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Los Angeles Dodgers
For Dodgers fans, the long nightmare is over. Last year was one of the darkest in the storied franchise’s long history. A Giants fan was brutally beaten in the parking lot outside Dodger Stadium. The team’s owners, Frank and Jamie McCourt, engaged in a tacky and embarrassing divorce battle. Frank also took the team into bankruptcy, battling with TV rights-holders and MLB hierarchy in the process. An organic boycott grew out of fans’ disgust with the franchise’s management, and attendance dipped below three million for only the second time in the past 16 years. McCourt eventually sold the team to a group headed by Magic Johnson and former Braves executive Stan Kasten, giving those fans hope for the future. The new owners inherit two very valuable assets in Clayton Kershaw and Matt Kemp — two of the best young players in baseball. Unfortunately in the short term, though, GM Ned Colletti has been handcuffed by the franchise’s financial problems and surrounded those two stars with cheap spare parts. The Dodgers’ biggest offseason acquisition was starter Aaron Harang, signed as a free agent for two years and $12 million. But the sleeping giant has been awakened. The dark days are over and good times are coming.
The Dodgers had hoped by now to have one of the best 1-2 punches in the National League at the front of their rotation. They’re halfway there. Kershaw has blossomed into one of baseball’s best pitchers. He won the NL’s pitching Triple Crown in 2011, tying for the lead league in wins (21) and leading the NL in ERA (2.28) and strikeouts (248) while running away with the Cy Young Award. However, righthander Chad Billingsley has yet to take his next step forward. Since winning 16 games back in 2008, the 27-year-old Billingsley has been basically a .500 pitcher (35–33) with a rising ERA (a career-high 4.21 last year) and slipping K-rate. The rest of the Dodgers’ rotation is an uninspiring group of middling veterans, placeholders for a wave of young talent led by injured Rubby De La Rosa. Harang and lefthander Chris Capuano were signed as free agents (at half the cost of departed free agent Hiroki Kuroda) to join Ted Lilly.
Jonathan Broxton’s four-year roller-coaster ride as the Dodgers’ closer ended with elbow surgery and free agency last year. In his place, Javy Guerra has stepped in as the last link in a young bullpen featuring only two veterans (Matt Guerrier and Mike MacDougal). Guerra was a godsend, making his major league debut in May and quickly laying claim to the closer’s role. As a rookie, he converted 21 of 23 save opportunities with a 2.31 ERA. He’ll team with hard-throwing Kenley Jansen as the finishers in the Dodgers’ bullpen. After a dynamic debut in 2010, Jansen got off to a rough start in 2011 before righting himself in a big way. From mid-June until the end of the season, Jansen retired 97 of the 120 batters he faced — 61 by strikeout. Though inexperienced, the Guerra-Jansen combo is a formidable hammer for manager Don Mattingly to wield at the back end of games. He’ll sort through a passel of young arms (including Josh Lindblom, Scott Elbert and Nathan Eovaldi) to build the rest of the pen.
Rookie shortstop Dee Gordon breathed some life into the Dodgers last season, batting .304 in 56 games after his big league debut in early June. Gordon was particularly dynamic in September, when he led all National Leaguers with 42 hits and stole 12 of his 24 bases (tied for the NL lead among rookies). The still-developing Gordon is a mixed bag (particularly defensively) at this point in his career. But the Dodgers will insert him at the leadoff spot and hope the spark he provides will outweigh the blunders. Alongside him at second base, meanwhile, will be a pair of veterans on the downside of their careers. Mark Ellis, 34, figures to get most of the playing time with Adam Kennedy in a utility role.
As he rose through their farm system, the Dodgers envisioned first baseman James Loney developing into a Mark Grace clone, providing defensive range at first with doubles power, high average and run production at the plate. Those visions have yet to be realized. Loney’s power has not emerged; he has driven in fewer runs each of the past two seasons, and his average seems stuck in the .280s. The Dodgers would like to see more punch from Loney to give them a complementary offensive piece behind Kemp. The other side of the infield was an even bigger disappointment in 2011. Casey Blake is gone, but Juan Uribe and his three-year, $21 million contract live on. Injured, out of shape and ineffective, Uribe hit just .204 in 77 games last season. With few alternatives, the Dodgers will give Uribe another chance to earn his salary at third in 2012.
Potential turned into reality with Kemp in 2011. The supremely gifted center fielder emerged as the best all-around player in the NL, just missing out on a 40-40 season and finishing second to Milwaukee’s Ryan Braun in the NL MVP voting while leading the league in home runs (39), RBIs (126) and runs scored (115), winning a Gold Glove, stealing 40 bases and batting .324. More of the same is expected after he signed an eight-year, $160 million contract extension. Simply more is expected from his outfield neighbors, particularly Andre Ethier in right. After a scorching start, Ethier finished the season with a .292 average, 11 home runs (matching a career-low) and 62 RBIs. If he rebounds, the Dodgers will have a robust 1-2 punch in the middle of their lineup. If not, the offense will continue to sag as it did in 2011. While Ethier and others were failing to support Kemp in the Dodgers’ 2011 lineup, Juan Rivera was a valuable midseason find, batting .274 with five home runs and 46 RBIs in 62 games with the Dodgers. That was enough to get him a new contract (one year with a club option for 2013). Tony Gwynn Jr. lurks, ready to take away playing time.
The Dodgers moved on from Russell Martin last season, trying to combine the talents of Rod Barajas and Dioner Navarro to fill the vacancy at catcher. That didn’t work out very well. A.J. Ellis gets the chance now to lay claim to the primary catcher’s job with veteran Matt Treanor backing him up. The best asset Ellis has shown in his career is an ability to get on base — he has a career OBP of .406 in the minors and .360 in 87 major league games.
Colletti’s spare-parts approach to team-building (necessitated by the team’s uncertain finances) will be most evident on the bench, where the Dodgers’ roster thins out rapidly. It may take a year or so for the effect of new ownership to show here, but at least there are resources to add necessary parts during the season. Hairston Jr., a veteran utility man, and Kennedy offer versatility but little else. Treanor is a reliable backup at catcher. Only Gwynn threatens to be more than minimal role players.
In his first year as manager, Mattingly proved that he was up to a challenging situation, getting his team to finish strong (45 wins in the final 73 games) despite being out of the race. He proved to be a more hands-on presence than predecessor Joe Torre, getting the most out of the Dodgers’ best player, Kemp, who chafed under Torre and did not mesh well with his old-school coaching staff. If the Dodgers overachieved by finishing with a winning record (82–79) in Mattingly’s first season, he’ll have to milk more of the same out of a limited roster once again in 2012.
The NL West has been a difficult division to get a handle on. Four of the five teams have made the playoffs at least once in the past three seasons (the Padres being the only ones left in the cold) with a different division winner each of those years. The Dodgers’ best hope in 2012 might be for a similar open casting call extending deep into the season. That would allow time for new ownership to free Colletti’s hands for some midseason moves that could prove the difference in a close division race. Perhaps now the Dodgers can start performing like the big-market team they really are.
SS Dee Gordon (L)
Had more hits in September (42) than any hitter in the National League.
2B Mark Ellis (R)
OPS of Dodgers second basemen in 2011 (.627) was lowest in NL, 28th of 30 MLB teams.
CF Matt Kemp (R)
Monster year could herald arrival of mega-talented Kemp as MLB’s best all-around player.
RF Andre Ethier (L)
30-game hitting streak in April-May was one short of franchise record set by Willie Davis in 1969.
LF Juan Rivera (R)
Hit only two homers in final 28 games but still had 22 RBIs in September.
1B James Loney (L)
With settled ownership, Dodgers might have bid for free agent Prince Fielder.
3B Juan Uribe (R)
Three-year, $21 million contract given to Uribe looks like another costly mistake.
C A.J. Ellis (R)
Emerges from last year’s Rod Barajas-Dioner Navarro muddle to get first shot at every-day job.
UT Jerry Hairston Jr. (R)
Played five positions (second, third, shortstop, left field and center field) for Nats and Brewers in 2011.
INF Adam Kennedy (L)
Made 58 starts batting third, fourth or fifth for offense-starved Mariners last season.
C Matt Treanor (R)
Career .225 hitter better known for his defense — and his wife (beach volleyball star Misty May).
OF Tony Gwynn Jr. (L)
Could surface in left field again if Rivera reverts to 2010 form.
INF Justin Sellers (R)
Made 17 starts across three infield positions last season, but hit just .203.
LH Clayton Kershaw
Dodgers’ first 20-game winner since 1990 was 12–2 vs. NL West teams, 5–0 vs. rival Giants.
RH Chad Billingsley
Dodgers still waiting for Billingsley’s breakout season despite career 70–52 record.
LH Ted Lilly
Has averaged less than six innings per start — but WHIP is just 1.11 in season-and-a-half as Dodger. Will begin the season on the DL, but not expected to miss a start.
RH Aaron Harang
Cautionary note: ERA jumped from 3.05 to 4.70, WHIP from 1.21 to 1.65 away from Petco Park in 2011.
LH Chris Capuano
Went 11–12 with 4.55 ERA for Mets in 2011, his first full season after Tommy John surgery.
RH Javy Guerra (Closer)
Went from Double-A to Dodgers’ closer in 2011, but Jansen lurks as potential successor.
RH Kenley Jansen
Set major league record by averaging 16.1 strikeouts per nine innings last year.
RH Matt Guerrier
Lone veteran in young pen allowed 16 of final 28 inherited runners to score in 2011.
RH Blake Hawksworth
Had career-high 7.3 strikeouts per nine innings last year but let half his inherited runners score. He’ll miss at least two months nursing a sore elbow.
LH Scott Elbert
Held lefties to .191 average (13 for 68) with 18 strikeouts in 2011.
RH Josh Lindblom
23 strikeouts, 20 runners allowed in final 19 innings with Dodgers last year.
RH Mike MacDougal
Posted 2.05 ERA in first year wearing blue; re-signed to one-year deal with club option in offseason.
RH Jamey Wright
The 16-year vet is now playing for his ninth franchise.
RH Todd Coffey
Allowed only 55 hits in 59.2 innings with the Nationals last year.
The Diamondbacks are in it to win it, again, although they will no longer be able to sneak up on the NL West after their stunning worst-to-first run to the division title in 2011. General manager Kevin Towers made several key offseason moves, trading for quality starter Trevor Cahill and signing free agent outfielder Jason Kubel to a team that returns virtually all of the other elements that produced a 29-game improvement from the previous year. The D-backs must be considered a top contender to repeat.
The D-backs benefited from career years from the top four in their starting rotation last year, and there is no reason to believe that after a slight remake they cannot put up a reasonable facsimile this time around. Ian Kennedy, Daniel Hudson, Joe Saunders, Josh Collmenter and newcomer Cahill fit Towers’ M.O. — they throw strikes and are not afraid to use their defense. Kennedy, who was one of three 20-games winners in the majors last season at 21–4, finished fourth in the NL Cy Young Award voting, and discerning voters could have moved him up a notch considering that he pitches in one of the most hitter-friendly parks in the majors. Hudson, acquired in a 2010 trading deadline deal from the Chicago White Sox, won 16 games in his first full season in a major league rotation and finished eighth in the league in fewest walks per nine innings. Cahill, acquired from Oakland for prospects Jarrod Parker, Collin Cowgill and Ryan Cook, has won 40 games in his three major league seasons, and he is only nine months older than Parker. Cahill won 18 games in 2010 before falling to 12 last season, which he believed was a direct result of getting away from a curveball that he plans to throw more often this year. Saunders was re-signed to a one-year deal in January. He went 12–13 with a 3.69 ERA and tied a career-high with 33 starts in 2011. Collmenter, a funky righthander whose ultra-overhand delivery is a result of throwing hatchets as a youngster in the woods of Michigan, won 10 games despite not entering the rotation until May 14. Collmenter commands an 87 mph fastball and a 78 mph change with devastating effectiveness.
Everything Towers has touched recently has turned to gold, and the retooled bullpen is the prime example. Closer J.J. Putz had a career-high 45 saves after signing a two-year, $10 million free agent deal in the winter of 2010. He proved to be a steal, and his numbers might have been even better had he not missed a month with right shoulder tendinitis. When Putz, a sinker-changeup guy, was out, setup man David Hernandez filled in seamlessly, converting all seven of his save opportunities during that stretch. He and Putz were the principal reasons the D-backs’ bullpen ERA dropped more than two runs from 2010 to 2011. Towers did not stand pat, signing free agent Takashi Saito, who will start the season on the DL, and acquiring lefthander Craig Breslow in the Cahill deal. Saito missed half of 2011 with a variety of ailments but was his normal effective self when he got on the mound, although he is more of an every-other-day pitcher at age 42. Breslow gives the D-backs a second lefthander to pair with specialist Joe Paterson, who set a franchise record with 19 consecutive scoreless appearances to start the season last year. Breslow is considered a one- or even two-inning guy. Sidearmer Brad Ziegler will begin his first full season with the D-backs after coming over at the trade deadline. Righthander Bryan Shaw, one of seven D-backs who made the jump from Double-A Mobile to the major leagues last season, enters spring training expected to contribute in the seventh after a strong finish.
Shortstop Stephen Drew suffered a fractured right ankle when his spikes caught in the dirt around home plate against Milwaukee on July 20, and his status is still uncertain on Opening Day. Willie Bloomquist, who stabilized the infield after coming over from Kansas City to replace the injured Drew, will fill that role again to start the season. He can run and gets the job done on defense. Second baseman Aaron Hill will begin his first full season with the D-backs after making a big splash following his acquisition from Toronto last August. Hill improved the D-backs’ middle infield defense, and his bat was a plus. He may not be a 36-homer guy any longer, but his line drive bat plays well at Chase Field.
Paul Goldschmidt will take over first base full time after continuing his power ascent with a strong two months following his promotion from Double-A Mobile last Aug. 1. Including the playoffs, Goldschmidt hit a combined 40 homers last year. But unlike many power hitters, he’s not pull-happy, and his triple that clinched the NL West title last year came to right-center field. Third baseman Ryan Roberts put up a career year — 19 homers, 18 stolen bases — in his first full season in the majors after making the team when Geoff Blum suffered a knee injury in spring training last year.
Justin Upton looks to build on his breakout season, and there is no reason to believe he cannot. With the help of hitting coach Don Baylor, Upton tweaked his batting approach on a day off in Houston late last May and took off afterward, finishing fourth in the NL MVP balloting. With a rare combination of power and speed, he set career highs in almost every offensive category in his first 30-homer, 20-stolen base season. He also grades out high in outfield range. Chris Young is another superior defender, especially valuable in spacious Chase Field, and has a franchise record three 20-20 seasons, reaching that level despite a thumb injury that he played through in the second half last year. Kubel, who signed a two-year, $15 million free agent deal in the offseason, will add stability to what has been a revolving door in left field. His bat is his best asset, and his all-fields approach should work better at hitter-friendly Chase Field than at Minnesota’s Target Field.
Finally healthy, Miguel Montero put up a career year, both offensive and defensively. Montero settled into the cleanup spot midway through the season, and strong offensive numbers helped him to his first All-Star Game. Somewhat overshadowed was a significant improvement in his mechanics behind the plate, especially in his footwork. Montero threw out 36.8 percent of the runners who attempted to steal on him, the best percentage in the majors last year.
Gerardo Parra, who won his first Gold Glove in left field last year, will be a handy fourth outfielder after the offseason acquisition of Kubel. Parra has the best outfield arm on the team, and the D-backs expect him to fill in at all three outfield spots. Bloomquist is a reliable multi-tasker who can play the middle infield and every outfield position. Once Drew returns, Bloomquist will immediately improve the bench. John McDonald is another veteran shortstop whose glove is his primary asset. Veteran catcher Henry Blanco had eight homers in 100 at-bats last season and proved to be a strong clubhouse presence, and he also is credited with helping Montero on the defensive side. Veteran Lyle Overbay returns to mentor Goldschmidt and provide a left-handed bat when the D-backs want to load up against a righthander.
Managing partner Ken Kendrick and president/CEO Derrick Hall have put the right pieces in place. Towers added exactly the right pieces on the field and brought an immediate change to the clubhouse chemistry in his first full season. His best move was retaining manager Kirk Gibson, who spent the last half of 2010 as the interim manager. Gibson’s all-baseball, all-the-time approach was a night-and-day change from the laissez-faire approach of the previous regime, and the 27-out mindset helped the D-backs record 48 come-from-behind victories. Gibson justly deserved his NL Manager of the Year award. Ownership has shown a willingness to spend money at the trade deadline, and Towers always seems to find a good fit.
The D-backs are in a great position to defend their NL West title. They have no bad contracts, a youngish group of core position players and pitchers, and a minor league farm system that is deep in prospects, especially pitchers. Career years from a half-dozen players certainly played into their unexpected 2011 success, but with Gibson calling the shots you can be sure that there will be no complacency moving forward. This is a team with its best days still ahead.
SS Willie Bloomquist (R)
Hit safely in 46 of 57 starts at shortstop; added 20 stolen bases, second-most in his career. Filled in after Drew’s injury last season, and will pick up there now.
2B Aaron Hill (R)
Hit .315 with 12 doubles and 16 RBIs in 33 games after joining the D-backs in August.
RF Justin Upton (R)
A two-time All-Star who could be on the cusp of superstardom; turns 25 in August.
C Miguel Montero (L)
Led National League catchers with 36 doubles, 86 RBIs and .471 slugging percentage in 2011.
CF Chris Young (R)
Added a more discerning eye to his toolbox by drawing a career-high 80 walks last year.
LF Jason Kubel (L)
Averaged 19 home runs, 79 RBIs in last five seasons as an outfielder/DH in Minnesota. His shortcomings on defense may allow Parra more playing time.
1B Paul Goldschmidt (R)
Two of first three major league homers were against Cy Young winners Tim Lincecum and Cliff Lee.
3B Ryan Roberts (R)
The most unexpected surprise a year ago, when he set career highs in virtually all categories.
OF Gerardo Parra (L)
Great arm, good range; should see time at all three outfield spots after 2011 Gold Glove year.
1B Lyle Overbay (L)
The only member of both the 2001 and 2011 D-backs’ NL West division winners.
SS John McDonald (R)
Smooth glove man who gives the D-backs a third option at shortstop.
C Henry Blanco (R)
Has thrown out a remarkable 41.3 percent of potential base-stealers in his career.
UT Geoff Blum (S)
Can play anywhere and will be valuable off the bench.
SS Stephen Drew (L)
Still not recovered from bad ankle injury that limited him to 86 games, a career-low since becoming a regular in 2007.
RH Ian Kennedy
Went 10–0 against NL West, including 3–0 against both San Francisco and Los Angeles.
RH Daniel Hudson
Had 16 victories and won a Silver Slugger in his first full year in a major league rotation.
RH Josh Collmenter
Rookie season included three stretches of at least 13 consecutive scoreless innings.
