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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.

 

After claiming a Heisman Trophy and reaching the national championship game, the Oregon Ducks likely enter the season as the Pac-12 North Division favorites. But it's not nearly as clear-cut as years' past, as Cal, Stanford and Washington could all be improved from a year ago. Oregon State and Washington State don't appear to be particularly scary with new quarterbacks but both coaches are among the most respected in the country.

 

Pac-12 North Spring Preview and Storylines to Watch
 

(Teams listed by pre-spring power rank)

 

1. Oregon

2014 Record: 13-2 (8-1 Pac-12)
Returning Starters: Offense – 7, Defense – 5

 

Ducks' Spring Priorities


1. How good is Vernon Adams?
Some may not like the transfer trend but no one can deny it won’t be fascinating to watch a player who dominated his level try to run the most exciting offense in the sport. Vernon Adams posted huge numbers for Eastern Washington but replacing Marcus Mariota is a different task altogether. Adams won't practice with Oregon this spring, which means Jeff Lockie and Morgan Mahalak will get the majority of the snaps with the No. 1 offense. Although the job is considered to be open, Lockie and Mahalak are keeping the No. 1 spot warm until Adams arrives.

2. Find some defensive backs

Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, Troy Hill and Erick Dargan were all selected to either the first- or second-team All-Pac-12 team a year ago. All three are gone and Mark Helfrich needs to find capable replacements. Reggie Daniels and Tyree Robinson are extremely talented but the depth chart needs to be developed around the two safeties.


3. Support DeForest Buckner

The defensive line and front seven also is replacing plenty of star power. DeForest Buckner returns as the most experienced player on the line but he needs a supporting cast. The good news is Oregon’s style of substitutions lends itself to replacing bodies easily. Can Tui Talia, Alex Balducci, Joe Walker and Rodney Hardrick step into starring roles this spring?

 

2. Stanford

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

 

Cardinal's Spring Priorities


1. Reorder the defensive line
Last year, Stanford lost its defensive guru in Derek Mason. This year, it loses all three defensive line starters, including two All-Pac-12 picks in Henry Anderson and David Parry. The Cardinal always have bodies and are always coaching them up, but Luke Kaumatule, Harrison Phillips, Aziz Shittu (out this spring due to injury), Solomon Thomas and Nate Lohn need to settle into a rotation.

2. Find some defensive backs
Much like the defensive line, the secondary was hit hard by departures. Two All-Pac-12 picks in Jordan Richards and Alex Carter are gone as well as Wayne Lyons and Kyle Olugbode. That means Stanford is replacing four of the top five tacklers in the secondary. Zach Hoffpauir is an excellent player to build around but could depart in favor of baseball. David Shaw needs to find capable bodies for the back end of his defense.

3. Get Kevin Hogan to the next level

Losing wide receiver Ty Montgomery and left tackle Andrus Peat is going to hurt, but this offense is in great shape. The O-line could be one of the nation’s best, the backfield and tight end position are stacked (sound familiar?) and Hogan is entering his 112th season as the starter. Hogan has sneaky good athletic ability and generally protects the football. However, he has never taken the final step in his development. If he can do that this spring and become a star under center, Stanford could return to the Rose Bowl.

 

3. Washington

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


Huskies' Spring Priorities


1. Find playmakers in the front seven
This unit was hit as hard as any in the league with the departure of All-Pac-12 picks Danny Shelton, Hau’oli Kikaha, Shaq Thompson and John Timu. Few teams in the nation could sustain losses like those and maintain the same level of production but that is what Chris Petersen needs to do this spring up front on defense. Good luck.

2. Replace the pivot and tackles
The offensive line will lose starters at both right and left tackle as well as two guys who combined for 18 starts at center and guard (Colin Tanigawa, Mike Criste). Needless to say, this group needs some work this spring. Dexter Charles, Siosifa Tufunga and Coleman Shelton combined for 20 starts last season (mostly at guard) and are quality pieces to build around. However, the two tackles and center are more important positions and all three must be replaced.

3. Continue to develop Cyler Miles

Miles entered the starting lineup with lofty expectations last fall. While he didn’t turn the ball over (four INTs) and was fairly efficient (66.6 percent), Miles never seemed to take control of the game. He showed promise with his legs too but for Washington to survive the personnel losses this offseason, Miles must become a bigger star in the offense. If not, keep an eye on K.J. Carta-Samuels or true freshman Jake Browning. 

 

4. Cal

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

Key Coaching Changes:
Brandon Jones (OL), Jacob Peeler (WR)


Golden Bears' Spring Priorities


1. Continue to build defensive depth chart
This sounds overly simple, especially for a team returning the majority of its defensive two-deep, but this unit was so bad — 121st in total defense — that no one area is an overriding concern. It's the whole thing. The entire unit needs an extreme makeover with the capable Art Kaufman overseeing the process.

2. Restock the secondary
Three safeties departed in Michael Lowe, Bryce McGovern and Avery Sebastian. Stefan McClure and Griffin Piatt both return, but in a league known for throwing the football, developing depth at the back end should be a primary area of focus for the Bears.


3. Plug holes up the middle
This offense returns a near-4,000-yard passer, a 1,000-yard rusher and half-a-dozen talented pass-catchers. It also returns three-fifths of the offensive line too. The only real holes that need plugging are at center and right guard. This offense should only continue to improve once the O-line settles into position. 

 

 

5. Oregon State

2014 Record: 5-7 (2-7)
Returning Starters: Offense – 7, Defense – 2

Key Coaching Changes:
Gary Andersen (HC), Kalani Sitake (DC), Dave Baldwin (OC)


Beavers' Spring Priorities


1. Replace Sean Mannion
The only quarterback on the roster who attempted a pass for the Beavers last year was rising sophomore Luke Del Rio. He will get the first chance to replace the ultra-productive, but sometimes maddening, Sean Mannion. Seven different players are likely to take snaps this spring but the former Alabama walk-on and son of Oakland Raiders head coach Jack Del Rio is the odds on front-runner.

2. Organize the defensive front
Three starters and four of the top six defensive linemen have departed, so the first line of defense clearly needs to be rebuilt. Lavonte Barnett and Jaswha James return but totaled just 34 tackles combined in 2014. At linebacker, the three leading tacklers are gone as well. Look for Gary Andersen and company to focus on the front seven on defense this spring. Losing six out of seven starters is extremely difficult to overcome.

3. Get to know your depth chart

This may sound like a cop out but Andersen’s primary order of business this spring is to learn what he has on his roster. Learn the players' strengths and weaknesses and determine how they fit into his system. It’s a simple concept but one that cannot be overlooked for a new head coach.

 

6. Washington State

2014 Record: 3-9 (2-7)

Returning Starters: Offense – 7, Defense – 2

 

Key Coaching Changes:

Alex Grinch (Defensive Coordinator)
 

Cougars’ Spring Priorities


1. Decide if Luke Falk is the answer
Connor Halliday had his weaknesses but he also posted huge numbers and fit the Air Raid attack extremely well. Luke Falk got plenty of reps a year ago when Halliday got hurt (243 att.) and should be the obvious front-runner to take over. However, don’t expect Mike Leach to show his cards until he has to.

2. Find a No. 1
The team’s top two receivers, Vince Mayle and Isiah Myers, are gone. There are plenty of names returning who got plenty of snaps and Leach churns out productive pass-catchers like he does history books. Still, this offense needs to find a No. 1 go-to target on the outside. It could be River Cracraft, Dom Williams, Robert Lewis, Gabe Marks, Tyler Baker or Calvin Green. You get the point.

3. Find playmakers on defense

There is a lot returning on the defensive side of the ball for Wazzu, as Leach played a lot of bodies on this side of the ball last year. That said, the unit wasn’t overly productive — ranking 97th nationally in total defense. Worse is the inability to get the ball back, as WSU forced an NCAA-worst eight total takeaways. Leach needs to find defenders who can make big plays on defense.

Teaser:
Pac-12 North 2015 Spring Preview and Power Rankings
Post date: Thursday, March 5, 2015 - 11:00
Path: /college-football/pac-12-south-2015-spring-preview-and-power-rankings
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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 Pac-12 South Division was viewed by some as the best in college football a year ago. At this stage of the year, it's not unreasonable to predict five of the six teams to be ranked in the preseason. A legit case could be made for any of the top four — USC, Arizona State, UCLA, Arizona — to win the division. Buckle up, it's going to be a fun year out West.

 

Pac-12 South Spring Preview and Storylines to Watch
 

(Teams listed by pre-spring power rank)

 

1. Arizona State

2014 Record: 10-3 (6-3)
Returning Starters: Offense – 6, Defense – 7

 

Sun Devils' Spring Priorities


1. Replace both tackles
Jamil Douglas and Tyler Sulka started all 13 games at both left and right tackle respectively last year. Both have moved on and will need to be replaced this spring. The rest of the offensive line is in excellent shape but filling voids on the edge will be critical for Todd Graham and company. There are no concerns about Mike Bercovici under center so keeping him upright is imperative.

2. Find a true No. 1 receiver

Jaelen Strong was a beast for the Sun Devils on the outside and his size and production will need to be replaced somehow. Expect D.J. Foster to play more of hybrid role again with names like Cameron Smith, Eric Lauderdale, Frederick Gammage, Ellis Jefferson and Gary Chambers looking to step into more prominent roles on the offense. The emergence of Demario Richard and Kalen Ballage should help push Foster into open space.


3. Fill specific gaps on defense

A year removed from replacing nine All-Pac-12 defensive players in one offseason, Graham now has the luxury of returning most of his defense. With the exception of first-team, all-league safety Damarious Randall and honorable mention, all-league end Marcus Hardison, this unit is intact. If Graham is able to fill those two gaps this could be one of the best defenses in the league.

 

2. USC

2014 Record: 9-4 (6-3)
Returning Starters: Offense - 7, Defense - 7

 

Coaching Changes:

Bob Connelly (OL)

 

Trojans' Spring Priorities


1. Rebuild the front seven
The Trojans lose three All-Pac-12 players from their front seven in Leonard Williams, Hayes Pullard and J.R. Tavai. Like always with USC, the returning depth chart is impressively talented but is lacking in developed star power. Can Anthony Sarao or Delvon Simmons develop into All-Americans? Steve Sarkisian should consider this part of his roster a top priority — especially, for a team still lacking in overall depth.

2. Develop the playmakers on offense
The talent in the receiving corps is painfully obvious but will still be young. And the backfield is now missing Buck Allen. Coach Sark needs to continue to develop Adoree Jackson and JuJu Smith on the outside while Justin Davis, Tre Madden and James Toland IV battle for carries. USC also is replacing All-Pac-12 tight end Randall Telfer. This offense needs to identify a go-to playmaker.


3. Keep Cody Kessler healthy

Keeping your star quarterback upright is always important but in this case it cannot be overstated. In fact, Kessler, possibly the most underrated player in the nation, represents a bigger issue for the Trojans. This unit is still not operating with full scholarship capacity, so keeping Kessler (and every other possible contributing member) healthy is critical for the Men of Troy. Maybe, take it easy this spring, Coach Sark?

 

3. UCLA

2014 Record: 10-3 (6-3)
Returning Starters: Offense – 5, Defense – 6

Coaching Changes:

Tom Bradley (DC)


Bruins' Spring Priorities


1. Settle on a quarterback
Brett Hundley is gone leaving a gaping void under center on an offense severely lacking in star power. Jerry Neuheisel is the incumbent who played well against Texas and has been around campus for years. He will have to hold off the No. 1 quarterback prospect in the nation in true freshman Josh Rosen. Rosen is already enrolled and will battle Neuheisel for the starting gig all spring.

2. Reconstruct the front seven
Eric Kendricks is gone from the linebacking corps but Myles Jack is back. Owa Odighizuwa and Ellis McCarthy are gone from the D-line but Eddie Vanderdoes is back. Those two are potential superstars but the rest of the front seven is lacking in experience. Jim Mora needs guys like Kenny Clark and Deon Hollins to take the next step forward up front on defense.

3. Continue to cultivate offensive playmakers

One of UCLA’s biggest issues during Hundley’s tenure under center was the lack of supporting star power on offense. Paul Perkins and Jordan Payton took a big step last year, showing signs of becoming stars on offense. With either a freshman or career backup taking the reins at QB this year, Mora really needs someone else to step up and emerge. Is Perkins and/or Payton up to the task?

 

4. Arizona

2014 Record: 10-4 (7-2)
Returning Starters: Offense – 6, Defense – 5


Wildcats' Spring Priorities


1. Find two tackles and a pivot
Center Steven Gurrola started 13 games last year. Mickey Baucus and Fabbians Ebbele both started all 14 games at left and right tackle respectively. All three are gone and Rich Rodriguez is charged with rebuilding his offensive line. Not one player returns to the line that started all 14 games last year up front. Cayman Bundrage started 12 games at left guard and Jacob Alsadek started 11 times on the right side.

2. Plug holes in the secondary
Arizona uses a lot of defensive backs in its 3-3-5 alignment. But this group must replace a trio of safeties who totaled 284 tackles last year as well as the top cornerback. There are plenty of bodies coming back to Tucson but someone needs to step into a leadership role. William Parks could be that guy, as he is the most experienced returning defensive back.

3. Keep the young stars on offense focused

It was almost too easy for Arizona’s offense last year. Anu Solomon, Nick Wilson and Cayleb Jones formed an incredible trio of young offensive stars. But this group struggled to reach the finish line and was handled easily in the Pac-12 title game. Repeating as division champs won’t be nearly as easy, especially behind a rebuilt O-line. This group must stay focused and hungry or it could fall three or four spots in the standings.

