time. Swisher, depending on the condition of his knees, could compete for time as well. Moss, who played left and right field last year for the A’s, is not expected to be able to swing a bat early in camp, but he should be ready to open the regular season.

 

Catching

Gomes emerged from his first full season behind the plate as one of the best catchers in the big leagues. After overcoming some throwing problems early in the season, he led AL catchers in average (.278), OPS (.785) and extra-base hits (49). He handled the pitching staff well, drawing raves from Kluber. Gomes threw out 32 percent of the baserunners he faced and drew good grades as a pitch framer. Roberto Perez joined the Indians from the minors in July and proved to be an excellent backup. Indians pitchers had a 2.61 ERA when Perez was behind the plate.

 

DH/Bench

Swisher, in the third year of a four-year $56 million deal, is expected to be the primary DH. He did not play after Aug. 9 and underwent surgery on both knees on Aug. 20. The Indians won’t know how much Swisher can play until he gets to spring training, but they could definitely use a dose of the guy who averaged 25 homers and 80 RBIs per season from 2005-13. Utility man Mike Aviles, with his ability to play every position but catcher and pitcher, has allowed Francona to carry an extra reliever for most of the last two seasons. Raburn has been the right-handed bat off the bench the last two years, but after a disappointing 2014, he’s going to need a big spring training to win a job even though his 2015 salary is guaranteed. Walters and Holt will challenge him for that role. Perez will be the backup catcher.

 

Management

Under Antonetti and Francona, the Indians won 92 games in 2013 and 85 in 2014. It is a team that has been one or two big moves away from becoming a serious contender, but those big moves have yet to be made. Perhaps ownership is still smarting because of the lack of production from Swisher and Bourn, the team’s last two forays into the big-money side of free agency. The Indians have shown an interest in keeping the core of the club together by signing Kipnis, Brantley, Gomes and Santana to multiyear deals. Kluber could be in line for such a deal before the start of the 2015 season.

 

Final Analysis

The Indians watched AL Central foes Detroit and Kansas City prosper last year as the Tigers won their fourth straight division title and the Royals made it all the way to the World Series as a wild card. The White Sox and Twins, the Tribe’s other Central rivals, spent this offseason making several free-agent signings. The Indians, meanwhile, continued to show confidence in their young position players and deep pitching staff. Their only big additions were Moss and Floyd, who are both coming off injuries. It will be interesting to see how far that strategy takes them in what might be the best division in baseball.

 

2015 Prediction: 4th in AL Central

 

Projected Lineup

CF       Michael Bourn (L)    Former National League stolen base king has swiped only 33 in two years with Indians.

SS       Jose Ramirez (S)    He hit .299 with 20 runs in 42 starts while batting in the No. 2 spot in 2014.

LF       Michael Brantley (L)            Led the American League with a .376 average with runners in scoring position.

1B       Carlos Santana (S) Selective slugger walked 113 times last season and has 394 walks in last four seasons.

RF       Brandon Moss (L)   Last season, he hit 21 of his 25 homers before the All-Star break with Oakland.

DH      Nick Swisher (S)      He played 97 games last season, fewest since his 131 with A’s in 2005.

2B       Jason Kipnis (L)      Did not homer after July 31 last season, a streak of 48 games and 183 at-bats.

C         Yan Gomes (R)        Native of Brazil ranked third among AL catchers last year with 21 homers.

3B       Lonnie Chisenhall (L)        Ranked eighth among MLB third basemen with a .770 OPS in 2014; defense needs to improve.

 

Bench

UT       Mike Aviles (R)         He played six different positions last season, making his debut in right and center field.

C         Roberto Perez (R)   Threw out 36 percent (8 of 22) of the runners who tried to steal on him.

OF       David Murphy (L)      Hit .326 with runners on base and .360 with runners in scoring position.

OF       Ryan Raburn (R)     Injured his wrist and knee running into an outfield wall in spring training and struggled at the plate.

 

Rotation

RH      Corey Kluber            His 269 strikeouts in 2014 ranked sixth highest in team history for a single season.

RH      Carlos Carrasco      Posted a 1.30 ERA with 78 strikeouts in 69 innings over his last 10 starts of the season.

RH      Trevor Bauer Averaged 8.41 strikeouts per nine innings, third-highest ratio ever among Indians rookie pitchers.

RH      Gavin Floyd   Coming off a fractured right elbow last year and Tommy John surgery in 2013.

RH      Danny Salazar          Struck out 10 White Sox hitters in 3.2 innings on April 10, most ever by a pitcher in fewer than four innings.

 

Bullpen

RH      Cody Allen (Closer) Workhorse closer has made 153 appearances over the last two seasons.

RH      Bryan Shaw  First Indians reliever to lead to the big leagues in appearances since the 1950s.

RH      Scott Atchison          He set career highs last season in appearances (70), innings (72) and strikeouts (49).

LH       Marc Rzepczynski    Allowed only 11 of 57 inherited runners (19.3 percent) to score last season.

LH       Kyle Crockett            Fourth-round pick in 2013 posted a 1.35 ERA in his last 33 games of his rookie season.

LH       Nick Hagadone        Lefties hit .217 and righties hit .211 in Hagadone’s four trips to the big leagues last season.

RH      Zach McAllister         Made seven late-season relief appearances, striking out 14 in 13 IP, in moving from the rotation to the pen.

 

Beyond the Box Score

Triple double On July 1 at Dodger Stadium, the Indians turned a triple play that withstood two replay reviews. Kyle Crockett faced the Dodgers’ Adrian Gonzalez with no outs, Dee Gordon on third and Yasiel Puig on first. Gonzalez hit a fly ball to left fielder Michael Brantley. Brantley made the catch for the first out and threw home to Yan Gomes to get Gordon for the second out. Gomes saw Puig heading for second and threw to Jason Kipnis, but Puig was called safe. Manager Terry Francona challenged the play and Puig was called out to complete the triple play. Dodgers manager Don Mattingly then challenged the play at the plate. That play was reviewed and the call on the field stood.

Son bests father On April 29 at Angel Stadium, Indians righthander Corey Kluber walked off the mound in the fifth inning thinking J.B. Shuck had just hit into an inning-ending double play. Shuck’s out at first base was overturned after a replay challenge and the Angels went on to score two more runs on the way to a 6–4 victory. The Angels replay coordinator was Nick Francona, son of Indians manager Terry Francona. He gave manager Mike Scioscia the heads-up to challenge the call. “I thought that was kind of weak on Nick’s part,” said Francona with a smile after the game. “He may work for Scioscia, but he’s my son.”

Don’t blame me Francona went through the entire 2014 season without being ejected. But on one occasion he had to do some fast talking to stay in the game. He went out to challenge a call at third base made by Joe West. Francona was stalling for time until he got a signal from bench coach Brad Mills as to whether the Indians would challenge the call. “I told Joe, ‘Hey, I think you got the call right,’” said Francona. “It’s Millsie who thinks you got it wrong.”

Deke of dekes David Murphy was on first base on Aug. 5 against Cincinnati when Gomes doubled to the wall, right in front of the Reds bullpen. Lonnie Chisenhall scored from second and Murphy slid into third. As the relay on Gomes’ double was thrown back into second base, an errant toss by Reds reliever Jumbo Diaz sailed out of the bullpen and landed in the same area as the relay throw. Murphy saw the stray ball and broke for home. Reds shortstop Zack Cozart, who had the ball that was in play, threw Murphy out.

 

2014 Top Draft Pick

Bradley Zimmer, CF

The Indians drafted Zimmer out of the University of San Francisco with the 21st pick in the first round. They paid him a $1.9 million signing bonus and sent the 6'4", 185-pound left-handed hitter to Class A Mahoning Valley of the New York-Penn League. In 45 games, he hit .304 (51-168) with 11 doubles, four homers and 30 RBIs. Zimmer, whose brother Kyle was Kansas City’s No. 1 pick in 2012, hit .372 against lefties. The Indians promoted him to Class A Lake County for the postseason, and he hit two homers in three games. Zimmer hasn’t shown a lot of power in his career, but the Indians believe his power will improve as he gets older and stronger.

 

Top 10 Prospects

1. Francisco Lindor, SS (21) Lindor is a top-of-the-order switch-hitter and above-average defender. He reached Class AAA Columbus last season and should make his big-league debut this year.

2. Jesus Aguilar, 1B (24) The 6'3", 250-pound Aguilar is a right-handed hitter with big power that he’s shown at every level except the big leagues.

3. Tyler Naquin, CF (23) The Indians’ No. 1 pick in 2012, this left-handed hitter had his 2014 season derailed at Class AA Akron when he suffered a broken left hand after being hit by a pitch.

4. Erik Gonzalez, SS (23) Gonzalez hit .289 (89-308) with 24 extra base hits last season at Class A Carolina. The right-handed hitter moved up to Class AA Akron and hit .357 (46-129).

5. Clint Frazier, CF (20) Frazier, a right-handed hitter, was the Indians’ No. 1 pick in 2013. Last season, he hit .266 (126-474) with 18 doubles, 13 homers and 50 RBIs at Class A Lake County.

6. Giovanny Urshela, 3B (23) If the Indians need help at third base, Urshela is their guy. He’s their top defensive third baseman and had a breakout year offensively last season.

7. Justus Sheffield, LHP (18) Sheffield was headed to Vanderbilt before the Indians paid him $1.6 million to turn pro. He went 3–1 with 29 strikeouts in 20.2 innings in the Arizona Rookie League.

8. Bradley Zimmer, CF, (22) Brad Grant, Indians’ director of amateur scouting, had this to say: “Bradley is a really good combination of speed, defense, power and hitting ability.”

9. Bobby Bradley, 1B (18) The Indians’ third-round pick in 2014 won the Arizona Rookie League batting title, hitting .361 with 50 RBIs in 39 games.

10. Francisco Mejia, C (19) The switch-hitting Mejia hit .282 (70-for-248) with 17 doubles at Class A Mahoning Valley. He made 11 errors.

Teaser:
Cleveland Indians 2015 Preview and Prediction
Post date: Wednesday, March 4, 2015 - 10:30
All taxonomy terms: Paul Casey, Golf
Path: /golf/top-30-golfers-2015-majors-no-26-paul-casey
Body:

They’re the cream of the major championship crop, circa 2015 — 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. 26: Paul Casey

Born: July 21, 1977, Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, England | Career PGA Tour Wins: 1 (13 on European Tour) | 2014 Wins (Worldwide): 1 | 2014 Earnings (PGA Tour): $877,968 (112th) World Ranking: 45

Brandel Chamblee's Take

Casey finished 2014 ranked 75th in the world, down from his highest position of third in 2009. Off-course distractions and a few nagging injuries have kept him from maintaining world-class form over the last few years. But he is healthy now and seems to have his personal life in fine order, which should give him the peace of mind to climb back up toward the top 10 in the world. In 2010 he played in the final group on Sunday at St. Andrews and eventually finished third, his best finish in a major to date. And it is that kind of golf that has made him a 13-time winner in Europe and a winner on the PGA Tour — and why I think he will do much more in his career before he is through.

Major Championship Résumé
Starts: 43
Wins: 0

2014 Performance:
Masters - DNP
U.S. Open - T56
British Open - T47
PGA Championship - Cut

Best Career Finishes: 
Masters - T6 (2004)
U.S. Open - T10 (2007)
British Open - T3 (2010)
PGA Championship - T12 (2010)
Top-10 Finishes: 5
Top-25 Finishes: 11
Missed Cuts: 16

—Brandel Chamblee is lead analyst for the Golf Channel. Be sure to follow him @ChambleeBrandel on Twitter.

 

Athlon's 2015 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, Billy Horschel, also takes you tee to green with full-swing instruction and short game essentials. BUY IT NOW.

Teaser:
Post date: Wednesday, March 4, 2015 - 10:27
Path: /college-football/big-12-2015-spring-preview-and-power-rankings
Body:

Spring practice is already underway for a handful of college football teams, and the offseason workouts and scrimmages provide the first glimpse of how all 128 teams will look in 2015.

 

Baylor and TCU return to the top of the preseason heap in the Big 12 after both barely missed a shot at the College Football Playoff. Both teams are loaded with experience, but have some holes to plug at key positions.

 

Meanwhile, power programs Texas and Oklahoma are looking to return to Big 12 glory with rebuilt rosters and coaching staffs, respectively. And watch out for a developing Oklahoma State and an always underrated Kansas State.

 

Big 12 Spring Preview and Storylines to Watch
 

(Teams listed by pre-spring power rank)

 

1. TCU

2014 Record: 12-1 (8-1)
Returning Starters: Offense – 10, Defense – 5

Key Coaching Changes:

Chad Glasgow/DeMontie Cross (co-DC), Dan Sharp (DL), Paul Gonzales (CB)

 

Horned Frogs' Spring Priorities


1. Replace the star power in the front seven
Gary Patterson is known for his defensive prowess but he will have his work cut out for him this spring. Chucky Hunter and Paul Dawson were as good a front-seven tandem as any team in the nation had last year and both are gone. The rest of the linebacking corps needs reworking as well. The situation at end looks promising but the rest of the front seven needs to be settled.

2. Reconstruct the secondary
This unit isn’t in need of reloading or rebuilding, it needs to be totally reconstructed. Three All-Big 12 selections in Kevin White, Sam Carter and Chris Hackett need to be replaced with only Derrick Kindred returning. Patterson and his coaching staff need to find some suitable replacements in the defensive backfield — especially, in a league like the Big 12.


3. Handle expectations and stay healthy
This team will be picked by many to win the Big 12 and TCU needs to stay grounded if it wants to win the league. Handling expectations are as difficult a task as there is for young athletes, so staying focused on and off the field this spring will be key. Keeping all the important puzzle pieces healthy and upright would help too.

 

2. Baylor

2014 Record: 11-2 (8-1)
Returning Starters: Offense - 8, Defense - 9

 

Key Coaching Changes:

Kendal Briles (OC), Tate Wallis (WR), Cris Dishman (S)

 

Bears' Spring Priorities


1. Find out what you have under center
Seth Russell is the incumbent and will be tough to beat out. He threw eight touchdowns and just one interception in 85 attempts behind Bryce Petty last year. While he has the lead heading into spring, look for sophomore Chris Johnson and incoming freshman Jarrett Stidham to press for time.

2. Replace Hager, Brence at linebacker
There are not many holes on this defense with nine starters returning. The only real voids that need to be filled are at linebacker (Bryce Hager) and hybrid nickel/linebacker (Collin Brence). There are plenty of names on the roster but replacing 169 tackles from the middle of the defense will be key.

3. Address the legs on special teams
Second-team All-Big 12 punter Spencer Roth is gone and will need to be replaced. Kicker Chris Callahan was eighth in the Big 12 in field goal kicking percentage (69.2) and needs to improve. Special teams are often overlooked, but on a team with few weaknesses, it could be the difference in the race for a third straight conference championship.

 

Listen to the Cover 2 Podcast: Early 2015 Big 12 Preview



Subscribe: iTunes | Stitcher

 

3. Oklahoma

2014 Record: 8-5 (5-4)
Returning Starters: Offense – 5, Defense – 6

Key Coaching Changes:

Lincoln Riley (OC), Dennis Simmons (Outside WR), Kerry Cooks (CB), Diron Reynolds (DL)


Sooners' Spring Priorities


1. Stabilize the sideline
The biggest issue for Bob Stoops this spring might have nothing to do with his players. With an entirely new coaching staff around him, meshing on the sidelines and in meeting rooms is just as important as anything else in Norman. Lincoln Riley brings a new offense from East Carolina and designing the right systems for the roster will be huge for the Sooners.

2. Which QB fits the new system?
Once the staff settles in and finds its rhythm, the first order of business is to pick a starting quarterback. Trevor Knight came into last season with huge expectations only to fall short due to injuries and inconsistency. Cody Thomas has quit baseball to focus on winning the OU starting gig and should prove to be an adequate challenger. Don’t forget about Texas Tech transfer Baker Mayfield as well. This three-way race should be fun to watch… from the outside.

3. Find some studs up the middle
Departed defensive tackles Jordan Phillips and Chuka Ndulue have left Stoops with a huge void in the middle of his defensive line. There are plenty of linebackers returning and despite issues giving up big plays, the secondary returns plenty of talent too. But those position groups may not matter if OU can’t hold the point of attack. 

 

4. Texas

2014 Record: 6-7 (5-4)
Returning Starters: Offense – 5, Defense – 5

Key Coaching Changes:
Jay Norvell (WR), Jeff Traylor (TE), Brick Haley (DL)


Longhorns' Spring Priorities


1. Develop Tyrone Swoopes
Charlie Strong likely won’t have a better option under center than Swoopes. The talented athlete had his moments last year but didn’t do much to prove he could be the long-term solution in Austin. But Texas is stuck with him, so getting him as many reps as possible this spring is critical.

2. Rebuild heart of the defense
Malcom Brown was arguably the most dominant defensive player in the league last year. Steve Edmond and Jordan Hicks posted 278 total tackles last fall. Mykkele Thompson was a major contributor in the secondary. All are gone as well as end Cedric Reed. The middle of any defense — tackle, middle linebacker, safety — is critical and for Texas, it must be totally reworked.

3. Find stars on the outside
John Harris and Jaxon Shipley were both All-Big 12 picks last year and both need to be replaced at wide receiver. There is no better way to help a struggling quarterback than with star power on the outside in space. This roster has plenty of talented names filling the depth chart and someone needs to step into the No. 1 (and No. 2) role this spring. 

 

 

5. Oklahoma State

2014 Record: 7-6 (4-5)
Returning Starters: Offense – 10, Defense – 7

Key Coaching Changes:
Greg Adkins (OL), Dan Hammerschmidt (CB), Marcus Arroyo (RB), Jason McEndoo (TEs)


Cowboys' Spring Priorities


1. Who to get the ball to?
Tyreek Hill and Desmond Roland are both gone (for different reasons) and Mike Gundy needs to find some playmakers on offense. He has a lot of names returning with some experience — David Glidden, Brandon Sheperd, James Washington, Marcell Ateman and Jhajuan Seales all caught between 18 and 42 passes last year. But finding a go-to playmaker on the outside and in the backfield is key this spring.

2. Finalize the QB depth chart
Mason Rudolph is the youngest name under center for the Pokes but showed the most promise last fall. He excelled down the stretch and has the most upside. He’s the logical choice to start but with J.W. Walsh and Daxx Garman also back with starting experience, settling on a specific pecking order leaving spring camp would be wise for Gundy.

3. Rebuild depth along D-Line
Since this roster was so young a year ago, there are very few holes to fill on either side of the ball. But with two defensive tackles and one end leaving the front line, Gundy needs to rebuild the D-line two-deep. Emmanuel Ogbah and Jimmy Bean are two rising stars but their supporting cast could use some development.