RH Trevor Cahill
Has 40 major league victories before reaching his 24th birthday, all with the Oakland A’s.
LH Joe Saunders
Re-signed with th Diamondbacks in January; pitched over 200 innings, with a 1.31 WHIP, in 2011.
RH J.J. Putz (Closer)
Converted first 16 save opportunities, later had a run of 24 straight.
RH David Hernandez
Hard thrower held opponents to .193 batting average; lefties hit only .171.
RH Takashi Saito
Offseason selling point? He shut out the D-backs in three playoff appearances.
LH Craig Breslow
Has averaged 73 appearances in the last three seasons, almost all with Oakland.
RH Brad Ziegler
Held opponents scoreless in 19 of his 23 appearances after joining the D-backs.
LH Joe Paterson
Made 19 consecutive scoreless appearances in his first major league season.
RH Bryan Shaw
Conversion to the bullpen two years ago has paid dividends for the 2008 second-round pick.
Press releases, not press conferences, have been the offseason norm for the Rockies in recent years when introducing new players. But after their hugely disappointing 2011 season, the Rockies uncharacteristically splurged in the free agent market by signing right fielder Michael Cuddyer to a three-year, $31.5 million contract and held a press conference at Coors Field to celebrate his arrival. Cuddyer will strengthen the offense and bring some veteran accountability and a team-first outlook that the clubhouse could use to help the Rockies move past a dismal 2011. But if the Rockies are to contend this season, it will be because their starting pitching moved beyond potential to genuine production. Last year at the trade deadline, GM Dan O’Dowd dealt Ubaldo Jimenez, the Rockies’ erstwhile ace but a very ordinary pitcher since the 2010 All-Star break, to the Indians for four players, including pitchers Drew Pomeranz and Alex White. Offseason deals brought pitchers Jeremy Guthrie from Baltimore, Kevin Slowey from the Twins, Tyler Chatwood from the Angels and Guillermo Moscoso and Josh Outman from the A’s. The Rockies need at least one of these pitchers to step forward this season. But they also need Jhoulys Chacin, whose performance was spotty over the final three-and-a-half months last year, to find the fastball command that was elusive and led to his inconsistency after a brilliant start. If the starting pitching comes together, the Rockies could contend in a division that is by no means overwhelming. But if it doesn’t, the Rockies won’t be playing in October, despite the contributions of Cuddyer on and off the field.
Guthrie led the Orioles with 16 quality starts, but his 17 losses in 26 decisions tied for the sixth-most in club history. He hasn’t posted a winning record since 2007, but he’s been a victim of poor luck and run support. The Rox are counting on him leading the staff on and off the field. While the Rockies are waiting on their young starters to mature, they have the ageless Jamie Moyer following Guthrie to the mound. Coming off Tommy John surgery that cost him last season, Moyer is set to become the oldest pitcher to win a major league game. Veteran lefthander Jorge De La Rosa, who underwent Tommy John surgery in June 2010, is due back around the All-Star break, maybe sooner. Chacin, 24, has the stuff to pitch near the front of the rotation but needs better fastball command, which can come with more consistent mechanics, to reach his lofty potential. Juan Nicasio, who suffered a broken neck on Aug. 5 when he was hit on the right side of the head with a line drive, has made a remarkable recovery and is expected to be in the rotation. Moscoso, acquired from the A’s in January, held opponents to a .212 average in 23 games (21 starts) with Oakland last season. Pomeranz was impressive during a September call-up. White, Chatwood and Esmil Rogers will contend for the rotation at some point this season.
Rafael Betancourt filled in for injured closer Huston Street for two weeks in August and supplanted Street with what became part of a dominant second-half stretch. The Rockies are confident Betancourt can close, something he has never done to enter a season, and freed up $7 million by trading Street to the Padres for a minor leaguer. The bullpen was a strength last year and should be again — assuming Betancourt continues to close effectively — with lefthander Rex Brothers along with Matt Belisle available for late-inning work. Outman, part of the Moscoso deal, was terrific against left-handed batters last year with the A’s. Middle relief arms include White, Chatwood and Rogers, assuming they don’t win a rotation spot, and Josh Roenicke.
Shortstop Troy Tulowitzki is one of the best players in the game, a productive clean-up hitter and a Gold Glove winner. He’s 27, so there’s no reason to think he can’t continue to be a force on both sides of the ball. Marco Scutaro was brought over from Boston to play second. He brings a veteran presence and some offense, having hit .299 last season for the Red Sox. He’s steady in all phases and unafraid of big situations, as his 10 lifetime walkoffs suggest.
Todd Helton is 38 but had a nice comeback in 2011, and the Rockies will hope he can give them similar output this year. He doesn’t hit a lot of homers anymore but hits his share of doubles, draws walks and makes pitchers work. Helton’s defense remains superb. Back soreness idled him for most of September and is an ongoing concern. Jordan Pacheco, originally a middle infielder who was converted to catcher in 2008, is now back in the infield. He made starts last season at first, second, third and catcher. He will keep third base warm until the arrival Nolan Arenado, one of the organization’s top prospects. Arenado played High-A ball last year and will have a chance to make the Rockies in spring training but seems destined to begin the season at Double-A and not arrive in the big leagues until August or September, if he gets there at all this season.
Left fielder Carlos Gonzalez and center fielder Dexter Fowler are very good defensive players, which can’t be said for Cuddyer. But Cuddyer gives the Rockies an impact right-handed bat and veteran leadership. Upon his return from a one-month stay in the minors, Fowler was very productive after the All-Star break, and the Rockies are hopeful he can finally sustain that consistency over a full season as he enters his fourth season in the majors. Gonzalez had a decent season but not as robust as 2010 because of a slow start and a July 3 collision with a wall at Coors Field that resulted in a lingering right wrist issue. When healthy in 2010, Gonzalez was a five-tool threat and one of the best all-around players in the game.
The Rockies signed free agent Ramon Hernandez to a two-year, $6.4 million contract and traded Chris Iannetta to the Angels for Chatwood. Hernandez, who turns 36 in May, will help mentor prospect Wilin Rosario, who came up in September from Double-A and will be given more than a typical backup’s share of starts. Hernandez is likely to hit for a better average with similar power to Iannetta but will walk less.
Jason Giambi gives the Rockies a left-handed power-hitting threat off the bench, and he can spell Helton at first base. Newcomer Tyler Colvin and switch-hitter Eric Young Jr. will be used often off the bench. Chris Nelson will be the primary reserve infielder.
Coming off a hugely disappointing season, O’Dowd had a busy offseason, trading Iannetta, Street, third baseman Ian Stewart, infielder Ty Wigginton, outfielder Seth Smith and signing free agents Hernandez and Cuddyer, whom the Rockies have been interested in since the middle of last season. One of O’Dowd’s objectives was to change the mix in the clubhouse, but he realizes that newcomers can only have so much of an effect. “I don’t think anybody we bring in from the outside is going to change our culture, our environment,” he says. “Our players internally are going to have to make their mind up about what kind of clubhouse and what kind of environment and what kind of team they want to be part of day in and day out.”
The addition of Cuddyer will help an offense that already had Gonzalez and Tulowitzki, two of the better players in the game. If Fowler finally fulfills his potential — which he showed could be the case in the second half of 2011 — the offense has an element of speed and is that much more effective. But ultimately, if the Rockies are going to contend, they are going to need some of their young starters to step forward and pitch effectively and hope De La Rosa can hit the ground running when he returns around midseason.
CF Dexter Fowler (S)
Must reduce strikeout rate, which was one every 3.7 at-bats overall and one every 3.3 batting left-handed.
2B Marco Scutaro (R)
Scutaro’s a luxury in that he can bat atop the order or at the bottom of it.
LF Carlos Gonzalez (L)
Set franchise record with an RBI in 11 straight games (and 21 total) from Aug. 15-27.
SS Troy Tulowitzki (R)
In 1,486 career plate appearances in second half of season, has .321 average, .944 OPS.
1B Todd Helton (L)
Last hit 20 homers in 2005; 14 last year were lowest total in a season with 400 at-bats.
RF Michael Cuddyer (R)
Hit 10 homers in 151 at-bats against left-handed pitchers and 10 against righthanders in 378 at-bats.
C Ramon Hernandez (R)
Threw out 37 percent of runners attempting to steal last year.
3B Jordan Pacheco (R)
Second player in franchise history with a seven-game hitting streak in first 10 major league games.
2B Chris Nelson (R)
Made 39 starts last year, including 23 at second base, 14 at third base and two at shortstop.
1B Jason Giambi (L)
Ranks 42nd all-time with 428 homers, 39th all-time with 1,314 walks and 71st all-time with 1,397 RBIs.
C Wilin Rosario (R)
The catcher of the future has some power.
INF Jonathan Herrera (S)
Two errors in 247 chances at second base, three errors overall at second, third and shortstop.
OF Tyler Colvin (L)
Acquired from Cubs with DJ LeMahieu for Ian Stewart and Casey Weathers.
UT Eric Young, Jr. (S)
Bring speed and versatility.
RH Jeremy Guthrie
Has pitched 200 innings or more last three seasons, but is 47–65 lifetime.
LH Jamie Moyer
Amazing comeback story at age 49. With his first victory he will become the oldest pitcher to record a win.
RH Juan Nicasio
Held righthanders to .205 average and two homers, but lefthanders hit .313 with six homers.
RH Jhoulys Chacin
Led NL with 87 walks or average of 4.04 per nine innings, but limited opponents to .231 average.
RH Rafael Betancourt (Closer)
Held opponents to .203 average with eight walks, 73 strikeouts and 46 hits allowed in 62.1 innings.
LH Rex Brothers
Opponents hit .221 against him in 77 at-bats at Coors Field and .213 in 75 at-bats on the road.
RH Matt Belisle
Made 74 appearances following 76 in 2010 with total of 30 walks and 149 strikeouts in 164 innings.
LH Matt Reynolds
Lefthanders hit .292, and righthanders hit .217 against him.
RH Tyler Chatwood
Was 6-11 in 25 starts for the Angels last season.
RH Esmil Rogers
Was 6-6, but allowed 110 hits in 83 innings with a 7.05 ERA.
RH Josh Roenicke
Earned a spot in the bullpen with good spring training.
San Diego Padres
Just when it was looking like the Padres were building for the future, new general manager Josh Byrnes made two moves in late December that should at least give the Padres some hope in 2012, even if they’re still long shots to win the NL West. Byrnes made a New Year’s Eve splash when he acquired All-Star slugger Carlos Quentin from the Chicago White Sox for two prospects, bringing the left fielder to his hometown. The addition of Quentin, who’s had four straight 20-homer seasons, is an immediate upgrade for a weak offense. Two weeks earlier, Byrnes swapped mercurial starter Mat Latos for starter Edinson Volquez and first baseman Yonder Alonso, plus two prospects. The two moves showed that Byrnes and CEO Jeff Moorad are willing to take on some salary and acquire established major leaguers in exchange for some of the prospects the franchise has been stockpiling for two years. In another notable deal, Byrnes traded Anthony Rizzo, one of three prospects obtained for Adrian Gonzalez a year earlier, for reliever Andrew Cashner.
With Latos gone to the Reds and 14-game winner and local product Aaron Harang off to the rival Los Angeles Dodgers, the Padres’ rotation should still be solid, even if it doesn’t have a marquee name. The starting five is expected to be Tim Stauffer, Volquez, Cory Luebke, lefty Clayton Richard and Dustin Moseley. The low-key Stauffer has carried the Padres in big situations before and was the Opening Day starter in 2011. Richard and Moseley are both coming off shoulder surgeries and are expected to be ready to go by spring training. Volquez is trying to bounce back from a disappointing season. An All-Star in 2008, he still hasn’t regained the form he had before having reconstructive elbow surgery. Of the five, only Stauffer came close to double-digit wins last season; he went 9–12 with a 3.73 ERA.
Byrnes had to do some tweaking to the bullpen. He didn’t make an attempt to keep closer Heath Bell, and setup man Mike Adams was traded to Texas for prospects in late July. Bell signed with Miami for $27 million over three years, the kind of money the Padres say they’d never spend on one player. Byrnes responded by trading for closer Huston Street from the division rival Colorado Rockies. The 28-year-old Street had 29 saves in 33 chances in 2011. He says he’s looking forward to pitching at sea level in pitcher-friendly Petco Park rather than at mile-high Coors Field. Luke Gregerson, the opening salvo in what had been a 1-2-3 punch with Adams and Bell, is expected to retain his seventh-inning role. Cashner, obtained when Rizzo was sent to the Cubs, is expected to be the setup man. Ernesto Frieri is solid.
Shortstop Jason Bartlett and second baseman Orlando Hudson could very well be in their second and final seasons with the Padres. Bartlett hasn’t regained his 2009 All-Star form while with Tampa Bay, and Hudson showed too many lapses in judgment in the field. In one game, Hudson lost track of the number of outs and tossed a live ball to a ball girl, who tossed it into the stands. At least twice he remained on the ground instead of hustling up to grab a live ball, allowing base-runners to advance. Each player will make $5.5 million this year. Hudson got a sweet deal from the Padres, whose CEO, Moorad, represented Hudson during his days as an agent.
After getting their wish for the Padres to promote Rizzo last spring, fans watched as Rizzo had a few good games, then struggled mightily with his big, looping swing. The Padres acquired Alonso in the deal for Latos, and he immediately becomes the leading contender for the starting job at first base. Alonso, the seventh overall pick in the 2008 draft, was stuck behind Joey Votto with the Reds and was moved to left field briefly last season. He batted .330 with five homers and 15 RBIs in 47 games. Chase Headley remains the third baseman, although there’s never a shortage of rumors that he’ll be moved. Headley continues to lack decent power numbers at spacious Petco Park. He missed 39 games with a broken left pinkie, hit only four homers and struck out 92 times.
Until the addition of Quentin on New Year’s Eve, the emerging star of this group had been center fielder Cameron Maybin. Maybin is exciting in the field, at the plate and on the base paths. He set career-highs in nearly every offensive category in his first year with San Diego, including games (137), runs (82), hits (136), doubles (24), triples (8), home runs (9), RBIs (40) and stolen bases (40). He led the team in runs, triples, stolen bases and posted a career-high 37 multi-hit games. His 40 stolen bases ranked tied for fourth-most in the majors and tied for second-most in the National League. After recovering from knee surgery, which should be by the end of May, Quentin will start in left and provide badly needed power in the middle of the lineup. A two-time AL All-Star, the hometown product has had four straight 20-homer seasons, including 36 in 2008. Rightfielder Will Venable struggled so badly last season that he was sent down to the minors to work on his swing, and still finished with a .246 average. Jesus Guzman, who will see significant time in the outfield, especially until Quentin is completely healthy, hit .312 after his promotion, ranking 13th-best in the National League from June 16 through the end of the season.
Nick Hundley has established himself as the front-line catcher. He started a career-high-tying 73 games, his third straight season of 70 or more starts. He had two trips to the disabled list, the first for a strained muscle in his right side and the second after undergoing arthroscopic surgery on his right elbow. He also showed nice pop with the bat, setting career-highs with nine homers, a .288 average, .347 on-base percentage and.477 slugging percentage. The backup will be John Baker, who missed most of last season after having elbow surgery. He had only two hits in 16 games with the Marlins but has a career on-base percentage of .356.
Mark Kotsay, signed as a free agent in November, will be a backup outfielder but, more important, a veteran presence for a young club. Outfielder Chris Denorfia has been solid in his two seasons with the Padres. The Padres continue to have hopes for shortstop Everth Cabrera, who’s been up and down after joining the club as a Rule 5 draftee. He’ll start 2012 in the minors. Guzman’s bat is too valuable, so he’s expected to see time in both the outfield and at first.
Moorad, the CEO and minority owner, got what he wanted during a management shuffle that saw Jed Hoyer leave for the Cubs, where he’s been reunited with Theo Epstein. That allowed Moorad to promote Byrnes to GM. Byrnes was GM when Moorad was an executive with the Diamondbacks, and was fired the season after Moorad left to buy the Padres. Finances will force Byrnes to continue the philosophy of building the farm system to restock the big league club. Moorad is still in the process of purchasing the team on the installment plan from John Moores.
While the rival Dodgers gave Matt Kemp a $160 million contract and the neighboring Angels gave Albert Pujols a $250 million deal, and division rival San Francisco ponied up more than $200 million to keep starter Matt Cain, the Padres will operate with a player payroll now in the upper $50 million range. The willingness to acquire Quentin, Volquez and Alonso changed the complexion of the club and shows that the Padres are looking for something a little quicker than a total rebuilding job. A change from those boring, low-scoring nights at Petco Park would be a good thing for San Diego’s long-suffering fans.
CF Cameron Maybin (R)
Padres’ most exciting player could be face of franchise for years.
RF Will Venable (L)
Homegrown talent struggled at plate so badly last year he was sent to minors to work on swing.
3B Chase Headley (S)
Low power numbers, development of prospect Jedd Gyorko have people wondering how long he’ll be around.
LF Jesus Guzman (R)
Came from nowhere to become Padres’ most consistent hitter and earn a roster spot for this year. Team may face a tough decision when Quentin returns.
1B Yonder Alonso (L)
Is expected to make people forget Rizzo-mania — at least for the time being.
C Nick Hundley (R)
Impressive offensive year included career-best nine homers, .288 average, .347 OBP, .477 SLG.
2B Orlando Hudson (S)
Brain cramps on defense had people wondering why Padres gave the O Dog a big contract.
SS Jason Bartlett (R)
Solid if not flashy with glove, batting average continued downward trend at .245.
OF Carlos Quentin (R)
Brings his power to Petco Park after four straight 20-homer seasons with White Sox. Knee surgery will keep him out until at least mid-May.
OF Mark Kotsay (L)
Signed for his clubhouse leadership as much as his left-handed bat off the bench.
C John Baker (L)
Left-handed hitter missed most of 2011 with Marlins after having right elbow surgery.
OF Chris Denorfia (R)
Can play all three outfield spots; made 72 starts in 2011 and is solid backup with nice bat.
1B/OF Kyle Blanks (R)
The .219 career hitter has yet to show the potential displayed in the minors.
1B/OF Andy Parrino (S)
Hit .327 in a partial season at Triple-A last year. In 1,547 prior minor league at-bats at lower levels, he hit just .258.
OF Jeremy Hermida (L)
Made the team as a non-roster player after injuries opened some spots.
RH Tim Stauffer
Opening Day starter set career-highs in starts (31), wins (9), innings (185.1) and strikeouts (128).
RH Edinson Volquez
2008 All-Star still struggling to regain form after 2009 reconstructive elbow surgery.
LH Cory Luebke
Recorded a career-high 154 strikeouts, in 139.2 innings, second-most by a Padres rookie.