 

 

5. Utah

2014 Record: 9-4 (5-4)
Returning Starters: Offense – 6, Defense – 5

Coaching Changes:
Aaron Roderick/Jim Harding (OC), John Pease (DC), Justin Ena (LB)


Utes' Spring Priorities


1. Find out what you have under center
Quarterback Travis Wilson is the incumbent but he’s dealt with major injuries for much of his career. Kendal Thompson battled Wilson throughout much of the ’14 campaign, only relinquishing control of the starting job after a season-ending injury. They have similar skill sets but are totally different players and Kyle Whittingham needs to know what he has in each this spring.

2. Plug holes at safety and end
This one is pretty straightforward, as both Brian Blechen and Eric Rowe are gone after honorable mention All-Pac-12 seasons last year. Marcus Williams returns after posting 59 tackles last year along with Tevin Carter, Andre Godfrey and others. Nate Orchard is the bigger loss at end but a deep and talented collection of D-linemen return to Salt Lake City. Hunter Dimick and Lowell Lotulelei are poised for breakout seasons.

3. Replace the best to pass-catchers

Devontae Booker and a loaded offensive line return to Utah so the running game should be one of the best in the league. However, with the two biggest playmakers gone in Dres Anderson and Kaelin Clay, the staff needs to find some receivers to help out the QB situation. Kenneth Scott will get every shot to make plays but this group as a whole needs to step up this spring.

 

6. Colorado

2014 Record: 2-10 (0-9)

Returning Starters: Offense – 6, Defense – 9

 

Coaching Changes:

 

Jim Leavitt (Defensive Coordinator)
 

Buffaloes’ Spring Priorities


1. Continue to build depth on defense
For bad teams, it’s hard to pinpoint one specific area of concern on defense. With most of the two-deep returning for Colorado, improving overall is the key. This team was terrible at pressuring the quarterback, didn’t force turnovers (125th nationally) and was mediocre on third downs. Star power needs to develop on every level because linebacker Addison Gillam can’t do everything.

2. Replace both guards
Left guard Kaiwi Crabb started 11 times last year and right guard Daniel Munyer started all 12 games. Both have moved on and need to be replaced on the interior of the offensive line. The good news is both tackles and the center are back for Mike MacIntyre. 

3. Make an effort to run the ball

The Buffs finished last in the division in rushing offense, ninth in the Pac-12 and 77th nationally. With a developing star at QB and Nelson Spruce back to catch passes, the passing game isn’t a concern in Boulder. But either Christian Powell or Michael Adkins II need to step into a more prominent role in the backfield to help the quarterback. Some balance in this unit would help quarterback Sefo Liufau continue to progress.

Teaser:
Big 12 2015 Spring Preview and Power Rankings
Post date: Thursday, March 5, 2015 - 10:30
Path: /college-football/big-ten-2015-spring-preview-and-power-rankings
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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 Big Ten is home to college football’s defending national champs (Ohio State), as well as a cast of intriguing teams in 2015. Michigan State should be among the top-10 teams in the nation, while Michigan and Nebraska hope to take a step forward under new coaches. Penn State should be better in the second season under coach James Franklin, but the Nittany Lions have some key personnel issues to address this offseason.

 

What are the key questions and storylines shaping all 14 teams in the Big Ten and outlook for 2015? Let’s take a quick look at the 14 teams and the priority list for each coach.

 

Big Ten Spring Preview and Storylines to Watch

 

(Teams listed by pre-spring power rank)

 

East Division

 

1. Ohio State

2014 Record: 14-1 (8-0 Big Ten)

Returning Starters: Offense – 7, Defense – 7

 

Key Coaching Changes:

 

Tim Beck (Co-Offensive Coordinator)

Tony Alford (RBs)

 

Ohio State’s Spring Priorities

 

1. Quarterbacks, Wide Receivers

There’s little doubt quarterback play is going to garner most of the preseason attention. But it’s unlikely there will be much clarity here, as J.T. Barrett (leg) and Braxton Miller (shoulder) continue to recover from 2014 injuries. Cardale Jones has a chance to secure his lead in the quarterback derby while both are out, but all three will have a chance to push for the job in the fall. Much like the quarterback position, the receiving corps isn’t hurting for options. However, replacements must emerge for Devin Smith and Evan Spencer.

 

2. Reinforcements on the Defensive Line
Ohio State’s defensive line should be one of the best in the nation in 2015, but coach Larry Johnson has to restock this unit after the departures of ends Steve Miller and Rashad Frazier, along with standout defensive tackle Michael Bennett. Finding help for end Joey Bosa and tackle Adolphus Washington will be a key for the Buckeyes’ hopes of repeating in 2015.

 

3. Replacing CB Doran Grant

The Buckeyes aren’t losing a ton from last year’s team, but cornerback Doran Grant won’t be easy to replace. He earned first-team All-Big Ten honors after recording 63 tackles and nine pass breakups in 2014. Young talent is available here, but the defense is looking for players to emerge outside of Eli Apple at the position. 

 

2. Michigan State

2014 Record: 11-2 (7-1 Big Ten)

Returning Starters: Offense – 6, Defense – 7

 

Key Coaching Changes:

 

Harlon Barnett (Co-Defensive Coordinator)

Mike Tressel (Co-Defensive Coordinator)

Mark Snyder (LB/Special Teams)

 

Michigan State’s Spring Priorities

 

1. Playmakers at Receiver
Quarterback Connor Cook must find a new go-to target after standout receiver Tony Lippett expired his eligibility after the Cotton Bowl. Keith Mumphery also departs after catching 26 passes last year. Who steps up at receiver this spring for Cook? Will it be Aaron Burbridge or A.J. Troup? Or will tight end Josiah Price become an even bigger part of the offense in 2015?

 

2. Settling the Order at Running Back

Jeremy Langford finished his career at East Lansing with an effective senior year (1,522 yards and 22 scores). The Spartans need to find a new go-to back this spring, but this offense isn’t hurting for options. Delton Williams, Gerald Holmes, Madre London and incoming freshman L.J. Scott (will arrive in East Lansing this summer) are plenty capable of keeping the ground attack performing at a high level. How will the pecking order develop this spring?

 

3. Keep the Momentum on Defense

Michigan State’s defense was one of the best in the nation under former coordinator Pat Narduzzi. With Narduzzi taking the head coach job at Pittsburgh, coach Mark Dantonio promoted Harlon Barnett and Mike Tressel into the co-defensive coordinator role. Barnett and Tressel’s job was made easier with the return of end Shilique Calhoun, but the secondary loses cornerback Trae Waynes and safety Kurtis Drummond, and the linebacking corps loses Taiwan Jones. This spring will be the first opportunity for the new co-coordinators to find replacements for the key departures.

 

3. Penn State

2014 Record: 7-6 (2-6 Big Ten)

Returning Starters: Offense – 8, Defense – 6

 

Key Coaching Changes:

 

None

 

Penn State’s Spring Priorities

 

1. Offensive Line

Keeping quarterback Christian Hackenberg upright in the pocket is Penn State’s top priority in 2015. The offensive line was hit hard by youth and injuries last year and surrendered 44 sacks in 13 contests. Line coach Herb Hand is one of the best in the nation, and this unit should show improvement in 2015. Junior college recruit Paris Palmer should help alleviate some of the concerns at tackle.

 

2. Reload the DE Spots
Both lines of scrimmage will be under the microscope for Penn State this spring. The Nittany Lions must replace ends Deion Barnes and C.J. Olaniyan after the duo combined for nine sacks last season. Garrett Sickels and redshirt freshman Torrence Brown are two names to watch as line coach Sean Spencer looks to restock at defensive end.

 

3. New Kicker

Don’t overlook the loss of kicker Sam Ficken this spring. Penn State had eight kickers on last year’s roster (not all scholarship players), with Chris Gulla listed as Ficken’s backup. The Nittany Lions played in seven games decided by one score or less last year. A reliable kicker can make a big difference in close games.

 

4. Michigan

2014 Record: 5-7 (3-5 Big Ten)

Returning Starters: Offense – 6, Defense – 6

 

Key Coaching Changes:

 

Jim Harbaugh (Head Coach)

Tim Drevno (Offensive Coordinator)

D.J. Durkin (Defensive Coordinator)

 

Michigan’s Spring Priorities

 

1. Quarterback Battle

New coach Jim Harbaugh is going to make a difference with Michigan’s offense in 2015. But in order for the Wolverines to make a big jump on the stat sheet, quarterback play has to improve. Who will get the call under center for Harbaugh? Will it be Shane Morris? Or will freshmen Alex Malzone and Zach Gentry or Wilton Speight push for starting time?

 

2. Find a Few Playmakers

Top receiver Devin Funchess left for the NFL, and Michigan finished 2014 ranked ninth in the Big Ten in rush offense. Quarterback play has to improve for the offense to take off, but the Wolverines also need more from their skill players. USC transfer Ty Isaac could help the rushing attack, and this is a big spring for receivers Amara Darboh, Jehu Chesson and Freddy Canteen.

 

3. More Progress on Defense
Lost in Michigan’s offensive woes was a defense that limited opponents to 4.8 yards per play in 2014. New coordinator D.J. Durkin comes to Ann Arbor after a solid stint at Florida and is regarded as a rising star in the coaching ranks. His biggest spring goals will be to find a replacement for standout linebacker Jake Ryan, restock the defensive end position and settle the options in the secondary. Is talented redshirt freshman Jabrill Peppers a cornerback or safety?

 

5. Rutgers

2014 Record: 8-5 (3-5 Big Ten)

Returning Starters: Offense – 3, Defense – 6

 

Key Coaching Changes:

 

Ben McDaniels (Offensive Coordinator)

Phil Galiano (Special Teams/Tight Ends)

Anthony Campanile (WRs)

 

Rutgers’ Spring Priorities

 

1. New Play-Caller on Offense
Ralph Friedgen’s one season with the Scarlet Knights was a successful one, and Ben McDaniels will inherit an offense with just three returning starters in 2015. McDaniels was the team’s receivers coach in 2014 and has never called plays on the FBS level. What changes will McDaniels implement in 2015?

2. QB Battle
The first priority for McDaniels this spring is to settle the quarterback battle between Chris Laviano and Hayden Rettig. Laviano completed 11 of 28 passes for 107 yards last season, while Rettig sat out 2014 as a result of transfer rules from LSU.

3. Defensive Improvement

Rutgers ranked last in the Big Ten by allowing 6.4 yards per play (all games) last season. Coordinator Joe Rossi has work to do at each level, as the defense must replace contributors like end David Milewski, linebacker Kevin Snyder and defensive backs Gareef Glashen and safety Lorenzo Waters.

 

6. Maryland

2014 Record: 7-6 (4-4 Big Ten)

Returning Starters: Offense – 6, Defense – 4

 

Key Coaching Changes:

 

Keith Dudzinski (Defensive Coordinator)

Terry Richardson (RBs)

 

Maryland’s Spring Priorities

 

1. Replacing C.J. Brown at QB
The Terrapins’ quarterback battle probably won’t be settled until the fall, as Caleb Rowe won’t participate this spring due to his recovery from a torn ACL. However, while Rowe is sidelined, Perry Hills and Shane Cockerille will battle to claim an early lead in the quarterback race.

 

2. Settle the OL
While quarterback play is a concern, a bigger priority for Maryland this spring has to be an offensive line that allowed 36 sacks in 2014. Center Sal Conaboy and guard Silvano Altamirano depart after each started 13 games last season. Expect to see redshirt freshmen Damian Prince and Derwin Gray push for snaps this spring.

 

3. Rebuild the Front 7 on Defense
New defensive play-caller Keith Dudzinski is going to be a busy man this spring. The Terrapins lost several key players from last year’s front seven, including ends Andre Monroe and Keith Bowers, tackle Darius Kilgo and linebackers Cole Farrand and L.A. Goree. How quickly can Maryland reload here this offseason?

 

7. Indiana

2014 Record: 4-8 (1-7 Big Ten)

Returning Starters: Offense – 5, Defense – 6

 

Key Coaching Changes:

 

None

 

Indiana’s Spring Priorities

 

1. Getting the Passing Game Back on Track
An injury to starting quarterback Nate Sudfeld hampered Indiana’s offense last season. Sudfeld is expected to return at full strength from a shoulder injury suffered in 2014, and this spring is the first chance to work with the revamped receiving corps. The Hoosiers brought in plenty of help for Sudfeld, as junior college recruit Camion Patrick and UAB transfer Marqui Hawkins should help bolster a young receiving corps.

 

2. Defensive Improvement

If Indiana wants to contend for a bowl in 2015, the defense has to improve – significantly. The Hoosiers allowed 6.4 yards per play in Big Ten action last year and gave up 16 passing touchdowns in conference games. The front seven has reasons to be optimistic for improvement, but the secondary must replace both starting cornerbacks from last season. 

 

3. Jordan Howard Replacing Tevin Coleman

Tevin Coleman will be missed in Bloomington, but Indiana found an excellent replacement in UAB transfer Jordan Howard. The former Blazer will get his first chance to work with the Hoosiers’ solid offensive line this spring. How quickly will he mesh with the returning personnel? 

 

West Division

 

1. Wisconsin

2014 Record: 11-3 (7-1 Big Ten)

Returning Starters: Offense – 5, Defense – 7

 

Key Coaching Changes:

 

Paul Chryst (Head Coach)

Joe Rudolph (Offensive Coordinator)

 

Wisconsin’s Spring Priorities

 

1. Develop the Passing Game
Melvin Gordon has departed at running back, but there’s a capable replacement in Corey Clement. The passing game is a bigger concern for coach Paul Chryst, as the Badgers managed only 150 yards per game through the air in conference action in 2014 and completed 53.9 percent of their passes. Quarterback Joel Stave has to take a step forward in his development, while the coaching staff also has to find another receiver or two to take the pressure off of Alex Erickson.

 

2. Restock the OL
Wisconsin had one of the nation’s top offensive lines last season, but there’s work ahead for Chryst this spring. Three starters – Dallas Lewallen, Kyle Costigan and Rob Havenstein – have departed after a successful career in Madison. Two starters – Tyler Marz and Dan Voltz – will be solid players to build around, but who steps up to replace the three departures?