 

6. Kansas State

2014 Record: 9-4 (7-2)

Returning Starters: Offense – 6, Defense – 5
 

Wildcats’ Spring Priorities


1. Replace Jake Waters
Somehow Bill Snyder keeps finding gritty leaders to play quarterback. After Collin Klein led the Cats to a Big 12 title, Jake Waters picked up where he left off and led KSU to 15 wins in his last 20 starts. The onus of signal-caller now falls to Joe Hubener — who has just 17 career pass attempts but a similar skill set to that of both Klein and Waters (aka, he likes to run too). Look for Snyder to get his quarterback as ready as possible this spring.

2. Find someone who can catch a pass
Tyler Lockett is one of the greatest to ever suit up for Kansas State. But it's not just the speedy Lockett that KSU must replace. Both Curry Sexton (1,059 yards) and DeMarcus Robinson (437 yards) are gone as well. Be it Kody Cook, Deante Burton or anyone else, someone must step up on the outside this spring and provide quality support to the passing game.

3. Create star power up front on defense

Ryan Mueller, Jonathan Truman and Randall Evans were All-Big 12 selections last year and all three are gone. The secondary has some rising stars in Danzel McDaniel and Dante Barnett, but the traditional strength of the KSU defense — the front seven — needs to find some star power. Travis Britz, for example, has a great opportunity to develop into a star and will be asked to emerge as both a leader and playmaker.

 

 

7. West Virginia

2014 Record: 7-6 (5-4)

Returning Starters: Offense – 7, Defense – 9

 

Coaching changes:

Bruce Tall (DL)

 

Mountaineers’ Spring Priorities


1. Find out if Skyler Howard is the guy
Skyler Howard threw 110 passes last year in spot duty behind Clint Trickett and is in line to take over under center in Morgantown. But in Dana Holgorsen’s offense, the star of the show has to be the signal-caller. Mountaineers fans want to see Howard separate himself from William Crest and everyone else during the spring

2. Develop pass-catchers
Kevin White and Mario Alford combined for 174 receptions, nearly 2,500 yards and 21 touchdowns last year. Both are gone and the best way to break in a new quarterback is to give him some quality options to throw to. Jordan Thompson, Daikiel Shorts, Shelton Gibson and KJ Myers will compete on the outside while Cody Clay and Elijah Wellman need to provide help at tight end.

3. Fill pass-rushing voids up front

The top three sack artists on the team are gone, as four members of the defensive front need to be replaced. Noble Nwachukwu is the leading returning sack master after just 2.0 QB takedowns last year and the linebacking corps is led by Nick Kwiatkoski (103 tackles). Holgorsen needs to find pieces to fit around those two.

 

8. Texas Tech

2014 Record: 4-8 (2-7)

Returning Starters: Offense – 8, Defense – 7

 

Coaching changes:

David Gibbs (DC), Zac Spavital (LB)

 

Red Raiders’ Spring Priorities


1. Put your passers through the ringer
Kliff Kingsbury has two good options at quarterback in Davis Webb and Patrick Mahomes. But only one can play at a time. Webb is much more experienced but Mahomes was efficient and effective in five starts to end the season (try 14 TDs and only two INTs in his final three games). Kingsbury needs to have some order at the position coming out of spring practice.

2. Work on discipline
This is a bigger picture issue for Tech but fixing unforced errors is a must for the Red Raiders. Texas Tech was 117th in the nation and last in the Big 12 with 28 giveaways and was dead last in the country (128th) in penalties per game (9.3). This team must be more disciplined.

3. Find some linebackers
All-Big 12 linebacker Sam Eguavoen and fellow tacklers VJ Fehoko and Austin Stewart combined for 191 tackles last year and all three are gone. Micah Awe is the only linebacker on the roster who returns with more than 10 tackles to his name last year. Find some linebackers this spring, Tech.

 

9. Iowa State

2014 Record: 2-10 (0-9)

Returning Starters: Offense – 6, Defense – 6

 

Cyclones’ Spring Priorities


1. Find some playmakers on offense
All-Big 12 tight end E.J. Bibbs might have been the best player on the team and needs to be replaced. Receiver Jarvis West and tailback Aaron Wimberly are both gone as well, leaving just two of the top five receivers and no starting running back. The good news is youngsters Allen Lazard and D’Vario Montgomery could be a special duo on the outside. Paul Rhoads needs to find some guys to get the ball to.

2. Center and tackles
Center Tom Farniok and right tackle Jacob Cannon, both honorable mention All-Big 12 blockers, need to be replaced in Ames. Guards Daniel Burton and Jamison Lalk started all 12 games and bring experience, but the other three spots on the line need to be filled. Tackles Jake Campos and Brock Dagel return with a combined 15 starts and should serve as the line's foundation.

3. Generate a pass rush

The Cyclones were 116th in the nation and last in the Big 12 in getting to opposing quarterbacks. In fact, end Cory Morrissey posted six of the team’s 15 total sacks and he needs to be replaced. This unit needs to find a way to pressure the quarterback

 

10. Kansas

2014 Record: 3-9 (1-8)

Returning Starters: Offense – 3, Defense – 4

 

Coaching changes:

David Beaty (HC), Rob Likens (OC), Clint Bowen (DC), Kenny Perry (co-DC)

 

Jayhawks’ Spring Priorities


1. Create overall depth
This seems awfully vague but for a team with just seven returning starters and a mostly new coaching staff, but developing depth across the roster should be priority No. 1. Every position should be an open competition in an effort to field a competitive depth chart. There are a lot of names returning on offense but this unit needs to find some star power.

2. Fill voids in the front seven
At least three starters up front on defense need to be replaced, including the best player on the team in linebacker Ben Heeney. Additionally, holes at end and tackle also need to be filled. Plenty of guys got snaps last season but this group needs to settle into position.

3. Rebuild the secondary

Specifically, one of the units that took the most hits this offseason in Lawrence is the defensive backfield. All-conference performers JaCorey Shepherd and Cassius Sendish need to be replaced, as well as primary contributors Dexter McDonald and Victor Simmons. This staff needs to find players behind returning safeties Isaiah Johnson and Fish Smithson.

Teaser:
Big 12 2015 Spring Preview and Power Rankings
Post date: Wednesday, March 4, 2015 - 10:00
Path: /mlb/chicago-white-sox-2015-preview-and-prediction
Body:

White Sox management started the offseason by saying they wanted the team’s fans to dream again. After watching the Sox lose 188 games the last two seasons, fans wondered how optimistic their dreams should be. Management spoke with its checkbook. The Sox added at least six significant pieces through free agency or trades — starter Jeff Samardzija, closer David Robertson, relievers Zach Duke and Dan Jennings, outfielder Melky Cabrera and DH/first baseman Adam LaRoche. That group should enable the Sox to press the Tigers and Royals in the AL Central, especially with Chris Sale, third in AL Cy Young voting, and Jose Abreu, fourth in MVP voting, serving as the team’s foundation.

 

Rotation

With three consecutive appearances in the All-Star game, Sale has confirmed his status as one of the game’s most overpowering lefthanders. Sale might have won his first Cy Young but finished with only 12 wins because of meager offensive support. He also missed six starts with an injury. Jose Quintana, another lefty, cannot match Sale’s ability to miss bats, but he’s been more durable, delivering 200 solid innings in back-to-back seasons. John Danks, the rotation’s third lefty, took another step forward after his 2012 shoulder surgery. Danks must slash his high walk total because he allowed 205 hits (25 home runs) in 193.2 innings. Enter Samardzija, the former Cubs’ righthander who pitched the second half of last season for the As. Samardzija will be highly motivated by two things: He’s a free agent after the 2015 season, and he pitched in terrible luck last year, winning only seven of 20 decisions despite a combined ERA of 2.99. Sale and Samardzija gives the Sox two potential No. 1 starters. The fifth spot likely belongs to Hector Noesi, who thrived under pitching coach Don Cooper, winning eight games and giving the Sox 166 innings in 2014. But Carlos Rodon, the team’s first-round draft pick last summer, pitched his way to AAA and has the stuff and makeup to become a top-of-the-rotation guy. 


Bullpen

During the winter meetings, whenever a questioner would ask Sox general manager Rick Hahn about his bullpen moves, Hahn had a quick reply: “If you saw our bullpen last season, I apologize for that.” Enter Robertson, who followed Mariano Rivera as the Yankees’ closer and converted 39 of 44 save opportunities. For most of last season, the Sox lacked a trustworthy left-handed specialist. Now they have two — Duke, who arrives as a free agent from Milwaukee, and Jennings, acquired in a trade with the Marlins. The rest of the bullpen will be tweaked. Jake Petricka saved 14 games, but he’ll likely be a seventh-inning guy who needs to improve his control. Ditto for Daniel Webb, who walked 42 guys in 67 innings. Zach Putnam, Javy Guerra and Maikel Cleto showed flashes but not enough consistency. They are all right-handed. Eric Surkamp is the other lefty with a chance.

 

Middle Infield

Alexei Ramirez, 33, has been the Sox shortstop since 2009 and delivered his most consistent season, regaining his power while reducing his errors. Ramirez only sits once a month. Although he’s back with the team after being traded to the Angels in August, former first-round pick Gordon Beckham is now a reserve instead of the starting second baseman. That opens up the job for solid prospects Micah Johnson and Carlos Sanchez. Sanchez has a better glove and a decent bat. He does many things well, but nothing spectacularly. He can also fill in at short. Johnson stole 84 bases in the minors in 2013 and has a more lively bat. But he might need more seasoning.

 

Corners

Some questioned the Sox’ six-year, $68 million commitment to Abreu off workouts and video from Cuba. The questions stopped when he contributed 10 home runs and 32 RBIs before May 1. Abreu cooled slightly in the second half of the season but still finished with 36 and 107. Third baseman Conor Gillaspie showed improvement in his second big-league season, adding 37 points to his batting average (.282) and 31 to his on-base percentage (.336). But with only seven home runs, he lacks the power of a top corner infielder.

 

Outfield

The Sox finished last season convinced they had their leadoff man in center fielder Adam Eaton and a power hitter in right fielder Avisail Garcia. Left field was the hole that neither the now-departed Alejandro De Aza nor Dayan Viciedo filled. Enter Cabrera, who earned a three-year, $42 million contract because the Sox want him to hit between Eaton and Abreu. Cabrera can hit, get on base and advance runners. The offense and energy were upgraded whenever Eaton played because he contributed speed (36 doubles and triples) and the ability to get on base (.362). He made two trips to the disabled list and missed 39 games but still finished second on the team with 76 runs. A more significant injury stopped Garcia. He tore the labrum in his left shoulder while diving for a catch on April 9. He refused to accept the diagnosis that his season was over, rehabbing his way back on the field in August. Garcia struggled with a .244 average and 44 strikeouts in 172 at-bats. But he reported to the Venezuelan League and performed well, hitting five home runs in 34 games while batting .312.

 

Catching

The Sox are convinced that Tyler Flowers took a major step forward last season, contributing 15 home runs with 50 RBIs. Flowers, however, is prone to slumps and struck out in nearly 40 percent of his at-bats. Cooper, the pitching coach, says the staff loves Flowers’ ability to call the game and frame pitches.

 

DH/Bench

The White Sox are trying to fill their designated hitter hole with a left-handed hitter named Adam who played in Washington. But they hope they have more luck with LaRoche than they did with Adam Dunn, whose strikeouts and salary were a drain on the roster. LaRoche cannot match Dunn’s ability to walk or hit mammoth home runs, but he’s a more polished hitter. The Sox signed veteran infielder Emilio Bonifacio to a one-year deal in January. He is a candidate to platoon with Gillaspie at third base and could also see significant time at second and can fill in the outfield too. The White Sox were short-handed with backup catcher Adrian Nieto in the major leagues all season because he was acquired in the Rule 5 Draft. He figures to return to the minor leagues in 2015 with Geovany Soto, Rob Brantly and George Kottaras battling for the backup job.

 

Management

Robin Ventura faces multiple challenges in his fourth season as Ozzie Guillen’s replacement. His last two teams have finished fourth (2014) and fifth (2013), a combined 52 games below .500. Ventura escaped intense criticism because the teams lacked pitching and suffered injuries. Over the last two seasons, Hahn has shed the hefty contracts carried by Jake Peavy, Alex Rios and Dunn, while making the team younger and more dynamic. Attendance in 2014 was the lowest since 1999. Ventura’s low-key personality won’t stir much excitement with Joe Maddon working across town at Wrigley Field, so he needs to win to sell tickets.

 

Final Analysis

Hahn has added a left-handed power bat (LaRoche), a No. 2 hitter (Cabrera), a closer (Robertson), a right-handed starter (Samardzija) and two left-handed relievers (Duke and Jennings). The Sox could use another bat (catcher or third base) and another starter. But the Sox have added enough to push past Cleveland for third — and if all goes well, this team has the pieces to press the Tigers and Royals at the top of an intensely competitive AL Central.

 

2015 Prediction: 2nd in AL Central

 

Projected Lineup

CF       Adam Eaton (L)        Feisty leadoff man (.362 OBP) makes things happen but needs to avoid injuries.

LF       Melky Cabrera (S)    Seeking another table-setter for Jose Abreu, the Sox outbid the Mariners and others for Cabrera.

1B       Jose Abreu (R)         Finished in the top five in the AL in batting (.317, fifth), HRs (36, tied for third) and RBIs (107, fourth).

DH      Adam LaRoche (L) His solid power numbers (26 HRs, 92 RBIs) should improve at U.S. Cellular Field.

RF       Avisail Garcia (R)     Made a rapid recovery from labrum surgery in less than four months but needs to improve his .305 OBP.

SS       Alexei Ramirez (R) Mr. Durability has played at least 156 games for five straight seasons.

3B       Conor Gillaspie (L)             His .300 average against righties suggests he’d be a great candidate for a platoon situation.

C         Tyler Flowers (R)     Added glasses after the All-Star break and hit .280 in the second half after hitting .218 in the first half.

2B       Micah Johnson (L) Young speedster could be a factor, provided he can get on base and not be a defensive liability.

 

Bench

UT       Emilio Bonifacio (S)            Verstaile veteran could platoon with Gillaspie at third, fill in at second or in the outfield.

2B       Carlos Sanchez (S)             His glove gives him a chance to play regularly, especially if Johnson falters.

2B/3B Gordon Beckham (R)         Former first-round pick back with White Sox after brief stint with Angels following August trade.

C         Geovany Soto           2008 NL Rookie of the Year with the Cubs played just 24 games least season with Rangers and A’s.

 

Rotation

LH       Chris Sale     Third in the Cy Young voting, Sale delivered eight games with 10 strikeouts or more.

RH      Jeff Samardzija        Picked for the NL All-Star team before he was traded to Oakland. Struck out a combined 202 batters.

LH       Jose Quintana         Has quietly given the Sox back-to-back 200-inning seasons and cut his HRs allowed from 23 to 10.

LH       John Danks His velocity has not returned from 2012 shoulder surgery, but he managed to split 22 decisions in 2014.

RH      Hector Noesi            Discarded by the Mariners and Rangers, set career highs in wins (eight), innings (172.1), strikeouts (123).

 

Bullpen

RH      David Robertson (Closer) Saved 39 games in his first season as Mariano Rivera’s replacement with the Yankees.

RH      Jake Petricka            Saved 14 games as part of the Sox closer-by-committee but figures to move to the seventh inning.

RH      Zach Putnam            Rode his split-finger fastball to become the surprise success of the Sox bullpen.

RH      Daniel Webb            Possesses stuff to close, but he might have to return to the minors if he doesn’t improve his control.

RH      Javy Guerra   A former closer with the Dodgers, Guerra has the power arm to deliver strikeouts (38 in 46.1 IP).

LH       Zach Duke    Lowered his arm slot and brightened his career, striking out 74 in 58.2 innings in Milwaukee.

LH       Dan Jennings          Acquired from the Marlins, Jennings was tougher on righties (.265) than lefties (.299) last season.

 

Beyond the Box Score

Boos to cheers Two seasons ago White Sox fans booed Jeff Samardzija after he hit Paul Konerko in the face with a fastball. The boos were more vigorous than usual because Samardzija pitched for the Cubs. Now, according to Baseball-Reference.com, Samardzija will become the 175th player to play for both the Cubs and White Sox. Acquired in a trade with Oakland, Samardzija immediately endeared himself to Sox fans by telling general manager Rick Hahn that coming to the Sox was a “dream come true.” Samardzija grew up about 50 miles southeast of U.S. Cellular Field in Valparaiso, Ind. — as a White Sox fan.

Favorite son Adam LaRoche, a DH and first baseman, also has White Sox connections. LaRoche’s father, Dave, is a former relief pitcher who served as the Sox bullpen coach from 1989-91. Adam remembered his connection to the White Sox third baseman — current manager Robin Ventura. “Getting ready for a big-league game, you have 10- and 11-year-old punks hanging around, and he took the time to treat us the way he did and hang out with us …” LaRoche says. “I always had respect for that.”

Hawk’s on board The first response to the Sox’ aggressive re-tooling came in the broadcast booth. Ken “Hawk” Harrelson, the team’s long-time TV voice, is 73 and makes a four-hour round-trip commute from Granger, Ind. As the Sox stumbled to a fourth-place finish in the AL Central, Harrelson said he was considering shaving at least 40 games off his schedule to spend more time with his family. That thinking stopped after Hahn acquired Samardzija, LaRoche, closer David Robertson, reliever Zach Duke, outfield Melky Cabrera and others. “(The moves) sort of convinced me,” Harrelson told The Chicago Tribune. “Now with this thing, it’s going to be a fun year.”

Anniversary The White Sox plan to celebrate the 10-year anniversary of their 2005 World Series victory over Houston during the summer. With the retirement of Paul Konerko, no players from that team remain with the Sox. In fact, only five members of the champs figure to remain in the majors — pitchers Mark Buehrle (Blue Jays), Brandon McCarty (Dodgers) and Neal Cotts (Brewers), catcher A.J. Pierzynski (Braves) and infielder Juan Uribe (Dodgers).

 

2014 Top Draft Pick

Carlos Rodon, LHP

The Sox were surprised — and thrilled — when Rodon was available with the third pick of the 2014 draft. Projected as the lock first overall selection before the 2014 season, Rodon slipped behind two prep pitchers after a puzzling 6–7 junior season for NC State, which missed the NCAA Tournament after playing in the 2013 College World Series. The Sox were not concerned by Rodon’s college stats. They love his plus-fastball and wipeout slider and are working to improve his changeup. “We watched the progression over several years and thought he was the consensus best guy on the board,” says Doug Laumann, the White Sox amateur scouting director. Rodon struck out 38 in 24.2 innings at three levels of the Sox system, finishing his first professional season in Class AAA.

 

Top 10 Prospects

1. Carlos Rodon, LHP (22) The Sox did not promote Rodon to the majors in September, perhaps to be conservative starting his service time. He’s a Scott Boras client.