LH Clayton Richard
Made 18 starts before undergoing season-ending arthroscopic surgery on his left shoulder on July 29.
RH Dustin Moseley
Had career-bests in starts (20), innings (120), ERA (3.30) and strikeouts (64) before shoulder surgery.
RH Huston Street (Closer)
Former Longhorn had 29 saves in 33 chances for division-rival Rockies in 2011.
RH Luke Gregerson
Only one of big three left; worked scoreless ball in 48 of 61 outings, including 23 of 30 at home.
RH Ernesto Frieri
Middle relief workhorse had 76 strikeouts in 63 innings over 59 appearances, all career bests.
RH Andrew Cashner
After missing bulk of ’11 with rotator cuff injury with Cubs, is expected to assume setup role.
LH Joe Thatcher
Made 18 appearances in final two months after having surgery on left shoulder in early May.
Exploring the lack of yellow flags in the Sprint Cup Series this season
by Tom Bowles
For years, NASCAR has given new meaning to the phrase “contact sport.” With 43 cars in close proximity at tracks as little as a half-mile in length, it’s hard to run mistake-free, as one bad bump between two combatants can lead to SportsCenter highlights for the sparks that fly afterwards. Heck, as we’ve seen this season, even the jet dryers aren’t immune to danger when someone – or something – breaks.
Those types of scenarios that cause the field to bunch up under yellow, from the bizarre to the mundane (a hot dog wrapper can cause a caution for debris), have played into the sport’s strategy and unpredictability for decades. But as the story of NASCAR 2012 continues to unfold, one of the biggest storylines continues to be how Sprint Cup racing has “cleaned up” its act.
Through six events — even with the Daytona explosion — the sport has seen just 38 caution flags, the fewest number in nearly a dozen years. Half-mile ovals like Bristol and Martinsville, once known for their Demolition Derby status, each had two green-flag runs of well over 100 laps. At Fontana, Mother Nature was the only thing stopping the first caution-free race since 2002. Even crashfest Daytona, with its 10 yellow flags, saw that number drop sharply from 16 the previous year.
So what gives? For one, NASCAR’s Chase system appears to be backfiring early in the regular season. The new rules state that to make the playoffs, a driver must do one of two things: finish inside the top 10 in points or earn one of two “wild card” positions by having the most victories among those not already qualified. The only caveat there is you have to be inside the top 20 in points; however, with only about 30 fully-funded cars running this season that’s not exactly a major obstacle to overcome. Case in point: Jeff Gordon, whose year has already included more bad breaks than the North Carolina backcourt in the NCAA Tournament, yet he sits 21st in the standings, just seven outside of the magical cutoff. One win — as early as Texas next weekend — and the No. 24 will have all but qualified for the playoffs.
That sets the bar low for the sport’s top drivers, and as Jimmie Johnson has proven in recent years, they certainly know it. More and more, teams are developing the five-time champ’s mentality to treat the regular season like a “test session,” accumulating points when possible but not overdoing it for fear of what amounts to a points penalty by pushing your car to the ragged edge. This system also rewards consistency, not risk, which means a 35th-place effort for wrecking while gunning for the lead in the final few laps could be devastating. It’s a culture where “hanging out” in seventh place has been cultivated as the ultimate reward — have a B-plus day and you’ll have a shot for the A-plus trophy by making the playoffs in September.
This creates a domino effect on the racetrack. When drivers get conservative, they won’t push the issue and run side-by-side. That lessens the chances for contact and, ultimately, a wreck that would cause a caution. Riding, not racing, has never been more prevalent — and it’s a growing problem NASCAR will have to address with its constituents never feeling a sense of urgency.
Of course, NASCAR has helped its own “caution-free” cause by virtually wiping out any for “debris.” A growing complaint among longtime fans, that the sport is manipulating those yellow flags to keep the field bunched up, seems to have fallen on the right ears. The temptation to interrupt the flow of Fontana, where each car had the equivalent of the Mojave Desert between them, had to be overwhelming at times, but officials respected the integrity of the race and didn’t allow a piece of plastic to alter the way strategy naturally played out.
There’s another side to this whole green-flag flow to be aware of, and it’s perhaps the most important factor: This year’s caution flag total is nearly identical to 2004, the first year of the Chase that also suffered from a lack of competitive teams on race day. Only 36 fully-funded teams, at times, attempted races and there were a similar number of start-and-parkers filling the field like the Cup Series today. Then, like now, some of the sport’s biggest names were struggling for sponsorship while there appeared to be a lack of both new ownership and cash flowing its way into the sport.
When faced with that scenario, it’s easy for drivers to get conservative because, simply put, there isn’t any money to fix wrecked racecars. We’ve seen that in the Nationwide Series the past couple of years already. Drivers readily admit their sole course of action is survival because their ride doesn’t even come equipped with a backup. If you’re about to run side-by-side with a rival, and it’s a risky move and you don’t have the money to fix mangled sheet metal … would you do it? The “short-term pain for long-term gain” theory applies, as drivers are content to ride around simply because they need to be financially secure that his or her same ride will be around the next week.
So is a breakout of green-flag competition a good thing? It depends on what the drivers do with it. Racing clean is what everyone — fans and competitors alike — would like to see, but there’s a difference between that and staying conservative. In the end, as we’ve discussed many times in this space, sports is entertainment, and a single-file procession in the name of getting to the next regular season event doesn’t exactly light up a viewers’ smile on the couch. When drivers literally can’t afford to get aggressive, the only way you force it out of them is through the proximity of double-file restarts after cautions. So does that mean NASCAR should start waving yellow flags for any old reason, like the aforementioned mystery debris? That’s not the right answer, either.
The ultimate solution lies in the boardroom, not the racetrack. But until we see greater financial stability, the “survival style” racing may be the norm – not the exception — for the foreseeable future.
Follow Tom Bowles on Twitter: @NASCARBowles
Cue the piano music — it's time for A Tradition Unlike Any Other. Here's the schedule for Masters television coverage.
MASTERS TV COVERAGE
Thursday — ESPN 3-7:30 p.m. & 8-11 p.m. (re-air)
CBS — 11:30-11:45 p.m. (highlights)
Friday — ESPN 3-7:30 p.m & 8-11 p.m. (re-air)
CBS — 11:30-11:45 (highlights)
Saturday — CBS 3:30-7 p.m.
Sunday — CBS 2-7 p.m.
ALL TIMES EASTERN
The journey to claim the 2012 national title begins in February, March and April, as 124 college football teams open up spring practice over the next three months. Athlon will preview some of the top teams and storylines across the nation, as the countdown to 2012 inches closer.
UCLA Bruins 2012 Spring Preview
2011 Record: 6-8, 5-4 Pac-12
Spring practice: April 3-May 5
Returning Starters: Offense – 6, Defense – 8
Passing: Kevin Prince, 126 of 224, 1,828 yards, 12 TD, 8 INT
Rushing: Johnathan Franklin, 166 att., 976 yards, 5 TD
Receiving: Joseph Fauria, 39 rec., 481 yards, 6 TD
Tackles: Patrick Larimore, 81
Sacks: Datone Jones, 3
Interceptions: Andrew Abbott, 4
Redshirts to watch: QB Brett Hundley, NT Kevin McReynolds, WR Devin Lucien, OG Ben Wyscoki, DE Sam Tai, NT Brandon Tuliaupupu
Sept. 1 at Rice
Sept. 8 Nebraska
Sept. 15 Houston
Sept. 22 Oregon State
Sept. 29 at Colorado
Oct. 6 at Cal
Oct. 13 Utah
Oct. 20 Bye Week
Oct. 27 at Arizona State
Nov. 3 Arizona
Nov. 10 at Washington State
Nov. 17 USC
Nov. 24 Stanford
Offensive Strength: There is a bit of tie between the offensive line and skills players. Both lost quality starters but both return deep and versatile groups with upside. Johnathan Franklin, Joseph Fauria and Malcolm Jones should provide plenty of playmaking ability behind what could be a solid offensive line.
Offensive Weakness: The quarterback position has been a major issue for the Bruins for the better part of a decade. Does this sound familar? This roster has lots of talented depth at the position but lacks a consistent, driving force under center.
Defensive Strength: By all accounts, this defensive line has a chance to be one of the best in the conference. The collective star-rankings of names like Cassius Marsh, Owamagbe Odigizuwa, Brandon Willis and Datone Jones as recruits looks real pretty on paper. The depth and talent of this group is too much not to be the strength of this unit.
Defensive Weakness: Leadership and development. This unit is loaded with elite recruits at nearly every position. Yet, somehow this group finished 92nd in the nation in scoring defense at over 31 points allowed per game and 89th in total defense at over 417 yards per game. With a totally new coaching staff, finding leaders on this side of the ball will be key. Can the defensive line be both the strength and weakness of a defense?
Spring Storylines Facing the Bruins:
1. Building cohesion on a brand new coaching staff. Mora is hungry to prove he can win and he started by building a deep and talented coaching staff around him. He hired former Arizona State coordinator Noel Mazzone to run his offense and former Washington Redskins linebackers coach Lou Spanos to manage the defense. With the crosstown rival USC rising once again into national prominence, this coaching staff has to get acclimated with Westwood and its roster in a hurry this spring. After the Trojans, the South is wide open and UCLA is as talented as any other team in this league. It will be all about the coaching.
2. Mazzone's first order of business is to implement his up-tempo scheme and find someone to run it with consistent efficiency. The quarterback position has been a complete failure for the Bruins since...Cade McNown? But UCLA has not been without talent at the position and this roster will be no different. Incumbents Kevin Prince and Richard Brehaut need to adjust more to the new speed of the offense (think Oregon Ducks) rather than the new formation as it shifts from a true pistol to a hybrid spread attack. Redshirt freshman Brett Hundley and true frosh T.J. Millweard should also press for reps this spring as well. Prince will get the first crack as the most experienced player on the team, but Mazzone should have no loyalties when deciding who will run his offense in 2012.
3. Organizing the offensive line will go a long way to developing a signal caller. Three contributors are gone from the front line, but there is plenty of talent returning. Greg Capella (14), Jeff Baca (11), Alberto Cid (6), Chris Ward (4) and Wade Yandall (3) all got starting experience a year ago and will be champing at the bit to earn a starting spot. What could make this a special group is former uber-recruit Xavier Su'a Filo. He returns from his two-year Mormon Mission after flashing elite ability as a true freshman in 2009. Should he be ready to go at a BCS championship level, this group could turn into a strength of a team that was able to move the football on the ground last fall — third in the Pac-12 (178.4 ypg).
4. Spanos has a glut of riches to work with along the defensive line and three linebackers returning with a total of 218 tackles last year. But this unit finished 11th in the conference in rushing defense (190.6 ypg, 96th nationally) and was 112th nationally in quarterback sacks. If this defense is going to improve — which it needs to do across the board — stabilizing the front seven will be paramount this spring. There is too much talent on the front line and too much experience in the linebackers for this group not to show marked improvement in 2012. Spanos should have fun installing his system.
By Braden Gall (@BradenGall on Twitter)
Related Content Links:
Ranking the Pac-12's Head Coaches for 2012
Top Transfers to Watch in 2012
Early Top 25 for 2012
College Football's Top Spring Storylines for 2012
College Football's Coaches on the Hot Seat
2012 Very Early Pac-12 Predictions
The Masters officially kicks off today. Where else can you see a group of grown men stressing out while hitting a little round ball for days on end, all in search of a green jacket that their significant other will never let them wear in public? Still, we'll be tuned in the entire time. But to get us in the right frame of mind, we put together some of the most gorgeous girls golfing (or at least pretending to golf) that we could find on the internet. And fortunately, not one is wearing a green jacket.
St. Louis Cardinals
With the Cardinals wallowing 10.5 games back in the wild card race, several veterans convened a team meeting in late August to stress making the most of a misspent season. Two months later they did more than that. They made history. The Cardinals won 34 of their final 50 games (including the postseason) and punctuated baseball’s most improbable comeback with the franchise’s 11th championship. Down to their final strike twice in Game 6, the Cardinals rallied to win and then defeated the Texas Rangers in Game 7 of a captivating World Series. That’s when things really got interesting. Tony La Russa retired after 16 years with the Cardinals as the club’s winningest manager. Three-time MVP Albert Pujols left behind a legacy of 11 uncanny seasons for a record $250 million contract with the Angels. Their departures signaled the sudden end of one of the franchise’s greatest eras, but not the end of its ability to pursue another title. Mike Matheny, without a day in the dugout as a coach or manager, took over and redirected the conversation from who was leaving to who was returning. Matt Holliday, Lance Berkman and newcomer Carlos Beltran will power the lineup, and ace Adam Wainwright is back after missing all of 2011. Despite the loss of two icons, the Cardinals enter 2012 with a team that they believe can win again. Just without all the drama.
The news that threatened to derail the Cardinals’ summer before it started came last February: Wainwright needed season-ending elbow surgery. Now, one year later, Wainwright returns this spring to complete a rotation set to defend a World Series title. Plans for a reunion with Chris Carpenter, who shouldered a league-high 237.1 innings and won four playoff games, has been put on hold — not by Wainwright’s health, but Carpenter’s. The ace is dealing with a nerve issue, not unlike what has sidelined the big rightnahder in the past. The Cardinals hope it is a temporary setback, but with Carp you never know. Carpenter is 44–22 with a 3.02 ERA in the past three seasons, so he will be missed. Jaime Garcia is working to minimize his habit of letting minor trouble mushroom so that he can emerge as the division’s top young lefty. Kyle Lohse went 3–0 with a 1.72 ERA during the final month to lead the rotation in wins (14) and ERA (3.39). He has been named the Opening Day starter. Jake Westbrook’s inconsistency kept him from 200 innings. Lance Lynn has earned the right to fill Carpenter’s shoes. Even without their 2011 ace, this is not a bad rotation.
The trade that fortified the Cardinals for the postseason did so by sending outfielder Colby Rasmus to Toronto and reshaping a beleaguered bullpen. The Cardinals had been sabotaged by blown saves — they’d finish with 26 — and to mend the ruptures they added four arms: lefties Marc Rzepczynski and Arthur Rhodes, righty Octavio Dotel, and Kyle McClellan, transplanted from the rotation. By October, the bullpen became a force, posting a 3.31 ERA in the playoffs and inspiring La Russa’s 75 pitching changes, a record for a single postseason. Vets like Dotel are gone, leaving closer Jason Motte to anchor an October-tested, though still green, pack of burgeoning arms. Rzepczynski, McClellan, Fernando Salas and Mitchell Boggs are the keys to success here.
When Rafael Furcal arrived from the Dodgers on the trade deadline, he did more than introduce the rallying cry for getaway day victories — “Happy Flight!” He also brought a steadfast glove. Mileage has made him less of a dynamo on offense, but Furcal remains a top-flight shortstop, a safety net that the Cardinals’ groundball staff requires. Furcal returns on a two-year deal at a position that’s been in flux since David Eckstein left four seasons ago. Second base should be so stable. Skip Schumaker, the incumbent, returns, but the Cardinals have identified Daniel Descalso for regular playing time. Schumaker is dealing with an oblique injury, so Descalso is the man for now.
When the Cardinals pushed in September to re-sign Berkman for another season, their motivation went beyond rewarding his comeback summer. He was insurance. Berkman offered an All-Star alternative at first base if Pujols vacated. The veteran switch-hitter is a worthy replacement after finishing seventh in NL MVP voting and fueling the Cardinals with his best offensive season since 2008. In World Series Game 6, Berkman’s single tied the game in the 10th inning to set up David Freese’s winning homer in the 11th. Now healthy, Freese has the potential to help replace lost offense. Including the postseason, Freese had 12 homers, 58 RBIs and a .525 slugging percentage in his final 77 games. The Cardinals no longer have to squint through the injury report to see the makings of their next impact hitter.
The gamble of signing a former rival late in his career paid off so handsomely with Berkman that the Cardinals are trying it again. Enter Beltran. The switch-hitter became the Cardinals’ chief target when Pujols left because he fit immediate needs. Beltran is the first player outside the organization to sign a multi-year deal during general manager John Mozeliak’s stewardship. Beltran augments what already was the NL’s most productive outfield. Holliday’s 2011 was complicated by unlucky injuries (example: a moth flew in his ear), and yet the only left fielder to out-produce him was MVP Ryan Braun. Jon Jay seized the everyday job in center with savvy and a swing that will make him a high-average hitter in any role. Allen Craig’s breakout as a power complement to Holliday will be delayed by knee surgery. That puts Beltran in right to start the year, in center at times through the year, and in position to match Berkman with an All-Star year.
Accustomed to getting elite play from him behind the plate, the Cardinals saw what could be a breakout year at the plate for 29-year-old Yadier Molina. The Gold Glove Award winner set new career bests in average, homers and RBIs. His career-best .465 slugging percentage was 100-plus points better than his career .361. Molina tied for the lead in the majors in starts (131) and finished third in innings caught (1,150), and for only the second time in five seasons he avoided knee troubles at season’s end. Molina signed a five-year extension that will pay him upwards of $70 million beginning in 2013.
After several seasons of building their bench around inexperienced players to control costs and cultivate homegrown talents, the Cardinals may delay their usual search for a seasoned backup. They’ve developed their own experienced role players. Tyler Greene took several short tours as a utility infielder, and Descalso shined as defensive replacement and part-timer in 2011. Tony Cruz is a capable backup to Molina. Craig gives the Cardinals an offensive option as a fourth outfielder or first baseman. There will still be youngsters aplenty because the Cardinals aren’t shy about shuttling players between Triple-A Memphis and St. Louis. How Matheny intends to utilize his role players will help set the ideal bench blend and determine when (or if) the annual addition of a vet is necessary.
Mozeliak emerged from the defining stretch of his tenure with a team he redefined for the future. Within weeks of being unable to re-sign Pujols, Mozeliak moved aggressively to lock in Molina, Furcal and Beltran. In four seasons as GM, Mozeliak has made successful deals under duress (Scott Rolen for Troy Glaus), taken high-yield risks (Berkman), and pieced together a gutsy blockbuster (three-team Rasmus trade). With two headlining personalities moving out, Mozeliak is the club’s public voice surrounded by a roster and front office of his making. The biggest stamp Mozeliak put on the offseason was hiring Matheny. The former Gold Glove catcher landed the job on the Cardinals’ longstanding view he had potential to manage. Matheny is a commanding presence and already a confidant of many players. In his early days on the job, he mined La Russa and Whitey Herzog for their expertise and canvassed the organization, from its analytics department to its scouts.
A day after Pujols’ decision to leave, the new face of the franchise took stock of the team around him. Most clubs, Holliday said, would lose a Hall of Fame manager and the best hitter of his generation and “be sent reeling.” Yet, a sense of optimism prevailed. The Cardinals know they cannot replace Pujols, but they don’t believe they need to in order to remain competitive. A new era is being built around the pitching staff and the next generation of core players, like righty Shelby Miller, who can ease onto a strong roster. “If we’re not the favorite, I’d like to know who is,” Wainwright says. An offseason that could have created an identity crisis instead reinforced the Cardinals’ constant. No matter how profound the changes, their expectations to contend remain the same.