 

3. New Faces in the Front Seven
The Badgers owned one of the best defenses in the Big Ten last season, limiting conference opponents to just 4.8 yards per play. Seven starters are back for 2015, but there are a few key holes to address. Linemen Warren Herring and Konrad Zagzebski and linebackers Michael Trotter and Marcus Trotter are gone. There’s plenty of talent to keep this defense performing at a high level, but the depth must be restocked after player departures.

 

2. Nebraska

2014 Record: 9-4 (5-3 Big Ten)

Returning Starters: Offense – 6, Defense – 6

 

Key Coaching Changes:

 

Mike Riley (Head Coach)

Danny Langsdorf (Offensive Coordinator)

Mark Banker (Defensive Coordinator)

 

Nebraska’s Spring Priorities

 

1. New Coaching Staff, New Schemes

New coach Mike Riley inherits a good roster, and there’s enough talent to push for the West Division title in 2015. But as with any coaching change, there will be tweaks to the schemes on both sides of the ball. This spring is the first opportunity to get a look at how different the Cornhuskers will look in 2015.

 

2. Tommy Armstrong’s Development

Riley and coordinator Danny Langsdorf had plenty of success on offense at Oregon State. Quarterback Sean Mannion just finished his career as the Pac-12’s all-time passing leader. This spring will be a big one for quarterback Tommy Armstrong under the new staff. In his first full season as Nebraska’s starter, he completed 53.3 percent of his throws, 2,695 yards and 22 scores. How much will Armstrong improve over the spring?

 

3. Replacing Randy Gregory at DE

Even though Gregory had a knee injury in 2014, he was still one of the Big Ten’s most disruptive defenders. In 11 games, Gregory registered seven sacks, 8.5 tackles for a loss and one forced fumble. The Cornhuskers aren’t stocked with a ton of options this spring at defensive end, so it’s a critical time for players like Jack Gangwish, Joe Keels and A.J. Natter (if healthy) to join Greg McMullen as key contributors at the position.

 

3. Minnesota

2014 Record: 8-5 (5-3 Big Ten)

Returning Starters: Offense – 4, Defense – 7

 

Key Coaching Changes:

 

None

 

Minnesota’s Spring Priorities

 

1. David Cobb’s Replacement
Running back David Cobb was the driving force behind a Minnesota rushing attack that generated 215.5 yards per game last season. Cobb has expired his eligibility, and the battle to replace him will start this spring. Berkley Edwards, Rodrick Williams and talented redshirt freshman Jeff Jones will compete to determine the pecking order in the backfield.

 

2. More Consistency from QB Mitch Leidner

In his first full season as Minnesota’s starting quarterback, Leidner completed 122 of 237 passes for 1,798 yards and 11 scores. He also rushed for 452 yards and 10 touchdowns. The Golden Gophers need more from Leidner in 2015, but his job would be made easier if…

 

3. Finding Receivers

…Minnesota can find a few receivers this spring. This unit is the biggest concern for coach Jerry Kill, as tight end Maxx Williams and receivers Isaac Fruechte and Donovahn Jones have departed Minneapolis. This is a big spring for Drew Wolitarsky, KJ Maye, Eric Carter and Melvin Holland.

 

4. Iowa

2014 Record: 7-6 (4-4 Big Ten)

Returning Starters: Offense – 5, Defense – 6

 

Key Coaching Changes:

 

Brian Ferentz (Run Game Coordinator)

Seth Wallace (CBs/Nickel Backs)

LeVar Woods (Tight Ends)

 

Iowa’s Spring Priorities

 

1. Settle the QB Position
Will it be Jake Rudock or C.J. Beathard starting for Iowa in 2015? The first shot at answering that question could come this spring. Rudock threw for 2,436 yards and 16 touchdowns, but Beathard has a stronger arm, which would allow Iowa to stretch the field more – if he’s the starter.

 

2. Replacing the Offensive Tackles
The Hawkeyes have a good core of starting linemen returning in 2015, but tackles Brandon Scherff and Andrew Donnal are huge losses. Scherff was among the nation’s best at his position, while Donnal started 13 games in 2014. Who steps up at the offensive tackle spots this spring?

 

3. Reloading at Defensive Tackle
The trenches will be an area of focus this spring in Iowa City. Not only must the Hawkeyes rebuilt the offensive tackle position, but the defensive tackle spot is a major concern. Gone are standouts Carl Davis and Louis Trinca-Pasat, and backups Jaleel Johnson and Nathan Bazata combined for just 15 tackles in 2015. 

 

5. Illinois

2014 Record: 6-7 (3-5 Big Ten)

Returning Starters: Offense – 8, Defense – 7

 

Key Coaching Changes:

 

Mike Phair (Co-Defensive Coordinator)

 

Illinois’ Spring Priorities

 

1. Solidify the OL
If the Fighting Illini can keep quarterback Wes Lunt healthy, the offense should easily surpass last year’s 25.9 points per game mark. The offensive line gave up 37 sacks last season, and the left side must be revamped with the departure of tackle Simon Cvijanovic and guard Michael Heitz.

 

2. Getting Defensive
In coach Tim Beckman’s three seasons at Illinois, the Fighting Illini has allowed at least 5.8 yards per play each year. Beckman is turning to former NFL assistant Mike Phair to help Tim Banks coordinate the defense. Seven starters are back on defense, but this unit needs to generate a better pass rush and show improvement against the run.

 

3. Consistency on the Ground
Running back Josh Ferguson is a solid all-around back for the Fighting Illini, recording 735 yards and eight scores on the ground last season. He also caught 50 passes for 427 yards and two touchdowns. However, Illinois needs a little more from its ground attack. In Big Ten games, the Fighting Illini averaged 3.6 yards per carry. 

 

6. Northwestern

2014 Record: 5-7 (3-5 Big Ten)

Returning Starters: Offense – 5, Defense – 10

 

Key Coaching Changes:

 

None

 

Northwestern’s Spring Priorities

 

1. Quarterback Battle

The Wildcats open spring practice with three quarterbacks vying for the starting job. Zack Oliver has the most experience of the signal-callers, but Matt Alviti and talented redshirt freshman Clayton Thorson will push for time.

 

2. Rebuilding the OL
In eight Big Ten games last season, Northwestern allowed 24 sacks. The Wildcats have some work to do up front this spring, as two key starters depart in center Brandon Vitabile and tackle Paul Jorgensen. The development of this group will be critical for Northwestern’s bowl hopes in 2015.

 

3. Finding a Pass Rush
The Wildcats tied for last in the Big Ten with just nine sacks generated in eight conference games. The defense held opponents to a respectable 5.3 yards per play in Big Ten action, and with 10 starters back, improvement should be expected. Boosting the pass rush is critical for Northwestern to help elevate the defense even higher in the rankings for 2015.

 

7. Purdue

2014 Record: 3-9 (1-7 Big Ten)

Returning Starters: Offense – 9, Defense – 7

 

Key Coaching Changes:

 

Terry Malone (TEs)

 

Purdue’s Spring Priorities

 

1. Settling the QB Position

Austin Appleby and Danny Etling shared the quarterback job last season and combined to throw 16 touchdowns to 16 interceptions. Both players will have a chance to win the starting spot this spring, but redshirt freshman David Blough also joins the competition.

 

2. Find Playmakers

While the quarterback job remains uncertain, Purdue also has to develop more options at running back and receiver to help out the offense. Top running backs Akeem Hunt and Raheem Mostert are gone, leaving Keyante Green (199 yards) as the team’s top returning rusher. Hunt was also the team’s leading option in terms of catches (48), and top receiver Danny Anthrop (616 receiving yards last season) is coming off a torn ACL.

 

3. Step Forward on Defense

In coach Darrell Hazell’s two seasons with the Boilermakers, Purdue has ranked near the bottom of the Big Ten in yards per play allowed in back-to-back years. There’s reason for optimism with seven starters returning, but key players like end Ryan Russell and safety Landon Feichter must be replaced. Can this unit take a step forward in the spring?

Teaser:
Big Ten 2015 Spring Preview and Power Rankings
Post date: Thursday, March 5, 2015 - 10:00
All taxonomy terms: Fantasy Baseball, MLB, Fantasy
Path: /fantasy/2015-fantasy-baseball-rankings-second-basemen
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: Second Basemen

 

TIER 1

1. Jose Altuve, Astros (A)

By some post-mortems, Altuve was the most valuable fantasy commodity of 2014. Hard to argue that point when you’re talking about the only guy other than Ty Cobb, Willie Keeler and Ichiro with 225 hits, 55 RBIs, 55 SBs and 85 runs in a season.

2. Robinson Cano, Mariners

Cano moved from a ballpark where he’s averaged one HR per 21 PAs to one where his rate is one per 37. He could recover from 14 into the low 20s, and his AVG consistency is uncanny — the first player in history to swat between .302 and .320 six straight times.

3. Ian Kinsler, Tigers

A one-time 30/30 man, he’s just 15/15 now, but 2014 included Kinsler’s fifth 100-run season and a personal-best 92 RBIs. Because he’s 32 and his walks have curiously plummeted from 89 to 29 over the course of three seasons, he engenders more risk than Altuve or Cano.

 

TIER 2

4. Jason Kipnis, Indians (F)

Kipnis’ 2014 season didn’t go sideways; it made a severe u-turn. His average fly ball distance dropped by 20 feet, and he chased pitches like he was swatting mosquitoes. A reasonable expectation of a return to 2012-13 looks like: .270-16-80-86-30.

5. Daniel Murphy, Mets

Time for him to get the roto-respect he deserves. Since 2012, he’s among the top five keystoners in AVG, runs and SBs. Line drive percentage of 28.2 was third in the majors last year. Murphy’s never going to have that one monster season, but they’re all going to be good.

6. Howie Kendrick, Dodgers

A similar player to Murphy in his discreet dependability, but just a tick behind in most columns. Now in his 10th season, Kendrick’s never hit below .279. In 2014, he knocked in 75 runs and scored 85, which is something only one other second sacker (Kinsler) could say.

7. Brian Dozier, Twins

Dan Uggla (the old Dan Uggla) with speed? Dozier’s .241 AVG ranks 251st among active players with 1,500 career PAs, but he topped 20 HRs and thefts in 2014. Doubtful that he can duplicate his 112 runs, since somehow he scored 46% of the time he reached base.

8. Dustin Pedroia, Red Sox (F)

Pedroia is a slowly devolving player who’s down to single digits in HRs and SBs, and is coming off back-to-back years with hand surgeries. He’ll still hit for a decent average, score runs and drive in a respectable sum.

9. Kolten Wong, Cardinals

Wong’s postseason pyrotechnics were a tad off (make that over) the wall, but they were indicative of his promise beyond what was an otherwise humdrum rookie year. Both the bat speed and foot speed are there for a Kinsler-like future, but he’ll need to hike that 4.9% walk rate.

10. Neil Walker, Pirates (E)

Pulled some real pop out of his bat bag, as his 23 HRs were nine more than his (more credible) previous four-year standard. Limited by being merely a ping hitter from the right side.

11. Dee Gordon, Marlins

Gordon’s .289 AVG was a bit rich since 62 of his 176 hits never left the infield, but even if he’s just a two-category player, he carries great targeted value. His 92 runs led NL second basemen by 13, and his 64 SBs represented one of every 3.5 in the league at that position.

 

TIER 3

12. Ben Zobrist, A’s

Zobrist’s AVGs have wafted between .269 and .275 for four straight seasons, but his HR and SB totals have been halved in that same period. A 1-for-43 stretch with RISP decimated his RBIs, and it remains to be seen what the switch from the Rays to the A’s will do to his numbers.

13. Javier Baez, Cubs

He’s going to be a headache — a guy you can’t take out of your lineup (HRs and potential) and a guy you loathe to put into it (AVG). Set a record for the highest SO rate (1 per 2.4 PAs) in a season of 200-plus PAs.

14. Scooter Gennett, Brewers

A .300 hitter in his two seasons, albeit .323 against righties and .128 versus lefties. Ron Roenicke feels he’s ready to swing both ways, which would create more playing time and a bump into the 12-HR/65-R/65-RBI range.

15. Aaron Hill, Diamondbacks

One of the most mercurial players one can own. Hill’s 100-game season AVGs have oscillated from .205 to .302, and his HRs from three to 36. His last two seasons have been similar enough to tepidly project .260-12-55-55-3.

 

16. Jonathan Schoop, Orioles (C)

17. Chase Utley, Phillies

18. Brandon Phillips, Reds

19. Asdrubal Cabrera, Rays (E)

20. Josh Rutledge, Angels (B,C)

21. Rougned Odor, Rangers

22. Jedd Gyorko, Padres

23. Danny Espinosa, Nationals

24. Joe Panik, Giants

25. Omar Infante, Royals

26. DJ Lemahieu, Rockies

 

TIER 4

27. Emilio Bonifacio, White Sox

28. Jose Pirela, Yankees

29. Micah Johnson, White Sox (C,G)

30. Rob Refsnyder, Yankees

31. Alberto Callaspo, Braves

32. Alex Guerrero, Dodgers (D)

33. Brock Holt, Red Sox

34. Eric Sogard, A’s

35. Dilson Herrera, Mets (G)

36. Nick Franklin, Rays (D,G)

37. Grant Green, Angels

38. Ryan Goins, Blue Jays

39. Carlos Sanchez, White Sox

40. Jose Peraza, Braves (G)

Teaser:
2015 Fantasy Baseball Rankings: Second Basemen
Post date: Thursday, March 5, 2015 - 09:30
All taxonomy terms: Fantasy Baseball, MLB, Fantasy
Path: /fantasy/2015-fantasy-baseball-rankings-first-basemen
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: First Basemen

 

TIER 1

1. Paul Goldschmidt, Diamondbacks (A,F)

A broken hand stifled Goldschmidt’s MVP run, but he should be fine. Between June 1, 2012 and Aug. 1, 2014, no player matched his array of totals in the five fantasy categories, and only one (Mike Trout) equaled him in four.