2. Micah Johnson, 2B (24) Hamstring issues cut Johnson’s stolen bases from 84 to 22 last season, but he hit .294 while splitting time in AA and AAA. His glove needs polish but he should plenty of chances to secure the starting job in spring training.

3. Tim Anderson, SS (21) Taken in the first round by the Sox in the 2013 draft, Anderson should start the season in AA, where he hit .364 in 10 games after batting .297 in High-A.

4. Frank Montas, RHP (22) Montas’ fastball was clocked at 102 mph in the Arizona Fall League.

5. Courtney Hawkins, LF (21) Asked to repeat High-A, Hawkins reduced his strikeouts and increased his power, finishing second in the Carolina League with 19 home runs.

6. Spencer Adams, RHP (18) The Sox were surprised he was available in the second round of the 2014 draft. Adams pitched like a first-rounder in the Arizona League.

7. Tyler Danish, RHP (20) Some compare his delivery to Jake Peavy’s motion. Drafted in the second round in 2013, Danish projects as a potential closer.

8. Jacob May, CF (23) May’s game features his glove and speed. He impressed last season with 31 doubles and 37 stolen bases in High-A.

9. Micker Adolfo, RF (18) The Sox invested $1.6 million in the Dominican native in 2013. They’ve been conservative with his development.

10. Trey Michalczewski, 3B (20) He drove in 70 runs in the South Atlantic League, but will need to curb his 140 strikeouts.

Teaser:
Chicago White Sox 2015 Preview and Prediction
Post date: Wednesday, March 4, 2015 - 09:30
All taxonomy terms: LeSean McCoy, Fantasy, News
Path: /fantasy/lesean-mccoys-fantasy-value-takes-hit-trade-buffalo
Body:

NFL free agency is a week away, but it was a different type of player movement that grabbed everyone’s attention with the reported trade of running back LeSean McCoy from Philadelphia to Buffalo. The trade, which can’t be made official until the new league year begins at 4 p.m ET on Tuesday, would also reunite Bills linebacker Kiko Alonso with his college coach at Oregon, Chip Kelly.

 

McCoy has spent his entire six-year career with the Eagles since they drafted him in the second round (53rd overall) out of Pittsburgh in the 2009 draft. Only 26 years old, McCoy is Philadelphia’s all-time leading rusher with 6,792 yards. A two-time, first-team All-Pro and three-time Pro Bowler, McCoy also is one of the league’s most dangerous receivers out of the backfield, as evidenced by his 300 career catches for 2,282 yards. In 90 career games, McCoy has accounted for 54 touchdowns (44 rushing, 10 receiving).

 

While some of this move appears to be financially driven on the Eagles’ part (McCoy has three years and $25 million remaining on his contract, Alonso has two years left on his rookie deal), there’s no denying this also would impact McCoy’s fantasy value for the upcoming season. Even though his numbers were down this past season compared to 2013 when he led the NFL in rushing with 1,607 yards, McCoy still ran circles around his Buffalo counterparts.

 

Between injuries and ineffectiveness, the Bills saw four different backs in 2014 register at least 36 carries with Fred Jackson leading the way at 525 yards on 141 attempts. Jackson, Anthony “Boobie” Dixon, C.J. Spiller and Bryce Brown (McCoy’s Eagle teammate in 2012-13), combined to rush for 1,383 yards on 360 carries. That’s 3.8 yards per carry compared to McCoy’s 4.2 on 312 totes.

 

While it’s safe to say Philadelphia’s offensive line is better than Buffalo’s, the real difference lies in offensive systems. Since coming to the NFL in 2013, Kelly has introduced his up-tempo, spread scheme, which is known for churning out the plays. After finishing second to Denver’s record-breaking offense in 2013, the Eagles led the way with 1,127 plays from scrimmage this past season.

 

On the other hand, Buffalo was in the middle of the pack with 1,020 plays and scored 8.2 fewer points per game than Philadelphia. Rex Ryan is the now the Bills’ head coach, but remember he’s always been fond of the “ground and pound” approach when it comes to running the ball. Not only does that style not suit the shifty and elusive McCoy, it also tends to create extended, lengthy drives when successful.

 

Following an impressive debut season in Kelly’s system in 2013, there were concerns that McCoy’s role could be changing after the Eagles acquired Darren Sproles from the Saints. Some of those fears were realized, as McCoy wound up No. 12 in fantasy points among RBs.

 

Now, although McCoy’s No. 1 back status seems secure with his new team (Jackson is 34 years old and Spiller is a free agent), his fantasy status among his peers is anything but. Opinions will change several times between now and before the start of the 2015 season, but if McCoy does wind up in Buffalo, his days being viewed as a top-10 fantasy RB could be over.

Teaser:
LeSean McCoy’s Fantasy Value Takes A Hit With Trade to Buffalo
Post date: Wednesday, March 4, 2015 - 09:00
All taxonomy terms: NBA
Path: /nba/nba-power-rankings-march-edition
Body:

1. Golden State Warriors (46-12)

Despite some recent displays of vulnerability, the Warriors are still the NBA’s top dog. The looming possibility of a healthy Oklahoma City in the first round of the playoffs is a fear, as the Thunder’s teeming athleticism has been an issue for Golden State. But everyone else in Western Conference — aside from potential Conference Finals opponent Memphis — appears eminently beatable.

 

2. Atlanta Hawks (47-12)

Like the Warriors, the Hawks have chilled a bit from their torrid winning pace of the first half, but they still haven’t looked any less than superior. The true test of their mettle will come Friday night, though, when LeBron and his streaking Cavaliers come to town.

 

3. Memphis Grizzlies (42-16)

Memphis remains the contrarian contender of the league, eschewing the pace-and-space trend of the game for a retro half-court version of NBA basketball that depends on plodding two-way execution. The scary thing about it for the rest of the West is that in the Grizzlies’ hands, this style is no nostalgia act — they’ve got enough conviction in their ways to make you bend to them.

 

4. Houston Rockets (41-18)

The trail to the MVP trophy is covered in clippings of James Harden’s beard. The Rockets are dark horse contenders because of him, but even more so because a healthy Dwight Howard looms, and because the Rockets now have perhaps the deepest assemblage of wing defenders in basketball.

 

5. Cleveland Cavaliers (37-24)

The hype about these Cavaliers no longer looks all that wasted, as Cleveland has emerged as clear contenders for the Eastern Conference title behind a rejuvenated, freight-train version of LeBron. But the playoffs will tell us whether their unseasoned pieces are ready for the limelight yet.

 

6. Portland Trail Blazers (39-19)

The Blazers have regained form and health after some expected winter malaise, and the addition of Arron Afflalo as sixth man makes them a considerably more potent playoff foe. The biggest question mark facing them: Whether LaMarcus Aldridge is going to pay for playing with an injured thumb.

 

7. Los Angeles Clippers (40-21)

Blake Griffin’s injury has been rich with the silver linings for the Clippers, with the best of them being the improved play of DeAndre Jordan. A monstrous February has him in the lead for Defensive Player of the Year considerations, and his rebounding numbers have been ridiculously high — he had four games with twenty-plus boards in the month.

 

8. Oklahoma City Thunder (33-27)

No Kevin Durant? No problem. Russell Westbrook’s MVP campaign has been aided by new Thunder guns in Enes Kanter, Kyle Singler and D.J. Augustin, and OKC has become something rare: a low-seeded playoff team with real championship potential.

 

9. Toronto Raptors (38-22)

Given Kyle Lowry’s terrible February play, the Raptors are lucky to still be the two seed in the East. If he can turn it around in time for the playoffs, Toronto might be a sleeper team to make some postseason noise.

 

10. Chicago Bulls (37-23)

Injuries, injuries, injuries. What else? Injuries. The Bulls are singing a sad, familiar tune, but they can still potentially get Derrick Rose, Taj Gibson and Jimmy Butler back and ready before playoff time. All hope is not lost.

 

11. Dallas Mavericks (40-22)

The decay of Rajon Rondo’s game has been an alarming sight in Dallas, where the Mavericks have been a worse team since they made the blockbuster trade. Once a stealth title contender, the Mavs are now fighting for mere respect.

 

12. San Antonio Spurs (36-23)

Obituaries have been written about Tim Duncan’s Spurs before. And, time and time again, they’ve been wrong. We shouldn’t fall for the same trick again… or should we? San Antonio looks tired, uninspired and done this season.

 

13. Washington Wizards (34-26)

Nothing is holding the Wizards back more than their coach. Randy Wittman lives in a nostalgic bubble, in which the three-point line and fast break hardly exist — and that might even be fine if he had different personnel. But John Wall is one of the best, quickest point guards in the game, and Washington needs a more modern leader to let them thrive, and to break out of their slump.

 

14. Milwaukee Bucks (32-27)

Formerly a dark horse playoff contender, Jason Kidd’s Bucks reset the program at the trade deadline by shipping out Brandon Knight for Michael Carter-Williams. Whether they actually raised their ceiling down the road, though, definitely remains to be seen.

 

15. Indiana Pacers (25-34)

The Pacers’ record doesn’t look good, but February saw them collect the best winning percentage in the league. And with George Hill back in the lineup and playing the best ball of his life with Paul George possibly around the corner, Indy looks like a surprise Eastern Conference playoff fighter.

 

16. Phoenix Suns (31-30)

The Suns’ shocking blowup at the trade deadline, instigated by an unhappy Goran Dragic, certainly could have turned out worse. Brandon Knight is a welcome addition to the backcourt with Eric Bledsoe, and they got him without giving up promising young frontcourt pieces in Markieff Morris and Alex Len. There’s an exciting road ahead for a Suns team that’s already scary.

 

17. New Orleans Pelicans (32-28)

The Pelicans have done surprisingly well without Anthony Davis in the lineup, but they’re still unlikely to make the playoffs with the Thunder ahead of them and surging. It’s time to start thinking about a crucial offseason in New Orleans.

 

18. Miami Heat (26-33)

Luck has hit the post-LeBron Heat hard. Just as they looked to be emerging as playoff contenders in the East when they traded for Goran Dragic and with Hassan Whiteside on the rise, Chris Bosh was sidelined for the season. Perhaps next year will bring better juju.

 

19. Charlotte Hornets (24-33)

Without top scorer Kemba Walker, the Hornets have survived with an extra helping of defense, and they’ve stayed in the hunt for the East’s final playoff spot. But if they get it, is it even worth anything more than a sweep at the hand of the Hawks?

 

20. Boston Celtics (23-34)

Isaiah Thomas is a neat fit for the Celtics, who badly needed the offense he’s more than happy to provide. Next to Marcus Smart and Avery Bradley — and under the tutelage of Brad Stevens — Thomas and Boston have reason to hope together.

 

21. Detroit Pistons (23-36)

The Pistons are contending for a playoff spot in the East this year, but their vision seems oriented more toward future seasons with the acquisition of Reggie Jackson. And news of Greg Monroe’s increased willingness to re-sign has to be encouraging to Stan Van Gundy.

 

22. Utah Jazz (23-35)

Sending Enes Kanter out has created more room for Frenchman Rudy Gobert to make an impression in, and that’s a good thing. Early signs have the lengthy center looking like one of the best rim-protectors in basketball.

 

23. Sacramento Kings (20-37)

George Karl’s new team has some interesting pieces for him to work with, aside from the obvious benefit of having DeMarcus Cousins around. Ben McLemore, in particular, should benefit from Karl’s presence — but we won’t see a demonstrable difference in anything Kings-wise until next season.

 

24. Brooklyn Nets (25-33)

The Nets are more stalled than any franchise in the league. They’re another team in the East’s sad race for the final playoff spot, but the mission from on high in Brooklyn has clearly shifted: It’s about getting back some poorly spent money, not about winning NBA games.

 

25. Denver Nuggets (20-39)

Brian Shaw is out the door, and it hardly seems like a solution for Denver. Shaw’s meandering, often embarrassing tenure probably did need to come to an end, but whoever takes his place is unlikely to have much better results with a sloppily constructed roster, in a very tough conference.

 

26. Orlando Magic (19-42)

What’s next for the Magic? Finding the right new coach, to make sense of their young, developing roster. The post-Jacque Vaughn offseason looms large in Orlando.

 

27. Minnesota Timberwolves (13-46)

Kevin Garnett’s return to Minny means some extra warm fuzzies, and maybe some advanced tutelage for what’s one of the most promising young cores in the game.

 

28. Philadelphia 76ers (13-47)

More of the same in Philly: losing, losing, and losing to go with some asset-based trickery from the front office. We’re still waiting to see if their long view comes to life on a basketball court.

 

29. Los Angeles Lakers (16-42)

Is there a plan in place for the stalled Lakers? It doesn’t look that way. They just have to hope free agents really like the weather, and want to play with Kobe.

 

30. New York Knicks (12-46)

Phil Jackson has a lot left to prove in New York. If there isn’t a sense of direction by this time next year — and if the team is still terrible — his skeptics will start seeming like sages.

 

— John Wilmes

@johnwilmesNBA

 

Teaser:
Post date: Tuesday, March 3, 2015 - 14:38
All taxonomy terms: Essential 11, Overtime
Path: /overtime/athlons-essential-11-links-day-march-3-2015
Body:

This is your daily links roundup of our favorite sports and entertainment posts on the web for March 3: 

 

The lovely and talented Allison Brie will be appearing in an upcoming issue of GQ Mexico.

 

Glen Davis' epic videobomb was the highlight of Chris Paul's postgame interview.

 

Enjoy this hynotic GIF of Jon Stewart kicking wrestler Seth Rollins in the junk.

 

Romo-to-Bryant is an expensive combo for the Cowboys — 30 percent of their cap space.

 

The top 101 NFL free agents. My Titans could use 15-20 of these. Heck, how about 53?

 

Is this the world's best sandwich?

 

Mavs owner Mark Cuban will play the president in Sharknado 3.

 

• Gluttons rejoice: It's Free Pancake Day at IHOP.

 

Curt Schilling went nuclear on some Twitter lowlifes who made disgusting comments about his daughter.

 

Marshawn Lynch has a way of standing out in a crowd.

 

Jordan Leopold's daughter wrote a heart-rending letter begging for her dad to be traded to the Blue Jackets. And he was.

 

• Hassan Whiteside and Alex Len exchanged pleasantries last night.

 

-- Email us with any compelling sports-related links at [email protected]

Teaser:
Post date: Tuesday, March 3, 2015 - 12:37
All taxonomy terms: MLB, News
Path: /mlb/al-wests-top-storylines-watch-2015
Body:

The American League West is chalked full of A-list characters that make the cast of "Birdmanlook like a B-movie. King Felix’s kingdom in Seattle, MVP Mike Trout in Southern Cal, Billy Beane wheeling and dealing in the Bay Area, Prince, Yu and Choo revamping for a revolution in Texas, and a group of hard-swinging youngsters in Houston that are poised for takeoff make the AL West a must-watch division this summer.

 

Here are the top storylines to watch in the American League West in 2015.

 

 

Angels' Time Running Out?

Is it possible that a team can win its division by 10 games, have this generation’s best player, own the best record in baseball and be considered a disappointment? With a payroll that exceeded $154 million and a roster built for October, the 2014 Angels were absolutely disappointing. Expectations will only continue to grow in 2015 as high-priced players like Josh Hamilton, Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson grow in age and fail to deliver consistently.

 

The Angels are on the hook for $189 million over the next seven years for Pujols, who just turned 35, and is coming off a “rebound year” in which he hit 45 points below his career batting average. Hamilton, impending suspension aside, hasn’t been worth the $25 million he’s due in 2015, hitting just .255/.316/.426 with 31 homers and an OPS of .741 since moving to Anaheim in '13. Wilson made $16 million in 2014 and is due another $18 million this season, has an ERA close to 3.90 and WHIP of 1.374. In his lone start in the AL Division Series against the Royals last October, Wilson didn’t make it out of the first frame, giving up three runs in just two-thirds of an inning.

 

The Halos will be looking for a bounce back at the plate from third baseman and former All-Star David Freese, who has yet to live up to his 2011 World Series heroics in California. Kole Calhoun put together a solid year in 2014, hitting 17 homers and 31 doubles batting mostly leadoff and newcomer Matt Joyce has the ability to add much-needed depth to Scioscia’s lineup in the DH spot.

 

The biggest riddle will be the re-vamped bullpen that features many new young arms and veteran closer Huston Street. The rotation should be a bright spot for Anaheim, especially if Wilson can keep it together for an entire summer and as well as the postseason. Being without budding ace Garret Richards until late April seems to be a minor hiccup for this staff that also includes veteran All-Star Jered Weaver, and up-and-coming righty Matt Shoemaker.

 

The biggest question for this Angels team is — how much longer does GM Jerry Dipoto have until it's time to move major contracts in order to replenish a fledging farm system and plan for the future? 2015 could be the last great opportunity Anaheim has before the World Series window is no more.

 

 

Seattle Reign

After an impressive 2014 that saw a 16-game swing from 2013, the Seattle Mariners are the team to watch in the AL West in 2015. Championship teams are built on superior pitching, reliable defense, and timely hitting. The Mariners have all three.

 

Pitching has been and will be the M’s trademark in 2015. Any rotation that features Felix Hernandez is going to be good, but throw in Hisashi Iwakuma as the number two, with a mix of young, live arms waiting in the wings like Taijuan Walker and James Paxton and that rotation becomes deadly. If lefty J.A. Happ can find his 2009 form that almost won him NL Rookie of the Year honors with the Phillies, this Mariners rotation could be untouchable.

 

The only thing more dangerous in the AL West than the M’s starting rotation could be their bullpen. The majority of the relief corps that allowed just 157 runs in 500 innings and had a combined ERA of 2.59 last season is back for 2015. Fernando Rodney, with his bow and arrow, crooked hat, and 48 saves from are back, along with even more young arms, including last year’s rookie studs Dominic Leone and Carson Smith, each of whom could be thrown in the mix as the season progresses.

 

The Mariners struggled last season at the plate, finishing 2014 ranked 27th in doubles, 22nd in total bases, 19th in RBIs, and 15th in homers. Signing Nelson Cruz, last season's home run leader, to a four-year deal surely will help remedy that issue. Asking Cruz to hit another 40 dingers in Safeco is a tall order, but adding his big bat will surely allow for better pitches for Robinson Cano and budding star third baseman Kyle Seager. Seager, a first time All-Star and Gold Glove winner in 2014, hit 27 doubles and 25 homers last season and was rewarded with a seven-year deal worth approximately $100 million.

 

The addition of Cruz and locking up Seager long term will definitely be helpful for the M’s in 2015, but several questions still linger for a team looking to take the next step. First baseman Logan Morrison finished 2014 on a nice pace, but in large part has been a shell of the player he was becoming in Miami.