SS Rafael Furcal (S)
A nimble fielder with his signature rifle arm, Furcal still shows flickers of electric talent.
RF Carlos Beltran (S)
Six-time All-Star brings desired power/OBP blend for post-Albert Pujols lineup.
LF Matt Holliday (R)
Heir apparent to Pujols’ lineup spot is a former batting champ who teammates believe is poised to win an MVP.
1B Lance Berkman (S)
Charismatic presence and revived force on the field, Comeback Player of the Year returns for an encore.
3B David Freese (R)
His October heroics could be springboard into breakout season. If he stays healthy, he’ll stay productive.
CF Jon Jay (L)
For second straight season, Jay started in a part-time role, and production earned him a regular’s playing time.
C Yadier Molina (R)
Four-time Gold Glove winner had a career year at the plate with highs in BA (.305), slugging (.465), HRs (14).
2B Daniel Descalso (L)
Started 81 games, often finishing them as a defensive replacement at third. He may remain the second baseman even after Schumaker returns from injury.
OF Allen Craig (R)
With four homers in the postseason, Craig showed his promise and his pop – with a fractured kneecap. He’s still recovering from surgery.
2B/OF Skip Schumaker (L)
Glue guy landed a two-year deal this winter and a new position title from management: “super utility.” But a strained oblique will keep him on the sidelines for the first month.
INF Tyler Greene (R)
Overpowering at Triple-A, former first-round pick appears overwhelmed and uneasy in the majors.
C Tony Cruz (R)
Gained the trust of the rotation and proved versatile enough to play third and outfield.
OF Erik Komatsu (L)
Hasn’t played above Double-A but hopes to stick as club’s speedy extra outfielder.
OF Shane Robinson (R)
Until Craig and Schumaker return from injury, Robinson will have an opportunity to prove himself.
3B Matt Carpenter (L)
Owns a .300 average and .408 on-base percentage in the minors.
RH Adam Wainwright
Back from Tommy John, he expects to return to elite status that includes two top-three finishes in Cy Young.
LH Jaime Garcia
Rewarded for potential with a four-year extension with options that could keep him a Cardinal through 2017.
RH Kyle Lohse
Healthy after two years of nagging forearm trouble, righty led rotation in wins and ERA.
RH Jake Westbrook
Inability to command his signature pitch, the sinking fastball, kept Westbrook from grounding opponents.
RH Lance Lynn
Rookie emerged as a power reliever, but his durability makes him an attractive starter until Chris Carpenter returns.
RH Chris Carpenter
Ace owned October with four wins, including World Series Game 7 and shutout to clinch division series. He now owns a nerve problem that has shelved him for a while.
RH Jason Motte (Closer)
Hard-throwing righty seized the ninth during the September run.
RH Kyle McClellan
Started 2011 in the rotation before returning to familiar setup role he’ll likely hold this summer.
RH Fernando Salas
Rescued a hemorrhaging bullpen with his steady pulse and a team-best 24 saves.
RH Mitchell Boggs
Has the desirable high-voltage sinker and breaking ball that fits late-inning assignments.
LH Marc Rzepczynski
Advertised as the long-term prize of the Rasmus trade, “Scrabble” has the stuff to someday start.
LH J.C. Romero
Cardinals are banking on a rebound from the inconsistencies that defined 2011.
RH Scott Linebrink
Pedestrian 4.02 ERA and 1.375 WHIP over last five seasons.
Q: Should “Shoeless” Joe Jackson be in the Hall of Fame?
— Glenn Zdziarski, Chicago, Ill.
A: One of the tragic figures in baseball lore, Jackson was embroiled in what was known as the Black Sox Scandal, in which members of the 1919 Chicago White Sox conspired with gamblers to fix the World Series. While his defenders point to Jackson’s largely stellar play in that Series — he batted .375 and committed no errors — Jackson admitted to a grand jury that he had taken $5,000 from gamblers, due in part to owner Charlie Comiskey’s stinginess. Although Jackson apparently attempted to warn Comiskey of the fix, and despite the fact that he was acquitted by a criminal court of having any role, he was banned from the game by Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis, and he remains on the ineligible list, precluding his election to the Hall of Fame.
Would Jackson be in the Hall if not for the ban? Almost certainly, especially given the fact that he would have added more productive seasons to his ledger. As it is, his career totals, which were stunted by the ban, would probably be enough for induction were his candidacy presented in a vacuum. His lifetime batting average of .356 is third all-time; his adjusted OPS is ninth-best in baseball history; his 168 career triples are 26th-best all-time.
The real question is, should the ban be lifted? That’s a trickier subject. Baseball has always taken gambling as a deadly serious matter and a threat to the game’s integrity; hit king Pete Rose remains conspicuously absent from the Hall for betting on games. But we’re prepared to say that a posthumous lifting of the ban — Jackson died in 1951 — would be an appropriate gesture and would allow baseball to honor one of the greatest natural talents to swing a bat.
— Charlie Miller, Editorial Director
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The Pittsburgh Pirates want to stretch four months of feel-good baseball into six months this season. The Pirates reached the 100-game mark last season with a 53–47 record and tied for first place in the National League Central. Not only were the Pirates in position to break their streak of 18 consecutive losing seasons, most in North American professional sports history, but they also had a chance to become one of the best baseball stories of recent times if they could somehow win the division. Alas, the bottom fell out. The Pirates lost 43 of their final 62 games to finish with 90 losses. The Pirates, though, believe they can go the distance this season. They believe their younger players are now better prepared to physically and emotionally handle a long season. They also believe that signing lefthander Erik Bedard, catcher Rod Barajas and shortstop Clint Barmes as free agents will improve their club on the field and provide more of a veteran presence in the clubhouse. Time will tell, though. After all, despite the unlikely success in the first two-thirds of last season, the Pirates finished 14th in the NL in runs scored and 11th in runs allowed. And they are still the Pirates.
The Pirates don’t have anybody resembling a No. 1 starter, so the job will likely fall to Bedard by default after he signed a one-year, $4.5-million contract. The oft-injured Bedard logged over 100 innings last season for the first time in four years as he went a 5–9 with a 3.62 ERA in 24 starts with Seattle and Boston. A.J. Burnett was acquired from the Yankees and most everyone in baseball believes that a change of scenery and escape from New York will benefit the enigmatic righthander. He didn’t exactly get off to a great start with the Pirates. He fouled a pitch off his face during a bunting drill and broke an orbital bone, which will cost him several weeks. Charlie Morton has the best raw stuff on the staff and showed signs of turning the corner last season when he went 10–10 with a 3.83 ERA in 29 starts. However, he underwent hip surgery in October and will miss the first month of the season. James McDonald also has above-average stuff but has yet to harness it. If he can somehow learn to control his 95-mph and curveball, he could zoom to the top of the rotation. Kevin Correia won 12 games last season after signing as a free agent and was selected to his first All-Star Game. However, he won once after the All-Star break and missed the last six weeks of the season with a strained oblique. Correia is more innings eater than ace. Jeff Karstens doesn’t wow the scouts or light up their radar guns. Yet he usually finds a way to keep the team in the game because of his pitching acumen and command. Either Brad Lincoln or rookie lefthander Jeff Locke will likely begin the season in the rotation if Morton has to go on the disabled list.
Joel Hanrahan was one of the best closers in the game last season as he converted 40 saves in 44 opportunities, posted a 1.83 ERA and pitched in the ninth inning of the National League’s victory in the All-Star Game. Hanrahan is seemingly poised for another big season, but one concern is that his strikeout rate dipped to 8.0 per nine innings last season from 12.9 in 2010. Evan Meek represented the Pirates in the 2010 All-Star Game when he had a 2.14 ERA in 70 games. Now he looks to rebound after being limited to 20.2 innings last season because of shoulder problems. If he’s healthy, figure on Meek setting up Hanrahan along with Jason Grilli. The Pirates signed Grilli off Philadelphia’s Triple-A farm club in July and he had a 2.48 ERA in 28 games. It was quite a comeback considering his career seemed to be over after he ruptured his quadriceps in 2010 during a spring training drill. Chris Resop has been solid in middle relief since being claimed off waivers from Atlanta during the 2010 season.
The Pirates are counting on Barmes, signed to a two-year, $10.5-million contract, to provide the stability at shortstop that Ronny Cedeno never did during the previous two seasons. Barmes’ power has run hot and cold throughout his career; he hit .244 with 12 home runs in 123 games for Houston last season. Many of the advanced statistical metrics ranked Barmes among the best defensive shortstops in the game. Second baseman Neil Walker had a .273 batting average and 12 homers in his first full major league season in 2011. The switch-hitting Pittsburgh native believes he is capable of doing more if he can gain consistency, and the Pirates are happy with the converted catcher’s defensive progression.
The Pirates tried to woo Derrek Lee into returning as a free agent after acquiring the 36-year-old from Baltimore at last year’s trading deadline. However, at this advanced stage of his career, Lee would rather play on a team more likely to contend. The Pirates could opt for a platoon of left-handed-hitting Garrett Jones and right-handed Casey McGehee, acquired from Milwaukee in an offseason trade, at first base. Both had disappointing 2011 seasons as Jones hit .243 with 16 home runs and McGehee batted .223 with 13 homers. McGehee is the Pirates’ backup plan at third base if Pedro Alvarez has another poor start. Alvarez crashed and burned in 2011 after a promising rookie season, hitting .191 with four homers in 74 games. Pint-sized Josh Harrison is another possibility at third base. He made his major league debut last year and had a .272 batting average in 65 games.
Centerfielder Andrew McCutchen has established himself as the face of the franchise, and the Pirates are confident that rightfielder Jose Tabata and leftfielder Alex Presley can join him as long-term fixtures in the lineup. The multi-talented McCutchen is one of the most dynamic young players in the game at 25 and played in his first All-Star Game last season. His 2011 could have been a great year, but he hit just .216 after the All-Star break to finish at .259 with 23 homers, 89 RBIs and 23 stolen bases. Tabata has yet to stay healthy in his two major league seasons. However, the Pirates believe so much in his ability to blossom into a power hitter that they signed him to a six-year, $15-million contract extension last August that could stretch through 2019 if three club options are exercised. Presley acquitted himself well last season in his first extended major-league action, hitting .298 in 52 games.
Barajas was signed to a one-year, $3.5-million contract as a free agent because he still has some pop at 36 — 16 home runs in 98 games for the Dodgers last season — and an ability to handle young pitching. Michael McKenry, a solid defender, will likely be the backup catcher.
McGehee and Harrison figure into the plan as potential backups if they don’t unseat Alvarez at third base. The Pirates are hoping Nate McLouth can regain some magic by returning to Pittsburgh after signing him as a free agent during the winter meetings to be the fourth outfielder. He won a Gold Glove and played in the All-Star Game in 2008 before the Pirates traded to him to Atlanta the next season. His career has gone into a nosedive. Versatile Yamaico Navarro, acquired from Kansas City in a winter trade, intrigues the Pirates with his bat, but his defense is shaky in the middle infield.
General manager Neal Huntington had to wait until last September before learning he would be returning this season on a three-year contract. Huntington has shown a knack for acquiring pitching gems, but most of the hitters he has signed as free agents have been busts. Clint Hurdle was a breath of fresh air last year in his first season as manager. He brought plenty of energy, and his positive nature rubbed off on his players, who no longer feel it is the Pirates’ birthright to be doormats.
There is no denying that the Pirates are moving in the right direction, as their major league roster and farm system are much more talented than when Huntington took over in 2007. Hurdle also seems to be the man to take the franchise places. However, it would be premature to think the Pirates can contend this season. They still have too many holes and not enough depth. Yet if things break right, the first winning season since 1992 is a possibility.
RF Jose Tabata (R)
He has the speed and basestealing ability to bat leadoff, but health always seems to be an issue.
LF Alex Presley (L)
He could flip-flop with Tabata in the batting order because of his ability to get on base and steal bases.
CF Andrew McCutchen (R)
He is already an accomplished player at 25, and this could be the year he becomes a superstar.
2B Neil Walker (S)
Pitchers adjusted to him last season following a solid rookie year, and now it’s his turn to adjust back.
1B Garrett Jones (L)
He is an effective hitter with pop and patience when kept away from left-handed pitchers.
3B Pedro Alvarez (L)
The big-time power potential is there, and it’s time for him to start unlocking it or risk being labeled a bust.
SS Clint Barmes (R)
The Pirates signed him primarily because he can catch the ball and he isn’t Ronny Cedeno.
C Rod Barajas (R)
The free agent signee provides thump at the bottom of the lineup and stability behind the plate.
C Michael McKenry (R)
Defensive specialist is well-liked by the Pirates’ pitchers; hit .222 in 58 games in the bigs last season.
INF Casey McGehee (R)
Pirates are hoping a change of scenery helps after his disastrous 2011 with Milwaukee.
INF Josh Harrison (R)
His defense is suspect and he can only be used at shortstop in an emergency, but he can swing the bat.
UT Yamaico Navarro (R)
He can play all over the infield and outfield and even occasionally pop a ball out of the park.
OF Nate McLouth (L)
Returns to Pirates with expectations much lower than his All-Star season of 2008.
LH Erik Bedard
Signed as a free agent to add stability to rotation, but he is always an injury waiting to happen.
RH Jeff Karstens
A rare soft-tossing righthander, he survives with pinpoint control.
RH James McDonald
He has the stuff to win a lot of games but needs to throw more strikes.
RH Kevin Correia
A solid pitcher for the back end of the rotation but is stretched in a larger role.
RH A.J. Burnett
Only pitcher in majors with at least 190 innings and an ERA over 5.10 last season. Will miss a few months after fouling a ball off his face in a bunting drill.
RH Charlie Morton
Roy Halladay copycat (sans the results) will miss the first month of the season (hip surgery rehab).
RH Joel Hanrahan (Closer)
He made the transition from dominant setup man to elite closer last season.
RH Evan Meek
Following a breakthrough 2010, Meek had a frustrating and injury-marred 2011.
RH Jason Grilli
Signed off the scrap heap last July, he figures to be a key component of this relief corps.
RH Chris Resop
Unsung hero of this bullpen as he provides consistently good work in the middle innings.
LH Tony Watson
Has the stuff to get major league hitters out but walks are a major concern.
RH Chris Leroux
Has allowed just one home run in 54.1 major league innings.
RH Juan Cruz
Allowed just six of 30 inherited runners to score last season in 56 games with Tampa Bay.
Q: What do you consider to be the greatest Masters Tournament in history?
— Jerry Barnes, Dallas, Texas
A: It’s hard to overlook Tiger Woods’ historic win in 1997, Phil Mickelson’s major breakthrough in 2004 and Greg Norman’s epic collapse in 1996, among countless others. But I have to stick with 1986 as the greatest. That year, 46-year-old Jack Nicklaus was seemingly little more than a footnote to the proceedings at Augusta. Heading into the final round, Jack was four shots back and still below everyone’s radar. Jack birdied 9, 10 and 11 to creep up the leaderboard and unleash echoes throughout Amen Corner. A bogey at 12 calmed the frenzy, but he promptly got it back with a birdie at 13. Then came an epic stretch of golf — an eagle at 15, a near hole-in-one at 16, a birdie at 17 and a tough par at 18 that capped off a final-round 65, good enough for a one-shot win and his sixth Green Jacket. Jack needed only 33 strokes to complete the final 10 holes of the greatest Masters of them all.
— Rob Doster, Senior Editor
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Q: On the scoreboard on the Green Monster at Fenway Park, there is Morse code in two places spelling out “TAY” and “JRY.” What is the story behind these markings? And isn’t the “R” rendered incorrectly?
— Charlie Kelly, Natick, Mass.
A: Your question gives us the opportunity to note that this year marks a significant anniversary in baseball: the Fenway Park centennial. The Red Sox played their first game at Fenway Park on April 20, 1912, beating the New York Highlanders, as the Yankees were then known, 7–6 in 11 innings. Fenway stands as the oldest park currently in use, an authentic time capsule full of quirks and unusual details, including the Morse code that appears on the left field scoreboard. Framing the American League scores, arranged vertically, are dots and dashes representing “TAY” and “JRY” — the initials of former owner Thomas A. Yawkey, who owned the team from 1933 until his death in 1976, and his wife, Jean R. Yawkey, who succeeded Tom as owner from 1976 until her death in 1992. The Morse code was added in the late 1940s, around the time that the wall was painted its familiar green color to cut the glare for the hitters. As for the mistake? You’re very observant. Dick Bresciani, VP of Publications and Archives for the Red Sox, tells us that when the wall was rebuilt in the winter of 1975-76, there was an error in the painting of the R.
— Mitch Light, Managing Editor
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Entering the 2011 season, general manager Walt Jocketty essentially did nothing to upgrade a team coming off a National League Central championship. The Reds subsequently slipped to a third-place finish. This offseason, however, Jocketty didn't stand pat. In fact, he might have committed the small-market sin of mortgaging the future for instant gratification. Jocketty clearly had an “all-in” approach, making a trifecta of transactions that could have put the Reds in position to contend for their first NL pennant in 22 years. But one Tommy John surgery later, and the Reds were back in the pack. Jocketty landed one of the NL's top young starting pitchers (Mat Latos), one of its top setup relievers (Sean Marshall) and one of its best closers (Ryan Madson). A few weeks into spring training, the Reds learned that Madson would need season-ending surgery. So much for the all-in plan. But in a division that's now void of Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder, the Reds have a chance. Latos brings instant credibility to a rotation that was decimated by injuries and inconsistency, not to mention that Cincinnati mostly had bottom-of-the-rotation-caliber starters. The 24-year-old righthander's 3.47 ERA would have led Cincinnati last season among qualified starters. Latos' arrival gives the Reds two legitimate front-line starters, including ace Johnny Cueto. Cincinnati could end up with one of the most dominant rotations in the NL, depending on the development of $30 million flamethrower Aroldis Chapman. The Reds still have the core of the lineup intact from the 2010 playoff season. But a lineup led by All-Stars Joey Votto and Brandon Phillips isn't without issues. The Reds have major concerns about the health of All-Star third baseman Scott Rolen, who missed 80 games last season. The leadoff role is a black hole entering spring, considering speedy center fielder Drew Stubbs struck out a club-record 205 times in 2011.