2. Miguel Cabrera, Tigers (A,F)

Cabrera’s body of work speaks for itself, but for the first time it comes with an asterisk: ankle surgery. He soldiered through much of 2014 in pain, posting a .313-25-109-101-1 line that pales only when compared to his decade-long average of .324-35-120-102-4.

 

TIER 2

3. Freddie Freeman, Braves (B)

The bust-out season we envisioned for Freeman never materialized. Still, he led the majors in such arcane but instructive stats as line drive percentage (31.0), times on base (273) and foul balls (583). His next-level prospects remain bright.

4. Jose Abreu, White Sox

The White Sox called in the cavalry (Adam LaRoche, Melky Cabrera) to provide some cover for Abreu, whose one-man show in 2014 made him the first rookie ever to rank among a league’s top five in all the triple crown stats (.317-36-107).

5. Anthony Rizzo, Cubs

Rizzo, just 25, up-shifted his ranks among first basemen from 21st to seventh in AVG (.286) and from ninth to third in HRs (32). A combination of 22 missed games and the ineptitude around him are factors that may dissipate in 2015, lifting him out of pedestrian RBI-land.

6. Adrian Gonzalez, Dodgers

His ranges of runs (69 to 108), HRs (18 to 40) and AVG (.276 to .338) can be gonzo, but he’s been fused to a tight radius just above 100 RBIs for eight years now. A precipitous decline in walk rate over the years has taken its toll overall, but he sure can de-duck the pond.

7. Edwin Encarnacion, Blue Jays

Extended his streak of big seasons to the magic number of three, so we’re officially on board with the out-of-nowhere career revival. Only Cabrera has hit more HRs in that span (113 to 112), and his 4.9 ABs/RBI led baseball last year.

8. Joey Votto, Reds (F)

Votto raises love-hate hackles for rotisserians who detect triple crown potential defused by a passive approach. So it’s a matter if you see the glass half-full (one of three players to hit .310 with 150 HRs from 2008-13) or half-empty (a mere 57 RBIs per 550 PAs since 2012).

9. Ryan Zimmerman, Nationals (F)

The long-time third base stalwart’s status in the fantasy environment has been clouded by injuries and position fluidity. He should set up camp at the other corner this year. High-impact 2009-10 OPS of .893 eroded to medium-impact .809 from 2011-14.

10. Albert Pujols, Angels

Pujols is the only player in history to lead the majors in all triple crown stats over two different 10-year spans, but he’s in the wind-down phase. His .272-28-105-89-5 last year is a representative snapshot of where he’s at.

11. Carlos Santana, Indians (B)

Santana was atrocious for 57 games last year (.175-7-22), then finished .264-20-63 in his last 95. That postponed, but has not precluded, the breakout he’s been teetering on. On one hand, he’s a .248 career hitter with an RBI peak of 85; on the other, he’s a high-homer, high-walk, 29-year-old switch-hitter in a favorable park.

12. Prince Fielder, Rangers (F)

Including the playoffs, Fielder (who once had 141 RBIs in a season) has driven in 16 runs in his last 227 PAs. That’s Ruben Tejada production. And now he’s coming off neck surgery. Prince has built up enough equity to keep him in Tier 2, but just barely.

 

TIER 3

13. Eric Hosmer, Royals (B)

Hosmer’s season was uneven and, on the whole, disappointing, although he averted a total disaster with a few late surges. Although his .270-9-58-54-4 was unacceptable for a first baseman, his swing looked back in synch during the playoffs.

14. Brandon Belt, Giants (B)

Belt was knocked off course by a thumb injury and a concussion, but his power continued to unfold, as his 12 HRs in 61 games projected to 30 over 150. He’s Hosmer with less of a track record, and with just as much potential to bust out.

15. Chris Davis, Orioles

Davis “Crushed” little beyond fantasy team prospects in 2014. The captain of the I’m Too Stubborn To Adjust To The Shift Club paid a steep price: a 90-point AVG decay, HRs cut in half, a 48% RBI decline and outs in 70% of his PAs.

 

16. Justin Morneau, Rockies

17. Matt Adams, Cardinals

18. Ryan Howard, Phillies

19. Lucas Duda, Mets

 

TIER 4

20. Joe Mauer, Twins

21. James Loney, Rays

22. Pedro Alvarez, Pirates (F)

23. Mark Teixeira, Yankees

24. Adam Lind, Brewers

25. Mike Morse, Marlins

26. Logan Morrison, Mariners (C)

27. Jon Singleton, Astros

28. Mike Napoli, Red Sox

29. Yonder Alonso, Padres (C, F)

30. Ike Davis, A’s

 

TIER 5

31. Garrett Jones, Yankees

32. Mark Reynolds, Cardinals (E)

33. Darin Ruf, Phillies

34. Gaby Sanchez, Free Agent (E)

35. Travis Ishikawa, Giants

36. Nate Freiman, A’s

37. Justin Smoak, Blue Jays

38. J.P. Arencibia, Free Agent

39. Kyle Parker, Rockies (G)

40. Chris Colabello, Blue Jays

Teaser:
2015 Fantasy Baseball Rankings: First Basemen
Post date: Thursday, March 5, 2015 - 09:00
All taxonomy terms: College Basketball, News
Path: /college-basketball/12-unlikely-players-who-could-be-2015-ncaa-tournament-heroes
Body:

 

Every team that makes a run in the NCAA Tournament needs a role player to become the hero for a game or two.

 

For 2014 national champion Connecticut, it was DeAndre Daniels. The forward was a solid player entering the tournament, but he exploded for 27 points in the Sweet 16 against Iowa State and then 20 in the Final Four against Florida?

 

And who could have expected that lightly used Marcus Lee would have stepped in for 10 points and seven offensive rebounds to send Kentucky to the Final Four.

 

Pinpointing the kinds of unlikely heroes is tough — especially in the case of a guy like Lee — but we might as well give it a try.

 

Trey Lyles, Kentucky

Lyles might not sneak up on anyone since he was a McDonald’s All-American and John Calipari touted him as Kentucky’s X-factor. Yet he’s still been easy to overlook for most of this season with the way Willie Cauley-Stein and Karl-Anthony Towns have played in Kentucky’s frontcourt. Lyles, though, is plenty capable of taking charge, scoring 18 points on 8-of-10 shooting Saturday against Arkansas.

 

Darion Atkins, Virginia

Atkins lost his starting job last season and regained it for good early in the ACC schedule. Atkins is already a key post defender for the Cavaliers, but with Justin Anderson out, he’s also been able contribute more on the offensive end in recent games. He’s scored at least 10 points in three of the last four games after scoring in double figures just twice before Feb. 22.

 

Gabe York, Arizona

Arizona’s stars haven’t always played like stars at times this season. Thankfully for the Wildcats, York has been there to save the day off the bench. He scored 13 points in 28 minutes against UCLA on Feb. 21 and added 12 in the grinder against Utah on Saturday night. This is the second time York has been something of a secret weapon for Zona. He moved into the starting lineup after the Brandon Ashley injury last season. 

 

Kris Jenkins, Villanova

Villanova is already one of the more balanced scoring teams in the field. The seventh-leading scorer acting as an X-factor is icing on the cake. Jenkins is an outside shooter by trade, hitting four 3s in the comeback against Xavier on Saturday, but he was also able to get to the free throw line nine times a game earlier against Providence.

 

Matt Jones, Duke

Duke’s stars — Jahlil Okafor, Tyus Jones, Quinn Cook and Justise Winslow — are playing like stars. Matt Jones has provided key depth, especially since Rasheed Sulaimon was dismissed. Jones is averaging 7.9 points per game in nine games since Sulaimon was booted. 

 

Dallin Bachynski, Utah

A senior seven-footer is a nice asset to have on the bench. Larry Krysktkowiak has gone to that well judiciously — Bachynski played scored 13 points on 12 shots in 23 minutes in a key win over Stanford on Feb. 12 and eight points in 25 minutes against Arizona, but he played 14 minutes in a three-game span in February. A team whose main weakness is offensive rebounding could use his size in March.

 

Bonzie Colson, Notre Dame

Just what Notre Dame needs — another guard who can score. The 6-5 Colson has come on in recent weeks, but none better than his 17 points on 7-of-7 shooting and nine rebounds against Louisville on Tuesday. Before that Colson had 16 points against both Boston College and Syracuse in Notre Dame’s previous two games. The freshman’s fearless streak earned him a defensive assignment against Duke’s Okafor a few weeks ago. 

 

Jared Nickens, Maryland

The 6-foot-7, 200-pound freshman forward has been able to contribute in a number of ways for the surprising Terrapins. He stepped into the starting lineup for six games earlier this season when Mark Turgeon was tinkering with his lineup. Coming off the bench, Nickens is a 3-point threat who can also grab rebounds.

 

Allerik Freeman, Baylor

Freeman gives Baylor a quick offensive threat off the bench, which Baylor needs especially around the rim. Freeman gave Baylor 11 points in 21 minutes in a win over Kansas State on Feb. 21 and 10 points and four offensive rebounds in 27 minutes against West Virginia on Saturday. He shoots better than 50 percent from 2-point range on a team that otherwise shoots 45.3 percent.

 

Jamari Traylor, Kansas

Traylor’s role has expanded in recent weeks, first as Cliff Alexander’s playing time dwindled and then more after Alexander was pulled off the floor due to potential NCAA eligibility reasons. Traylor was huge in Tuesday’s comeback against West Virginia. With Perry Ellis out during the second half and Kelly Oubre fouled out, Traylor had 14 points and six offensive boards.

 

Joel Berry, North Carolina

Could Joel Berry become the 3-point threat North Carolina desperately needs? Berry hit 3-of-5 3-pointers against Georgia Tech on Thursday. Sure, it was against a bad Yellow Jackets team, but still a key development for a team looking for perimeter scorers apart from Marcus Paige.

 

Wayne Blackshear, Louisville

Blackshear responded to fouling out with no points against Syracuse by scoring 10 against Miami, 10 against Georgia Tech and 18 against Florida State. Louisville needs more of that from its senior guard with Chris Jones off the team.

Teaser:
12 Unlikely Players Who Could Be 2015 NCAA Tournament Heroes
Post date: Thursday, March 5, 2015 - 08:30
All taxonomy terms: Chris Kirk, Golf
Path: /golf/top-30-golfers-2015-majors-no-25-chris-kirk
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. 25: Chris Kirk

Born: May 8, 1985, Knoxville, Tenn. | Career PGA Tour Wins: 3 | 2014 Wins (Worldwide): 1 | 2014 Earnings (PGA Tour): $4,854,777 (6th) World Ranking: 22

Brandel Chamblee's Take

Year in and year out, Kirk is one of the best all-around players statistically on the Tour, but he has flown under the radar for the most part. He had won twice going into 2014, until his run in the FedExCup playoffs last year took him all the way to second place in the final standings. In 28 events, he only missed two cuts, and his eleventh-hour win at Deutsche Bank made him a controversial omission from the Ryder Cup team. He makes up for his lack of great length with some of the best long irons and hybrids in the game to go with his great scrambling, evidenced by his 14 consecutive sand saves at one point last year, which was the longest such streak in 2014. Solid finishes in the three of the four majors prove he has breakout potential, and this year’s success should put him on the Presidents Cup team, which will have Ryder Cup implications for next year.

Major Championship Résumé
Starts: 8
Wins: 0

2014 Performance:
Masters - T20
U.S. Open - T28
British Open - T19
PGA Championship - T34

Best Career Finishes: 
Masters - T20 (2014)
U.S. Open - T28 (2014)
British Open - T19 (2014)
PGA Championship - T34 (2014)
Top-10 Finishes: 0
Top-25 Finishes: 2
Missed Cuts: 2

—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 - 16:30
Path: /nba/tony-allen-fights-grizzlies-teammate-utah%E2%80%99s-rudy-gobert-monster
Body:
Tony Allen is one of the best defenders in the game, and one of the NBA’s best energy men. The Memphis Grizzlies simply wouldn’t be who they are without their Grindfather, who acts as a flag for their singularly plodding, crunching identity.

 

But Tony’s fire doesn’t come without a tax. Allen was suspended for the Grizzlies’ 93-82 loss to the Utah Jazz on Tuesday night, under the vague umbrella of “violating team policy.”

 

Ronald Tillery of the Commercial Appeal brought new information about the missed game today, though. He reports that Allen was told to take the night off because a heated altercation with reserve guard Nick Calathes. The spat did not become physical, but apparently it was bad enough for Memphis to take punitive measures.

 

This isn’t the first time Allen has gotten into it with a teammate. He famously punched O.J. Mayo in the face on the team plane, years ago, over a gambling debt.

 

The game against Utah also gave us a look at one of the league’s brightest rising stars: Jazz center Rudy Gobert, a sophomore from France. The 7’2” Gobert collected 24 rebounds in the game, utilizing his record-setting wingspan to make Memphis center Marc Gasol look bad.

 

With Enes Kanter gone in a trade to the Oklahoma City Thunder, Rudy has seen his minutes rise, and he’s blossomed even more than his biggest optimists had anticipated he could. He now seems like the linchpin to what could be one of the NBA’s best defenses as soon as next season.

 

Utah fans can delight even further about their Frenchman, referred to by some as the Stifle Tower, knowing that he was an absolute steal at No. 27 in the 2013 draft class. If the quickly rising Jazz compete for a playoff spot in the Western Conference in 2016, it should surprise no one.

 

— John Wilmes

@johnwilmesNBA

Teaser:
Post date: Wednesday, March 4, 2015 - 15:04
Path: /college-football/former-mountaineer-clint-trickett-lands-coaching-job
Body:

Former Mountaineer QB Clint Trickett has been hired as the quarterbacks coach at East Mississippi Community College according to multiple sources.  EMCC is coming off a perfect season that ended with the Lions winning their third National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA) national championship in the last four years.