 

Since his breakout 2009 season (25 2B, 23 HR, 72 RBI), Morrison hasn’t topped 20 doubles, 11 homers, or 38 RBIs, as injuries have been a nuisance throughout his career. Waiting in the wings in case Morrison’s struggles continue is last year’s minor league RBI champion, D.J. Peterson, who is expected to make the move to first this spring.

 

Seth Smith, who was acquired from the Padres, and Justin Ruggiano are expected to platoon in right field, as outfielders Dustin Ackley and Austin Jackson are aiming to rebound from lackluster 2014 showings.

 

If the outfield can’t produce to GM Jack Zduriencik’s liking, he has plenty of young pitchers to use as trade bait to find the needed help at the plate. Keep your eye on the Emerald City this summer as this could be the year the Mariners snap their 14-year postseason skid and march into October as favorites.

 

 

Houston’s Big Leap?

The Houston Astros might be the most entertaining team to watch in 2015. Yeah, they are going to swing and miss — a lot, but they are also going to hit a ton of home runs. Last season, the ‘Stros were truly feast or famine, ranking fourth in homers and second in strikeouts. Developing superstars Chris Carter, Jon Singleton, and George Springer combined for 430 strikeouts in 2014 — but they also combined for 158 homers with Springer and Singleton playing roughly half their seasons in The Show.

 

The Astros are looking to new manager A. J. Hinch to be a vital influence for their young sluggers, hoping he can teach patience at the plate. In addition to a new skipper, the Houston front office made moves to bring in several veteran lineup pieces, including Evan Gattis and Colby Rasmus in the outfield and Luis Valbuena at third. Rasmus, Valbuena and Gattis have big pop capabilities, but are also rather strikeout-prone. All three should add a welcomed veteran presence in the clubhouse and on the lineup card for Hinch.

 

The Houston lineup wasn’t the only thing that received a minor facelift this offseason, as veteran hurlers Pat Neshek and Luke Gregerson were signed to bolster a bullpen that ranked dead last in ERA during 2014 (4.80). Neshek and Gregerson were nice pick ups, but the Astros still lack a true closer after missing out on David Robertson this past winter.

 

The rotation for the Astros could prove to be formidable with last season’s surprises in Dallas Keuchel and Collin McHugh. Keuchel and McHugh both posted sub-3.00 ERAs in 2014, as McHugh struck out 157 batters in 154.2 innings of work, and Keuchel developed into the Astros' most reliable starter, throwing 200 innings. While the long-term jury is still deliberating on Keuchel and McHugh, the Astros are still without a true ace. But that ace could be within the Astros organization already in 2013 No. 1 overall pick, Mark Appel. Appel was inconsistent in his first full minor league season, but has reportedly already been turning heads at Astros camp.

 

Make no doubt about it, the future is bright in Houston, especially with pieces like reigning AL batting champion Jose Altuve manning second base long term, and a cabinet full of hard-swinging youngsters whose upside is almost infinite. The Astros are ready to start winning, and winning soon. While a postseason run this summer is a bit too ambitious, certainly a .500 record is well within reach.

 

- by Jake Rose

Teaser:
American League's Top Storylines to Watch for 2015
Post date: Tuesday, March 3, 2015 - 12:00
Path: /college-football/sec-west-2015-spring-preview-and-power-rankings
Body:

Spring practice is already underway for a handful of college football teams, and the offseason workouts and scrimmages provide the first glimpse of how all 128 teams will look in 2015.

 

The SEC West is college football’s toughest division and the going isn’t expected to get any easier in 2015. Alabama and Auburn appear to be the early favorites, but any of the seven teams have a case to be picked at the top this preseason. This spring, quarterback battles will be under the spotlight at Alabama, Ole Miss and LSU, while defense is the focus at Auburn and Texas A&M.

 

What are the key questions and storylines shaping all seven teams in the SEC West and outlook for 2015? Let’s take a quick look at the 7 teams and the priority list for each coach. 

 

SEC West Spring Preview and Storylines to Watch

 

(Teams listed by pre-spring power rank)

 

1. Alabama

2014 Record: 12-2 (7-1 SEC)

Returning Starters: Offense – 2, Defense – 7

 

Key Coaching Changes:

Tosh Lupoi (LBs coach)
Mel Tucker (DBs coach)


Alabama’s Spring Priorities

 

1. Jake Coker’s Offense
After transferring in from Florida State last offseason, high expectations surrounded Jake Coker in the quarterback battle. However, Blake Sims edged Coker for the starting job. This spring is Coker’s chance at claiming the job once again, but he will be pushed by David Cornwell, Blake Barnett and Cooper Bateman. This is Coker’s job to lose.

2. New Targets at WR
Amari Cooper was the best receiver in college football last season, catching 124 passes for 1,727 yards and 16 scores. And Alabama isn’t just replacing Cooper, as DeAndrew White and Christion Jones are also out of eligibility. Which players will emerge this spring at receiver?

3. Secondary Issues
Alabama’s defensive backs allowed 19 plays of 30 yards or more last season, which ranked near the bottom of the SEC. This unit has room to improve in 2015, but safeties Landon Collins and Nick Perry must be replaced. At cornerback, will Cyrus Jones, Tony Brown, Eddie Jackson and Marlon Humphrey provide the secondary with more consistency to eliminate the big plays?

 

2. Auburn

2014 Record: 8-5 (4-4 SEC)

Returning Starters: Offense – 5, Defense – 7

 

Key Coaching Changes:

Will Muschamp (defensive coordinator)
Travaris Robinson (DBs coach)
Lance Thompson (LBs coach)


Auburn’s Spring Priorities

 

1. Will Muschamp Takes Over the Defense
After giving up 32.8 points per game in SEC contests last season, coach Gus Malzahn decided to make big changes to his defensive staff. Three new coaches join Auburn for 2015, including former Florida coach Will Muschamp as the team’s new coordinator. Muschamp should make a big difference with this unit, and there’s a solid core of talent in place with seven starters returning. This spring is Muschamp’s first opportunity to put his system in place.

2. Carl Lawson’s Return at DE
In addition to Muschamp’s arrival, one of the biggest reasons for optimism for Auburn's defense is the return of end Carl Lawson from injury. Lawson missed all of 2014 due to a torn ACL but is expected to participate in spring practice. Even though the sophomore won’t take a full load of snaps in the spring, getting Lawson back in the mix and knocking off the rust will be beneficial for the fall.

3. Reloading on Offense
Auburn returns only five starters on offense, but there’s not much concern about how this unit will perform in 2015. Quarterback Jeremy Johnson is a breakout candidate, the backfield is loaded with talent - including junior college recruit Jovon Robinson - and there’s enough of a core in place on the offensive line to withstand the departure of center Reese Dismukes. 

 

3. LSU

2014 Record: 8-5 (4-4 SEC)

Returning Starters: Offense – 7, Defense – 6

 

Key Coaching Changes:

Kevin Steele (Defensive Coordinator)
Ed Orgeron (DL coach)
Tony Ball (WRs coach)


LSU’s Spring Priorities

 

1. Improvement in the Passing Game
Total yardage isn’t necessarily the best way to judge an offense’s effectiveness, but LSU averaged only 140.6 passing yards per game in SEC contests. Both quarterbacks – Anthony Jennings and Brandon Harris – struggled to consistently move the offense through the air. Jennings will open spring ball as the starter, but can he show improvement after completing only 48.9 percent of his passes in 2014?

2. Reloading at DE
LSU has been a factory for talent at defensive end in recent years. However, the pass rush has dipped over the last two seasons, and the Tigers finished 2014 with just 19 sacks. Ends Jermauria Rasco and Danielle Hunter have departed Baton Rouge, leaving new coordinator Kevin Steele and line coach Ed Orgeron with a few holes to fill at end. Who steps up here this spring?

3. Depth at RB/WR
There’s no doubt running back Leonard Fournette will be one of the nation’s leading rushers in 2015. But with the departure of Kenny Hilliard and Terrence Magee, coordinator Cam Cameron needs to restock the depth behind Fournette this spring. At receiver, Travin Dural produced plenty of big plays in 2014. Can the Tigers find a consistent No. 2 and No. 3 option? This is a big spring for Trey Quinn, Malachi Dupre and John Diarse at receiver.

 

4. Ole Miss

2014 Record: 9-4 (5-3 SEC)

Returning Starters: Offense – 9, Defense – 7

 

Key Coaching Changes:

Corey Batoon (Sp. Teams/Safeties)

 

Ole Miss’ Spring Priorities

 

1. Quarterback Battle
With Bo Wallace expiring his eligibility, the Rebels open spring with a three-way battle for the starting quarterback spot. Junior college recruit Chad Kelly will have a shot to unseat DeVante Kincade and Ryan Buchanan, but none of the three players have a career start. Will coach Hugh Freeze find an answer at quarterback this spring?

2. Shuffling the OL
The offensive line was a concern for the Rebels heading into 2014, and this unit had its share of struggles, giving up 31 sacks and clearing the way for rushers to average only 3.9 yards per carry. Improving this unit is critical for Ole Miss’ chances at moving up in the West Division pecking order, but injuries are a factor. Tackle Laremy Tunsil and guard Aaron Morris are recovering from significant leg injuries. Major improvement this spring with Morris and Tunsil sidelined is unlikely, but it’s critical for Freeze to get a look at his options.

3. Filling the Voids in the Secondary
The Rebels return seven starters on defense and should once again be among the best in the SEC. But if there’s one concern for coordinator Dave Wommack, it has to be in the secondary after the departures of cornerback Senquez Golson and safety Cody Prewitt. The cupboard isn’t bare though, as C.J. Hampton and Tony Conner are back at safety, and cornerback could be addressed with the return of Tee Shepard from injury. Junior college recruit Tony Bridges will also provide help at cornerback.

 

5. Arkansas

2014 Record: 7-6 (2-6 SEC)

Returning Starters: Offense – 9 , Defense – 5

 

Key Coaching Changes:

Dan Enos (Offensive Coordinator)
Vernon Hargreaves (LBs coach)
Jemal Singleton (RBs coach)


Arkansas’ Spring Priorities

 

1. Continued Improvement in the Passing Game
New coordinator Dan Enos shouldn’t have to change the formula for success for the Razorbacks. Alex Collins and Jonathan Williams form one of the nation’s top duos at running back, and the line is one of the best in the SEC. But for Arkansas to take the next step in the West, the passing game has to take another step forward. Quarterback Brandon Allen returns, and top targets Keon Hatcher (WR) and Hunter Henry (TE) are also back. Can the Razorbacks find a couple more options to help the passing game grow in 2015?

2. Reloading on the DL
Not only is Arkansas losing its best pass rusher (Trey Flowers), but its best defensive tackle (Darius Philon) bolted early to the NFL. Coordinator Robb Smith has to restock the trenches this spring and will be looking for development from players like JaMichael Winston (DE), Taiwan Johnson (DT) and Bijhon Jackson (DT).

3. Replacing Martrell Spaight
Spaight may have been one of the SEC’s most underrated players in 2014. In 13 games, Spaight recorded 128 tackles (10.5 for a loss) and forced two fumbles. Brooks Ellis (72 tackles) is the top returner at linebacker, but this will be an area of focus as Smith and new linebacker coach Vernon Hargreaves look to replace Spaight in 2015.

 

6. Texas A&M

2014 Record: 8-5 (3-5 SEC)

Returning Starters: Offense – 6, Defense – 6

 

Key Coaching Changes:

John Chavis (Defensive Coordinator)
Aaron Moorehead (WRs coach)
Dave Christensen (OL/Run Game Coordinator)


Texas A&M’s Spring Priorities

 

1. Getting Defensive
It’s no secret the defense has been Texas A&M’s biggest problem since joining the SEC. However, coach Kevin Sumlin took a big step in fixing the defense by hiring John Chavis away from LSU. Chavis is one of the best defensive signal-callers in the nation and inherits a unit with some promising young talent. How far can Chavis get this defense to improve in the spring?


2. Kyle Allen’s Time to Shine
Allen ranked as the No. 10 prospect in the 2014 247Sports Composite and didn’t disappoint in his first season in College Station. He started the final five games of 2014 and finished the year with 1,322 passing yards and 16 scores. Allen is entrenched as the starter this spring, but touted freshman Kyler Murray arrives this summer. Can Allen solidify his place at the top of the depth chart?

3. Revamped OL
New line coach Dave Christensen inherits a unit that returns three starters but must replace standout tackle Cedric Ogbuehi. The Aggies allowed 26 sacks last season and need to shuffle the starting five with Ogbuehi, Garrett Gramling and Jarvis Harrison leaving College Station. Center Mike Matthews is a good building block, but how will Christensen build the starting five? This spring is his first opportunity to work with this group. 

 

7. Mississippi State

2014 Record: 10-3 (6-2 SEC)

Returning Starters: Offense – 4, Defense – 3

 

Key Coaching Changes:

Manny Diaz (Defensive Coordinator)


Mississippi State’s Spring Priorities

 

1. New Faces on the OL
The Bulldogs return only four starters on offense in 2015, but quarterback Dak Prescott turned down the NFL for one more season in Starkville. Prescott’s return is huge for Mississippi State’s hopes of another 10-win season, and the focus of spring should be revamping the line to protect their senior quarterback. Three key linemen departed from the 2014 team, including standout center Dillon Day and guard Ben Beckwith. Junior college recruit Martinas Rankin should help replace left tackle Blaine Clausell.

2. Replacing Josh Robinson
Josh Robinson left Starkville for the NFL after a successful 2014 season. Robinson rushed for 1,203 yards and 11 scores last year, while Prescott was the team’s second-leading rusher with 986 yards. The battle to replace Robinson begins this spring, as Brandon Holloway, Ashton Shumpert and Aeris Williams will compete for carries.

3. Manny Diaz Returns to Coordinate the Defense
Geoff Collins left to become the co-defensive coordinator at Florida this offseason, and coach Dan Mullen turned to a familiar face to lead Mississippi State’s defense. Manny Diaz is back after leaving for Texas in 2011. Diaz will be a busy man this offseason, as the Bulldogs return only three starters and suffered significant losses at each level of the defense. This spring will be his first opportunity to find replacements for big names like end Preston Smith and linebacker Benardrick McKinney.

Teaser:
SEC West 2015 Spring Preview and Power Rankings
Post date: Tuesday, March 3, 2015 - 11:00
Path: /college-football/oregon-state-new-helmet-2015-spring-practice
Body:

Oregon State is slated to open spring practice on Tuesday, March 3, and there’s plenty of optimism surrounding the team with the hire of new coach Gary Andersen.

In addition to the new era of Oregon State football, the Beavers plan to unveil a new helmet for spring practice.

The Twitter account of Oregon State equipment’s team tweeted out this picture on Monday night of the helmets: 

Who knows how much Oregon State will wear these helmets in the regular season, but this variation (with a tip of the cap to the past) is a pretty solid look for the program.

Teaser:
Oregon State Unveils New Helmet for 2015 Spring Practice
Post date: Tuesday, March 3, 2015 - 10:34
All taxonomy terms: Fantasy Baseball, MLB, Fantasy
Path: /fantasy/2015-fantasy-baseball-rankings-catchers
Body:

Opening Day of the 2015 MLB season is less than a month away, which means fantasy baseball is just around the corner. For some leagues, drafts have already begun or will soon begin and Athlon Sports is here to help.

 

Besides providing our comprehensive Fantasy Baseball Big Board, we also have our positional rankings, courtesy of Bruce Herman. These are pulled straight from this year’s 2015 MLB Preview magazine, which is available at newsstands everywhere and for purchase online.

 

Rankings Key

A: FRANCHISE PLAYER — You need one to compete, two to win, three to dominate.

B: CAREER YEAR — Veteran with a strong possibility of delivering his best season.

C: SLEEPER — Could be a great acquisition at a price or draft slot below his true value.

D: ROADBLOCKED — Rank has been lowered because there is no current opportunity to play regularly.

E: DECLINER — Expect moderately to significantly worse stats than in 2014.

F: INJURY RISK — Has had a recent injury that could affect performance.

G: INVESTOR’S SPECIAL — Top prospect whose immediate impact may be minimal.

 

Batting stats are expressed AVG-HR-RBI-R-SB. Positional eligibility for specific players may vary depending on league, as well as other Web sites and resources.

 

2015 Fantasy Baseball Rankings: Catchers

 

TIER 1

1. Buster Posey, Giants (A)

Posey has had two torrid Junes and frosty Julys in a row, with the latter separating him from the MVP form we saw in 2012. He’s one slumpbuster pill away from being that guy again (.336-24-103-78-1) instead of the still-formidable .303-18-80-66-1 of the last two years.

2. Jonathan Lucroy, Brewers

Lucroy’s incremental progression into the catching gentry has been in lockstep with his full-season SO/BB ratios: 3.4, 2.0, 1.4, 1.1. His 2014 OPS of .837 may have been short of Posey’s, but no other qualifying backstop was within 52 points of it — hence the abbreviated Tier 1.

 

TIER 2

3. Salvador Perez, Royals

Perez’s AVG was .298 on June 30, but just .230 afterwards (including playoffs). He wore down from catching 91% of KC’s games, saw his swing compromised (MLB-high 17.3 infield pop-up rate) and flailed at anything with seams. Homers are on pace to settle in the 20s.

4. Devin Mesoraco, Reds

Dusty Baker jacked him around, but Bryan Price trusted Mesoraco, whose response was to enact the largest OPS increase in the National League (min. 300 PAs), from .649 to .893. Led all catchers with 25 HRs, but the .273 AVG is at the upper end of his capability.

5. Yan Gomes, Indians

We pointed out that Gomes would be a Tier 2er if Carlos Santana changed positions. That came to pass, and Yan’s year was a dead ringer for Perez’s. His lack of judgment is equally as dicey, but then again, Brazilians love this dish called feijoada that contains pigs’ ears.

6. Yadier Molina, Cardinals

Molina wasn’t quite the usual automaton in 2014, as he dipped to his lowest OPS since 2010. His career highs of a .319 AVG, 22 HRs and 80 RBIs will likely remain so in perpetuity, but he’s a safe option at a position with few.

 

TIER 3

7. Russell Martin, Blue Jays

The .290 AVG — up from .234 the previous five seasons — was a quirk, but a move to Rogers Centre and better health should inch the homers back into the high teens. John Gibbons has him penciled in as a No. 2 hitter, though, which would menace his RBI chances.

8. Matt Wieters, Orioles (F)

Wieters was swatting 53 points above his career AVG when he was derailed by an elbow injury and eventually Tommy Johned. He’ll be lucky to hit .260 over a full season, but 20 homers and 70 RBIs are even bets, recognizing that his workload may be reduced.

9. Wilson Ramos, Nationals (B, F)

In Ramos’ case, the term “full season” is as meaningful as it was to “Osbournes Reloaded.” He’s been sidetracked by everything from gossamer hamstrings to being kidnapped. Based on his three-year numbers, a 500-AB season would look like this: .268-21-82-51-0.