To some extent last season, the Reds began to see the years of stockpiling pitching prospects pay off. Cueto's emergence as the new ace further buried the nightmarish years of having veteran wash-ups in the ace role. After a shaky start, Mike Leake, another homegrown product, rebounded to win a team-high 12 games. But the rest of the rotation was a major disappointment. Swapping the underachieving Edinson Volquez for Latos is a significant upgrade. The only concern with Latos is how he'll adjust from working in pitcher-friendly Petco Park to the launching pad that is Great American Ball Park. The Reds could conceivably have an even newer ace, depending on Chapman's development. But a sore shoulder hampered his progress during the offseason, and the 106-mph-man will start the season in Class AAA Louisville's rotation or in the Reds' bullpen. It says here that he will be in the Reds' pen. Bronson Arroyo is the only over-30 starter, and he is expected to bounce back after struggling with mononucleosis last season.
With two moves, the Reds thought they had ascended from a lower-tier bullpen to possibly the NL's best. The pitching version of the M&M Boys - Madson and Marshall - coupled with hard-throwing righthanders Logan Ondrusek and Nick Masset could end up reminding Reds fans of the Nasty Boys of the early 1990s. Then Madson's elbow balked and left the Reds scrambling for Plan B. During the past two seasons with the Cubs, Marshall had a 2.45 ERA and 169 strikeouts in 150.1 innings. Masset and Ondrusek were inconsistent last season following an outstanding 2010, but they both had extended stretches in which they were almost unhittable. Chapman can be a weapon in the late innings with his heat from the left side. Alfredo Simon, who had 17 saves for Baltimore in 2010, was claimed off waivers from the Orioles with less than a week left in spring training.
Phillips should continue to establish himself as the NL's top all-around second baseman. The Reds picked up his $12 million option for 2012, and the club is hoping to avoid having his contract status be a distraction. A fan favorite, Phillips has made no secret about the fact that he wants a multi-year deal. The other question surrounding Phillips: Where will he end up in the batting order? No. 2 is ideal, but he could end up batting leadoff if Stubbs struggles this spring or cleanup if Rolen breaks down. At shortstop, former second-round pick Zack Cozart gave the Reds a promising glimpse last season, batting .324 after a July call-up. But he played in just 11 games before suffering a season-ending elbow injury.
The Reds are hoping to squeeze one more season out of eight-time Gold Glove winner Rolen, who enters the final year of his contract. He turns 37 the first week of the season and has been on the disabled list three times the past two years. For as much credit as he received for helping the Reds end their playoff drought in 2010, his absence was a big reason why Cincinnati missed the postseason last year. Rolen played in just 65 games. For all of Votto's accomplishments the past two seasons, he still was overshadowed by Pujols. Votto now is arguably the premier first baseman in the NL. Additionally, Votto no longer has to answer questions about what the Reds are going to do with first baseman and top-hitting prospect Yonder Alonso, who was dealt to San Diego in the Latos trade. Cincinnati also avoided any contract distractions with Votto, signing him to a 10-year, $225 million extension, which begin in 2014.
The Reds are ready for the Texas twosome of Bruce and Stubbs to bury some major issues. For Bruce, it's inconsistency. For Stubbs, it's strikeouts. Bruce had a bizarre 2011, winning NL Player of the Month in May for batting .342 with 12 homers and 33 RBIs. But that month was sandwiched by a .228, four-homer April and .217, two-homer June. Somehow, though, the right fielder was named to the All-Star team, but then batted just .241 with 11 homers after the break. Stubbs has struck out an eye-popping 422 times in two-plus seasons. His 40 stolen bases tied for second in the NL last year, and his speed is the only reason why the Reds aren't quite ready to give up on him as the leadoff batter. Instructors will continue to try to teach Stubbs how to bunt this spring. Left fielder Chris Heisey, who tied for the team lead in pinch hits in 2011, isn't a proven everyday player.
The Reds compromised their organizational catching depth by not re-signing veteran Ramon Hernandez and trading former top draft pick Yasmani Grandal. Still, the club is the envy of most teams at the position. The offseason moves mean the Reds are confident in 23-year-old former first-round pick Devin Mesoraco, whom some scouts have likened to Johnny Bench. The Reds will give him a crack to be the everyday catcher, but Ryan Hanigan will still get plenty of playing time.
From an offensive standpoint, the bench is shaping up to be the club's weakest link. Defensively, it should be one of the team's strengths. The Reds led the NL in pinch-hitting (.286), but versatile veteran Miguel Cairo might end up being the only proven player off the bench. Ryan Ludwick was signed in January to be the fourth outfielder, but he will be in the mix for playing time on a regular basis in left field. Wilson Valdez, acquired from Philadelphia, can pair with Cairo as a supersub, capable of playing any position with a smile. Utility man Willie Harris adds even more versatility to the bench.
Owner Bob Castellini holds himself very accountable to the fans, and he was not happy about the Reds' backsliding in 2011. He signed Jocketty to a three-year contract extension in September, entrusting his long-time friend to make some quick fixes without tearing up the core of the team. Jocketty did that with the Latos and Marshall trades. But it's quite possible that trading away three former first-round picks - Grandal, Alonso and pitcher Brad Boxberger - and Wood will come back to haunt Jocketty in a few years. But management is all-in for 2012, which also is the final year of manager Dusty Baker's contract.
The Reds believe the addition of Latos and St. Louis' subsequent loss of Pujols put Cincinnati back as the division favorite. But it will take more than Latos to win the division. Cincinnati will need to regain the clutch-hitting magic it had in 2010, when it ranked second in the majors with a .278 average with runners in scoring position. The Reds' inability to deliver clutch hits was reflected in the fact they suffered 33 one-run losses, most in the National League. A healthy Rolen and more consistent Bruce will be critical to propelling the Reds into the playoffs.
2B Brandon Phillips (R)
Three-time Gold Glove winner led all National League second basemen with a .300 batting average.
SS Zack Cozart (R)
Began his major league career on a seven-game hitting streak, longest by a Red to start his career in a decade.
1B Joey Votto (L)
Became only the fourth player in Reds history to hit at least .320 with 37 homers and 113 RBIs. Now he's assured of being $225 million richer.
3B Scott Rolen (R)
Seven-time All-Star is batting just .242 with seven home runs since August 2010 (including postseason).
RF Jay Bruce (L)
Among five active players to hit at least 20 home runs in each of his first four seasons.
CF Drew Stubbs (R)
Became the first Red to record 40 stolen bases since Deion Sanders had 56 in 1997.
LF Chris Heisey (R)
Led the Reds with three multi-homer games, three leadoff home runs and two pinch-hit home runs in 2011.
C Devin Mesoraco (R)
The Reds pitching staff went 7-6 in the Baseball America top 100 prospect's 13 starts last season.
C Ryan Hanigan (R)
Career highs in games (91), runs (27), hits (71) and homers (6).
OF Ryan Ludwick (R)
Hit 37 home runs as recently as 2008 with the Cards; spent 2011 season with the Padres and Pirates.
INF Miguel Cairo (R)
Reliable and versatile veteran played first, second and third base and produced a career-high eight home runs.
INF Wilson Valdez (R)
Hit .370 (27 for 73) with RISP while making 74 starts at three infield positions in 2011 for Philadelphia.
UT Willie Harris (L)
Made at least three starts at second third, left, center and right last season for the Mets. In 71 pinch-hitting appearances he hit just .183.
RH Johnny Cueto
The club's new ace missed reaching double-digits in wins because of five blown saves.
RH Mat Latos
Cincinnati should provide more help after he finished 88th in run support with San Diego last year.
RH Bronson Arroyo
Hampered by mono, innings-eating veteran finished with a National League-worst 5.07 ERA.
RH Mike Leake
After returning in May from a demotion to the minors, he was the club's second-best starter (9-7, 3.36 ERA).
RH Homer Bailey
Management regained confidence in former top pick after career highs in starts (22), wins (9), K's (106).
LH Sean Marshall (Closer)
The 6'7" lefty has a career 2.42 ERA in 15 appearances (26 innings) at Great American Ball Park.
LH Aroldis Chapman
Tough call whether to start Chapman in Louisville's rotation or in Cincinnati's bullpen, where he is badly needed.
RH Nick Masset
Considered a potential closer-in-waiting entering 2011, he blew six saves. Will start the season on the DL with shoulder issues, which are not expected to be serious.
RH Logan Ondrusek
His 0.68 ERA over a 29-game span was one of the most dominant stretches by a Reds pitcher last year.
RH Sam LeCure
Long reliever is an option if a starter goes down, having posted a 4.79 ERA in four starts.
LH Bill Bray
Finally healthy, the former first-round pick finished tied for second in the National League with 79 appearances.
RH Jose Arredondo
Unspectacular but consistent in logging a career-high 53 appearances in his first season with the Reds.
RH Alfredo Simon
Claimed off waivers from Baltimore at the end of spring training.
Other teams' 2012 Previews:
|American League||National League|
|Baltimore Orioles||Arizona Diamondbacks|
|Boston Red Sox||Atlanta Braves|
|Chicago White Sox||Chicago Cubs|
|Cleveland Indians||Cincinnati Reds|
|Detroit Tigers||Colorado Rockies|
|Kansas City Royals||Houston Astros|
|Los Angeles Angels||Los Angeles Dodgers|
|Minnesota Twins||Miami Marlins|
|New York Yankees||Milwaukee Brewers|
|Oakland A's||New York Mets|
|Seattle Mariners||Philadelphia Phillies|
|Tampa Bay Rays||Pittsburgh Pirates|
|Texas Rangers||San Diego Padres|
|Toronto Blue Jays||San Francisco Giants|
|St. Louis Cardinals|
The Brewers were built to win last year, and the plan worked nearly to perfection: a franchise-record 96 wins, along with the first division title and playoff series victory since 1982. But Milwaukee's pitching and defense imploded in the postseason. Then superstar slugger Prince Fielder signed with Detroit, and even though a highly effective pitching rotation returns intact, and the Brewers upgraded at third base and hope they did at shortstop, there lingers a feeling among the Brewer faithful that all the eggs were in last year's basket. If the 2011 Brewers weren't good enough to advance to the World Series, how could this team possibly fare any better? But as last year's pennant chases demonstrated, very rarely do things go as planned in baseball.
GM Doug Melvin assembled what was arguably the best starting rotation in Brewers history last year, and all five hurlers return in 2012. In Yovani Gallardo and Zack Greinke, Milwaukee has two right-handed aces capable of extended stretches of dominance. A strikeout artist and workhorse, Gallardo set career bests with 17 wins, 23 quality starts and a 3.52 ERA while establishing a franchise record with his third straight 200-strikeout season. In his first season in Milwaukee, Greinke made the home folks happy by winning all 11 of his decisions at Miller Park. After a slow start, he was one of the National League's most dominant pitchers down the stretch, going 9-3 over his final 16 starts. Randy Wolf and Shaun Marcum will never overpower hitters, but their command of an array of off-speed pitches is good enough to keep most lineups in check. Before a collapse of epic proportions in the playoffs, Marcum held opponents to a .232 average, eighth-best in the league. Wolf, who won 10-plus games for the fourth straight year, lived up to his reputation as a reliable innings-eater. Lefty Chris Narveson is a more than serviceable fifth starter with occasionally unhittable stuff - he began last season with 14 consecutive scoreless innings. Marco Estrada, who filled in for Greinke and Narveson during DL stints, returns as a spot starter.
Not only does John Axford's mustache hearken back to the days when Rollie Fingers patrolled the mound at County Stadium, but his ability to close out games also reminds Brewer fans of the Hall of Fame reliever. Axford made his first Opening Day roster last year and approached his opportunity fearlessly, setting a franchise record and tying for the NL lead with 46 saves. He converted his final 43 save opportunities and compiled a 0.59 ERA over his last 30 games. Francisco Rodriguez surprisingly accepted salary arbitration to remain with the Brewers. He made no secret of his desire to be a full-time closer. K-Rod excelled as Axford's setup man after a July trade (tying for NL lead with 17 holds over the duration of his stint with the Brew Crew), but whether he'll willingly play that part again this season is questionable. Kameron Loe, who bombed as the eighth inning reliever prior to Rodriguez's arrival but settled down (1.44 ERA over his last 22 appearances) afterward, and Estrada, who pitches better as a starter (3-2, 3.70) than as a reliever (1-6, 4.38) will both get their share of innings. Lefty Manny Parra returns from a full season on the disabled list, and journeyman Jose Veras, acquired from Pittsburgh, has a rubber arm and can be called on often.
Veteran shortstop Alex Gonzalez was acquired with a simple mission: bring some defensive stability to the Brewer infield, which was easily the worst defensive unit in the league last year. Gonzalez hit .241 with 15 home runs and 56 RBIs for the Braves last year, but most importantly, he committed only 12 errors, about half as many as departed shortstop Yuniesky Betancourt. All-Star starter Rickie Weeks remains one of the game's most potent second basemen offensively, and hopes are that he'll return to the explosive form he showed in the first half of the season (17 homers before the All-Star break) before an ankle injury slowed him down significantly.
Brewers fans knew Fielder's departure was coming, but it's still hard to take. Starting at first base for the Milwaukee Brewers: Mat Gamel. Gamel has earned brief call-ups with the Brewers in each of the last four seasons but has never shown the pop against big league pitching that he has in Triple-A (team-high 28 home runs and 96 RBIs at Nashville last year). Manning the other corner position is another new Brewers starter, the team's biggest offseason acquisition, veteran slugger Aramis Ramirez. A longtime Brewer nemesis as a member of the rival Cubs, Ramirez has a reputation for being somewhat injury-prone, but he may in fact be underappreciated for his offensive production. With Fielder gone, Ramirez will face high expectations in his first year in Milwaukee.
In right, lanky Corey Hart returns for his ninth season in Milwaukee, providing doses of power and speed, though his stolen base numbers have been declining over the last four seasons as knee woes continue to slow him down. In center, Nyjer Morgan drew national attention for his unorthodox style and brash mouth (and Twitter stream), and his teammates seemed to feed off his enthusiasm. Time will tell if Morgan's aura remains a welcome diversion if he or the Brewers struggle. Earning starts against left-handed pitching is Carlos Gomez, easily the best defensive outfielder on the roster. There is no doubt that Ryan Braun, the National League MVP last season, is the linchpin of this lineup. With speed and power, Braun is a weapon on the bases as well as at the plate. One of the game's most popular young stars, Braun means everything to the Brewers, on and off the field having signed a team-friendly long-term deal that will keep the slugger in Milwaukee through 2020 with a mutual option for 2021.
In Jonathan Lucroy, the Brewers have a promising young catcher with improving skills behind the plate and a solid bat. Though he's below average at throwing out base-stealers, he works well with four of the five Brewers starters, blocks balls in the dirt with the best of them (just one passed ball last year) and would seem to have his best days ahead of him. Wolf's personal catcher, George Kottaras, fits a similar profile, only as a left-handed hitter.
The Brewers' bench was nothing special in 2011 and if anything may be less promising this year. Gomez and Kottaras return in familiar roles, and veteran infielders Cesar Izturis and Brooks Conrad were acquired in the offseason and will provide experience off the bench. Norichika Aoki, who was signed to a multi-year deal in January, will be the fourth outfielder.
Roenicke's style couldn't have been much more different than predecessor Ken Macha's, and the softer touch turned out to be just what the Brewers needed in 2011 (a revamped and dramatically improved pitching staff didn't hurt, either). But while Roenicke guided the Brewers to the best regular season in franchise history, he appeared a bit overmatched in the postseason. Owner Mark Attanasio continues to show a willingness to spend money in a small market, and Melvin has cultivated home-grown talent and traded prospects to give the Brewers a chance to win. In all, the Brewers are as well-run now as at any time in franchise history.
This team likely won't win as many games as last year's, but the Brewers don't have to look very far to see that that might not matter. Just as the Cardinals rode into to the postseason as a red-hot Wild Card last season, this Brewer team has the talent to stay in the hunt.
2B Rickie Weeks (R)
Injuries are always an issue with Weeks, but when healthy, he's among top hitters in the game.
CF Nyjer Morgan (L)
Mercurial energizer gets on base for big boppers, antagonizes friends and foes alike.
LF Ryan Braun (R)
NL MVP no longer has Prince Fielder following him in the lineup.
3B Aramis Ramirez (R)
Brewers landed top free agent third basemen, and will need Ramirez to put up typical numbers.
RF Corey Hart (R)
Speed is declining, and knee is balky this spring.
1B Mat Gamel (L)
Gets unenviable job of filling Prince Fielder's large shoes; has put up big minor league numbers.
SS Alex Gonzalez (R)
Free agent signed to provide stability in Brewers infield; marching orders are to just make plays. Pop at the plate is a bonus.
C Jonathan Lucroy (R)
A budding star at the plate, his defense is improving (just one passed ball, tops among NL catchers).
OF Carlos Gomez (R)
Defensive specialist has some pop but struggles to get on base consistently.
C George Kottaras (L)
Randy Wolf's personal catcher calls a good game; hit for cycle.
OF Norichika Aoki (L)
Career .329 hitter in five seasons in Japan; will see action as fourth outfielders.
INF Cesar Izturis (S)
The 11-year veteran is a top defender at short, second and third, but owns a career on-base percentage of .295.
UT Brooks Conrad (S)
Batted .292 vs. lefties and just .203 against righthanders.
RH Yovani Gallardo
Ace No. 1 ranked among NL leaders in wins (t-fourth), starts (t-fourth) and strikeouts (fifth).
RH Zack Greinke
Ace No. 2 posted a 2.61 ERA over his final 16 starts; ranked seventh in NL in strikeouts.
RH Shaun Marcum
Was Brewers' top starter on the road, going 8-3 with a 2.21 ERA.
LH Randy Wolf
His streak of 19.2 scoreless innings was longest by Brewers pitcher in '11.
LH Chris Narveson
Left-handed batters hit just .212, slugged .333 with two homers off him.
RH John Axford
Blew first save opportunity of season, but converted his final 43 chances.
RH Francisco Rodriguez
Ranks 24th on all-time saves list but will set up Axford if Brewers don't trade him.
RH Kameron Loe
Veteran posted a 1.44 ERA over his final 22 appearances in his third season with the Brewers.
RH Marco Estrada
Earned high marks as fill-in starter when Greinke and Narveson went on DL.
RH Jose Veras
Acquired from Pirates, appeared in 79 games with a 3.80 ERA as set-up man.
RH Tim Dillard
Middle reliever didn't see much action, but earned first big league win June 5.
LH Manny Parra
Has had ups and downs as Brewer starter and reliever, returns after missing all of '11.
RH Mike Fiers
Brewers' Minor League Pitcher of the Year (13-3, 1.86 ERA) earned September call-up.