 

Trickett announced before the Liberty Bowl in December that his playing career had come to an end after suffering multiple concussions over the last two seasons. He now joins the family business in the collegiate coaching ranks. His father, Rick, is currently the offensive coordinator at Florida State while his older brother Travis is the co-offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach at Samford.

 

Clint Trickett transferred to West Virginia from Florida State and would up playing 19 games over two seasons for the Mountaineers. According to his father, Clint has always aspired to be a quarterbacks coach. Trickett now gets to fulfill that dream with his first coaching job at one of the best junior colleges in the nation.

 

— 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:
After Retiring From Playing Former Mountaineer Clint Trickett Joins the Coaching Ranks
Post date: Wednesday, March 4, 2015 - 13:00
Path: /college-football/michigan-coach-jim-harbaughs-twitter-delight
Body:

Let’s face it: College football coaches’ Twitter accounts are mostly hit or miss.

 

Most are full of inspirational quotes, coded recruiting announcements and a general excitement to “get after it.”

 

Thankfully, Jim Harbaugh has returned to college football to spice up social media.

 

From @CoachJim4UM, he tweets at Madonna, he hangs out with Garth Brooks, he professes his admiration for Judge Judy, and he displays questionable choices with capital letters.

 

Here are some of the highlights just from the last month.

 

Teaser:
Michigan Coach Jim Harbaugh's Twitter is a Delight
Post date: Wednesday, March 4, 2015 - 12:54
Path: /college-basketball/texas-longhorns-have-sights-set-strong-finish-hopes-making-ncaa-tournament-field
Body:

Other than which player will line up under center for Charlie Strong’s football team in the season opener against Notre Dame on September 5th, there isn’t a hotter topic in Austin than the future of the Texas Longhorns’ basketball program – on multiple levels.

 

Texas (18-12), picked to finish second in the Big 12 Basketball Preseason Poll, has largely underperformed this season, and head coach Rick Barnes has taken plenty of criticism as a result. The Longhorns currently sit in eighth place in league standings, and will be forced to play on Day 1 of the Big 12 Tournament, which starts March 11 in Kansas City.  It’s not the ideal spot for Texas to be in by any stretch of the imagination.

 

Considered by most bracketology gurus as being on the fringe of making the field of 68, the Longhorns have showed well as of late. Texas took Kansas to the brink in Lawrence last weekend and followed up the heartbreaking loss by beating then-No. 14-ranked Baylor in overtime on Monday, courtesy of Isaiah Taylor’s game-winning shot.   

 

Without knowing for certain how much is “enough” to secure a spot in this year’s Big Dance, the Longhorns must keep winning. A win over Kansas State in the regular-season finale and a win in their opening game of the Big 12 Tournament should be enough to solidify a spot. It would give Texas, who has a current RPI of 39, a 20-win season, including victories over three teams in the RPI’s top 50 (Baylor, West Virginia and Iowa).

 

Conversely, if the Longhorns stumble and fail to make the NCAA Tournament, it would mark only the second time doing so in Rick Barnes’ 18-year tenure at Texas. While impressive in itself, expectations have not changed in Austin and the fact remains the Longhorns haven’t made it to the Final Four since 2003. 

 

Texas seemingly needs its 11th hour winning streak to continue to ensure a spot on college basketball’s biggest stage, which would most likely settle down Barnes’ critics – at least temporarily.

 

— Written by Aaron Carrara, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and co-publisher of HornSports.com (and @HornSports), your source for Texas sports and recruiting news.

Teaser:
Rick Barnes’ Texas Longhorns Have Sights Set on Strong Finish in Hopes of Making NCAA Tournament Field
Post date: Wednesday, March 4, 2015 - 12:30
All taxonomy terms: Essential 11, Overtime
Path: /overtime/athlons-essential-11-links-day-march-4-2015
Body:

This is your daily links roundup of our favorite sports and entertainment posts on the web for March 4:

 

Meet Sasha Digiulian, an extremely cute extreme athlete.

 

Someone in Detroit is not happy with Ndamukong Suh's decision to test the free agent waters. Apparently he's the first player in history to chase the money.

 

Watch some Russian pee-wee hockey players brawl, cheap shots included. 

 

Kentucky passed a test, dodged a bullet, choose your cliche. But will it help them in the long run?

 

Twenty-five years ago today, Hank Gathers collapsed during a game and died. Boy, time flies.

 

Shane Battier's karaoke event included a lot of awkward dancing and quasi-singing.

 

Last night's old-fashioned one-for-one McCoy for Alonso blockbuster almost sent Adam Schefter into a ditch. Of course, the trade is all just part of Chip Kelly's master plan.

 

This Murray State pitcher has an insane leg kick.

 

There are an awful lot of baby daddies in college basketball

 

Jim Harbaugh, good samaritan.

 

• Otto Porter forgot to play defense at an inopportune moment.

 

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

Teaser:
Post date: Wednesday, March 4, 2015 - 12:16
All taxonomy terms: Overtime, News
Path: /overtime/princes-high-school-basketball-picture
Body:

Prince is pretty much the coolest dude on the planet. Seriously, even cool people bow to the coolness that is Prince.

 

Before Purple Rain, before Sign “O” the Times, before changing his name to an unpronounceable symbol, Prince Rogers Nelson was a sometimes disgruntled high school basketball player in his hometown of Minneapolis.

 

Libor Jany, a crime and justice writer with the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, tweeted these two great clips from the Star-Tribune archives from Prince’s playing days at Bryant Junior High and Minneapolis Central High.

 

 

Jany also shared this gem where a young (and short) Prince was not pleased with his playing time.

 

Teaser:
This is Prince's High School Basketball Picture
Post date: Wednesday, March 4, 2015 - 12:07
Path: /mlb/minnesota-twins-2015-preview-and-prediction
Body:

When Phil Hughes signed a three-year, $42 million contract extension just before Christmas, the veteran righthander insisted he could see signs of hope for a Twins franchise that has fallen on hard times.

 

It’s not just the prospects, highlighted by Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano, who are on the way as the franchise transitions in the dugout from Ron Gardenhire to Hall of Famer Paul Molitor. It’s also the fact that the Twins bumped their 2015 payroll back up over $100 million. “A lot of times you look at clubs and they just kind of sit stagnant and don’t really make the moves that I think are necessary,” Hughes says. “I think as an organization we could just sit back and just kind of wait for the prospect (surge) to happen. To kind of complement that, going out and signing guys like (Ervin) Santana and (Torii) Hunter and providing some leadership and spending a little money to go along with those young guys, I think is the right formula. I think we’re on the right path.”

 

Rotation

The Twins bought low on Hughes after 2013, and general manager Terry Ryan was shrewd in locking up the workhorse and pinpoint-control artist through 2019. After going 16–10 and setting career marks for innings and strikeouts in his Twins debut, which included an all-time mark for strikeout/walk rate (11.63), the ex-Yankee appears poised to take off at age 28. Joining him at the top of the revamped rotation is Santana, a 32-year-old righthander signed to a four-year, $55 million deal that was the richest for any free agent in club history. Now on his fourth team in as many seasons, Santana has posted five straight years of 30-plus starts, averaging 207 innings in that span while bringing his usual quirky energy to the mound and the clubhouse. Santana’s deal topped the one Ricky Nolasco signed a year earlier (four years, $49 million) before flopping through a highly disappointing debut. So durable over his previous six seasons, Nolasco unwisely pitched through intermittent elbow pain in the first half and spent six weeks on the disabled list before returning to post a 2.93 ERA in five September starts. Former first-rounder Kyle Gibson, just 16 months younger than Hughes, enjoyed a 13-win breakthrough and started to miss more bats down the stretch with his heavy sinker/slider combination. Finesse lefthander Tommy Milone has a good chance to break up an otherwise all-righty rotation.


Bullpen

Bullpen salaries are skyrocketing around the game, but the Twins have two-time All-Star closer Glen Perkins locked up through 2018 (via club option) at a maximum salary of $6.5 million per season. The native Minnesotan pitched through a forearm strain over the final two months, but the hope is he will return to form after uncharacteristically blowing seven saves in 2014. Journeyman righthander Casey Fien returns as the primary setup man, with free-agent righthander Tim Stauffer, signed away from the San Diego Padres for $2.2 million, bidding to replace Jared Burton, whose option was bought out. Southpaws Brian Duensing and Caleb Thielbar are durable and have the ability to work out of trouble. Aaron Thompson is another lefty who showed promise in September. Young guns Michael Tonkin and Ryan Pressly also figure to bid for time in a bullpen that lost long-man Anthony Swarzak before his first crack at arbitration. Mike Pelfrey, in the final year of his $11 million deal, could bounce into a long-relief role.

 

Middle Infield

Brian Dozier has remade himself into a power-hitting second baseman over the past season-and-a-half. He also gets high marks for his defense, baserunning and competitive fire. How good has Dozier been? Twins fans no longer pine for sweet-swinging prospect Eddie Rosario to replace him at the earliest opportunity. Shortstop is trickier. Eduardo Escobar enjoyed a 35-double breakout last season while providing above-average defense, but Molitor has made it clear he would prefer to return Danny Santana from center field to his natural position. Santana proved as a rookie he could hit big-league pitching, but his loose defensive history at shortstop leaves him with plenty to prove this spring. 

 

Corners

Coming off a career-altering concussion and a long-discussed position change, Joe Mauer had a rare down year at first base. He missed six weeks with an oblique strain and also banged up his left shoulder in the field after returning in August. Heading into his age-32 season and playing for the first time under Molitor, his St. Paul progenitor, the three-time batting champion has something to prove. Four years and $92 million remain on Mauer’s contract. At third base, Trevor Plouffe enjoyed a huge defensive improvement, even as the Twins markedly increased their use of the shift. Far more than a placeholder until Sano arrives, Plouffe did a better job of using the whole field and ranked third on the team in slugging percentage. 

 

Outfield

Hunter, a 39-year-old nine-time Gold Glove winner, insists he has plenty left in the tank. The Twins certainly hope he’s right after paying $10.5 million to fund this one-year reunion that includes a full no-trade clause. Hunter’s bat remains potent, and his situational chops should come in handy. Young slugger Oswaldo Arcia moves from right to left, where he made 54 starts as a rookie in 2013. He has a strong arm, but his routes remain an adventure, as does his daily ability to avoid nagging injuries. In center, former first-rounder Aaron Hicks should get a third crack in as many seasons at seizing the everyday job. Hunter was his childhood idol, so the daily inspiration could give him a push. If not, glove-first speedster Jordan Schafer returns as a possible platoon option (or more). There’s also the Santana option should Escobar refuse to relinquish shortstop duties.

 

Catching

Not only did the Twins sign veteran Kurt Suzuki on the cheap, but they also managed to bring him under control through 2017 (club option) with a modest contract extension ($6 million per year) that came two weeks after his first All-Star appearance. Suzuki, 31, made 115 starts in his Twins debut despite taking enough backstop abuse to topple a redwood. Pitch-framing stats aside, he brings all the Twins could have imagined after Mauer’s forced position switch. Bat-first bopper Josmil Pinto will get another shot at backing up Suzuki after struggling to polish his defensive skills. 

 

DH/Bench

Kennys Vargas went more than a month between walks at one point late in his rookie year, so it was highly encouraging for the Twins to see him pile up more walks than strikeouts in the Puerto Rican Winter League. A protégé of David Ortiz, Vargas brings the same huge frame and outgoing personality to the park every day. Plus, Vargas has big-time power from both sides of the plate. Eduardo Nunez and potentially Escobar, if he loses the shortstop battle, offer versatility and energy off the bench.

 

Management

Owner Jim Pohlad and team president Dave St. Peter authorized a payroll bump of nearly 25 percent after absorbing a fourth straight losing season amid multiplying empty seats at Target Field. Ryan, after undergoing cancer treatments that limited his 2014 schedule for months, has returned more motivated than ever to restore his organization to its former heights.

 

Final Analysis

At a projected $105.5 million, the Twins are looking at the second-highest payroll in franchise history. Whether that will be enough to make them competitive again this season is debatable. What seems clear, however, is that at least the Twins are trying.

 

2015 Prediction: 5th in AL Central

 

Projected Lineup

SS       Danny Santana (S) Only Jose Abreu outproduced him among AL rookies last season (.824 OPS for Twins).

2B       Brian Dozier (R)       Since late May 2013, Dozier’s power has been undeniable: 40 homers in 264 games.

1B       Joe Mauer (L)           Strained oblique cost him six weeks; poor season cost him spot in hometown All-Star Game.

DH      Kennys Vargas (S)  Mammoth slugger went more than a month without a walk but showed better patience in winter league.

RF       Torii Hunter (R)        Veteran is back where it all started after leaving via free agency seven years ago.

LF       Oswaldo Arcia (L)    Shows massive power when healthy, but poor defense, nagging injuries have slowed his progress.

3B       Trevor Plouffe (R)    Quietly improved his defense to the point where advanced metrics like him better than Adrian Beltre.

C         Kurt Suzuki (R)         Big first half landed him first All-Star nod and, soon, a two-year, $12 million contract extension.

CF       Aaron Hicks (S)        Former first-rounder keeps flopping, but a platoon arrangement (.410 OBP vs. lefties) might work.

 

Bench

UT       Eduardo Escobar (S)          Made the most of his opportunity, outslugging Mauer by 35 points while starting 86 games at shortstop.

OF       Jordan Schafer (L)  Waiver-wire pickup swiped a career-best 30 bases between Atlanta and Minnesota.

UT       Eduardo Nunez (R) Versatile and energetic, this ex-Yankee was once viewed as Derek Jeter’s potential successor.

C         Josmil Pinto (R)       Lots of pop in that bat, but still too much lead in his glove to merit regular playing time.

 

Rotation

RH      Phil Hughes             Move to Midwest agreed with ex-Yankee; extended through 2019 after first season with Twins.