10. Jason Castro, Astros

The position’s next great offensive hope fell into a quagmire of strikeouts (one every 3.4 PAs), precipitating a 54-point AVG fall to .222. Homers in the teens, RBIs in the 50s are plausible.

11. Travis d’Arnaud, Mets (B, F)

Quietly but dramatically pulled out of a halting career launch to go .271-7-22 in his final 54 games. Had bone chips removed from his elbow in October.

12. Brian McCann, Yankees

McCann is fortunate to be playing in one of the few ballparks that keeps him roto-relevant; 19 of his 23 homers were at Yankee Stadium. Acute pull proclivities beat down his AVG to a shift-stymied .232.

13. Miguel Montero, Cubs

Made a considerable regression from his first three 400-AB seasons (.287-16-78-64-1, on average) to .237-12-57-42-0 in 2013-14. Moves to Wrigley, where’s he’s done well.

14. Wilin Rosario, Rockies (F)

Like many catchers, Rosario can only tell a ball from a strike while wearing a mask. That, the burden of his defensive struggles, and the seeming inevitability of his departure from Coors threaten to eat into the lofty power ceiling he erected with 49 homers in 2012-13.

15. Mike Zunino, Mariners

First player in history to bat below .200 with at least 150 SOs and fewer than 20 BBs while hitting more than 20 HRs. The hooks on which to hang a fantasy hat are that last stat and his perceived potential.

 

TIER 4

18. John Jaso, Rays (F)

17. Derek Norris, Padres

16. Stephen Vogt, A’s (F)

19. Francisco Cervelli, Pirates (B)

20. Yasmani Grandal, Dodgers

21. Alex Avila, Tigers (F)

22. Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Marlins

23. Tyler Flowers, White Sox

24. Nick Hundley, Rockies

25. Rene Rivera, Rays

 

TIER 5

26. Kurt Suzuki, Twins (E)

27. Josmil Pinto, Twins (C)

28. Chris Iannetta, Angels

29. Robinson Chirinos, Rangers

30. Christian Bethancourt, Braves

31. Blake Swihart, Red Sox (G)

32. Welington Castillo, Cubs (D)

33. Brayan Pena, Reds

34. Ryan Hanigan, Red Sox

35. A.J. Pierzynski, Braves

36. Carlos Ruiz, Phillies

37. Hank Conger, Astros (D)

38. Peter O’Brien, Diamondbacks (G)

39. Christian Vazquez, Red Sox

40. A.J. Ellis, Dodgers (E)

Teaser:
2015 Fantasy Baseball Rankings: Catcher
Post date: Tuesday, March 3, 2015 - 10:00
All taxonomy terms: Fantasy Baseball, MLB, Fantasy
Path: /fantasy/2015-fantasy-baseball-rankings-designated-hitters
Body:

Opening Day of the 2015 MLB season is less than a month away, which means fantasy baseball is just around the corner. For some leagues, drafts have already begun or will soon begin and Athlon Sports is here to help.

 

Besides providing our comprehensive Fantasy Baseball Big Board, we also have our positional rankings, courtesy of Bruce Herman. These are pulled straight from this year’s 2015 MLB Preview magazine, which is available at newsstands everywhere and for purchase online.

 

Rankings Key

A: FRANCHISE PLAYER — You need one to compete, two to win, three to dominate.

B: CAREER YEAR — Veteran with a strong possibility of delivering his best season.

C: SLEEPER — Could be a great acquisition at a price or draft slot below his true value.

D: ROADBLOCKED — Rank has been lowered because there is no current opportunity to play regularly.

E: DECLINER — Expect moderately to significantly worse stats than in 2014.

F: INJURY RISK — Has had a recent injury that could affect performance.

G: INVESTOR’S SPECIAL — Top prospect whose immediate impact may be minimal.

 

Batting stats are expressed AVG-HR-RBI-R-SB. Positional eligibility for specific players may vary depending on league, as well as other Web sites and resources.

 

2015 Fantasy Baseball Rankings: Designated Hitters

 

1. Victor Martinez, Tigers (A)

Martinez had an astonishing season for a two-tool player, striking out 40 fewer times than any other 30-HR hitter and becoming the third-oldest first-time member of the 30-HR/100-RBI club. Lightning won’t strike twice, but he’s still the class of the DHs. Also be wary of a slow start, as Martinez underwent surgery in early February to repair a torn meniscus in his left knee.

 

2. Nelson Cruz, Mariners (E)

The reliable gravity of baseball will work against another 40-HR/108-RBI bombshell by Cruz. Or maybe pitchers will just figure out that his OPS on non-fastballs was .720. More realistic is his 2009-13 average of 27/81.

 

3. David Ortiz, Red Sox (E)

Ortiz pulled off the rare feat of hitting 35 jacks and driving in 100 runs after his 35th birthday. Papi is more of an all-or-nothing sort now, since shifts are throwing up obstacles.

 

4. Adam LaRoche, White Sox

LaRoche, underappreciated from a power standpoint, has come up with 20-plus HRs in all nine of his 120-game seasons. A five-year AVG of .252 takes the edge off, though.

 

5. Billy Butler, Athletics

The A’s 21st century version of Billy Ball (general manager Beane and designated hitter Butler) will be measured at least in part on how this provocative signing works out. Career OPS in KC: .849; in Oakland: .759.

 

6. Chris Carter, Astros

They don’t come more entertaining than Carter, who (a) led the majors in HRs/AB (.073) and was fourth in percentage of batted balls that were infield pops (16.0); (b) had stretches of 15 HRs in 31 games, as well as none in 18 and one in 19; and (c) set a record for fewest career RBIs with 85 or more HRs.

 

7. Kendrys Morales, Royals

Kauffman Stadium doesn’t seem like the best place to resurrect the career of a 32-year-old, high-flyball/high-strikeout power hitter, but Kendrys will give it a go.

 

8. Kennys Vargas, Twins

The current game’s largest human, Vargas was, in 2014, the most recent player with at least 43 hits and 31 RBIs in his first 32 major league contests. The previous two were Albert Pujols and Joe DiMaggio. (We’ll wait while you go clean out your ears with a Q-tip.)

 

9. Mitch Moreland, Rangers (F)

A .250-ish hitter whose 20-HR possibilities (if his surgically repaired ankle is OK) have some value in AL-only leagues.

 

10. Nick Swisher, Indians (F)

Bad year, worse knees. If he can snap back from the August surgeries on both, Swisher might salvage a 10th 20-HR season, but without many trimmings.

Teaser:
2015 Fantasy Baseball Rankings: Designated Hitters
Post date: Tuesday, March 3, 2015 - 09:00
All taxonomy terms: College Basketball, News
Path: /college-basketball/most-glaring-weaknesses-college-basketballs-top-national-title-contenders
Body:

Every team has a weakness. Even Kentucky.

 

Winning and losing in the NCAA Tournament is almost always about the matchups. A bad draw or a little bad luck in the first weekend of the Tournament can turn a potential championship season into a disappointment. The key for upset-hungry teams in March will be their ability to pounce when the time is right.

 

The teams that will be among the favorites to advance to Final Four have earned that status by being balanced, sound teams on both side of the court. Only one of them can be a champion, though.

 

Here’s how things could unravel for some of the nation’s top teams.

 

Kentucky

Fatal flaw: A backcourt collapse

The nation’s only undefeated team and undisputed No. 1 has so few flaws, it’s tough to pick out the weak spots that could doom a run to the Final Four. An opponent getting ridiculously hot from 3 would seem to be a must to beat Kentucky, but how could the Wildcats beat themselves? The guards might do it. Point guard Andrew Harrison has had his lapses at times, though’s also had his share of standout games this season. The offense has run better for stretches this season with Tyler Ulis at the point, but will Calipari put his team into the hands of a 5-9 freshman in the Tournament? Kentucky’s 3-point shooting (160th nationally at 34.3 percent) and free throw shooting (100th at 71 percent) is also the only other non-elite part of the Wildcats’ game.

 

Virginia

Fatal flaw: Closing out wins

For the time being, the Cavaliers have overcome this flaw, preserving wins over Pittsburgh, Florida State, Wake Forest and Virginia Tech with ease. But there was a stretch in late January and early February where lopsided games early in the second half became more dramatic in the final seconds. This is how Virginia lost its only game of the season to Duke on Jan. 31, but even Wake Forest in Charlottesville and Virginia Tech in Blacksburg made the Cavs work to preserve a lead.

 

Duke

Fatal flaw: Defending attacking guards

The diminished depth is a major concern, though it will be less so when benches shrink in the NCAA Tournament. Instead, the biggest problem for Duke has to be problems defending guards. Notre Dame’s Jerian Grant shredded Duke’s guards earlier this season. So did Miami’s duo of Angel Rodriguez and Manu Lecomte. Virginia Tech took Duke to overtime a week ago thanks to its guards getting to the rim. Duke was a bad defensive team a year ago and got burned by Mercer in the Tournament. Could history repeat itself?

 

Villanova

Fatal flaw: Rebounding

Villanova isn’t necessarily an undersized team — particularly by Villanova standards — but the Wildcats aren’t a big team, either. The 6-foot-11 Daniel Ochefu is the only regular taller than 6-7. He averages 8.3 boards per game. Every regular is 6-2 or taller and top guard Darrun Hilliard is 6-6. Yet Villanova ranks 115th in offensive rebound rate and 160th in defensive rebound rate on KenPom.com.

 

Arizona

Fatal flaw: Scoring from its stars

Arizona won’t play many games tougher than the Wildcats’ win in Salt Lake City on Saturday night. Utah’s a great defensive team, but Arizona should still wonder if it can score enough to make it to the Final Four. Freshman Stanley Johnson went 3-of-19 from the field, which would be a footnote if not for Arizona’s struggles a week ago against UCLA. In that game, Gabe York and Dusan Ristic came off the bench to bail out the starters in a 57-47 win over the Bruins. 

 

Wisconsin

Fatal flaw: Frontcourt depth

Good thing Frank Kaminsky never gets into foul trouble. Wisconsin has proven that it can keep winning even without its starting point guard, but surviving any absence of Kaminsky would seem to be slim. Kaminsky is the only player on the roster taller than 6-9. That said, Kaminsky foul trouble is a true rarity. He hasn’t played with more than three fouls in a game all season.

 

Gonzaga

Fatal flaw: Free throw shooting

Gonzaga has one of the most balanced and efficient offenses in the country, making it all that more baffling that the Bulldogs can’t hit free throws. Gonzaga is converting only 69.8 percent of free throws this season, raking 150th nationally. 

Teaser:
Fatal Flaws for College Basketball National Title Contenders
Post date: Tuesday, March 3, 2015 - 08:30
All taxonomy terms: NASCAR, Overtime, News
Path: /nascar/seriously-spongebob-your-newest-nascar-title-sponsor
Body:

Who lives in a pineapple under the sea?

 

The next sponsor of a NASCAR Sprint Cup race, that’s who.

 

Brace yourself. This is not a joke. The NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Kansas Speedway on May 9 will be dubbed the SpongeBob SquarePants 400 as part of Nickelodeon’s sponsorship.

 

It’s true. This is a press release.

 

The race, to be broadcast on Fox Sports 1, will feature “a weekend of Bikini-Bottom-themed activities and un for the entire family.”

 

Wonder if they’ll serve Krabby Patties.

 

Also worth noting the president of Kansas Speedway is named Patrick. Again, no joke.

 

“I’m excited to partner with Nickelodeon for the SpongeBob SquarePants 400 on May 9,” said Patrick Warren, Kansas Speedway President. “This is a great opportunity for us to engage SpongeBob fans of all ages to racing with a great partner.”

 

 

Teaser:
Seriously, SpongeBob is your Newest NASCAR Title Sponsor
Post date: Monday, March 2, 2015 - 17:26
All taxonomy terms: Luke Donald, Golf
Path: /golf/top-30-golfers-2015-majors-no-27-luke-donald
Body:

They’re the cream of the major championship crop, circa 2015 — 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. 27: Luke Donald

Born: Dec. 7, 1977, Hemel Hempstead, England | Career PGA Tour Wins: 5 (7 on European Tour) | 2014 Wins (Worldwide): 0 | 2014 Earnings (PGA Tour): $1,451,440 (72nd) World Ranking: 44

Brandel Chamblee's Take

Donald was once the number one player in the world and in 2011 was the first player to lead both the PGA and the European Tour money lists, but in spite of all the success he had and money he won, he met criticism for never having a chance to win a major late on Sunday. Perhaps it was that criticism, or maybe it was his desire to get longer off the tee, but Luke jettisoned his long-time teacher Pat Goss for Jason Dufner’s teacher Chuck Cook, but the changes never took, so Luke is back working on familiar ideas and as such should return to his winning ways. At his best he possesses one of the top three deadliest combinations of wedge play and putting of this era to go with an elegant golf swing that will make him a winner once again in 2015.

Major Championship Résumé
Starts: 41
Wins: 0

2014 Performance:
Masters - Cut
U.S. Open - Cut
British Open - T64
PGA Championship - T40

Best Career Finishes: 
Masters - T3 (2005)
U.S. Open - T8 (2013)
British Open - T5 (2009, 2012)
PGA Championship - T3 (2006)
Top-10 Finishes: 8
Top-25 Finishes: 15
Missed Cuts: 16

—Brandel Chamblee is lead analyst for the Golf Channel. Be sure to follow him @ChambleeBrandel on Twitter.

 

Athlon's 2015 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, Billy Horschel, also takes you tee to green with full-swing instruction and short game essentials. BUY IT NOW.

Teaser:
Post date: Monday, March 2, 2015 - 17:11
All taxonomy terms: Phil Mickelson, Tiger Woods, Golf
Path: /golf/tiger-and-phil-end-era
Body:

Is this the end?

 

There are many pressing questions facing golf in 2015 — Can Rory complete the career Grand Slam? Is Michelle Wie for real? Will Ian Poulter’s next Ferrari be red or white? — but the biggest unknown by far is whether the Tiger and Phil era is, in fact, over. Last season marked the first time in nearly two decades that neither Woods nor Mickelson won a professional tournament. Tiger will be 40 in December, and his body has broken under the strain of his obsessive workout routine and a lifetime of grinding on the range. (In fact, he’s been at it for so long his age should probably be measured in dog years.)

 

Woods will arrive at Augusta (we presume) nearly seven calendar years removed from his last major championship victory, a drought that has extended through what should have been the prime of his career. He will be attempting to become the first player ever to win a Masters with four different swings. Tiger ended 2014 at 32nd in the World Ranking, but such is his cult of personality that CBS analyst David Feherty recently said: ”It would surprise me if, by the end of this season, he’s not No. 1 in the world again. The only mistakes I’ve ever made with Tiger Woods are underestimating him. If you think he can’t do that, well, he kind of thinks he can.”

 

Mickelson is an arthritic 44-year-old who looked strangely disinterested for most of the 2014 season. He found a little inspiration at the PGA Championship and could have salvaged his year with a victory, but he looked drained coming down the stretch, bogeying the 70th hole to open the door for McIlroy. Yet Mickelson, like Woods, has towered over the game for so long that we can’t quit him, either. Phil spent the offseason dropping 20 pounds and has rejiggered his early-season schedule to be fresher for Augusta and his continued, quixotic quest to win a U.S. Open. According to Mickelson’s wife, Amy, Phil has not lost the belief that has sustained him through some of the most heart-wrenching defeats of the modern era. “He’s the most positive person in the world,” she says. “He’ll be working on some part of his body that’s been injured, and I can tell he’s uncomfortable, but he’ll say, ’I’m fine. I feel great — best shape of my life.’ The thing is, he tells himself that so much he really believes it.”

 

Do either or both of these proud champions have one last run in them to put an exclamation point on their Hall of Fame careers? The mind says no but the heart can’t resist hoping for a yes.

 

• • •

 

Tiger and Phil grew up in middle-class Southern California suburbia, separated by 100 miles but linked by their talent — both were prodigies from the earliest age. Older by five and a half years, Mickelson loomed over Woods’ early golfing life. “Phil was an icon to us,” says one of Tiger’s friends from junior golf, Chris Riley, who would also go on to a career on the PGA Tour.

 

Woods’s late father Earl always received most of the credit for his son’s competitive spirit, but it was mom Tida who sharpened Tiger’s killer instinct. With her, it was personal. Any player who was as accomplished as the young Tiger was considered not just a competitor but a threat. So as Woods chased Mickelson’s numerous junior records, he was imbued with a certain disdain for a flashy counterpart he barely knew.

Tiger is still Tiger. And Phil is still Phil. Is that enough any more? We'll find out for sure this year.

All these years later Tiger and Phil are still measuring themselves against each other. Woods’s career achievements — 14 major championships and 79 PGA Tour victories — are untouchable, but Tiger is keenly aware that since his last major win (2008 U.S. Open) Phil has nabbed a Masters and a British Open. What hurts just as much is that Mickelson has repeatedly outplayed him in head-to-head matchups, notably the 64-75 thrashing on Sunday at the 2012 AT&T Pebble Beach, which was Mickelson’s 40th career victory. A decade ago, Mickelson had a question he loved to trot out in press conferences: “If Tiger is the best player of all time and I start beating him regularly, what does that make me?” Woods has many motivations to keep pushing for a return to glory, but surely he doesn’t want to be eclipsed by his old rival in the last act of his career.

 

Meanwhile, Mickelson remains motivated by the pursuit of the one thing he seemingly can’t have. His entire 2014 season was reduced to a single tournament: the U.S. Open at Pinehurst, where 15 years earlier he had begun his ritualistic heartbreak at the national championship. This year’s venue is Chambers Bay, a quirky neo-links in Tacoma, Wash. Since it’s never hosted a professional tournament, it’s hard to say for sure what kind of player Chambers favors, but it’s a big, rollicking ballpark that will be more generous off the tee than most Open venues and will demand more creativity around the greens. Sounds about right for Mickelson, no?

 

The highlight of the summer will be a return to St. Andrews, where Woods has won two of his three British Opens, in 2000 and ’05. This famous auld sod used to be his private playground, but Tiger long ago stopped being a sure thing there, or anywhere else. Last year he hit rock-bottom, with a serious back injury and related maladies limiting him to seven tournaments, only two of which he lasted for the full 72 holes. In an attempt to regain his old mojo, he has gone back to the future, hiring someone named Chris Como as swing “consultant” to help him refashion his swing into something close to what it was in the halcyon days of his youth. (Woods’ goal has always been to “own” his swing, and thus he prefers the verbiage of the business world — consultant — as opposed to “coach,” which would imply that he actually has something to learn.) At the World Challenge in December 2014, Woods gave the golf world a sneak peek at his action, and the reviews were guardedly optimistic, as he seemed to be swinging with more freedom and conviction.