Other teams' 2012 Previews:
|American League||National League|
|Baltimore Orioles||Arizona Diamondbacks|
|Boston Red Sox||Atlanta Braves|
|Chicago White Sox||Chicago Cubs|
|Cleveland Indians||Cincinnati Reds|
|Detroit Tigers||Colorado Rockies|
|Kansas City Royals||Houston Astros|
|Los Angeles Angels||Los Angeles Dodgers|
|Minnesota Twins||Miami Marlins|
|New York Yankees||Milwaukee Brewers|
|Oakland A's||New York Mets|
|Seattle Mariners||Philadelphia Phillies|
|Tampa Bay Rays||Pittsburgh Pirates|
|Texas Rangers||San Diego Padres|
|Toronto Blue Jays||San Francisco Giants|
|St. Louis Cardinals|
No team is undergoing as much of a drastic change on and off the field as the Astros, who are under the leadership of a new owner and general manager entering 2012 and will be competing in their 51st and final season in the National League. The Astros, in the midst of a major rebuilding project, will be moving to the American League in 2013, which was a stipulation of the team being sold to a group led by Houston businessman Jim Crane. New management remains committed to building through player development, which means the Astros will suffer at the major league level for the time being. Coming off a club-record 106-loss season, the Astros aren't in position to contend in their final year in the NL Central. They'll spend much of the 2012 season getting a longer look at the bevy of rookies who made their debuts a year earlier, while pushing an improving list of prospects through the minor league system. Led by veterans Wandy Rodriguez and Brett Myers, the Astros' pitching staff is actually not as bad as you would think for a team that lost so many games. But there are question marks all over the diamond. Still, the Astros have promising young players to keep an eye on, including third baseman Jimmy Paredes, second baseman Jose Altuve, shortstop Jed Lowrie and outfielder J.D. Martinez. And don't forget catcher Jason Castro, a former first-round pick who missed all of last season with a serious knee injury. The Astros are digging themselves out of a huge hole, but they appear to be on the right track and hope to continue to lay the foundation toward competing in the AL within the next three or four years. There's nowhere to go but up.
The Astros shopped veterans Rodriguez and Myers in the offseason, but they return to anchor the staff. Bud Norris has settled in nicely as the No. 2 starter and has the stuff to lead the rotation, so 2012 could be a breakout season for him. The previously steady J.A. Happ is back and hoping his nightmarish 2011 is behind him, and he can take solace in the fact he pitched well in the last month of the season. Rookie Jordan Lyles pitched at 20 years old in the rotation for half of last year and figures to be battling for a spot with Kyle Weiland and Lucas Harrell. Weiland came over from Boston in the trade of Mark Melancon, and Harrell was claimed off waivers from the White Sox last year.
The Astros traded Melancon, their closer, in December to the Red Sox, but there is no shortage of arms in the Astros bullpen. The veteran starter Myers, is now the closer. Plus, veteran Brandon Lyon, who missed the final four months of last season following major arm surgery, will be back and healthy for 2012 and will be the primary setup man. The durable Wilton Lopez will be back to eat up innings at the back of the bullpen, and hard-throwing David Carpenter, fresh off a strong rookie campaign, is capable of getting big outs late in games. Fernando Rodriguez was a huge bright spot in 2011 after being a non-roster invitee to spring camp. The Astros drafted flame-throwing Rhiner Cruz in the Rule 5 Draft in December and will have to keep him on the 25-man roster all season or risk losing him.
With Clint Barmes leaving in free agency, the Astros addressed their need at shortstop by making a trade with the Red Sox for Lowrie, who will be the starter in 2012. Lowrie, 27, has played a part-time role with the Red Sox since 2008, appearing in a career-high 88 games last season and hitting .252. He's a career .214 hitter with a .293 on-base percentage as a left-handed hitter and a .326 hitter with a .385 on-base percentage from the right side. The 5'7" Altuve returns as the starter at second base after hitting .276 with two homers and 12 RBIs in his major league debut last year. The jury is still out on whether Altuve can hit at the big league level, but he's certainly fun to watch.
When the Astros traded Hunter Pence last year, they called up one of their top prospects, Martinez, and put him in left field, moving Carlos Lee to first base, where he performed pretty well. Lee wound up leading the team in homers and RBIs and appears to be the starter at first entering 2012. That being said, Brett Wallace - the team's starter at first in 2011 - could push for playing time later in the season if he proves himself at Triple-A. At third, another Opening Day starter from 2011, Chris Johnson, is trying to hit his way back into the lineup after a disappointing season. Paredes, an athletic switch-hitter who can be an adventure defensively, will begin the season in the minors, but will certainly be back in Houston before the summer is over. Paredes looked good at the plate last year hitting .286 in 168 at-bats.
The big question is whether Lee returns to left field after being moved to first base midseason last year. Martinez took over in left field after the Astros traded away Pence and Michael Bourn and put up some pretty solid numbers while displaying a good arm. Jordan Schafer, acquired from the Braves in the Bourn deal, is the man in center. There are several options in right field, including a platoon of Brian Bogusevic and J.B. Shuck. Bogusevic needs to show he can hit left-handed pitching to get more at-bats. Martinez will wind up in right if Lee returns to the outfield.
Castro is expected to be ready for Opening Day despite suffering an injury setback in the offseason. Castro, who missed all of last season after undergoing major surgery on his right knee, missed the beginning of spring training after undergoing surgery in December to remove the sesamoid bone in his left foot. Castro hit .205 with two homers and eight RBIs in 195 at-bats in his major league debut in 2010. The Astros signed veteran Chris Snyder as insurance for Castro.
Matt Downs was one of the best bench players in baseball last year. Downs, who can play third, second and first base and has even dabbled in the outfield, batted .276 with 10 homers and 41 RBIs in only 199 at-bats in 2011. He had 15 pinch-hit RBIs, which led the majors, and he led baseball with a .462 on-base percentage as a pinch-hitter. Snyder is a solid backup catcher with a strong arm and handles the pitching staff well. Shuck, a left-handed hitter, got his feet wet in the majors last year and showed some promise.
This will be a new era in Houston baseball with Crane taking over as owner and chairman and Jeff Luhnow replacing Ed Wade as general manager. The man in charge of the day-to-day operations on the field, manager Brad Mills, returns for his third season. Mills hasn't had much to work with in the last two years as the team rebuilds, but he's in the final year of his contract (with a club option for 2013) and is coming off a club-record 106-loss season. Mills will be again depending on young players at several key positions, which will make winning difficult. Mills could be a very capable manager, but whether he gets an opportunity to show it in Houston remains to be seen.
As they enter their final year in the National League, the Astros remain years away from contending. The club is in full-blown rebuild mode and is betting its future on an increasingly improving minor league system, as well as taking advantage of having the No. 1 pick in this year's draft. The road to contention will be a long one, but the Astros have added nearly two dozen young players while trading away veterans in the last few years and appear to be on the right track. Astros fans will have to be patient and enjoy watching the young kids get their feet wet in the major leagues.
CF Jordan Schafer (L)
A former top prospect in the Braves system, Schafer has all the tools to be a dynamic lead-off hitter.
2B Jose Altuve (R)
He has hit at every level in the minor leagues, but can he do it in the majors?
LF J.D. Martinez (R)
The organization's Minor League Player of the Year in 2010 had an impressive debut when called up.
1B Carlos Lee (R)
In the final year of his six-year, $100-million contract, the slugger remains a proven run producer.
RF Brian Bogusevic (L)
The team's former first-round pick as a pitcher finally showed some potential as a hitter last year.
3B Chris Johnson (R)
After hitting .308 in 2010, he slumped to .251 last season with 97 Ks in 378 ABs.
SS Jed Lowrie (S)
He'll be the starter after coming from Boston, but can he hit consistently from the left side?
C Jason Castro (L)
The jury remains out on the former first-round pick after he lost all of 2011 with a major knee injury.
INF Matt Downs (R)
Averaged a homer every 19.9 at-bats and led the majors with 15 pinch-hit RBIs.
INF Angel Sanchez (R)
Career highs in runs (35), doubles (10), HRs (1), RBIs (28), walks (27) and stolen bases (3).
C Chris Snyder (R)
The eight-year veteran is good defensively and hit .271 in limited action with Pittsburgh last season.
LH Wandy Rodriguez
Went 11-11 with a 3.49 ERA in 30 starts to reach double-digit wins for the fourth time in his career.
RH Bud Norris
In his second full season in majors, went 6-11 with a 3.77 ERA and led club with 176 strikeouts.
LH J.A. Happ
Went 2-1 with a 2.43 ERA in final six starts after posting a 6.26 ERA in his first 22 starts.
RH Jordan Lyles
Went 2-7 with a 5.02 ERA before being moved to bullpen to limit innings.
RH Lucas Harrell
Long-time White Sox farmhand has made just five major league starts.
RH Kyle Weiland
The 24-year-old progressed nicely through the Red Sox system and appears poised to break out at the major league level.
RH Brett Myers (Closer)
Led the club in starts and innings pitched, going 7-14 with a 4.46 ERA, including 4-1 in last five starts. Has spent just one season in the bullpen, which was 2007 in Philadelphia, and he had 21 saves.
RH Brandon Lyon
Veteran began 2011 as Astros closer and went 4-for-8 in save chances before arm injury ended season.
RH Wilton Lopez
Made a career-high 73 appearances in 2011 and went 2-6 with 2.79 ERA, including 1.98 ERA in final 17 games.
RH David Carpenter
Appeared in 34 games in his major league debut after beginning year at Double-A and posted a 2.93 ERA.
RH Fernando Rodriguez
Had a 2-3 mark with a 3.96 ERA in 47 games, striking out 57 hitters in 52.1 innings.
LH Wesley Wright
Appeared in 21 games in three separate stints; allowed one single in 26 AB against lefties.
RH Rhiner Cruz
The 25-year-old Dominican has never pitched above the Double-A level.
by Dustin Long
Members of the Backseat Drivers Fan Council had much to talk about in regards to Martinsville. From their thoughts on David Reutimann trying to make it to the end but causing a late-race caution to the racing in both the Sprint Cup and Camping World Truck Series races, Fan Council members didn’t hold back in what they had to say.
DO YOU SIDE WITH WHAT DAVID REUTIMANN DID?
One driver said there was “no logical reason” for David Reutimann to end up stopped on the track at the end. Reutimann apologized afterward and said, “I was just trying to stay in the top 35 (in car owner points — he fell out of the top 35), which is why we were trying to limp around out there.” Who do you side with? Reutimann for trying to stay out or those who were critical of him? Here’s how Fan Council members voted:
53.3 percent sided with drivers upset with Reutimann, saying he should have exited the track sooner.
46.7 percent sided with Reutimann and staying out to do all he could to remain in the top 35 in car owner points.
What Fan Council members said:
• If a car/driver has mechanical problems, I think they are obligated to get the car off the track for their safety, as well as of the others. In this case, his decision changed the outcome of the race!!!!!!
• David did what anyone else would have done and if they say they wouldn’t they’d be bald face lying!
• Absolute bonehead move on his part. He affected the outcome of the race.
• Reutimann is in a position no other team has ever been in — trying to stay in the top 35 to satisfy a commitment made to another team. Desperate times call for desperate measures. Also, while the caution definitely changed the race why is Clint Bowyer not the one people should be focused on? Or Ryan Newman? Them driving 3-wide into turn 1 at Martinsville had much more of an impact than David Reutimann did.
• I’m not a big Reuitimann fan, however I can’t fault the guy for trying to do what was best for his car. Yeah, its unfortunate he stopped where and when he did —and changed the outcome of the race. But, you know, every race’s outcome is changed by all kinds of things — some notable and some not.
• While I empathize with Reutimann, he should NOT have stayed on the track. I feel particularly bad for him because he has always been a good guy who never deliberately caused any problems for anyone & you could tell by his post-race interview he felt genuinely awful. However, IMO there is never a good reason to screw up a race, especially with so few laps left, when you KNOW your car is not going to survive.
• I 100% side with Reutimann on this. NASCAR has created this mess with the top 35 (rule) and the driver and crew were doing everything possible to stay in the top 35. Only solution is do away with the damn top 35. It is the worst thing that has happened to our sport in the history of NASCAR.
• I see both sides and, unfortunately, there was no good outcome on either side of the argument.
• I understand the desire to stay in the top 35, but there comes a time you need to Get. The. Damn. Car. OFF. The. Track!
Staying in the top 35 is crucial for Tommy Baldwin Racing. Reutimann’s choice did not force Bowyer to dive-bomb Gordon, nor did it force Newman to tap Bowyer. The real problem was with the lack of common sense and lack of respect displayed by Bowyer and Newman. They chose to make moves (to win at all costs) which cost the strongest cars in the field. Reutimann, well aware of his weak position, was doing the best he could with what he had. The same could NOT be said for Bowyer and Newman.
• I get what people are saying, but it is tough for the “non super teams” to compete in Cup. They have to scratch and claw there way around week after week, so being in the Top 35 is very important. Plus, there is the obvious added pressure for Reuti because it is Danica's car and they NEED it in the Top 35 for her Darlington start. I was more annoyed with Bowyer, to be quite honest.
• He was black flagged. Get off track when black flagged.
From the pages of Athlon Sports Monthly, here are five major storylines for the 2012 baseball season , as well as our predictions.
Pujols and the Angels
After their agonizing choke on the brink of the 1986 World Series, it took 16 years for the Angels to return to the October stage — a desolate stretch that encompassed four uniform styles, including the regrettable periwinkle era.
But these are not your father’s Angels. Or your California or Anaheim Angels, for that matter. These are Arte Moreno’s Angels — the Orange County team that brashly calls “Los Angeles” home and plans to keep dominating the SoCal market for years to come.
Moreno made sure of that on Dec. 8 by lavishing $254 million for 10 years on Albert Pujols, baseball’s preeminent slugger. That same day, Moreno also dropped $77.5 million for five years to snag All-Star lefty C.J. Wilson.
Just like that, Moreno altered the landscape for the Angels and three other teams: The World Series champion Cardinals lost their centerpiece in Pujols; the two-time American League champion Texas Rangers lost their No. 1 starter in Wilson; and the Dodgers lost ground in the turf war for L.A.-area baseball fans. There’s a “For Sale” sign outside Dodger Stadium, but there’s a party going on at The Big A.
Forget everything you knew about the Florida Marlins. Forget the name, forget the teal, forget the parade of managers, forget the football stadium and forget the stingy payroll. Welcome the Miami Marlins, rebranded to represent their city, with a zany color scheme of orange, yellow, blue, black and silver, the irascible Ozzie Guillen as manager, a retractable-roof ballpark with fish tanks behind the on-deck circles — and a whole lot of money to spend on players. The Marlins snagged NL batting champion Jose Reyes from the Mets with a six-year, $106 million contract. They also swiped a three-time All-Star closer, Heath Bell, from the Padres for three years and $27 million, and workhorse lefty starter Mark Buehrle from the White Sox for four years and $58 million. Those players join the existing cornerstones, Hanley Ramirez and Josh Johnson, and a young core that includes Giancarlo Stanton — previously known as Mike — who might be the game’s best young power hitter. The Marlins are all in, and they will demand our attention for the first time in years.
Nice to see Yu
Yu Darvish will be a mystery to most major league hitters, but a few people in uniform have seen the new Texas righthander in action. And they have no doubt how he will perform as a Rangers rookie this season. “Six-foot-six, power arm, picks it up when he’s in trouble, power slider, great split,” says Mets manager Terry Collins, who managed against Darvish in Japan. “He’s got it all. If he’s healthy, he’s going to have a great career here.”
The Rangers spent $51.7 million for the negotiating rights to Darvish, the star of the Nippon Ham Fighters. Then the Rangers took it right to the Jan. 18 deadline before signing him to a six-year, $60 million contract. Darvish improves a rotation that was already strong enough to get the Rangers within a strike of the 2011 World Series title.
We have seen aces from Japan fizzle in the majors before, most famously Hideki Irabu and Kei Igawa of the Yankees. But Darvish, at 25 years old, seems to have more polish and potential than any of them. At least, that’s the Rangers’ $111.7 million (combine the posting and contract numbers) gamble.
Rookie Managers in Chicago and St. Louis
The White Sox and the Cardinals both needed replacements for well-known managers with championship rings. Both teams turned to popular former players who know the organizations — but who come without a single day of managerial experience. Robin Ventura replaces Ozzie Guillen with the White Sox, and Mike Matheny (below right) takes over for Tony La Russa with the Cardinals. Ventura is low-key and even-tempered, pretty much the opposite of the feisty Guillen (below left), who left for the Marlins. And while Matheny was known as a smart player with solid leadership qualities, there is only one La Russa. Both new managers have strong advocates in the front office, with Chicago’s Kenny Williams grooming Ventura by bringing him into the organization as a player-development advisor, and St. Louis’ John Mozeliak hiring Matheny in a similar role in 2009. Expect Ventura to have an easier time because of lower expectations for the downsizing White Sox; the Cardinals are coming off a championship, and Matheny must compete for another right away — without Albert Pujols.
The new collective bargaining agreement, announced in November, showed the sensible leadership of the new union director, Michael Weiner. Players showed their desire for a cleaner game by becoming the first major professional sports league in North America to agree to blood testing for human growth hormone. Testing will begin in spring training, and a player’s first positive test will carry a 50-game ban. Baseball is treading cautiously at first, with no regular-season testing in 2012, but after testing again next offseason, owners and players will decide how to proceed. Here’s hoping they continue to do the right thing.
Athlon’s 2012 MLB Predictions:
5. New York
1. St. Louis
1. San Francisco
3. Los Angeles
5. San Diego
* wild card
1. Joey Votto, Cincinnati
2. Justin Upton, Arizona
3. Matt Kemp, Los Angeles
4. Troy Tulowitzki, Colorado
5. Matt Holliday, St. Louis
1. Roy Halladay, Philadelphia
2. Clayton Kershaw, Los Angeles
3. Cole Hamels, Philadelphia
4. Tim Lincecum, San Francisco
5. Cliff Lee, Philadelphia
1. New York
2. Tampa Bay*
3. Kansas City
2. Los Angeles*
* wild card
1. Miguel Cabrera, Detroit
2. Robinson Cano, New York
3. Albert Pujols, Los Angeles
4. Jose Bautista, Toronto
5. Prince Fielder, Detroit
1. Justin Verlander, Detroit
2. Jered Weaver, Los Angeles
3. David Price, Tampa Bay
4. CC Sabathia, New York
5. Ricky Romero, Toronto
Texas over New York
Philadelphia over San Francisco
Texas over Philadelphia
Kyle Stanley had come oh-so-close. He had the 2011 John Deere Classic in his hip pocket after a final-round 66, only to have Steve Stricker pick that pocket with a spectacular bunker shot on the 18th hole. And then, in even more heartbreaking fashion, Stanley saw the 2012 Farmers Insurance Open trophy slip through his fingers with a playoff loss to Brandt Snedeker. But persistence pays off, as Stanley proved with his stunning come-from-behind win at the Waste Management Phoenix Open. Behind by eight shots when the final day began, Stanley shot a stunning 65 to overtake Spencer Levin and earn his first PGA Tour win. Shot by shot on a magical Sunday, Stanley transformed his tomorrows.