RH      Ervin Santana           Well-traveled righty has had a sub-4.00 ERA in four of the past five seasons.

RH      Ricky Nolasco          Unwisely pitched through intermittent elbow pain after signing a then-club record, $49 million free-agent deal.

RH      Kyle Gibson             Former first-rounder, Tommy John survivor won 13 games and piled up nearly 180 innings.

LH       Tommy Milone         Finesse lefty won 31 games for Oakland in two-plus seasons before arriving in Sam Fuld trade.

 

Bullpen

LH       Glen Perkins (Closer)        Two-time All-Star pitched through forearm strain while blowing seven saves in 2014.

RH      Casey Fien     Durable setup man saw his nine-inning strikeout rate drop from 10.6 to 7.2 last season.

LH       Brian Duensing       League-adjusted ERA was 20 percent above average, best among all Twins with 30-plus innings.

LH       Caleb Thielbar         Lefty batters slugged .433 against him, almost 60 points higher than righties.

RH      Tim Stauffer         Former No. 4 overall pick has reinvented himself as a middle reliever following shoulder, elbow surgeries.

RH      Ryan Pressly            Former Rule 5 pick has career nine-inning strikeout rate of just 5.4 in 105 innings.

RH      Mike Pelfrey        Last chance for the former No. 9 overall pick who has one year at $5.5 million left on his deal.

 

Beyond the Box Score

Streak continues In the end, Ron Gardenhire wasn’t able to overcome history. With a fourth straight season of 92 or more losses, the media-friendly manager found himself on the chopping block after 13 seasons, giving way to Hall of Famer Paul Molitor. That left Twins legend Tom Kelly, who survived a mild stroke in the 2014 season’s final days, as the only manager to leave on his own terms after suffering at least three straight 90-loss seasons since World War II. 

Pinpoint Across the first seven seasons of his big-league career, all with the Yankees, Phil Hughes walked 2.80 batters per nine innings and posted a strikeout/walk rate of 2.68. In his first home start with the Twins, Hughes walked the first two batters in a four-run first inning and then walked Eric Sogard leading off the second. At that point something clicked. The durable righty would walk just 13 more batters (one intentionally) the rest of the season. Meanwhile, Hughes’ strikeout rate jumped to 8.0, as he broke Bret Saberhagen’s 20-year-old mark for the best strikeout/walk rate (11.63) for any qualifying pitcher since 1900.

Long wait Between July 18, 2012 and Sept. 13, 2014 — nearly 26 full calendar months — Twins pitchers waited in vain for something taken for granted in most modern quarters: a double-digit strikeout game. The drought reached a majors-high 379 games, dating to Francisco Liriano’s penultimate start in a Twins uniform, before Hughes finally ended the madness with an 11-strikeout performance at Chicago’s U.S. Cellular Field. The following day, rookie righthander Trevor May, an earnest Hughes protégé, went out and struck out 10 batters of his own.

Catch a whiff While waiting for a suitable offer as a free agent in the spring of 2014, veteran righthander Ervin Santana coined a catchphrase on his popular Twitter account: #SmellBaseball. It took off, and soon the bubbly Dominican was printing up T-shirts with the slogan and even holding baseballs to his nose on the mound. What does it mean? “It’s what he loves. He loves baseball,” says Amy Santana, his wife since 2009. “Anytime you go anywhere, certain smells remind you of something. For him it’s the smell of a dirty baseball, rubbing it in his hands.”

 

2014 Top Draft Pick

Nick Gordon, SS

The bloodlines are there. Taken fifth overall out of an Orlando-area high school, Gordon is the son of three-time All-Star pitcher Tom Gordon and the younger brother of All-Star second baseman Dee Gordon. Nick Gordon showed mound potential during his high school days, but he always wanted to play shortstop like his hero Derek Jeter. Gordon has soft hands and a plus arm to go with at least average range. At the plate, his left-handed swing can get a little long, but he hits for average and power with the ability to drive the ball to all fields. His raw speed is above average but needs refinement. A broken index finger on his left hand kept him from completing the Appalachian League playoffs and slowed him at his first instructional league as well. He should start 2015 at Low-A Cedar Rapids in the Midwest League.

 

Top 10 Prospects

1. Byron Buxton, CF (21) Injuries keep dogging the player many consider the No. 1 prospect in the minors. The latest was a fractured finger that ended his Arizona Fall League season.

2. Miguel Sano, 3B (21) After missing all of 2014 following Tommy John surgery, the gifted power hitter is eager to make up for lost time.

3. Jose Berrios, RHP (20) The former supplemental first-round pick reached Double-A and earned the starting assignment for the World team in the All-Star Futures Game at Target Field.

4. Kohl Stewart, RHP (20) Taken fourth overall out of a Houston high school in 2013, the former quarterback signee (Texas A&M) has been slowed by minor shoulder issues.

5. Alex Meyer, RHP (25) Towering in stature and potential; was set to make big-league debut in September until shoulder fatigue scuttled that plan.

6. Nick Gordon, SS (19) Sure, he’s tooled-up, but Gordon is a baseball player who loves the game, has outstanding instincts and impressive makeup.

7. Nick Burdi, RHP (22) A former Louisville All-American with a triple-digit fastball, Burdi posted a 0.72 ERA from July 1 forward.

8. Jorge Polanco, SS (21) A switch-hitter with a live body and bat, Polanco has drawn comparisons to fellow Dominican Tony Fernandez. 

9. Eddie Rosario, OF/2B (23) A 50-game suspension wrecked his 2014, but high-average gap threat had strong showing in the Arizona Fall League.

10. Lewis Thorpe, LHP (19) Surgery wasn’t necessary for a sprained ulnar collateral ligament in fast-improving Aussie’s throwing elbow.

Teaser:
Minnesota Twins 2015 Preview and Prediction
Post date: Wednesday, March 4, 2015 - 12:00
Path: /mlb/kansas-city-royals-2015-preview-and-prediction
Body:

The Kansas City Royals awoke from a 29-year playoff slumber in 2014 and became baseball’s darlings during a postseason run that started with a record eight consecutive wins and ended one shy of a World Series title. Ace and clubhouse leader James Shields moved on, and the Royals let designated hitter Billy Butler walk, but a still-young core of players — including first baseman Eric Hosmer and catcher Salvador Perez — return. The hope is that the centerpieces of general manager Dayton Moore’s nine-year rebuilding effort, a group that also includes third baseman Mike Moustakas, will blossom into the consistent and productive nucleus for another run. Augmented with a trio of affordable free-agent signings — DH Kendrys Morales, right fielder Alex Rios and pitcher Edinson Volquez — the Royals have unfinished business and will rely on a familiar blend of speed, defense and a dominant bullpen in the quest for another pennant.

 

Rotation

Without Shields, the rotation is less imposing, but Kansas City returns its other four starters and is banking that Volquez, who signed a two-year deal for $20 million, won’t represent too steep of a drop-off. Volquez was terrific for Pittsburgh last year, but it was his first season with an ERA below 4.10 and second with double-digit wins since 2008. He’ll slot at the back of the rotation with Jeremy Guthrie, who has won 28 games the last two years and regularly tops 200 innings. Jason Vargas exceeded expectations in his first season with Kansas City. The Royals happily would take another 187 innings with a 3.71 ERA from Vargas with the hope Yordano Ventura or Danny Duffy emerges as an ace. Both Ventura, a slender flame-thrower who finished sixth in the AL Rookie of the Year voting and shined in two World Series starts, and Duffy proved capable last season. Both also have durability concerns and must stay healthy. Moore added insurance by signing Kris Medlen to a two-year deal worth $8.5 million, but he’s coming off a second Tommy John surgery and won’t be a factor until at least midseason.


Bullpen

The Royals had baseball’s best bullpen last season, going 65–4 when leading after six innings, but it might be better in 2015. Setup men Kelvin Herrera and Wade Davis — another piece of the Shields trade — lead off a late-inning relay of dominance. Closer Greg Holland, a two-time All-Star who converted 46 of 48 save chances and won the inaugural Mariano Rivera Award as the AL’s best reliever, serves as the anchor. The trio generated considerable trade interest, especially after combining for 51 strikeouts and allowing only 23 hits and 14 walks with a 1.12 ERA in 40.1 innings during the playoffs, but Moore kept HDH intact. Bolstering the bullpen, Luke Hochevar re-signed on a two-year deal for $10 million despite missing last season (Tommy John surgery), and Jason Frasor, who arrived midseason via trade with Texas, re-signed for one year at $1.8 million. Both would be primary setup men in almost any other bullpen. Veteran Tim Collins might be the only lefty in the bullpen to start the season, though Brian Flynn — acquired in a trade that sent Aaron Crow to Miami — could force his way into the mix. The Royals’ preference would be for Brandon Finnegan to develop as a starter, making him likely to begin the season in the minors, though he showed value out of the bullpen after his September call-up.

 

Middle Infield

Up the middle, the Royals’ infield is anchored by shortstop Alcides Escobar and second baseman Omar Infante. Infante filled a glaring need when he was signed before last season, but he disappointed at the plate while battling a variety of injuries, including back and shoulder issues. The Royals need Infante to improve last season’s .252/.295/.337 slash. Offensive production from Escobar is a bonus. His glove represents his most value, but the Royals need him to boost a career .299 on-base percentage, especially if he’s asked to bat leadoff given the dearth of options.

 

Corners

Hosmer and Moustakas, both former top-three picks, remain the homegrown linchpins of the Royals’ offense. Neither has become the perennial All-Star the Royals envisioned, but both showed flashes during the postseason. The Royals hope it’s a harbinger of things to come in 2015. Hosmer has won two straight Gold Gloves, but he’s yet to match the 19 home runs he hit as a rookie in 2011. Last season, he only hit nine home runs, with a rising strikeout rate and a declining walk rate. Moustakas clubbed five home runs in the postseason, but his batting average, on-base and slugging percentages have declined the last two seasons. He bottomed out at .212/.271/.361 last season but did hit 15 home runs.

 

Outfield

The Royals boast arguably the best defensive outfield in baseball. Left fielder Alex Gordon is the team’s most established and consistent player. He’s batted .283 with an OPS of .749 or higher and averaged 19 home runs, 39 doubles and 79 RBIs the last four seasons. Gordon also won a Gold Glove each year. Center fielder Lorenzo Cain shook off the oft-injured label and enjoyed a breakout 2014 season. A superb defender, he set career highs in almost every offensive category. To replace Nori Aoki, the Royals turn to Rios, who signed a one-year deal for $11 million. He’ll need to rebound from an injury-filled 2014 season. Rios upgrades the Royals’ top-notch defense in spacious Kauffman Stadium. He has averaged 22 steals during an 11-year career and averaged 18 homers from 2005-13. 

 

Catching

Perez, a two-time All-Star and Gold Glove winner, is rapidly emerging as one of the AL’s best catchers. Pitchers raves about Perez’s game-calling, but he caught nearly 1,250 innings last season, prompting manager Ned Yost to pledge a lighter workload in 2015. Perez was great during the first 101 games last season, but his numbers dipped from .276/.314/.422 to .225/.234/.364 after Aug. 5. Backup Erik Kratz is sturdy and serviceable.

 

DH/Bench

The Royals declined Butler’s $12.5 million club option, deciding it was too much money for a player with declining production. Enter Morales, a switch-hitter who signed an incentive-laden, two-year deal worth $17 million. He only batted .218 with eight home runs in 98 games for Minnesota and Seattle last season after sitting out until mid-June in a contract ploy. Kansas City expects a rebound. Jarrod Dyson remains the fourth outfielder — and a valuable weapon as a defensive replacement and pinch-runner with 100 steals in the last three seasons. Christian Colon and Ryan Jackson, acquired from the Dodgers, are the most likely infield candidates for the bench.

 

Management

Building a winner took time, but Moore found a formula for success, and owner David Glass continues to buck the miserly reputation he earned during his first decade overseeing the Royals. The team had a productive offseason and plugged the roster’s deficiencies. Moore’s track record earns him the benefit of the doubt, but the franchise risks losing momentum if the Morales, Rios and Volquez signings don’t pan out.

 

Final Analysis

Unseating the four-time reigning AL Central champion Tigers won’t be easy. Counting on bounce-back seasons from Morales and Rios is a bit hopeful, but the Royals will rely as much on progress from their youthful core as production from their free agents. Last season proved what’s possible in Kansas City, which is eager for another crack at the postseason after leaving the tying run 90 feet from home in the seventh game of the World Series.

 

2015 Prediction: 3rd in AL Central

 

Projected Lineup

SS       Alcides Escobar (R)            Slick fielder batted .362 in a 16-game audition as the leadoff hitter in September.

1B       Eric Hosmer (L)       WAR dipped from 3.6 to 0.8 last season. Missed 30 games with broken hand. Repeat Gold Glove winner.

DH      Kendrys Morales (S)           Missed spring training in 2014 and only hit .218 with eight HRs. Averaged more than 22 HRs from 2009-13.

LF       Alex Gordon (L)        Two-time All-Star and four-time Gold Glover is face of franchise. Was in MVP conversation through August.

C         Salvador Perez (R)  Wore down while catching club-record 146 regular-season games. Rest should help .289 OBP rebound.

RF       Alex Rios (R)            Hit four home runs during injury-plagued 2014, but showed pop with 30 doubles and eight triples.

3B       Mike Moustakas (L) Still more potential than production, but hit 15 home runs — plus five more during postseason.

CF       Lorenzo Cain (R)     Exceptional defender finally stayed relatively healthy and won ALCS MVP.

2B       Omar Infante (R)      Disappointing debut season marred by injury. Must rebound from batting .252 with .632 OPS.

 

Bench

OF       Jarrod Dyson (L)      Fantastic fourth outfielder, both as a late-inning defensive replacement and spot starter.

C         Erik Kratz (R)            Showed power in limited action last season after arrival via trade from Toronto.