 

Of course, the story of that week was his shocking chip-yips. Woods chalked up his struggles around the greens to rust, but by all reports he was wedging it beautifully in the practice rounds. The stunning yippiness continued during early-season starts at Phoenix and Torrey Pines, and it was baffling and more than a little sad to watch Woods duff, blade, chunk, skull and chili-dip chip after chip. Woods withdrew midway through the second round at Torrey, citing "deactivated" glutes. This became the butt of endless jokes, which masked a larger problem: Tiger had quit again. Shortly thereafter he announced he was taking a sabbatical to work on his game — and, presumably, his mind — without millions of fans and critics passing judgment. For Woods to cry uncle and flee tournament golf was the most graphic evidence yet that for all the questions about his body, his biggest problems are metaphysical.

 

During his heyday, Woods could hit any shot and he putted better than anybody ever has, but what separated him from everyone else came from his heart and his head. His belief in himself was absolute, and unshakeable. Under pressure he was the clearest thinker and the most resilient. Success begat success. But Woods is a different person now. His sense of self was destroyed after suffering through the most public humiliation of the Internet age. Being between the ropes used to be his sanctuary, but suddenly he was all alone out there, on display for the masses to pass judgment. The bulletproof confidence has been blasted away by repeated defeats large and small.

 

Meanwhile, a new generation has risen, minus the scar tissue that came with the repeated beatings Woods dished out around the turn of the century. Rory McIlroy, a once-in-a-lifetime talent on par with Woods and Mickelson, attacks and overwhelms golf courses with an insouciance that is utterly foreign to his aging rivals. Despite the pyrotechnics of a myth-making victory at the 1997 Masters, Woods always favored precision over power. His game plans became more conservative in the post-hydrant era, as he seemed increasingly afraid of the big miss with his driver. In 2014 his average clubhead speed with the big stick was 115.63 miles per hour. If he had recorded enough attempts to officially qualify for the stat, Woods would have ranked 55th on Tour — right above Mickelson, who was at 115.62. Woods’ diminished power is part of a larger decline in a game that is no longer as well suited for the major championships, with their more exacting conditions. The trajectory of his irons became significantly lower in the Sean Foley years, just as he became shakier over short putts.

 

Woods will never again be the player he was. Even if he can find some form close to that impossible standard, the competition is much stronger than when he was vacuuming up major championship victories. Mickelson used to be the only player who was even close to Woods, talent-wise. Now, the 25-year-old McIlroy is already four-fifths of the way towards Phil’s career total of majors, and he’s only getting better and more confident. Tiger forged his legend at The Masters, winning three of his first six as a pro, but in the last decade he’s won only one more while Mickelson snagged three. And yet neither can still be considered the current King of Augusta — that honorific title goes to Bubba Watson, who has won two of the last three with an unbeatable combination of power and finesse.

 

In 2013, as defending champ, Watson was asked if he was the favorite to win the Green Jacket. He shook his head no and anointed a figure from the past. “He’s still Tiger Woods,” Watson said. And Phil Mickelson is still Phil Mickelson. Is that enough anymore? The 2014 season hinted at an answer. We’ll find out for sure this year.

 

This article appears in the 2015 edition of Athlon Sports Golf annual, on sale now. Order your copy here.

 

 

Teaser:
Post date: Monday, March 2, 2015 - 16:41
Path: /nba/james-harden-kicks-lebron%E2%80%99s-groin-mvp-statement-game
Body:

March, the month when football’s fully asleep and baseball is still reaching for the alarm clock, is when the NBA really starts to take off.

 

James Harden seemed to understand that yesterday, delivering a sizziing, MVP-caliber performance as his Houston Rockets beat LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers, 105-103, in a Texas overtime thriller on national television.

 

Through The Beard’s 35-point performance — including eight assists, five rebounds, three steals and two blocks — there was a lot of his usual hypnotic power games in the half-court. But Harden, as he has all season, showed an extra amount of swagger in this game, like when he did this to LeBron:

 

And, oh yeah — he also made a little wine when he (accidentally?) kicked James in his grapes:

 

LeBron, for his part, was no scrub. He dropped 37 points and tallied eight of his own assists, to go with three blocks and three steals. But Houston got the win, and the glory, for the day. They also probably got a little ahead of themselves in the P.R. department, and celebrated the victory with this doozy of a tweet:

 

While both players are strong MVP candidates, Harden might have earned himself a lead over Steph Curry, Russell Westbrook and the rest of the pack with this iconic showing. While LeBron is still the best player in the game, no one has done as much for a contending team as Harden has for the Rockets this year. at 41-18, they’re the league’s fourth-best team despite Dwight Howard missing about half the season to injury.

 

A lot of that has to do with a much-improved defense, featuring versatile wing athletes like Corey Brewer, Trevor Ariza and Josh Smith. But the Houston offense would be lost without Harden, their superstar, who has been the engine for virtually every possession he’s on the floor. 

 

— John Wilmes

@johnwilmesNBA

Teaser:
Post date: Monday, March 2, 2015 - 14:22
All taxonomy terms: AL East, American League, Tampa Bay Rays, MLB, News
Path: /mlb/tampa-bay-rays-2015-preview-and-prediction
Body:

Just like that, they were gone — David Price, Andrew Friedman, Joe Maddon and Wil Myers, a fab four who, seems like yesterday, were considered the pillars of the franchise. The ace, the architect, the skipper, the hotshot — all departed in five months’ time as the Rays reeled from their first substandard season since 2007. And the upheaval didn’t stop there, as the double-play combo of Ben Zobrist and Yunel Escobar were shipped to Oakland in January.

 

GM Friedman’s departure to the Dodgers in October, followed by Maddon’s stunning contractual opt-out as manager 10 days later, altered the trajectory of the financially stressed franchise. Its fate now lies chiefly in the hands of former team president Matt Silverman and one-time Tampa Bay catcher Kevin Cash. Silverman, as GM/president of baseball operations, says he’s simply assuming the controls of a “well-oiled machine.” Tasked with sparking an on-field mechanism that sputtered and stalled last season is Cash, the majors’ youngest manager at 37. Lacking both impact bats and the speed to manufacture runs, he must find a way to slam it back into gear with one of the game’s five best rotations, a passable bullpen and an expectation that the defensive pendulum will swing back from dreadful to decent.

 

Rotation

The Rays have used only 23 different starting pitchers since 2008 (10 fewer than any other AL team), and they’re well positioned to sustain that stability. Even with the ace (Price) dealt off the top of the deck, there’s talent in spades. Last spring’s Tommy John surgery for Matt Moore (who was being groomed to replace Price), plus the regression and subsequent trade of Jeremy Hellickson, further thinned the herd, but the vacuum has been filled. Alex Cobb is the new, and deserved, rotation-topper. Flinging “The Thing” — his splitter-changeup hybrid — he’s posted two sub-3.00 ERAs in a row. With more run support and without two extended trips to the DL, he’d be a household name by now. Quirky Chris Archer has the best stuff and highest ceiling on the staff. “I’m not even close to my potential,” is his accurate self-assessment despite a fine 3.32 ERA in 59 career starts. The Rays found themselves a ringer in the Price trade, landing Drew Smyly, who was the better pitcher after the deal — 3–1, 1.70 ERA to Price’s 4–4, 3.59. Jake Odorizzi ran hot and cold as rookie, though he reinforced expectations of a bright future. He’s a flyball pitcher who thrived at commodious Tropicana Field (2.62 ERA there, 6.32 on the road). Moore is expected back in June, by which time the club hopes that either Nate Karns or Alex Colome will have established himself firmly enough to pose a positive dilemma.


Bullpen

There was a shocking development in December, when it was revealed that closer Jake McGee had undergone surgery to remove loose bodies from his elbow. There are a lot of bodies on the loose trying to replace him. The favorite is Brad Boxberger, who mixes a 93 mph fastball with a hard cutter and a 13 mph-slower change-up. Doing masterful bridge work in 2014, he would have set the AL record (min. 50 IP) for strikeouts per nine innings at 14.47 had not Andrew Miller averaged 0.4 more. McGee’s return circa May will give the Rays the lone reliever last year to have thrown 1,000 pitches at 95 mph-plus. The rest of the pen is a jumble to be sorted out in March. Aspirants include deposed closer Grant Balfour, three former Angels (Kevin Jepsen, Ernesto Frieri and Steve Geltz), two young hopefuls (Kirby Yates and Burch Smith), the loser of the No. 5 starter derby and a pair of LOOGYs (Jeff Beliveau and C.J. Riefenhauser).

 

Middle Infield

The Rays were in full see-what-sticks-to-the-wall mode after signing Asdrubal Cabrera just before New Year’s and then trading Zobrist and Escobar to the A’s a few weeks later. Cabrera now is tasked with filling the big shoes of the steady and reliable Zobrist, whose multi-positional versatility also will be missed. A two-time All-Star, Tampa Bay is hoping there’s some more juice left in Cabrera’s bat, although his numbers over the past few seasons say otherwise. At shortstop, while being a high-maintenance guy who sometimes has motivational issues, Escobar provided good defense. Now the Rays will turn to a committee that includes Nick Franklin, jack-of-all-trades Logan Forysthe and star-crossed former No. 1 overall draft pick Tim Beckham as Escobar’s replacement. Clearly, there’s housekeeping to be done.

 

Corners

Third baseman Evan Longoria and first sacker James Loney are the team’s two best hitters and among the cream of their craft defensively. Although Longo is coming off his sketchiest season, he looks positively Ruthian in a lineup that includes no other player who hit more than 10 home runs last year. Loney is well defined as a reliable wellspring of hard-hit balls, few of which threaten fences. He was the only major league qualifier in 2014 who didn’t have a hitless streak of more than 10 at-bats.

 

Outfield

Two years ago, Myers was supposed to be the missing mid-order thumper. He was found deficient in both thump and makeup, and moved in an 11-player blockbuster that yielded Steven Souza — he of the ridiculous diving catch for the final out of Jordan Zimmermann’s no-hitter. The late-to-blossom 25-year-old tore through four minor league levels the last two years, showing an array of average-to-plus tools — a potential 20-20 man if he makes enough contact. Souza and Kevin Kiermaier will most often staff the corners. The latter has few peers with the glove but batted only .224 in his last 39 games. Desmond Jennings starts in center for a fourth season, still showing no signs of being anything more than serviceable.

 

Catching

The Rays bit on Rene Rivera’s career year, getting him in the Myers deal after he compiled a .751 OPS (230 points above his previous career level) as a 30-year-old in San Diego. He’s excellent defensively, and whatever he hits will amount to more than the embarrassing black hole of 2014 co-starters Jose Molina and Ryan Hanigan. Tampa Bay also acquired John Jaso in the Zobrist-Escobar deal with Oakland to not only provide a left-handed option behind the plate and insurance in case Rivera’s 2014 offensive showing was a fluke, but also to see plenty of time at DH.

 

DH/Bench

The Rays’ DH options include Jaso, who is more than capable of getting on base (career OBP of .359), as well as excess corner outfielders David DeJesus and Brandon Guyer). DeJesus is more “pro” than productive, while Guyer is a tweener who does most things fairly well, but nothing well enough to play every day. The rest of the depth chart can be deciphered only after the expected trade or two, though it wouldn’t be a Rays bench without a cache of interchangeable parts.

 

Management

A once-archetypal administration drifted away from its formula in recent years, misevaluating prospects, misappropriating salary by overpaying replacement-level vets and wasting a windfall of high draft picks. When the ship began taking on water in 2014, nine-year partners Friedman and Maddon bailed, replaced by Silverman and Cash, respectively. There will be no seismic shift in the team’s small-market business plan, but the Rays have lost ground. In the face of abysmal attendance and a freshly eviscerated payroll, it will be an intricate challenge for the young button-pushers to reclaim relevance and refurbish the farm system.

 

Final Analysis

A roster with a lot of moving parts is usually an objective for the versatility-obsessed Rays, but the term took on a different meaning this past offseason as the team scrambled to fill holes without digging even more. The frenetic winter smelled like an effort to reposition the organization for the future while hoping for no worse than a zero-sum impact on the field. The offensive outage went unrectified, and the bullpen had been thinned by injury and inexperience. A last-place finish in the AL East would be less surprising than a first, but no other team has exactly cornered the division. Such parity could find Tampa Bay orbiting the .500 mark.

 

2015 Prediction: 5th in AL East

 

Projected Lineup

CF       Desmond Jennings (R)     One of two players in 2014 to toil 1,000 or more defensive innings without committing an error.

DH/C  John Jaso (L)           Only major-leaguer acquired in the Zobrist-Escobar deal with Oakland, carries a career OBP of .359.

3B       Evan Longoria (R)   Tied for the major league lead in OPS against curveballs at 1.135.

1B       James Loney (L)     Ranked third in the American League with a 26.6 line drive percentage.

LF       Steven Souza (R)     20th player to be named International League MVP and Rookie of the Year in the same season.

RF       Kevin Kiermaier (L) Set a club record for most extra-base hits (12) in a player’s first 21 major league contests.     

C         Rene Rivera (R)       In only 89 defensive games at catcher, threw out the second-most runners (33) in the NL with the Padres.

2B       Asdrubal Cabrera (S)         Leads active second basemen (200+ games) with a .994 fielding percentage.

SS       Nick Franklin (S)      Homered 12 times in his first 279 major league at-bats, but only once in 171 trips since.

 

Bench

OF       David DeJesus (L)  Owns career stolen base percentage of 51.2 — easily the lowest among active players with 100 attempts.

INF      Logan Forsythe (R) Only player in 2014 to start at five positions and in all nine spots of the batting order.

OF       Brandon Guyer (R)  Despite just 259 at-bats, got down a team-leading seven of the Rays’ 20 bunt singles in 2014.

INF      Tim Beckham (R)    No. 1 overall pick in 2008 has eight career major-league plate appearances on his resume.

 

Rotation

RH      Alex Cobb      Made 12 straight starts of two or fewer runs, matching the third-longest AL streak of the past century.

RH      Chris Archer Allowed fewest HRs per 9 IP (0.55) ever by a qualifying Rays pitcher.

LH       Drew Smyly   Owns 6–0 ledger with 1.47 ERA in 20 career games versus other teams in the AL East.

RH      Jake Odorizzi            Led major league qualifiers with 4.21 pitches thrown per plate appearance and 18.0 per inning.

RH      Nate Karns   Tied for the strikeout lead (153) among all Triple-A pitchers in 2014.

 

Bullpen

RH      Brad Boxberger (Closer)    Established Tampa Bay record with 104 relief strikeouts last year.

RH      Kevin Jepsen           Finished second in the American League with 65 scoreless appearances in 2014.

RH      Grant Balfour            Has appeared in more games (448) than any other AL hurler since 2008.

RH      Alex Colome Owns Rays-record 1.30 ERA in his first six major league starts (2013-14).

RH      Ernesto Frieri           Ranked 10th in the majors with 71 saves between May 23, 2012, and June 9, 2014.

LH       Jeff Beliveau Limited left-handed hitters to six hits in 41 at-bats for a .146 average.

 

Beyond the Box Score

Cash is money New skipper Kevin Cash is no stranger to the World Series — at lower levels. He played in the College World Series for Florida State and as Tampa Northside’s second baseman in the Little League World Series. “It was like riding this gigantic wave,” he recalls of the latter. “You wish it lasted forever.”

Bad medicine Rays fans will miss Joe Maddon’s shenanigans — such as when he summoned a medicine man to expel the evil spirits from Tropicana Field last June. With the team having sunk to the worst record in baseball, Maddon brought in Bobby Henry — a Seminole Tribal elder known as The Rainmaker — to reverse the voodoo. “I don’t think it’s real bad,” was the 77-year-old’s verdict after patrolling the premises. But in fact, it got worse; the team dropped its next two games to make it 14 defeats in 15 tries. Maddon kept an open mind. “If it rains in the Trop I’ll be really impressed,” he told the Tampa Tribune. “That will be his best moment ever.”

Wrong number Desperate for runs in July, Maddon tried another gambit. Playing in Detroit on the third, the eccentric skipper fielded his “Tommy Tutone” lineup, ordering his batters by their defensive positions: 867-5309. Tampa Bay managed two hits in an 8–1 loss.

Roc star The Rays could have been much different over the past decade had Rocco Baldelli’s immensely promising career not been undermined by a disease that caused rapid-onset, severe fatigue. After two seasons of looking like a five-tool, potential 30-30 guy, the “Woonsocket Rocket” spent six more years mustering aborted comebacks. In 2015, after four years of serving the organization in various capacities, he will be — at 33 — the team’s first base coach.

Gag order There’s an ongoing debate among baseball’s number-crunchers as to whether “clutch” hitting really exists. Real or random, it did not exist in Tampa Bay last year. The Rays led the majors with 1,193 runners left on base, 13 of whom were stranded in scoring position as the potential tying/winning run in the ninth inning of home games. They scored a runner from third base with less than two outs less than half the time, and hit the fewest home runs (eight) in “close-and-late” situations by any team in 22 years.

 

2014 Top Draft Pick

Casey Gillaspie, 1B

The Rays attempted to halt a long string of draft whiffs by selecting a presumably safe college bat in Gillaspie at 20th overall. The brother of Conor Gillaspie, he’s a different animal than the contact-focused White Sox third baseman. Far more oriented toward the home run and the walk, he ranked fifth in the NCAA with 15 of the former and led with 58 of the latter for Wichita State in 2014. “He’s made the way you want a big-leaguer to be made,” says scouting director R.J. Harrison. Gillaspie made a sound first impression at short-season Hudson Valley with seven homers and 42 walks in 71 games, but his .262 batting average and 65 strikeouts illumined the holes in his swing. The switch-hitter is expected to be stationed at an A-ball outpost this season.

 

Top 10 Prospects

1. Daniel Robertson, SS (21) The key piece in the Ben Zobirst-Yunel Escobar trade with Oakland, Robertson immediately becomes Rays’ No. 1 prospect. At Class A Stockton last season, he hit .310 with 15 homers and 60 RBIs.

2. Willy Adames, SS (19) By the time the Rays got him in the David Price trade, Adames had surfaced as an elite prospect. “The capability to play in an All-Star Game,” said Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski.

3. Steven Souza, OF (25) Shredded Triple-A pitching with an 1.022 OPS last year while stealing 26 bases and playing plus defense.

4. Adrian Rondon, SS (16) The most highly ranked (No. 1 in 2014 by some accounts) and most expensive international prospect club has ever signed. His ceiling: Hanley Ramirez with a better glove.

5. Justin O’Conner, C (23) Might have the best arm strength/pop time parlay in the minors. Bat caught up last year (35 doubles in 399 ABs), but there’s too much swing-and-miss to hit for average.

6. Brent Honeywell, RHP (20) Drafted 72nd out of a junior college in 2014. Used a mid-90s fastball, a screwball, deception and a head for his trade to flummox rookie league hitters.