“You go from a very low point to a high point,” Stanley said after the biggest day of his young career. “I’m not sure I expected to maybe recover this quickly. ... I think the biggest challenge was seeing if I could put last week behind me. I think I did.”
Stanley stands at the vanguard of young players on the verge of PGA Tour dominance, players who challenge fairways and attack flags with style and confidence.
A former ACC Player of the Year at Clemson, the 24-year-old Stanley did everything but win last season. He had four top 10s and nine top 25s. He finished 55th on the PGA Tour money list and earned more than $1.5 million.
There will be adjustments in 2012. Stanley lost caddie Bobby Brown, who went back to his former boss Dustin Johnson. But one thing won’t change — Stanley’s commitment to winning.
“The biggest thing is I really, really care about what I do out on the golf course,” he said, “and sometimes I care to a fault. I’ve just got to relax a little bit and trust in my preparation.”
Rickie Fowler is another of those “Young Guns” loaded for bear in 2012. Fowler already is a well-known name, with his colorful attire, his 2010 Ryder Cup appearance and his “damn the torpedoes” approach. A Walker Cup teammate to Stanley in 2007, Fowler was the PGA Tour Rookie of the Year in 2010 and became the youngest U.S. player ever to compete in the Ryder Cup. He shared some spotlight again last summer when he finished fifth at the British Open. All the notoriety and accomplishments notwithstanding, he is still chasing his first PGA Tour win.
For the former Oklahoma State star, seeing young players like 2011 PGA Championship winner Keegan Bradley crack the shell offers inspiration. “It’s a bit of motivation for myself to kind of stand up and get my game where I want to it to be and be in contention,” Fowler, 23, said. “I feel like that’s the reason why a lot of us play, is we love being in contention and winning golf tournaments.”
Bud Cauley, 21, is another newcomer hoping to parlay a fearless game into professional success. A three-time All-American at the University of Alabama, Cauley defeated Fowler, then the No. 1-ranked amateur in the world, at the 2009 U.S. Amateur.
Cauley turned pro after the NCAA Championships last spring and earned $735,150 in eight starts, good enough to skip Q-school and go directly to the PGA Tour. But Cauley knows that distinction simply opens the door. He has to be successful to stick around, and he is headed in the right direction with three top-30 finishes in his first three starts of 2012.
There were 14 first-time winners on the PGA Tour last season. In 2012, there could be at least three more. “I can’t speak for anyone else, but obviously with what the guys did last year, a lot of the rookies had a lot of success,” Cauley said. “You go out there and everyone has the same opportunity to win and just everyone does their own specific things in their games to try to be successful.”
As Stanley proved, for Fowler and Cauley, it’s only a matter of time.
It’s been 158 days since the St. Louis Cardinals defeated the Texas Rangers in Game 7 of the 2011 World Series, but baseball — and yes, fantasy baseball — is finally back. OK, the Oakland A’s and Seattle Mariners played two games in Tokyo last week, but the official Opening Day is Thursday, so play along with me.
Speaking of that two-game series in Japan, can you guess who’s currently leading the majors in batting average? None other than Ichiro Suzuki, who gave his countrymen plenty to cheer about by collecting four hits in the opener. Young stars Dustin Ackely and Yoenis Cespedes each hit a home run and drove in two during their short stay in the Land of the Rising Sun.
Here are some other storylines and players to watch this opening week as the 2012 fantasy baseball season gets underway.
Say Hello to Marlins Park
The Cardinals begin defense of their World Series title by helping the Marlins christen their brand-spanking new downtown stadium on Wednesday night. While eyes will no doubt be focused on the Marlins’ new 37,000-seat home, complete with a retractable roof, aquariums behind home plate and outfield glass panels, fantasy owners should also play close attention to the mound.
Josh Johnson will be toeing the rubber for the first time since last May 16 when shoulder issues limited him to a total of nine starts and 60 1/3 innings in 2011. Johnson has pitched very well during spring training and has experienced no setbacks with the shoulder. It also doesn’t hurt that Johnson will be facing a Cardinals line up without Albert Pujols, who’s now in Anaheim with the Angels.
For the Cardinals, Kyle Lohse gets the opening night assignment, as Chris Carpenter has been sidelined with nerve issues in his neck and shoulder. Lohse will be tasked with facing a Marlins line up that now includes Jose Reyes at the top of the order.
No one knows how Marlins Park is going to play just yet, whether it will favor the hitters or the pitchers, but don’t be surprised if new Miami manager Ozzie Guillen gives the green light early and often to his base stealers at the top of his line up. That’s good news for owners who have Reyes (39 SB in ’11), Emilio Bonifacio (40) and Hanley Ramirez (32 in ’10).
AL MVP Ballot on Display in Detroit
Five of the top 10 vote-getters in last year’s AL MVP balloting will be in action in Detroit as the defending AL Central champion Tigers open up against Boston. In fact, the first at bat will feature a match-up of the top two finishers as Jacoby Ellsbury of the Red Sox will step into the batter’s box against Tigers ace Justin Verlander, who took home both the AL MVP and Cy Young Award last year.
Besides Ellsbury and Verlander, the game will have Boston’s Adrian Gonzalez (7th in AL MVP voting in ’11) and Dustin Pedroia (9th), along with Detroit’s Miguel Cabrera (5th). Batting behind Cabrera will be new Tiger Prince Fielder, who finished third in the NL MVP voting and will make his Detroit debut. Fielder and the rest of the Tigers will be facing Jon Lester, who like the rest of his Red Sox teammates, will be looking to put last season’s September collapse behind him.
New Citi, Same Results?
The New York Mets will open their season on Thursday against NL East rival Atlanta in newly configured Citi Field. The Mets brought some of the outfield fences in during the offseason in hopes of giving the park an offensive boost. Last season the Mets finished 13th in the National League in home runs with 108 and only 50 of those coming at home.
This opening series against the Braves will be an early indicator to see if the Mets’ sluggers like David Wright, Ike Davis and Lucas Duda will be able to take advantage of the new dimensions or not. Tommy Hanson, who yielded 17 home runs in 130 innings pitched last year, will be on the mound for Atlanta in the series opener, followed by Jair Jurrjens (14 HR in 152 IP) on Saturday and Mike Minor (7 HR in 82 2/3 IP) on Sunday.
For the Mets, Johan Santana gets the Opening Day assignment. Santana, the two-time AL Cy Young Award winner (2004, ’06), last pitched in 2010 when he went 11-9 with a 2.98 ERA. He missed all of last season recovering from a torn capsule in his shoulder and it will be interesting to see how he fares in his first start in more than 19 months.
Mauer Out to Prove He’s No Ordinary Joe
It seems a lot longer, but it was just three years ago that Joe Mauer was the AL MVP when be won the batting title with a .365 average, hit 28 home runs and drove in 96. Perhaps it’s because in the past two seasons combined he’s hit just 12 home runs with 105 RBIs, while battling a myriad of injuries.
The good news is that Mauer has fared well at the plate during spring training and appears to be 100 percent healthy headed into the season, something he wasn’t last year. Now it’s just a matter of seeing if he’s the 2009 version or something more along the lines of 2010 (.327-9-75).
Mauer’s not the only Twin looking to stay healthy and rebound from a disappointing 2011. Justin Morneau, Denard Span and Francisco Liriano also dealt with injuries last year and saw their production plummet as a result. Lirianio has arguably had the best spring of them all, posting a 33:5 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 27 innings.
Span appears to finally be free of the concussion-related symptoms that wrecked his 2011 season, and while Morneau may never be the same player he was from 2006-08, he has looked more comfortable at the plate lately.
It also doesn’t hurt the Twins that they open their season in Baltimore against an Orioles staff that’s not expected to be very good. Target Field has not been kind to the Twins’ power hitters as the team hit more home runs (57) on the road than at home (46) last year. More to the point, Mauer has hit a grand total of one home run in 112 career games played at Target Field while Morneau has just seven in 74 games played there.
- Stephen Strasburg will make his first start of the season in the Nationals’ opener in Chicago against a Cubs line up that has more question marks than clear-cut answers. Strasburg should be a productive starter every time he takes the mound, but owners should not overlook his projected innings cap (around 160) in his first full season back from Tommy John surgery. The Nationals took the same approach with Jordan Zimmerman last season and were more than happy with the results.
- The aforementioned Pujols and C.J. Wilson will make their Angels debuts at home against Kansas City. It will be interesting to see what effect Pujols has on the Angels’ offense as a whole, while Wilson should benefit from no longer having to pitch his home starts in Rangers Ballpark. Last year, Wilson’s home ERA was 3.69 compared to a 2.31 mark on the road. For the Royals’ young hitters like Eric Hosmer, Alex Gordon, Billy Butler, Lorenzo Cain and Mike Moustakas, this opening series against Anaheim will be a good test as they will have to face Jered Weaver, Dan Haren and Wilson. That trio combined for 50 wins and 596 strikeouts in 697 1/3 innings pitched in 2011.
- Besides being a key NL West series, the Giants vs. Diamondbacks opening three-game set starting on Friday features arguably the strongest collection of fantasy starting pitching. The opener has Tim Lincecum vs. Ian Kennedy, followed by Madison Bumgarner against Daniel Hudson, and ends with Matt Cain vs. Josh Collmenter. With the exception of Collmenter, the other five won at least 12 games and struck out 169 or more batters last season, while all six pitchers posted sub-3.50 ERAs and finished with a WHIP of 1.21 or lower in 2011.
Ranking the coaches in any college football conference is a difficult task. Many factors play into just how successful a coach is at any school. How well are the assistants paid? Are the facilities up to par with the rest of the conference? Can the coach recruit or is he more of an x's and o's manager? Are there off-the-field or age issues to take into consideration? Has a coach built a program or continued the success from a previous coach? How is the resume outside of their current position? These questions and more were posed to the editors at Athlon Sports, as they were asked to rank the coaches of each of the six BCS conferences. One thing to keep in mind - the record is not always indicative of where a coach should rank in a conference.
Ranking the Coaches: ACC
Ranking the Coaches: Big East
Ranking the Coaches: Pac-12
Ranking the Coaches: Big 12
Ranking the Coaches: Big Ten
Ranking the Coaches: SEC
Ranking the Coaches: 2012 Top 25 Coaches
Here is how Athlon Sports ranks the coaches of the SEC:
1. Nick Saban, Alabama (5 years)
Alma Mater: Kent State (1970-72)
Record: 55-12 (2007-present)
Record: 48-16 (LSU, 2000-04)
Record: 34-24-1 (Michigan State, 1995-99)
Record: 9-2 (Toledo, 1990)
Overall: 146-54-1 (16 years)
There’s not much debate about this: College football’s top coach resides in Tuscaloosa. Saban has led the Crimson Tide to two national titles and four straight seasons of at least 10 victories. Saban’s track record is impressive, going 48-16 in five years at LSU, 34-24-1 in five seasons with Michigan State and a 9-2 mark in 1990 with Toledo. Saban is certainly one of the most demanding coaches in college football, but there’s no question he knows what it takes to succeed. Saban has returned Alabama to national prominence and has brought in some of college football’s best recruiting classes over the last five seasons. As long as Saban sticks around in Tuscaloosa, expect Alabama to be ranked among the top 10 teams every preseason. And after winning two titles in five seasons, expect the Crimson Tide to only add to that total in the near future.
2. Steve Spurrier, South Carolina (7 years)
Alma Mater: Florida (1963-66)
Record: 55-35 (2005-present)
Record: 122-27-1 (Florida, 1990-2001)
Record: 20-13-1 (Duke, 1987-89)
Overall: 197-75-2 (22 years)
It has taken some time, but Spurrier finally has South Carolina into contention for the SEC title. The Gamecocks won at least six games in each of Spurrier’s first five years, but have combined for 20 over the last two. Spurrier also led South Carolina to its first appearance in the SEC title game and a top 10 finish in most polls last year. Spurrier has had plenty of success outside of South Carolina, finishing with a 122-27-1 record at Florida and leading Duke to a 20-13-1 mark from 1987-89. Building a program into a consistent challenger for an SEC title is no easy task, but Spurrier seems to have South Carolina on the right path, and the Gamecocks are positioned for another run at the East Division title in 2012.
3. Mark Richt, Georgia (11 years)
Alma Mater: Miami
Record: 106-38 (2001-present)
The longest tenured coach in the SEC (tied with Gary Pinkel) has had one losing season in his entire head-coaching career. The Bulldogs, under Jim Donnan and Ray Goff, failed to realize an opportunity to grow into the SEC power in the 1990s. While Alabama and LSU toiled, Florida and Tennessee took advantage and won titles. Goff and Donnan claimed seven seasons of six wins or fewer and the program posted only two 10-win seasons from 1984 to 2001. Richt entered the game in 2001 and proceeded to win the programs’ first conference title in 20 years in 2002. Richt posted two conference titles, six 10-wins seasons in his first eight years and won two SEC Coach of the Year Awards. However, Dawgs’ faithful watched its team get worse four straight years from 2007 to 2011 while Alabama, LSU, Auburn and Florida were winning national titles and returning to national prominence in a big way. Richt adapted, though, by finally making sweeping coaching changes that have saved his job. Todd Grantham reinvented the Georgia defense and Richt got to his fourth SEC Championship game in 2011. He has his team poised to be the favorite to win the East once again this fall.
4. Dan Mullen, Mississippi State (3 years)
Alma Mater: Ursinus
Record: 21-17 (2009-present)
In Athlon’s meeting to rank the SEC coaches, Mullen and LSU’s Les Miles were the most difficult ones to rank. Mullen is only 39 years old, so his best coaching years appear to be ahead of him. However, his overall record is just 21-17 and his only SEC West victories came against rival Ole Miss. While winning the in-state battle is crucial, the Bulldogs need to start beating some of the other teams in the division. Mullen has also led Mississippi State to back-to-back bowl victories and should be in position to reach the postseason once again in 2012. Considering the depth of the SEC, winning big in Starkville is no easy task. Give Mullen the resources of what Alabama or LSU has and he can take Mississippi State even higher. The Bulldogs have ranked higher than ninth in the SEC in recruiting only once in the last six years, yet have a better record over the last three seasons than Tennessee (18-20) — a team that consistently recruits better than Mississippi State. While the record suggests Mullen is only a .500 coach, expect him to continue pushing the Bulldogs to eight or nine win seasons, but it wouldn’t be a surprise if he left for a better job in the next couple of years. An overall record isn't always a good judge of how effective some coaches are and Mullen is the perfect case, as he has helped to turn Mississippi State into a consistent bowl team in a very difficult SEC West.
5. Les Miles, LSU (7 years)
Alma Mater: Michigan
Record: 75-18 (2005-present)
Record: 28-21 (Oklahoma State, 2001-04)
Overall: 103-39 (11 years)
Inexplicably, LSU, a program with as many built-in advantages as anyone in the nation, laid dormant for three decades. LSU won two conference championships from 1971 to 2000 and only three bowl games from 1971 to 1995. However, the name atop this list of SEC coaches entered the picture in 2000 and reestablished the Bayou Bengal brand. Nick Saban won more games in his first year (8) than LSU had won the two previous (7). He had LSU back in the SEC title game by 2001, giving the Tigers their first outright conference title since 1986. By his fourth season, Saban had returned the Tigers to the promised land by delivering their first national title since 1958. Enter Les Miles. The Hat has maintained an elite level of success with four 10-win seasons in six years, including the 2007 National Championship. He brings energy, intensity and an internal rallying cry to his locker room. The players love him, and he is certainly an entertaining character. He is a fantastic recruiter who has assembled arguably the best roster in America. However, he has also developed another reputation based on bizarre eating habits, poor end-game management, vocal gaffes, and now, the worst BCS performance in the series’ 14-year history. Questions about his teams’ mental focus, discipline and overall ability to adjust were beginning to subside after the 13-0 romp through the regular season last fall. However, those issues resurfaced after the most under-prepared, poorly game-managed title game of the BCS era. Miles and Saban will be eternally linked the annals of SEC football, and relatively speaking, Miles is one of the better coaches in the nation. But in the Southeast, the stakes — and standards — are higher (sometimes unfairly so), and after LSU became the first and only two-loss team to win a BCS title, Saban has been the far superior coach. Miles has lost 12 games to Saban’s six since 2007, and with what could be perceived as the best roster in the nation, three losses per season isn’t getting it done.
6. Gary Pinkel, Missouri (11 years)
Alma Mater: Kent State
Record: 85-54 (2001-present)
Record: 73-37-3 (Toledo, 1991-2000)
Overall: 158-91-3 (21 years)
Not many people can say they started their football careers rooming with Jack Lambert and playing with Nick Saban while learning from Don James. But that is how Pinkel broke into this business when played tight end at Kent State under James. He spent nearly twenty years, most of it under James at Kent and Washington, before landing his first head coaching job in 1991 at Toledo. He earned one MAC championship, three MAC East Division titles and the 1995 MAC Coach of the Year honor before the Mizzou Tigers came calling. In his 11 years since, Pinkel has led Missouri to unprecedented heights of football success. His 85 wins are third all-time in school history. From 1983 to 2001, the Tigers went to two bowl games. Since Pinkel landed in Columbia, MU has eight bowls in 11 years, winning four of them. Prior to the former MAC guru tenure, Missouri posted two 10-win seasons in 111 years of football. He has won at least 10 games three times in the last five years. Eight of the Tigers nine top scoring teams have been ruled by Pinkel. He now has accomplished arguably his greatest achievement in Tigers football history by ushering his program into the nation’s best conference. There will be a major adjustment period, but for the SEC’s longest tenured head coach (tied with Richt), this has to feel like a juicy opportunity to continue the Tigers rise up the college football food chain.
7. James Franklin, Vanderbilt (1 year)
Alma Mater: East Stroudsburg
Record: 6-7 (2011-present)
There hasn’t been this much energy on West End in, well, maybe ever. Recruiting is at an all-time high, the roster is dripping with offensive skill talent and one could argue that Franklin, in his first season, should have actually won MORE. And his six wins marked only the second time since 1982 that Vandy reached the plateau. The Dores scored 347 points last fall. It was the first time the Commodores had topped the 300-point mark since 1974 and it is the highest scoring Vanderbilt offense since 1915. The loss to rival Tennessee was crushing but it is clear that Franklin has brought an attitude to Vanderbilt football that has been lacking for decades. And while Bobby Johnson deserves a lot of credit for building up the talent, the Dores showed in the second half of the season that they are only getting better. If only they hadn’t fumbled against Arkansas.