UT       Christian Colon (R) Socked five doubles and a triple in 21 games last season. Primarily provides depth at third and second.

INF      Ryan Jackson (R)    Career .268 minor league hitter can play shortstop, third and second base.

 

Rotation

LH       Jason Vargas           Posted career-best 3.71 ERA and 2.0 walks per nine innings ratio. Royals would love a repeat.

RH      Yordano Ventura      Ventura, known as “Ace” in Kansas City, has been compared to his idol, Pedro Martinez.

LH       Danny Duffy  Durability remains a concern after 2012 Tommy John surgery and a rib-cage injury last season.

RH      Edinson Volquez     Has thrown 170-plus innings in three straight seasons. Declining strikeout rate is a concern.

RH      Jeremy Guthrie        Surpassed expectations with 28 wins in first two years of a three-year deal. Club has 2016 option.

 

Bullpen

RH      Greg Holland (Closer)        Two-time All-Star wasn’t as dominant in 2014. Still posted 1.44 ERA and 90 strikeouts in 62.1 innings.

RH      Wade Davis  Would close for most teams. Struck out 109 while allowing 38 hits and 23 walks in 72 innings.

RH      Kelvin Herrera          Posted a 1.16 ERA, scattering 45 hits and 24 walks with 52 strikeouts in 62 innings after April 23.

RH      Luke Hochevar         Former No. 1 overall pick missed 2014 after Tommy John surgery. Established himself in setup role in ’13.

RH      Jason Frasor            Reliable middle reliever went 3–0 with a 1.53 ERA in 23 games after midseason arrival via trade from Texas.

RH      Jandel Gustave        Royals will try to stash the flame-throwing righty in the pen after acquiring the Rule 5 Draft pick by trade.

LH       Tim Collins   Spent half of 2014 in Class AAA. Command remains an issue, but he’s the most experienced southpaw reliever.

 

Beyond the Box Score

Power outage Relievers Wade Davis and Kelvin Herrera didn’t allow any home runs in 142 combined innings. Davis only allowed five extra-base hits (three doubles and two triples), and Herrera gave up just 13 extra-base hits (all doubles).

More bullpen brilliance During the last 45 years, there have been 52 relievers who have thrown 60-plus innings with an ERA under 1.50 in a season, but there had never been two on the same team until last season when the Royals had three — Herrera (1.41 ERA in 70 IP with 59 strikeouts), Davis (1.00 ERA in 72 IP with 109 strikeouts) and Greg Holland (1.44 ERA in 62.1 IP with 90 strikeouts). They also became the first trio of teammates in history to post a sub-1.50 ERA with at least 50 strikeouts in the same season.

Disciplined or not By one measure, the Royals were baseball’s least disciplined team at the plate, walking an MLB-worst 380 times — or roughly once every 16 plate appearances — in 2014. The major league average was roughly one walk every 13 plate appearances. On the other hand, the Royals also were the toughest team to strike out, fanning only 985 times. The Oakland A’s had the second-fewest strikeouts at 1,104.

Thievin’ Royals Kansas City led baseball in stolen bases for the second straight season with 153 — 15 more than the Dodgers, who led the NL. The Royals were the only team with three players who stole at least 25 bases, a first for the franchise since 1983. Part-time outfielder Jarrod Dyson led the way with a career-high 36 steals, while Alcides Escobar (31) and Lorenzo Cain (28) proved to be prolific base thieves as well.

Speaking of steals Kansas City signed righthander Kris Medlen to a two-year deal worth $8.5 million. It’s a gamble, because Medlen missed most of the 2011 season after Tommy John surgery and had a second ulnar collateral ligament replacement surgery that cost him the 2014 season. It also could be a brilliant move if Medlen regains the form he flashed going 25–13 with a 2.47 ERA in 335 innings with Atlanta from 2012-13.

 

2014 Top Draft Pick

Brandon Finnegan, LHP

Finnegan became the first pitcher to appear in the College World Series and the actual World Series in the same season. Selected 17th overall in the 2014 draft, Finnegan led TCU to the CWS then breezed through the lower levels of the Royals’ minor league system, posting a 1.33 ERA with 26 strikeouts and only four walks in 27 innings during stops at Class A Wilmington and Class AA Northwest Arkansas. During a September call-up, Finnegan went 0–1 with a 1.29 ERA, striking out 10 with only one walk during seven appearances, which earned him a spot on the club’s postseason roster. He sparkled in his first six postseason outings before a hiccup in the fourth game of the World Series. Finnegan is a candidate for the Royals’ bullpen, but is more likely to start the season in the minors as he’s groomed to be a starter.

 

Top 10 Prospects

1. Raul Adalberto Mondesi, SS (19) Batted .211 with eight homers at Class A Wilmington, but scouts rave about his defense, see power potential.

2. Brandon Finnegan, LHP (21) A proven winner who showed his makeup during the AL wild card game, pitching 2.1 critical innings.

3. Kyle Zimmer, RHP (23) Durability concerns plague the 2012 first-round pick, who was limited to six games by shoulder issues.

4. Sean Manaea, LHP (23) Bounced back from a hip injury to throw 121.2 innings for Class A Wilmington, going 7–8 with a 3.11 ERA and 146 strikeouts against 54 walks.

5. Hunter Dozier, 3B (23) The 2013 first-round pick reached Class AA after batting .295 with 18 doubles and four home runs in 66 games at Class A.

6. Miguel Almonte, RHP (22) Displays excellent command, especially with his mid-90s fastball, and could move quickly.

7. Foster Griffin, LHP (19) The sturdy-framed southpaw has a reputation for throwing strikes with his three-pitch arsenal, including a low-90s fastball and improving changeup and slider.

8. Jorge Bonifacio, OF (21) Entering his sixth year with the Royals organization and looking to rebound after batting .230 with only four home runs in first full season at Class AA Northwest Arkansas.

9. Scott Blewett, RHP (18) The 6'6" 2014 second-round pick went 1–2 with a 4.82 ERA in eight appearances (28 IP) in rookie league.

10. Christian Colon, SS/2B (25) Batted .333 with five doubles in 21 games with the Royals last season. Poised to break in the big leagues as a full-time bench player in 2015.

Teaser:
Kansas City Royals 2015 Preview and Prediction
Post date: Wednesday, March 4, 2015 - 11:30
Path: /mlb/detroit-tigers-2015-preview-and-prediction
Body:

Despite winning a fourth straight AL Central crown, the Tigers took a small step backward in 2014, getting swept by the Orioles in the Division Series and falling short of the ALCS for the first time since 2010. The chief culprit was easy to spot — a bullpen that, by October, lacked even one shutdown arm, leaving rookie manager Brad Ausmus completely exposed in late-inning situations. On the surface, the 2015 edition of this roster is not terribly different than the 2014 Tigers. The big changes have come in the rotation — which loses Max Scherzer and Rick Porcello while adding Alfredo Simon and Shane Greene, not exactly an upgrade — and in right field, where Yoenis Cespedes replaces departing free agent Torii Hunter, essentially a wash in terms of production. But the addition of center fielder Anthony Gose and the return of shortstop Jose Iglesias signal an emphasis on up-the-middle defense, and the middle of the lineup — now with Miguel Cabrera, Victor Martinez, Cespedes and J.D. Martinez — remains as scary as any in the game. 

 

Rotation

The rotation remains the foundation — spiritually and financially — of the Tigers. Lefty David Price, the 2012 AL Cy Young winner, slides into Scherzer’s ace role without much of a drop-off, but the rest of the rotation is now chock-full of questions. Was Justin Verlander’s rough 2014 an aberration or a sign of permanent decline? Can Anibal Sanchez remain healthy after an injury-shortened 2014? Was Simon’s 2014 breakthrough with the Cincinnati Reds more than a fluke? And is Greene more like the pitcher who went 29–43 with a 4.39 ERA as a minor leaguer, or the one who posted a solid 5–4 and 3.78 as a big league rookie last year in the Bronx? 


Bullpen

To be fair, GM Dave Dombrowski tried valiantly to shore up the 2014 Tigers’ bullpen, adding closer Joe Nathan last offseason, trading for promising young lefty Ian Krol, then adding Joakim Soria as a setup man in July. But none of them could prevent the ugly collapse. And nearly everyone is back in 2015, including Joba Chamberlain who signed a one-year deal at the start of training camp. The Tigers believed enough in a Soria bounce-back to pick up his 2015 option, so he will return as Nathan’s top setup man. But the best things that can happen for this unit are for hard-throwing righthander Bruce Rondon to make a full recovery from 2014 elbow surgery, for Krol to make a big leap from last year’s disaster and for a couple of youngsters to emerge as dependable middle-inning solutions.

 

Middle Infield

The Tigers have yet to see their projected double-play combination together, as shortstop Jose Iglesias, runner-up for Rookie of the Year in 2013, missed all of ’14 with stress fractures in his shins, just as All-Star second baseman Ian Kinsler was arriving from Texas. Iglesias’s expected return will be a boost both offensively and defensively. Kinsler was exactly what the Tigers expected. You can pencil him in for 150 games, 15 homers, 80 RBIs and 15 stolen bases — as well as exceptional defense — in 2015.

 

Corners

The monumental November 2013 trade that sent Prince Fielder to Texas for Kinsler allowed the Tigers to shift Cabrera back across the diamond to first base — where he had another great 2014 while not killing the team too much with his glove — and perhaps more important, opened up third base for top prospect Nick Castellanos. At the plate, Castellanos’s 2014 rookie season was encouraging, as he produced a respectable .259/.306/.394 slash line at age 22, but he was disappointing on the other side of the ball, with advanced defensive metrics measuring his performance somewhere between dismal and abysmal. Part of that could be attributed to his shift from shortstop (where he played primarily in high school) to third base (after being drafted) to left field (after the signing of Fielder) then back to third. Perhaps the stability of remaining at one position will help.

 

Outfield

The Tigers are replacing two-thirds of their 2014 outfield. With Hunter’s departure, the Tigers went out and acquired a statistical clone who is a decade younger in Cespedes — a move that pushes Rajai Davis to the bench, or into a platoon in center field. That platoon would be shared with Gose, a top defender who was acquired from Toronto over the winter. Gose has never played more than 94 games in a season, and it remains to be seen whether the Tigers can live with a hitter who slugged .293 in 274 plate appearances in 2014. Returning in left is J.D. Martinez, who was merely one of the best surprises in baseball in 2014. Released by the Astros in spring training, he signed with the Tigers two days later and spent the season shedding his underachiever label with a dazzling .315/.358/.553 line.

 

Catching

Alex Avila seemed poised to take his place as one of the top young catchers in the game following his breakout season of 2011, but a series of concussions and a steady decline in production have followed. Nonetheless, his numbers are still decent enough for a catcher, and his performance behind the plate is brilliant enough that the Tigers wasted little time in exercising his $5.4 million option for 2015. Still, whoever the Tigers have as backup — James McCann, a rookie who made a big-league cameo in 2014, is the top choice — may get more time behind the plate and more at-bats than the typical backup catcher.

 

DH/Bench

Thank heaven for Victor Martinez. The venerable DH had the best season of his illustrious career, leading the league with a .974 OPS, bashing a career-high 32 homers and finishing second in MVP balloting. Martinez tore the meniscus in his left knee and underwent surgery in early February, but the team is optimistic that he will be ready to play come Opening Day. While Martinez is not a huge concern at this point, the Tigers’ bench, however, is another story, as it was exposed in the three-game sweep at the hands of the Orioles in the ALDS. Getting Iglesias back at shortstop will help with depth, allowing Andrew Romine, who saw the bulk of the playing time there last year, to slide into a utility job, where he probably belongs. But outside of Davis, who got bumped by the Cespedes acquisition, this looks to be a dangerously inexperienced bench for such an established team. Youngster Tyler Collins is in line to be the fifth outfielder, and McCann is the top choice as backup catcher.

 

Management

Dombrowski is regarded as one of the top GMs in the game, and deservedly so, but he appears to have made a rare misstep with the pivotal Doug Fister deal of December 2013. Of the three players acquired from Washington in the trade, only Krol remains — a weak return for one of the most consistent pitchers in the game. To his credit, Dombrowski checked off the major items on his list in 2015 — re-signing Martinez, finding a center fielder and replacing departed free agents Scherzer and Hunter — but you have to wonder why he didn’t do more to beef up a bullpen that was exposed last October. As for Ausmus, 90 wins and an AL Central title would qualify as a successful rookie season in the dugout, but he was overmatched against counterpart Buck Showalter in the ALDS.

 

Final Analysis

By acquiring Gose for center field, picking up Avila’s option and keeping shortstop open for Iglesias, the Tigers, long known as the home of power arms and power bats, appear to be trying to build around defense. They will still be a formidable team in 2015, but with major questions concerning the bullpen and the impact of the loss of Scherzer — not to mention the rise of the Royals as a tireless challenger and the radical offseason improvement of the White Sox — the path to a fifth straight Central title appears more difficult than ever, and this Cabrera-Verlander-Martinez-Kinsler core may only have a few more seasons to try to capture that elusive World Series title.

 

2015 Prediction: 1st in AL Central

 

Projected Lineup

2B       Ian Kinsler (R)          At least 13 homers, 15 stolen bases and 70 RBIs in six of the last seven seasons.

C         Alex Avila (L) OPS has declined average of 70 points per season since 2011 breakout (.895).

1B       Miguel Cabrera (R) Still managed 25 homers, 109 RBIs, .895 OPS in injury-plagued “down” season.

DH      Victor Martinez (S)    Had best season of his career last year at age 35; signed new four-year deal.

RF       Yoenis Cespedes   His 2014 slash line: .260/.301/.450. Torii Hunter’s 2014 slash line: .286/.319/.446.

LF       J.D. Martinez (R)      From spring training release with Houston to .912 OPS with Detroit in eight months.

3B       Nick Castellanos (R)          Despite high strikeout total, low OBP, his 2014 rookie season was encouraging.