7. Alex Colome, RHP (26) Stuff plays at the upper end of the system, but has yet to prove he has the fastball command and durability to start every fifth day. May make the staff as a reliever.

8. Casey Gillaspie, 1B (22) One of only three college hitters the club coveted with its No. 1 pick last summer. Has plus power; would have led the NCAA Division I in OBP if HBPs didn’t count.

9. Andrew Velazquez, 2B (20) Set minor league record by reaching base in 74 straight games before arriving from Arizona in the Jeremy Hellickson deal.

10. Ryan Brett, 2B (23) Pedroia-like size and bat-to-ball skills, and is faster, but with nowhere near the strike zone discrimination or hands. 

Teaser:
Tampa Bay Rays 2015 Preview and Prediction
Post date: Monday, March 2, 2015 - 13:00
Path: /mlb/toronto-blue-jays-2015-preview-and-prediction
Body:

When the Kansas City Royals reached the playoffs last season after a 29-year absence, it put Toronto on the clock. The Jays’ postseason drought, at 21 years, is now the longest in the four major North American sports leagues. The Jays acted aggressively to stop it two years ago, without success, but this winter they doubled down on their core, adding to it with a five-year deal for catcher Russell Martin and an inspired trade for All-Star third baseman Josh Donaldson. There’s no excuse for the Blue Jays to miss the party again. 

 

Rotation

The Blue Jays’ rotation was expected to be a weakness last season, but it turned out to be a source of stability. They do not have a true ace, but they had five starters who earned at least 11 victories apiece, and by trading J.A. Happ to Seattle in December, they opened a spot for top prospect Aaron Sanchez. In Marcus Stroman, Drew Hutchison and Sanchez, they seem to have found long-term building blocks, with Daniel Norris coming up right behind. The Blue Jays valued their young pitchers so highly that they passed on the chance to trade them for more obvious veteran upgrades at the trading deadline. As it turns out, they need those pitchers now, to slot in behind — or eventually, perhaps, in front of — veterans R.A. Dickey and Mark Buehrle. Dickey is the majors’ reigning knuckleball master, and while he’s unlikely ever to repeat his 2012 Cy Young Award season with the Mets, he’s still durable at 40, and nobody likes to face him. Buehrle, 36, is the epitome of consistency; he started fast last season, but by the end, his stats wound up where they always do.


Bullpen

Toronto had one of the worst bullpens in the majors last season, with a 4.09 ERA that ranked 25th in the major leagues. The left side, though, is fairly settled, with Aaron Loup and former All-Star Brett Cecil, who averaged 12.8 strikeouts per nine innings last season. The right side is less settled, with Todd Redmond and Marco Estrada capable of giving length, although Estrada is prone to surrendering the long ball. Manager John Gibbons said in December that righty Steve Delabar, like Cecil a 2013 All-Star, remained in the mix despite spending much of last season back in the minors. Chad Jenkins pitches to contact, a risky approach, but managed a 2.56 ERA in 21 games last season.

 

Middle Infield

Jose Reyes returns for his third season with the Jays, and while he’ll never be as electric as he was for the Mets, he remains, at 31, one of the game’s best shortstops. Reyes had a .726 OPS last season, the highest of all qualifying AL shortstops. Ryan Goins is in position to take over at second base, but his lackluster 2014 major league performance (.188 average) gives an opportunity to Devon Travis, 24, who came over from the Tigers. The Blue Jays think highly of Travis, who had an .817 OPS at Class AA Erie. Veteran Maicer Izturis, coming off knee surgery, also has a shot.

 

Corners

It’s no coincidence that Toronto’s season turned when Edwin Encarnacion hurt his right quadriceps on July 5. The Blue Jays were just a half-game out of first then, and when Encarnacion returned on Aug. 15, they were seven-and-a-half back. Encarnacion is perhaps the majors’ most obscure elite hitter, a monster power threat who also finds a way to put the bat on the ball consistently in an era of high strikeouts. He split his time last season between DH and first base, where he started 78 games. With Adam Lind gone now, Encarnacion will share time with Justin Smoak, the former Seattle first baseman who gets another chance to harness the power that never really broke out with the Mariners. Across the diamond is Donaldson, a skilled defender with power who replaces the talented but injury-prone Brett Lawrie in a trade with the A’s. The Jays have four years of contractual control over Donaldson, who is 29 and blossomed as a hitter with the A’s after studying film of the Jays’ Jose Bautista. Donaldson’s WAR has ranked second only to Mike Trout over the last two seasons.

 

Outfield

The Blue Jays swallowed hard in February 2011 when they committed $64 million through 2015 (plus a 2016 option) to Bautista, who had failed to distinguish himself with four other teams and had enjoyed just one strong season. Now, the deal looks like a steal, because Bautista has become a consistent offensive machine, with the combination of power and plate discipline that every team craves. His modest (for a superstar) salary has also made it easier for the Blue Jays to add around him, although mostly in areas other than the outfield. Toronto plans to try the untested Dalton Pompey in center. Pompey, who rocketed from Class A to the big leagues last season, will be expected to show excellent range in center field. Pompey was expected to complement Michael Saunders, who was acquired in a left trade from Seattle. But Saunders tore cartilage in his knee after stepping on a sprinkler head shagging fly balls in spring training and is expected to miss at the first few weeks of the season, at minimum. Following Saunders' injury, the Blue Jays signed Dayan Viciedo, who hit 21 home runs with the White Sox last season, as insurance.

 

Catching

The Blue Jays struck early in free agency, elbowing out the Dodgers and the Cubs for the services of Martin, who agreed to a five-year, $82 million contract to play in his home country. The Blue Jays’ marketing department loves the fact that Martin is Canadian, but for the baseball operations folks, the move was all about the player. The Jays targeted Martin for his skills behind the plate — framing borderline pitches, blocking balls in the dirt — but also for his leadership, which will be pivotal. The Jays believe Martin has gotten back to the hitter he was in his early years with the Dodgers, with a swing that sprays balls to all fields and refined plate discipline that led to a .402 on-base percentage last season. Josh Thole is a backup with the important asset of familiarity with Dickey’s knuckleball.

 

DH/Bench

Dioner Navarro, displaced at catcher, could fit as the primary DH as a switch-hitter who batted .274 last season and had a .365 OBP for the Cubs in 2012. The Blue Jays could also use Smoak, after claiming him on waivers, non-tendering him but then quickly re-signing him for $1 million. Izturis, who can play second, short and third, was limited to 11 games in 2014 due to injury. Kevin Pillar, who hit .323 in the minors last year, could be the fourth outfielder.

 

Management

General manager Alex Anthopoulos enters his sixth season with the Blue Jays, and fans can’t question his desire to build a winner. Anthopoulos has used a solid farm system to build a team that is relevant again, but he kept an eye on the future last summer by holding onto his best prospects. The signing of Martin shows that Anthopoulos still believes in this core, and the trade for Donaldson was another go-for-it move that could help the Jays this year and beyond. Gibbons, a popular players’ manager, returns for the third season of his second dugout tour with the team. Gibbons has always had a close bond with Anthopoulos, but without a contract for 2016, it would be good for his job security to guide an improved roster to the playoffs.

 

Final Analysis

With most teams struggling to score these days, the Blue Jays’ deep and powerful offense should set them apart from the pack. They improved it over the winter while managing to strengthen their shaky defense in several spots. The Jays’ staff lacks many in-their-prime performers, but the rotation has some pitchers with youthful promise. If one or two break out as stars, and the bullpen does its job, it’s reasonable to expect the Blue Jays’ first AL East championship since 1993.

 

2015 Prediction: 2nd in AL East (Wild Card)

 

Projected Lineup

SS       Jose Reyes (S)        Led big-league shortstops in hits (175) and times on base (214).

C         Russell Martin (R)   Blue Jays love his leadership, pitch-framing and all-fields swing.

RF       Jose Bautista (R)    Only one active player, Alex Rios, has more career games without a postseason appearance.

1B       Edwin Encarnacion (R)      Only player to hit 30 homers while striking out fewer than 85 times in each of last two seasons.

3B       Josh Donaldson (R)           Top 10 in MVP voting two years in a row; he brings power and defense to Jays.

DH      Justin Smoak (L)     For a player with one tool, power, his slugging percentage was a meager .339 for Seattle in 2014.

LF       Michael Saunders (L)         Prone to injury, but hit 19 homers with 21 steals as recently as 2012.

2B       Ryan Goins (L)        Just one error in 241 chances last season, but didn’t hit at all.

CF       Dalton Pompey (S) Jays hope to ease in the speedy Ontario native in the No. 9 spot in the order.

 

Bench

C         Dioner Navarro (S) Hit .301 in DH role for Jays last season; will see time there if not traded.

C         Josh Thole (L)          Adept at catching R.A. Dickey’s knuckleball, and he hit a solid .248.

2B       Devon Travis (R)      Turns 24 in spring, so time is right to bring power/speed combo to majors.

INF      Maicer Izturis (S)      Missed nearly all season after surgery to repair torn ligament in left knee.

OF       Kevin Pillar (R)         May compete with Pompey for the job in center, though he’s spent most of his big-league time in left.

 

Rotation

RH      R.A. Dickey    Veteran knuckleballer went 6.0 innings or more in 19 of last 20 starts.

LH       Mark Buehrle            Durable southpaw is the fastest-working pitcher in MLB at 17.3 seconds between pitches.

RH      Marcus Stroman      Allowed a 53.8 percent ground ball rate and just six home runs in 20 starts.

RH      Drew Hutchison       Only American League pitcher to beat division-champ Orioles three times.

RH      Aaron Sanchez         Will get a chance to start, but Jays know he can be an asset in pen, too.

 

Bullpen

LH       Brett Cecil (Closer)             Ended season with longest scoreless streak of any AL pitcher (19.2 IP).

LH       Aaron Loup   Led the major leagues in inherited runners, with 66, and stranded 51.

RH      Steve Delabar          The 2013 All-Star struggled with control and split season between Class AAA and majors.

RH      Todd Redmond       His 75 innings led all Jays who pitched only in relief last season.

RH      Chad Jenkins           Fractured his right hand during batting practice in September.

RH      Marco Estrada          Prone to the home run ball; profiles as long man/spot starter/trade bait.

 

Beyond the Box Score

Wins, but no playoffs If you think it’s rare for a non-playoff team to have five pitchers with double-digit victories, you’re correct. The 2014 Blue Jays became the first team with that dubious distinction since the 2006 Chicago White Sox. The sting couldn’t have felt quite so bad for that Sox team, because it had won the World Series the year before.

Oh, Canada! The Blue Jays announced their signing of Russell Martin with a press release written in English and French. Martin, of course, went to high school in Montreal and will have broad national appeal to Blue Jays fans. And he’s not alone — Michael Saunders was acquired to play left field, and Dalton Pompey has a chance to win the job in center this year, which would give the Jays by far their most Canadian-flavored lineup ever. Other Canadians who have played for the team include Matt Stairs, Paul Quantrill, Corey Koskie, Rob Ducey and the departed Brett Lawrie.

The shortstop of steel Jose Reyes wears a cutoff Superman T-shirt under his uniform most games, and he showed up last season with a more permanent salute to his favorite superhero: a Superman logo tattooed high up on his chest, right at the base of his neck. The tattoo is in full color — red S, yellow background, red border. Reyes has also been known to wear Batman and Spider-Man gear if the mood strikes.

Buehrle and Cy Mark Buehrle is known for consistency, durability and control. He’s never won a Cy Young Award (in fact, he’s received votes in only one season, 2005), but he has a streak that is almost unmatched in baseball history. Buehrle has gone 14 seasons in a row with more than 200 innings and 61 walks or fewer. The only other pitcher in history with a streak that comes close to those criteria is Cy Young himself, who did it from 1897-1909.

New hitting coach After losing Kevin Seitzer to the Braves, the Blue Jays hired another 1980s third baseman, Brook Jacoby, to be their hitting coach. Jacoby, who made two All-Star teams for Cleveland, was the Reds’ hitting coach from 2007-13 and a minor league instructor for the Rangers in 2014. He is the Jays’ fourth hitting coach in four years and says, “I’m not going to try to make a big splash in the water. Just let the guys know that I’m here for them.”

 

2014 Top Draft Pick

Jeff Hoffman, RHP

Hoffman’s career at East Carolina ended last spring when he needed Tommy John surgery, but his confidence remained intact. “Whatever team takes the so-called risk and drafts me is going to get the best player in the draft,” he told the New York Times, a few days before Toronto scooped up him up with the ninth overall pick. A 6’4” righthander, he has a drop-and-drive delivery and profiles as a top-of-the-rotation starter. Hoffman’s fastball has touched 98, and he adds a heavy sinker, a decent slider and improving changeup. The surgery kept him out last summer, but he was throwing off flat ground in the fall and should be back in action by midseason. Hoffman would seem to be on track to make an impact in Toronto in 2016.

 

Top 10 Prospects

1. Daniel Norris, LHP (21) He had a 5.40 career ERA before a breakout 2014 that ended in Toronto. In the minors, he struck out nearly 12 per nine innings with mid-90s fastball and sharp slider.

2. Aaron Sanchez, RHP (22) Offered tantalizing glimpse of the future with strong bullpen cameo for Jays (1.09 ERA in 33 innings), but he’s a starter for the long term.

3. Dalton Pompey, OF (22) Has made a dramatic improvement in recent seasons and will have a chance to play every day in 2015.

4. Roberto Osuna, RHP (20) Returned to action last summer after Tommy John surgery; Jays hope he regains mid-90s fastball and feel for changeup.

5. Jeff Hoffman, RHP (22) Dominated in the Cape Cod League before his junior season at East Carolina. Still went No. 9 overall after undergoing Tommy John surgery.

6. Max Pentecost, C (22) Drafted two slots behind Hoffman in the first round in 2014; hit over .300 in two minor league stops but needed labrum surgery in October.

7. Franklin Barreto, SS (19) Jays gave him a $1.45 million bonus out of Venezuela in 2012, and he hit .311 with 29 steals at short-season Vancouver last year.

8. Devon Travis, 2B (24) Acquired from Detroit for Anthony Gose, he’s a good contact hitter with some power and speed who could easily win starting job at second base.

9. Richard Urena, SS (19) Toolsy athlete and lefty bat who hit .318 for rookie-level Bluefield last season.

10. Miguel Castro, RHP (20) Generates strikeouts and groundballs consistently, and will work on secondary pitches at High-A this season.

Teaser:
Toronto Blue Jays 2015 Preview and Prediction
Post date: Monday, March 2, 2015 - 12:30
Path: /college-football/south-carolina-coach-steve-spurrier-joins-twitter-internet-rejoices
Body:

College football coaches use Twitter accounts for various reasons, and some are better follows than others.

However, the Internet rejoiced on Monday, as South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier joined Twitter. Who knows how Spurrier will use this account, but he’s one of the best quotes in college football and perhaps this will produce a few gems along the way.

 

The Ol’ Ball Coach can be followed at Twitter.com/@SC_HBC

Here’s proof of Spurrier’s account:

And of course, Spurrier's Twitter account generated some fun conversation:

Teaser:
South Carolina Coach Steve Spurrier Joins Twitter, Internet Rejoices
Post date: Monday, March 2, 2015 - 12:12
All taxonomy terms: MLB, News
Path: /mlb/five-american-league-players-new-teams-watch-2015
Body:

Fear not baseball fans — Sunshine and warmer weather are on their way, and spring training is knocking on Old Man Winter’s door. Thankfully, it is almost time for baseball, as camps are in full gear in Arizona and Florida.

 

Many players are getting acclimated to new spring training surroundings, as these past few months proved to be busy for general managers, agents and players alike. Between blockbuster trades and free agents signing robust contracts with new teams, there has been no lack of player movement this offseason.

 

Lucky for you, Athlon Sports has kept a close watch on the MLB Hot Stove while you’ve been shoveling snow. So get your pencils and scorebooks ready as we list the Five American League Players on New Teams to Watch in 2015.

 

Related: Five National League Players on New Teams to Watch in 2015

 

Hanley Ramirez, OF, Boston Red Sox

Yes, you read that correctly — Hanley Ramirez, outfielder. Fenway Park’s Green Monster in left field is now Ramirez’s responsibility, which is somewhat perplexing since Hanley has never played outfield — ever. The Boston Globe reports that Hanley has bulked up to 240 pounds, which seems excessive for his slender 6’2 frame, but whatever keeps Ramirez in the lineup will certainly be welcomed by the Red Sox.

 

Ramirez has struggled to stay healthy in recent years, playing in over 150 games just once in the past four seasons. When Ramirez has been healthy, he’s been outstanding. In just 86 games in 2013, Ramirez hit .345/.402/.638 with 20 homers and 25 doubles. With the Marlins in 2009, Hanley was second in MVP voting as he led the NL in batting, posting a robust .342/.410/.543 slash line, hitting 24 homers, 42 doubles, with 106 RBIs.

 

The Red Sox have made Ramirez a key ingredient in their rebuild after their 2014 first-to-worst slide, signing the Dominican native to a four-year, $88 million contract. Ramirez is just one the fresh faces in Boston that also includes new additions Pablo Sandoval, Wade Miley and Rick Porcello. The Sox hope that with Ramirez’s new, fine-tuned figure, he’s able to return to the player he was for the Marlins, a three-time All-Star, two-time Silver Slugger, MVP candidate, and 2006 NL Rookie of the Year.

 

If HanRam can remain fit for duty, look for him to park a few long balls over the Monster in left field — and then have no clue how to play the giant green wall on defense.

 

Nelson Cruz, DH/OF, Seattle Mariners

Cruz was the steal of last winter when he signed a one-year deal with the Orioles for $8 million. Cruz went on to have a career year, hitting 40 homers, 32 doubles, and knocking in 108, as the O’s clinched their first AL East title since 1997.

 

Cruz was seen to be a risky signing in 2014 as he was coming off his suspension for his connection with the Biogenesis scandal. Since the suspension, Cruz has shown contrition and done well for himself, signing a four-year, $57 million dollar free-agent contract with the Mariners this winter. The M’s desperately needed a bat in a lineup that ranked 27th in doubles, 19th in runs scored, 19th in RBIs, and 15th in home runs in 2014.

 

Cruz spent a lot of his time in Texas (2006-13) splitting time between corner outfield spots and DH. Similar to his time in Baltimore, Cruz won’t be playing in the field. Cruz’ job will be simple, drive in runs and hit the ball out of Safeco Field — no easy task.

 

The Mariners know what they are getting in Cruz, as his career numbers have been generally consistent over his 10-year career. The question is how will the rest of Seattle’s lineup develop around Cruz’ big bat? The addition of Cruz could very easily help All-Star third baseman Kyle Seager reach yet another level and lead to more pitches for Robinson Cano to crush into the short porch in right field. Our eyes will be locked on the Emerald City this summer as the Mariners push for their first AL West crown since 2001.

 

Yoenis Cespedes, OF, Detroit Tigers

The last nine months have been a wild ride for Cespedes.

 

Last July, Cespedes won his second straight Home Run Derby crown and was becoming a household name for his cannon throws from left field, gunning down runners at the plate from the depths of O.co Coliseum. On the July 31 trade deadline, A’s GM Billy Beane shocked the baseball world by trading the Cuban outfielder to the Red Sox for Jon Lester — typical Beane.

 

Cespedes put up marginal numbers in Boston, including a .240/.296/.423 slash line and only five homers and 33 RBIs in 51 games, making him expendable during the Red Sox' facelift this past winter. On Dec. 11, Red Sox GM Ben Cherington pulled the trigger on a trade with the Tigers, landing starting pitcher Rick Porcello and sending Cespedes to Motown.

 

Cespedes is now part of a Tigers lineup that features aging stars Victor Martinez and Miguel Cabrera, both of whom are recovering from offseason surgery, a starting rotation that lost Max Scherzer and Porcello, and also is banking on Justin Verlander to return to 2011 form, and a Tigers bullpen that ranked 27th in ERA in 2014.

 

This 2015 Tigers team is not the same squad that won four straight AL Central titles. Unless names like Nick Castellanos, Anthony Gose, and J.D. Martinez can produce, the Tigers will have a hard time competing with the likes of the Royals and White Sox later in the summer. If for some reason the Tigers are once again in the postseason hunt come September, Cespedes will be a major reason why.

 

Jeff Samardzija, RHP, Chicago White Sox

If you are still debating whether or not Samardzija should have picked the NFL over playing baseball, you've missed his transition into a certifiable top of the rotation hurler.

 

The righthander known as Shark was traded to the A’s last July along with fellow Cubs pitcher Jason Hammel, as part of Billy Beane’s effort to make a deep October run. The trade between Oakland and the Cubs sent A’s top prospect and Athlon’s No. 4 overall prospect, Addison Russell, to the Windy City.

 

Since Theo Epstein & Co. took over the Cubs' front office four seasons ago, there was always a disconnect between Samardzija and the brass. Shark wanted a long-term deal worth top-end money, while the Cubs liked Samardzija but were hesitant to sign him long term.

 

After being traded to Oakland, Samardzija pitched admirably. In 16 starts for the A's, Samardzija had a 3.14 ERA with 99 strikeouts and a 0.931 WHIP. Beane, in his constant state of wheeling and dealing, dealt Samardzija back to the place where his major-league career began — Chicago. But this time, Shark would be pitching on the Southside. Samardzija became an integral part of Chicago’s Executive VP/President of Baseball Operations, Kenny Williams’, personal episode of Extreme Makeover: White Sox Edition.

 

Samardzija is now featured at the top of a Sox staff that includes ace lefty stud Chris Sale and newly acquired closer David Robertson, along with new faces in the field: Melky Cabrera and Adam LaRoche to complement Cuban sensation Jose Abreu. The White Sox are now in prime position to overthrow the Tigers as kings of the AL Central and Shark is a big reason why.

 

Didi Gregorius, SS, New York Yankees

The one person in all the world that is genuinely excited about Alex Rodriguez back in Yankee pinstripes is Didi Gregorius. You might be asking yourself — who is Didi Gregorius?

 

And why is he happy A-Rod is back?

 

Gregorius is the shortstop replacing Derek Jeter, and he is really, really happy A-Rod is back. Rodriguez’s return means less spotlight on the Captain’s replacement as he gets antiquated to baseball’s biggest stage, Yankee Stadium — which probably makes skipper Joe Girardi happy too.

 

Once all the Rodriguez hoopla dies down, all eyes in New York will be on Gregorius. Every at-bat, every ground ball to short, every strikeout, error, and base hit will be compared to that of Jeter. It’s unfair, but also inevitable.

 

Gregorius was originally signed by the Reds in 2007 as a free agent from Amsterdam — yes, baseball is played in the Netherlands, too. He spent the previous two seasons in the Diamondbacks' organization where he appeared in 183 games. Gregorius’ bat is a work in progress. His best year was in 2013 where he appeared in 108 games, batting .256/.313/.366 with 16 doubles, 28 RBIs, 7 HRs, and 37 walks. Defensively, Gregorius is considered average to below average in terms of defensive runs saved or prevented — but that’s okay, so was Derek Jeter.

 

What Gregorius does have going for him (maybe), is his age and he is inexpensive. At 26, he is four years younger than the second-youngest player expected to be a regular for the Yanks (Chase Headley) and is making approximately $500K this season. Maybe that is enough to save him from the New York media on a Yankee team that is a long shot to make the postseason — but probably not.

 

Welcome to the Bronx Zoo, Didi.

 

- by Jake Rose

Teaser:
Five American League Players on New Teams to Watch in 2015
Post date: Monday, March 2, 2015 - 12:00
Path: /college-basketball/west-virginias-non-conference-schedule-could-impact-mountaineers-ncaa-tournament
Body:

As the regular season comes to an end West Virginia currently sits in a three-way for third place in the Big 12 with two games remaining. The two-game gap between the Mountaineers and Kansas means WVU still has a shot a share of the Big 12 regular season title. At 22-7 overall, the Mountaineers are guaranteed to hear their name called on Selection Sunday. However, most projections, including USA Today, still have the Mountaineers as a No. 6 seed. The question is why?

 

Although the Mountaineers sit at 10-6 in arguably the toughest basketball conference in the nation, their RPI is still 22. The problem WVU is facing now is not something it can fix, at least not this season. WVU currently has a non-conference strength of schedule ranking of 227. It should be noted that its non-conference RPI is 9. Unfortunately, there are teams the Mountaineers have played that have not helped the cause in the least and I think everyone knows where I am going with this.

 

After the Marshall game, WVU coach Bob Huggins expressed his feelings regarding the yearly series with the in-state rival. He stated that it was not beneficial to play them and it looks as though he was correct. Marshall currently boasts an RPI of 299, making the Thundering Herd the worst team WVU has played this season. While many felt Huggins’ rant was solely in response to Marshall head coach Dan D'Antoni, it is now obvious his statements regarding the series are valid no matter the reasoning. Huggins did go on to say that he would like his team’s non-conference schedule to consist of teams that were ranked in the RPI’s top 100.

 

WVU still has the opportunity to improve its seeding moving forward with games against the aforementioned Jayhawks and Oklahoma State remaining before the Big 12 Tournament. However, some early non-conference games have hurt the Mountaineers. Don't get me wrong, the Wofford and NC State wins are big resume builders as NC State is looking like an NCAA Tournament team and Wofford finished the season at 25-6 and is favored to get the Southern Conference’s automatic bid by winning its tournament. However, there’s still reason for the Mountaineers to be somewhat concerned based on these earlier non-conference matchups and the current RPI of those teams:

 

Marshall (W 69-66) RPI 292

Northern Kentucky (W 67-42) RPI 267

College of Charleston (W 86-57) RPI 295

Monmouth (W 64-54) RPI 189

 

Looking at the overall body of work, WVU has a very impressive resume with five wins over teams that appear poised to make the NCAA Tournament. However, it is now clear that Huggins had a valid point regarding the Mountaineers’ non-conference schedule. The Mountaineers are also just 4-7 against the RPI top 50 this season. The only team with a higher RPI and a worse record against the RPI top 50 is North Carolina at 3-8.However, the Tar Heels have the second-toughest schedule in the nation, while the Mountaineers’ strength of schedule sits at 40.

 

— Written by Jeremy Simon, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and editor-in-chief of BlueGoldSports.com, a must visit for any and all West Virginia Mountaineer fans. Follow BlueGoldSports.com on Twitter @Blue_GoldSports.

Teaser:
West Virginia's Non-Conference Schedule Could Impact Mountaineers' NCAA Tournament Seed
Post date: Monday, March 2, 2015 - 11:30
Path: /college-football/sec-east-2015-spring-preview-and-power-rankings
Body:

Spring practice is already underway for a handful of college football teams, and the offseason workouts and scrimmages provide the first glimpse of how all 128 teams will look in 2015.

 

Georgia is the early favorite in the SEC East for 2015, but the Bulldogs will be pushed by Florida, Missouri and Tennessee. The Volunteers are a team on the rise under coach Butch Jones, while the Gators have the talent to rebound in coach Jim McElwain’s first year. The Tigers have key personnel losses to address, but coach Gary Pinkel’s team always seems to find the right answers to reload the roster.

What are the key questions and storylines shaping each SEC East’s roster and outlook for 2015? Let’s take a quick look at the seven teams and the priority list for each coach. 

 

SEC East Spring Preview and Storylines to Watch
 

(Teams listed by pre-spring power rank)

 

1. Georgia

2014 Record: 10-3 (6-2 SEC)
Returning Starters:
Offense – 6, Defense – 6

Key Coaching Changes:

Brian Schottenheimer (offensive coordinator)

Rob Sale (OL coach)
Thomas Brown (RB coach)

 

Georgia's Spring Priorities


1. Quarterback Battle
New play-caller Brian Schottenheimer doesn’t need to overhaul the offense with Nick Chubb leading the way at running back, but the Bulldogs have question marks in the passing game. Who will replace Hutson Mason at quarterback? Will it be Brice Ramsey (24 of 39 for 333 yards last year)? Or will Faton Bauta or Jacob Park push for the job this spring?

2. Who Emerges at WR?
The Bulldogs are losing their top two receivers (Chris Conley and Michael Bennett) from last year. If Malcolm Mitchell can stay healthy, he could be one of the top receivers in the SEC. While Mitchell and tight end Jeb Blazevich are solid targets, Georgia needs a few more playmakers to emerge this spring.

3. Development of the Secondary
Georgia’s secondary entered last season with plenty of question marks but allowed only 10 touchdown passes in SEC contests. This unit loses only two key players from the 2014 depth chart and the overall experience and snaps in coordinator Jeremy Pruitt’s defense should help the secondary improve in 2015. How will this unit replace cornerback Damian Swann after he earned second-team All-SEC honors last year?
 

 

2. Missouri

2014 Record: 11-3 (7-1 SEC)
Returning Starters: Offense - 6, Defense - 6

 

Key Coaching Changes:

 

Barry Odom (defensive coordinator)

Ryan Walters (Safeties coach)

 

Missouri’s Spring Priorities


1. The Next Standouts at DE?
Missouri consistently produces standouts at end under line coach Craig Kuligowski. Will that trend continue in 2015? The odds are in the Tigers’ favor, but this is a big spring for Marcus Loud, Charles Harris and Rocel McWilliams. Junior college recruit Marcell Frazier will arrive this summer.

2. New Targets for QB Maty Mauk
In his first season as a starter, Maty Mauk had his share of ups and downs. Mauk completed only 48.9 percent of his throws in SEC games but also limited his interceptions to just four over the final seven contests. How much will Mauk improve this offseason? It’s critical for the junior to take the next step for Missouri to contend in the East.

3. New Receivers
Bud Sasser, Jimmie Hunt and Darius White all depart, leaving Nate Brown (five receptions) and Wesley Leftwich (three receptions) as the top returning wide receivers. Mauk’s development could be tied to how quickly Missouri can reload in the receiving corps.
 

 

3. Tennessee

2014 Record: 7-6 (3-5 SEC)
Returning Starters: Offense – 9, Defense – 8

Key Coaching Changes:

 

Mike DeBord (offensive coordinator)


Tennessee’s Spring Priorities


1. Improving the OL
Tennessee allowed 43 sacks in 13 games last season. But there’s reason for optimism in 2015 with the return of four starters and improved depth. How much will this group progress? This spring will provide the first glimpse for coach Butch Jones.

2. Development of QB Joshua Dobbs
New coordinator Mike DeBord is tasked with getting quarterback Joshua Dobbs to the next level in his development. Dobbs threw for 1,206 yards and nine touchdowns and rushed for 469 yards and eight scores over the final six games. If the junior takes another step forward this offseason, he should be in the mix for All-SEC honors in 2015.

3. Next Step on Defense
After allowing 6.1 yards per play in SEC-only contests in 2013, the Volunteers lowered that number to 5.4 in 2014. With eight starters back, it’s possible Tennessee takes another noticeable jump in defensive production. End Derek Barnett is one of the nation’s rising stars at defensive end, and the addition of tackle Kahlil McKenzie is another example of how the team’s talent level has improved under coach Butch Jones.  

 

 

4. Florida

2014 Record: 7-5 (4-4 SEC)
Returning Starters:
Offense – 4, Defense – 7

Key Coaching Changes:

Jim McElwain (head coach)
Doug Nussmeier (offensive coordinator)
Geoff Collins (defensive coordinator)
Randy Shannon (co-defensive coordinator, LB coach)


Florida's Spring Priorities


1. Quarterback Battle
Treon Harris started the last six games as a true freshman last season and passed for 1,140 yards, nine scores and 10 picks. Can he build on his freshman campaign or will he be pushed for time by redshirt freshman Will Grier?

2. Rebuilding the OL
While the quarterback position will garner most of the offseason storylines, the offensive line could be a bigger problem spot for Florida in 2015. Only one starter (Trip Thurman) is back, as this unit must replace center Max Garcia, left tackle D.J. Humphries, guard Tyler Moore and tackle Chaz Green. How will this unit jell in the spring?

3. Replacing Dante Fowler
With seven starters back, the defense should once again be the strength of this team. But the Gators have one critical void to address, as end Dante Fowler left early for the NFL. Fowler led the team with 8.5 sacks and 15 tackles for a loss in 2013.  

 

 

5. South Carolina

2014 Record: 7-6 (3-5 SEC)
Returning Starters: Offense – 4, Defense – 6

Key Coaching Changes:
 

Jon Hoke (Co-defensive coordinator)


South Carolina’s Spring Priorities


1. QB Battle
Dylan Thompson departs after guiding South Carolina to a 7-6 record in his only full season as the starter. Sophomore Connor Mitch (2 of 6 in 2014) holds the inside track to replace Thompson, but the battle in Columbia is far from finished. Can Perry Orth, Michael Scarnecchia or incoming freshman Lorenzo Nunez unseat Mitch this offseason?

2. Restock the OL
South Carolina has significant personnel losses at each offensive unit. But the offensive line might have the biggest shoes to fill with the departure of standouts Corey Robinson (LT) and A.J. Cann (guard). Could Brandon Shell flip from right tackle to the left side?

3. Finding Answers on Defense
South Carolina’s defense ranked 12th in the SEC by allowing 30.4 points per game in 2014. Coach Steve Spurrier is turning to a familiar face in Jon Hoke to find some answers this spring. Six starters are back from last season, and a handful of young players should benefit from another spring to develop. Improving the pass rush and secondary will be two areas of specific focus for Hoke.
 

 

6. Kentucky

2014 Record: 5-7 (2-6 SEC)

Returning Starters: Offense – 6, Defense – 6

Key Coaching Changes:

Shannon Dawson (offensive coordinator)
Andy Buh (OLB coach)

 

Kentucky’s Spring Priorities


1. Replacements at Defensive End
Mark Stoops and coordinator D.J. Eliot have some major renovations ahead at end this spring. Gone are Za’Darius Smith and Bud Dupree, two standout performers who recorded 12 of Kentucky’s 27 sacks last season. Junior college recruit Alvonte Bell could help, but he won’t arrive until this summer. Expect junior Jason Hatcher to play a key role in replacing Dupree and Smith.

2. Patrick Towles
In his first full season as the starter, Towles threw for 2,718 yards and 14 scores and added 303 yards and six touchdowns on the ground. Can he take the next step in his development this spring? Redshirt freshman Drew Barker was a touted prospect from the 2014 signing class and will have a chance to push for the job this offseason.

3. Improvement on the OL
Only one team (Tennessee) allowed more sacks in SEC games than Kentucky last season. The Wildcats gave up 27 sacks in eight games and must replace left tackle Darrian Miller this spring. This is a big spring for returning starters Zach West, Jon Toth, Ramsey Meyers and Jordan Swindle to build chemistry for 2015.

 

 

7. Vanderbilt

2014 Record: 3-9 (0-8 SEC)

Returning Starters: Offense – 8, Defense – 9

 

Vanderbilt’s Spring Priorities


1. Find a Quarterback
New coordinator Andy Ludwig inherits an offense that managed only 12.8 points per game in SEC contests. Improving the offense starts with finding a quarterback. The Commodores aren’t hurting for options under center, as three players have started a game and Shawn Stankavage is ready to push for time after a redshirt year. Can Ludwig settle on a clear No. 1 passer?

2. Development at WR
New receivers coach Cortez Hankton opened spring practice looking for more playmakers. With inconsistency at quarterback, evaluating the Vanderbilt receiving corps isn’t easy, but only two receivers – C.J. Duncan and Latevius Rayford – caught more than 20 passes in 2014. Can young players like Caleb Scott, Ronald Monroe, Rashad Canty and Trent Sherfield emerge as threats to help Duncan and Rayford in 2015?

3. Derek Mason’s Defense
In addition to his duties as the head coach, Derek Mason is now Vanderbilt’s defensive coordinator. That’s a lot on Mason’s plate, but as his tenure at Stanford showed, he’s one of the nation’s top defensive signal-callers. With Mason having a full spring to work with a unit that returns nine starters, how much can the Commodores’ defense improve in 2015?

Teaser:
SEC East 2015 Spring Preview and Power Rankings
Post date: Monday, March 2, 2015 - 11:30
All taxonomy terms: Essential 11, Overtime
Path: /overtime/athlons-essential-11-links-day-march-2-2015
Body:

This is your daily links roundup of our favorite sports and entertainment posts on the web for March 2:

 

This slideshow of NASCAR WAGs shows that drivers take a back seat to no one in the hot significant others department.

 

• MVP candidates getting testy: James Harden nailed King James right in the plums.

 

The Duke student newspaper broke a blockbuster story regarding the basketball program.  Coach K will not be pleased.

 

• It's March, meaning it's a good time to let KenPom count down the most tense NCAA Tournament games since 2010.

 

Here are the 30 Nicest Guys on the PGA Tour. I can personally vouch for No. 2.

 

Colleague David Fox lays out the smorgasbord of sports options on Netflix.

 

Marshawn Lynch shared his thoughts on The Call with the media. The Turkish media.

 

Watch Ronda Rousey's latest title defense. Trust me, you have time. Just don't blink.

 

Meditations on the passing of three cultural icons.

 

Longform read from Charles Pierce on Tark the Shark.

 

Nationals second sacker Danny Espinosa has an insane 'stache.

 

• Shades of Shaq: NIU center Pete Rakocevic destroyed a goal yesterday.

 

-- Email us with any compelling sports-related links at [email protected]

Teaser:
Post date: Monday, March 2, 2015 - 11:29

Pages