SS       Jose Iglesias (R)     Injury kept him sidelined all of 2014; Tigers missed his glove more than his bat.

CF       Anthony Gose (L)     Career OPS+ is just 76, but Tigers traded for him to shore up outfield defense.

 

Bench

OF       Rajai Davis (R)        His 2014 splits define platoon player: .617 OPS vs. RHPs, .939 vs. LHPs.

OF       Tyler Collins (L)       Corner outfielder showed knack for pinch-hitting during September call-up.

C         James McCann (R) Second-round pick in 2011 had breakout year at Triple-A in 2014 and is top candidate to back up Avila.

INF      Andrew Romine (S)            Started nearly half Tigers’ games at shortstop last year; moves to utility role in 2015.

 

Rotation

LH       David Price   Career-high 248.1 regular-season innings pitched in 2014, most by AL pitcher in four years.

RH      Justin Verlander      Three straight years of rising ERA and WHIP, declining IP and K/9 IP.

RH      Anibal Sanchez        Injury, inconsistency in 2014 resulted in step back after career year in 2013.

RH      Alfredo Simon          13 of 22 HRs allowed in 2014 came in Cincinnati; deep Comerica fences should help.

RH      Shane Greene         Two of his five wins in 2014 rookie campaign with the Yankees came against Tigers.

 

Bullpen

RH      Joe Nathan (Closer)           Tigers hope for bounce-back year in 2015, but he’s 40 and coming off career-worst season.

RH      Joakim Soria            July trade acquisition failed to stop bullpen’s bleeding, but team picked up 2015 option.

RH      Joba Chamberlain  Big righty is back after going 2-5 with a 3.57 ERA in 69 games last season.

RH      Al Alburquerque       Most consistent member of 2014 Tigers pen, but manager Brad Ausmus stayed away from him in October.

RH      Bruce Rondon          Promising career as future closer interrupted by elbow surgery that cost him all of 2014.

LH       Ian Krol          Last man standing from Doug Fister trade gets another chance after dismal 2014.

LH       Kyle Lobstein           Respectable as a spot-starter in 2014, he may get first crack at long man in 2015 bullpen.

 

Beyond the Box Score

Who’s up first? It appears as if the Tigers will be without a true, everyday leadoff man again in 2015, with Ian Kinsler expected to be pressed into duty, as he was for much of 2014. Rajai Davis, a speedster who has stolen 25 or more bases in seven straight seasons, would seemingly be a natural leadoff man — and against lefties, he is — but his splits against righthanders (.247/.290/.327 in 2014) have been awful, which is why he likely will find himself on the bench.

Take a walk Kinsler’s walk rate took a precipitous fall, dropping to 4.0 percent of his plate appearances, less than half his 2013 rate of 8.3 percent. In a league-leading 726 plate appearances, Kinsler walked 29 times, the first time since ’08 that he walked fewer than 50 times. His OBP dipped to a career-low .307.

Is the Price right? In letting ace Max Scherzer walk, the Tigers may have been setting the stage to re-sign lefty David Price, a free agent after 2015, to a long-term deal, using the money that otherwise would have gone to Scherzer. Price is slightly younger and left-handed, and he throws with a less violent delivery that should make him less prone to an arm injury.

Top Tiger Although Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez draw the most attention, Kinsler was the Tigers’ best player in 2014, as measured in WAR. Kinsler measured 5.4 WAR in the Fangraphs.com model and 5.5 in the Baseball-Reference.com model.

Trending down Justin Verlander’s numbers are trending in the wrong direction. Since his Cy Young season of 2011, his ERA has risen in three straight seasons, nearly doubling from 2.40 in 2011 to 4.54 in 2014, and his WHIP has seen a similar rise. What has been dropping? Namely, Verlander’s average fastball velocity, which has fallen from 95.0 in 2011 to just 92.3 last season — perhaps one reason he has come to rely much more frequently on sliders (8.4 percent of his pitches in 2011, 15.1 percent in 2014).

Bullpen woes How bad was the Tigers’ bullpen in 2014? Despite being called upon to throw the third-fewest innings of any pen in baseball (447 innings), it posted the fourth-worst ERA (4.29) and FIP (4.09) and the third-worst BB/9 IP rate (3.87). Take out Joba Chamberlain’s 0.8 WAR, and the rest of the Tigers’ relievers combined to pitch below replacement-level.

 

2014 Top Draft Pick

Derek Hill, OF

After picking Hill, a center fielder out of Elk Grove (Calif.) High School, with the 23rd overall pick, the Tigers went slightly above the slot figure to sign him for $2 million and keep him from his commitment to the University of Oregon. Hill is a 6'2", 190-pound speedster who graded as an 80 for speed on the standard 20-80 scouting scale. He advanced out of rookie ball to short-season Class A in 2014, and stole 11 bases in 13 tries, but he hit only .208/.296/.295 combined. It will be a few years, at least, before Hill ever appears in a Tigers uniform, but his pure speed and a body that should fill out over time give him a high ceiling as a prospect.

 

Top 10 Prospects

1. Steven Moya, OF (23) In a farm system depleted by trades, he is the closest thing to a high-impact prospect. Bashed 35 home runs with 105 RBIs in Double-A.

2. Buck Farmer, RHP (24) Former Georgia Tech star climbed all the way from Class A to the majors last September — he started two games — and has shot to make 2015 team.

3. Derek Hill, OF (19) Speedy center fielder was Detroit’s 2014 top draft pick. He will be in Class A this season.

4. Kevin Ziomek, LHP (23) Second-round pick out of Vanderbilt in 2013 went 10–6 with a 2.27 ERA in full-season pro debut (Class A). He lacks plus stuff and projects to be no more than a middle-of-the-rotation starter.

5. Austin Kubitza, RHP (23) Former Pirate draft pick went 10–2, 2.34 as a starter at High-A, but the lack of a dependable third pitch may send him to bullpen.

6. Hernan Perez, INF (24) The Tigers thought enough of Perez that they put him on 2014 postseason roster and worked him out as an outfielder this winter.

7. Tyler Collins, OF (24) Had two short stints in big leagues in 2014 — appearing in 18 games — and bench job is his to lose this spring.

8. Spencer Turnbull, RHP (22) Struggled in short-season Class A, but strong build and mid-90s fastball put him on this list.

9. Jose Valdez, RHP (25) Hard-throwing reliever struggled a bit in Class AA, but team encouraged by declining walk rate.

10. Drew VerHagen, RHP (24) Big, hard-throwing righthander spent nearly all of 2014 in Class AAA, but got spot-start for Tigers in July and could be back in 2015.

Teaser:
Detroit Tigers 2015 Preview and Prediction
Post date: Wednesday, March 4, 2015 - 11:00
All taxonomy terms: Joey Logano, NASCAR, News
Path: /nascar/jimmie-johnson-makes-early-statement-atlanta-win
Body:

“Is he past his prime?”

 

“Will he ever win another championship?”

 

“Should Chad Knaus be fired as crew chief?”

 

Those questions and then some dogged Jimmie Johnson through the first four months of 2014, as the six-time champ endured a winless drought that lasted all the way through the Coca-Cola 600 Memorial Day Weekend. It was a draining series of questions you earn when you’re an athlete on top of the mountain; in today’s world of 24/7 media, the second you get there is the second everyone waits for you to fall off.

 

While Johnson did recover last summer, winning three races in a month’s time the team found themselves stumbling in the Chase. Involved in a Kansas wreck, the end result of a poor qualifying effort, Johnson found himself knocked out long before the season finale at Homestead. The 11th-place finish in the final standings was his worst since joining the Cup circuit in 2002. The questions began again: was this team a true title contender going forward?

 

Two weeks in, we have our answer — and it’s in the form of a Winner’s Trophy.

 

“It takes the pressure off,” said Johnson after holding off teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. to win Atlanta, the second race of the Sprint Cup season. “We don’t have the questions of, ‘Are you going to win this year,’ the stuff that is from the fans and what goes on in here. It’s nice to dodge that. We’ll have to win again in six to eight weeks or else those questions will come around. Buys us a little bit of a reprieve.”

 

It also establishes Johnson up front in a way he never was throughout the 2014 season. Last year, it was eventual champion Kevin Harvick who won during the series’ second race, at Phoenix and then outgunned the Hendrick Motorsports cars on speed nearly every week. At times, Harvick’s car would break, the symptom of a first-year team getting its act together. But when the pit stops held up, keeping track position safe for the No. 4 car he would be able to beat Johnson, Earnhardt Jr. and company plenty more than they were used to.

 

Harvick’s still very much a contender, leading a race-high 116 laps Sunday and posting his second straight runner-up finish. However, Johnson was the one who outgunned him late, making up for lost time on multiple pit stops to slice through traffic and score the victory. In a race where passing was difficult, leaving the best cars going mano a mano against each other, the No. 48 car had the brute horsepower and handling to outgun everything else.

 

It’s a good sign going forward, especially with the way Johnson’s team was reorganized a bit at the end of last year.

 

“Through getting to know the new folks on our team, the engineers, they understood what I was asking for, found a way to give it to me,” he said. “I knew within about two sets of corners when the race started we were going to have an awesome day.  The car was just incredible.”

 

Johnson so confident, so soon? That’s a bad sign for the rest of the competition.

 

Let’s go Through The Gears post-Atlanta...

 

FIRST GEAR: Johnson, Hendrick Make Hay With New Rules Package

 

The first week of “real” racing was clearly a victory for Hendrick Motorsports. Johnson won, teammate Earnhardt ran third and Harvick, driving with a Hendrick chassis and engine, finished between them. In two races, HMS has now led 251 laps which is tops among all teams on the circuit.

 

Perhaps just as important as Johnson’s victory was Earnhardt, posting his second straight top-5 finish to start the season with new crew chief Greg Ives. It’s clear the No. 88 team hasn’t skipped a beat since losing longtime leader Steve Letarte the end of last season.

 

“Happy with the car. Happy with Greg. Greg is great at communicating,” he said. “Our communication is natural, feels good. He's a pretty decent cheerleader, too, for myself, the team. Man, he's going to be something else for a while around that garage.”

 

Joey Logano, who won the pole, leads a formidable Team Penske combination. They’re clearly top-tier contenders, along with Joe Gibbs Racing. But so far, HMS holds a slight edge.

 

SECOND GEAR: Who’s In Trouble Early

 

It’s only two races in, and points don’t mean so much with NASCAR’s new “Win and You’re In” Chase format. That being said, two former champions in Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart find themselves in deep holes early. Tied for 35th in the standings, that’s also how many points in the Chase cutoff they are behind already, as both have wrecked twice in two races. Stewart’s slump is the most concerning; he’s only got one top-5 finish since returning to the Cup Series following the Kevin Wad, Jr. tragedy last summer.

 

Other stragglers include Chip Ganassi Racing (four starts, four wrecks) and Roush Fenway Racing, whose young drivers Trevor Bayne and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. sit outside the top 20 in points. But perhaps worst off of all is Landon Cassill, the first driver to post back-to-back last-place finishes (blown engines) since the first year of NASCAR’s top series in 1949.

 

THIRD GEAR: Dude, Where’s My Car? And Other Qualifying Debacles

 

Friday was already a strange day at Atlanta Motor Speedway after Travis Kvapil’s Cup car, holed up in a hotel parking lot overnight never even made it to the track. But NASCAR’s qualifying format, already weakened with a debacle at the Daytona 500 took another hit when over a dozen cars never made it past inspection in time. Among those who weren’t able to get their shot at qualifying were Johnson, Stewart, and Matt Kenseth.

 

“If we would have known this was going to happen,” tweeted Stewart, “We could have worked on the race setup. Was a total waste of a day at the track.”

 

The weird result left full-time cars like HScott Motorsports’ Michael Annett missing the race without being able to make an attempt. In the end, Annett bought his way in but such a strategy further waters down the whole idea of athletic competition. Whether it was the teams stretching limits, a slow technical inspection line, whatever the culprit… this situation can’t happen again. Group qualifying was supposed to become a way to make the sport more exciting. Instead? It’s laughable.

 

FOURTH GEAR: No SAFER Barrier… Again

 

Gordon’s late-race wreck saw him sent into a backstretch wall without one of the sport’s SAFER Barriers. Gordon was OK, despite the hard hit but it was the second time in as many weeks a superstar was put in peril unnecessarily.

 

NASCAR, in response claimed this week adding more SAFER barriers at each of its tracks was “high priority.” But every day, every race they wait puts us ever closer to bad luck striking the sport. Kyle Busch is already out several months with leg injuries after the Daytona debacle; could you imagine if Gordon got hurt the following week? NASCAR is playing with fire right now and one more incident at Vegas this Sunday could force the sanctioning body to put its money where its mouth is.

 

OVERDRIVE

 

Reaction on the new driver track bar adjuster was mixed. Some, like Jamie McMurray thought it saved an ill-handling car during a run while others felt like there was limited impact. “I haven't found it to be anything that sets the world on fire,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “Actually moving it down really just hurts my car.  Moving it up made the back swing a little bit too much.  I never used it and got happy about it…” Regan Smith (filling in for Kurt Busch) and David Ragan (Kyle Busch) ran 17th and 18th, respectively in their substitute roles. Ragan will be driving Kyle Busch’s No. 18 car for the next several weeks until the JGR organization thinks young Erik Jones is ready to run the race… A late-race accident that put Gordon in the wall started when Denny Hamlin, one of last year’s Final Four championship contenders simply lost it. “I just got sucked around,” he said to jumpstart an incident that also involved McMurray and Stenhouse Jr.

 

— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and the Majority Owner of NASCAR Web site Frontstretch.com. He can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @NASCARBowles.

 

Photos by Action Sports, Inc.

Teaser:
Jimmie Johnson Makes Early Statement With Atlanta Win
Post date: Wednesday, March 4, 2015 - 10:45
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
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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.

 

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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

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