8. Gene Chizik, Auburn (5 years)
Alma Mater: Florida
Record: 30-10 (2009-present)
Record: 5-19 (2007-08)
Overall: 35-29 (5 years)
What a difference two years can make. Chizik was not the most popular selection when he was chosen as Auburn’s coach at the end of the 2008 season. In two years at Iowa State, Chizik posted a disappointing 5-19 record and won only two Big 12 games. Although it’s not easy to win at Iowa State, the Cyclones didn’t show much progress under Chizik and went 7-6 in the year after his departure. Chizik previously coached at Auburn from 2002-04 as the team’s defensive coordinator, before departing to work at Texas for two seasons in the same capacity. There’s no question that Chizik is a solid defensive mind, but there are some holes in his resume. Takeaway the 14-0 season in 2010 and Chizik’s career record is an underwhelming 21-29. The Tigers had a lot of young players stepping into key roles last season and there could be some transition as two new coordinators take over in 2012. Chizik has made the right moves at Auburn, but it may be another year or two before the Tigers are back into SEC West title contention.
9. Kevin Sumlin, Texas A&M (First Season)
Alma Mater: Purdue (1983-96)
Record: 35-17 (Houston, 2008-2011)
After four so-so seasons under Mike Sherman, Texas A&M made a tremendous hire bringing Kevin Sumlin back to College Station. Sumlin will be charged with leading the Aggies through a difficult transition, as Texas A&M is moving from the Big 12 into the SEC. Sumlin has built a solid resume as a coach, making stops as an assistant at Washington State, Wyoming, Minnesota, Purdue and Oklahoma. He also coached at Texas A&M from 2001-02 as the team’s offensive coordinator. Sumlin comes to Texas A&M after spending four years as the head coach at Houston. The Cougars went 35-17 under his watch and made three bowl appearances. Sumlin certainly understands what it takes to win at Texas A&M and built a solid coaching staff to guide the Aggies into the SEC. If Sumlin turns the Aggies into a consistent eight or nine-win team in the SEC, expect to see him move higher on this list in 2013 and beyond.
10. Will Muschamp, Florida (1 year)
Alma Mater: Georgia
Record: 7-6 (2011-present)
The track record is pretty prestigious for Muschamp. He won a National Championship as the architect of the LSU Tigers 2003 defense that allowed more than 19 points only once all season. He then followed head coach Nick Saban to the NFL for one season before landing as Tommy Tuberville’s DC at Auburn. He landed in his second national title game as Mack Brown’s defensive guru in 2009. He was named Texas’ head coach in waiting, but quickly realized Brown wouldn’t be stepping down any time soon. So after one of the most decorated assistantships in college football, Muschamp was given the keys to a Rolls-Royce of programs. Yet, with one of the most talented rosters in the nation, the Gators once again struggled on offense — try an unheard of 105th in the nation — and Muschamp was left without an offensive coordinator and without a quarterback. He closed his first recruiting cycle with the No. 3 class in the nation, but anyone should be able to recruit to Florida. The jury is still out on his coaching ability, but Muschamp was out-coached in the Cocktail Party and he can’t afford to lose games like that in 2012 — not with one of the most talented defenses in the nation.
11. Derek Dooley, Tennessee (2 years)
Alma Mater: Virginia
Record: 11-14 (2010-present)
Record: 17-20 (Louisiana Tech, 2007-09)
Overall: 28-34 (5 years)
Dooley entered his first big-time coaching gig at one of the worst situations in SEC history. Phil Fulmer and Lane Kiffin did little to maintain the storied Big Orange tradition leading into Dooley’s tenure. However, Dooley has done little to distinguish himself in a league loaded with superstars stalking the sideline. At Louisiana Tech, he took a 3-10 team and turned it into an eight-win team in two seasons. Yet, he finished his Bulldogs career with a less than stellar 4-8 campaign at a program that has had plenty of success relatively speaking. In Knoxville, Dooley has proven to be an affable CEO who has finished strong on the recruiting trail in the face of coaching defections. However, he has yet to deliver a signature victory in two seasons. Other than the last two games of the 2011 season, a win over Vanderbilt and an pathetic showing in Lexington, Tennessee has won and lost every game it should have in two seasons. Dooley needs to prove he can be a great leader by reuniting a once-divided locker room, or his last name and end-game gaff in Baton Rouge will be his only claim to fame.
12. Hugh Freeze, Ole Miss (First Season)
Alma Mater: Southern Miss
Record: 10-2 (Arkansas State, 2011)
Record: 20-5 (Lambuth 2008-09)
Overall: 30-7 (3 years)
Freeze has experienced a quick ascension in the coaching ranks. He was a successful coach at Briarcrest High School from 1995-04, before jumping to work as an assistant under Ed Orgeron at Ole Miss in 2005. After Orgeron was fired at the end of the 2007 season, Freeze became the head coach at Lambuth for two years, compiling an impressive 20-5 record. After his stint at Lambuth, Freeze worked as the offensive coordinator for Arkansas State in 2010 and was promoted to head coach for one season (2011). Freeze brought instant success to Arkansas State, improving the Red Wolves from four victories in 2010 to 10 and a Sun Belt title in 2011. Freeze has a difficult task ahead of him in 2012, as the Rebels were the worst team in the SEC West and have a lot of holes to fill on the roster. Although Freeze has been an instant winner at each of his stops, don’t be surprised if the Rebels show slow progress in 2012, before contending for a bowl in 2013.
13. Joker Phillips, Kentucky (3 years)
Alma Mater: Kentucky
Record: 11-14 (2010-present)
Fair or not, Phillips enters his third season in Lexington squarely on the hot seat. He deserves most of the credit for engineering one of the most successful offenses in program history while serving as the offensive coordinator for his alma mater from 2004-2009. The architect of the Wildcat offense saw names like Andre Woodson, Jacob Tamme and Steve Johnson carry Kentucky to four straight bowl games (2006-2009) for the first time in school history. However, the Cats have not improved on a win total since the 2005-2006 jump from three wins to eight. In fact, Phillips has watched his win total drop three consecutive years. And his once potent offense has fallen flat on its face. Kentucky scored 190 points in 2011 – or 285 fewer points than the powerful 2007 squad. It was only the second time (2004) that Kentucky has scored fewer than 200 points in a season since Hal Mumme took over in 1997.
14. Taver Johnson, Arkansas (interim)
Alma Mater: Wittenberg
Record: First Season
Johnson has been placed into a very difficult situation, as he was promoted to interim coach after Bobby Petrino's firing in April. Johnson is regarded as a solid defensive mind, but he has no head coaching experience and is just in his first season with the Razorbacks. The big question in Fayetteville is whether or not Johnson will serve as the team's coach for 2012 or an outside hire will be made. Athletic director Jeff Long has indicated Arkansas will conduct a search for a full-time coach, but it's very difficult to find a replacement in spring practice.
2012 SEC Spring Previews
Alabama's 2012 Spring Preview
Arkansas' 2012 Spring Preview
Auburn's 2012 Spring Preview
Florida's 2012 Spring Preview
Georgia's 2012 Spring Preview
LSU's 2012 Spring Preview
Missouri's 2012 Spring Preview
South Carolina's 2012 Spring Preview
Tennessee's 2012 Spring Preview
Texas A&M's 2012 Spring Preview
Vanderbilt's 2012 Spring Preview
Other Spring Preview Content:
College Football's Top Transfers to Watch for 2012
College Football's Top Spring QB Battles to Watch
Top Transfers to Watch in 2012
Early Top 25 for 2012
College Football's Top Spring Storylines for 2012
College Football's Coaches on the Hot Seat
The headline writers in Chicago had a field day about the Cubs' new “Theo-logy” when Theo Epstein was named the team's new president in October. As general manager of the Boston Red Sox, Epstein helped craft a team that broke an 86-year World Series drought in 2004. Now he's the boss of a team that hasn't won the big prize in 103 years. The team he inherited was a mess. The Cubs stumbled through a 71-91 season, with far too many dollars going to Carlos Zambrano, who was suspended by the team after quitting in August, and Alfonso Soriano, an aging outfielder who never became the 40-40 man the team hoped for when they signed him to an eight-year deal before the 2007 campaign. The new regime began cleaning up some of the mess in early January by dealing Zambrano to the Marlins, but turning the club into a consistent winner will likely take more than one year, so 2012 appears to be a season of adjustment. With new general manager Jed Hoyer, senior VP of scouting and player development Jason McLeod and new skipper Dale Sveum in place, Epstein believes he has a management team to lead the Cubs to a bright future. But the present “Theo-logy” is a little hazy.
The Cubs had no choice but to part ways with Zambrano. The former staff ace, who had compiled a laundry list of controversial actions over the years, quit on his team after a game in Atlanta in August, prompting then-general manager Jim Hendry to suspend him the rest of the season and effectively end his tenure in Chicago. The Marlins agreed to take Zambrano in a deal for Chris Volstad, but the Cubs will be picking up a reported $15 million of the $18 million he is owed for the 2012 season. Matt Garza finished the 2011 season strong, but he is considered one of the best trading chips, so he probably won't finish the season in a Cubs uniform. Ryan Dempster returns as the likely No. 1 starter despite a 10-14 campaign in 2011. Randy Wells' lights-out August (4-0, 3.32 ERA) helped vault him to a 7-6 mark, which was a nice recovery after struggling in 2010 with an 8-14 mark. But he will start 2012 at Triple-A Iowa. The Cubs traded dependable setup man Sean Marshall to Cincinnati to bring the promising Travis Wood into the rotation. The young lefty will get a few starts at Triple-A before taking his place in the rotation full-time. Volstad, a first-round pick in 2005, struggled last season (5-13) after going 12-9 in 2010. Paul Maholm, who pitched well despite going just 6-14 last year in Pittsburgh, signed a one-year deal with a club option for 2013 in January. They will back Dempster and Garza for now. When Jeff Samardzija was drafted in 2006, the Cubs eyed him as being an effective starter, but he developed a niche as a late-inning reliever and finished with a career-high eight wins and career-best 2.97 ERA. But he's back in a starter's role.
With 10 blown saves and a career-worst 4.01 ERA, closer Carlos Marmol is coming off a rough 2011 season. He was demoted back to setup man for a little while. But he has 72 saves in the past two seasons and goes into spring training as the most experienced closer on the squad. Lefthander James Russell was 0-5 with a 9.33 ERA in five starts and 1-1 with a 2.19 ERA in 59 relief appearances, so he could work his way in as a top setup man. Scott Maine was effective at Iowa but up-and-down in seven major league appearances, posting a 10.29 ERA. Since the Cubs are in need of another southpaw in the pen, he may fill that need. Rafael Dolis showed promise in Double-A Tennessee, got a brief taste of the majors in September and appears to have earned a spot in the bullpen.
Shortstop Starlin Castro led the National League with 207 hits and 29 errors. His defense can be both spectacular and maddening to Cubs fans - sometimes both in the same game. With experience and maturity will come stardom for Castro. At second base, Darwin Barney became a solid major league player, hitting .276, mostly batting second, in 143 games. He was the National League Rookie of the Month in April but tailed off after the All-Star Game.
Aramis Ramirez was the Opening Day third baseman for the Cubs for the past eight years, but he became a free agent and signed with Milwaukee, so the Cubs traded for Colorado's Ian Stewart, who had 25 homers in 2009 and 18 in 2010. But in 2011 he hit just .156 with no home runs in 48 games and was demoted to Triple-A Colorado Springs. The Cubs are hoping a change of scenery will help. At first base, the Cubs will turn to 29-year old Bryan LeHair - for the short term. They acquired power-hitting prospect Anthony Rizzo from San Diego, but the plan - for now - is to let Rizzo start in Triple-A. LaHair led all of minor league baseball last season with 38 home runs at Triple-A Iowa. He hit .288 in 20 games last year with the Cubs.
The Cubs' outfield is solid, but unspectacular. Soriano is back in left field, and while his power numbers are decent (70 homers and 92 doubles the past three seasons), his batting average has dipped into the .240-.250 range. His defense in left field continues to be problematic. Marlon Byrd has 101 RBIs and 176 strikeouts in 271 games over two seasons with the Cubs. David DeJesus became the first free agent signing in the Epstein era and figures to patrol right field. He has a lifetime .284 batting average but hit just .240 with Oakland in 2011.
Which Geovany Soto will show up? Soto has never been able to match his 2008 NL Rookie of the Year season (.285 with 23 homers and 86 RBIs). He followed that season with an awful 2009 campaign (.218 with 11 homers and 47 RBIs), and has averaged only 17 home runs and 54 RBIs in the past two seasons. He committed a career-high 13 errors last year but threw out a National League-high 36 baserunners.
The Cubs parted ways with backup catcher Koyie Hill, who was with the organization for five years and was on the major league roster full-time the past three seasons. Steve Clevenger has taken that spot. Outfielder Reed Johnson hit .361 or better in three different months of the 2011 season and made some spectacular plays in the field. Outfielder Tony Campana provides speed in both the field and on the basepaths. Jeff Baker can play in both the infield and outfield and hit safely in 30 of his 45 starts. Infielder Blake DeWitt is a solid fielder and turned into a valuable pinch-hitter, batting .265 in 121 games. Journeyman Joe Mather provides another bat off the bench and can play the corner outfield positions.
Third-year owner Tom Ricketts showed Cubs fans that he was serious about winning with his hires of Epstein and Co., and while the Wrigley faithful are sick of hearing about patience, the fans might be willing to endure a tough year or two if it means building a winner. With so many new executives in place, along with Sveum and a host of new coaches, this is clearly a transition year, and it would be a surprise if the newcomers could turn this team from a 71-game winner to a contender in one season. Sveum was blunt on his first day on the job and put the players on notice. “When you lose that many games, there are obviously problems,” he said. “Losing isn't OK. Not running a ball out isn't OK. It's unacceptable, and that has to be communicated.”
On paper the roster appears to be filled with underachievers, players on the decline and question marks. Castro is a bona-fide star with a huge future ahead of him, but the surrounding cast isn't anything to get excited about. But with the World Series champion St. Louis Cardinals losing Albert Pujols and the Milwaukee Brewers losing Prince Fielder, the Central Division doesn't seem to have a powerhouse team. If some of the veterans recover from tough 2011 campaigns and keep the team afloat for four months, management could become bold and aggressive in making trade-deadline deals to help the Cubs contend. However, if the team struggles early, Epstein and Co. will begin to take a look at the younger players in the system and part ways with the veterans.
RF David DeJesus (L)
Has never played in Wrigley Field but should shore up the top of the lineup.
2B Darwin Barney (R)
Had 90 hits before the All-Star Game in 2011 but struggled after that.
SS Starlin Castro (R)
The sky is the limit for someone who has accomplished so much before turning 22.
1B Bryan LaHair (R)
Career minor leaguer is keeping the seat warm for newly acquired prospect Anthony Rizzo.
LF Alfonso Soriano (R)
His speed is gone; his contract is immovable; will he ever hit 30-plus homers again?
CF Marlon Byrd (R)
Suffered horrific face injury when he was hit with a pitch May 21 and had mixed results after return in July.
3B Ian Stewart (L)
Cubs are crossing their fingers 26-year-old can return to 25-homer form of 2009.
C Geovany Soto (R)
Roller coaster career needs an upswing this year in a lineup full of question marks.
OF Tony Campana (L)
Stole a team-high 24 bases in 26 attempts in only 95 games in 2011.
OF Reed Johnson (R)
Hit .309, slugged .467 in his second go-round with the Cubs last year.
C Steve Clevenger (L)
Provides a left-handed complement to Soto.
INF Jeff Baker (R)
Started at five different positions last year and was a DH in three games against American League teams.
INF Blake Dewitt (L)
Valuable member of the bench; drove in 10 runs as a pinch-hitter for the Cubs last year.
OF Joe Mather
Former Cardinal and Brave can provide pop off the bench.
RH Ryan Dempster
Has thrown 200-plus innings four years in a row since moving from closer back to starter.
RH Matt Garza
Has averaged 11 wins and 198 innings over the last four seasons.
RH Chris Volstad
Batters hit .289 against the 6'8" former first-round pick en route to a 13-loss season with the Marlins.
LH Paul Maholm
Lost 14 games in Pittsburgh in '11 but had a career-best 3.66 ERA and only allowed 160 hits in 162.1 IP.
RH Jeff Samardzija
Former Notre Dame receiver had best season as a Cub, winning eight games and posting a 2.97 ERA out of the bullpen.
RH Randy Wells
After an April 4 win, didn't get second victory until July 23; was 4-0 in August. Is expected to re-join the rotation by midseason.
LH Travis Wood
Cubs traded reliable reliever Sean Marshall for him and hope he will be around for a long time. His stay in Triple-A should be brief.
RH Carlos Marmol (Closer)
Blew 10 save opportunities last year; will he get his spot as closer back?
RH Kerry Wood
Veteran re-signed with the Cubs in mid-January; struck out 57 batters in 51 innings last season.
LH James Russell
Struggled as a starter but was brilliant as a middle reliever in 2011.
RH Rafael Dolis
Another minor league starter who has found success as a reliever.
LH Scott Maine
Showed promise at Triple-A but was inconsistent in seven major league appearances. Currently the best candidate in the system to be the extra lefty.
THE LONG AND SHORT OF IT
by Dustin Long
Tony Stewart ended Jimmie Johnson’s championship reign last year but are NASCAR fans witnessing an end of an era? For a driver who, on average, once won about one out of every six starts, Johnson has two victories in his last 50 races.
While many drivers would gladly take two victories in such a span, Johnson’s stretch raises questions. This is the driver who won so many races in the final 10 laps, either taking the lead or holding off those trying to take it from him. This is the driver whose team put him in position to win. This is the driver whose car often was so much better than anybody else.
Now, this driver and team are no longer as dominant.
Yet, before one laments Johnson’s woes, consider Johnson’s record in the last 50 races:
• Johnson has finished in the top five 44 percent of the time (Stewart finished in the top five in 26 percent of those races).
• Johnson has finished in the top 10 66 percent of the time (Stewart finished in the top 10 in 50 percent of those races).
Johnson’s feat is impressive but expectations are so high that when he doesn’t win, it gains attention.
“I look back and I think of five or six races that got away,” Johnson said before Sunday’s race at Martinsville — another one that got away after he was collected in a late-race incident.
“Making those mistakes, I didn’t make those in years past or the team didn’t make them. There are some things that boiled down to strategy and others down to restarts that have been on me.
“I heard Jeff (Gordon) say something a long time ago, when he won 13 races or something like that in a year. He said he won every race he should have and then some that he shouldn’t have. We need to win the races we should be able to win and that we have a shot to win.”
There’s no doubt that Johnson’s team has lost a bit of its edge. Yet for all his struggles, he left Martinsville 10th in the points, hindered by his 42nd-place finish in the Daytona 500 when he was wrecked on the second lap. Since then, he’s finished no worse than 12th and that came Sunday at Martinsville after he was spun while battling for the lead in the final laps.
“Nothing is eating at me,” Johnson said before Sunday’s race. “Right now I’m very optimistic about our season. I have not paid attention to a stat or a number since our last win. I feel that we’re knocking on the door and we’re running on the race track where we should, and up front, and that’s going to give us chance to win.”
BACK IN THE SADDLE John Wes Townley drove in this past weekend’s Camping World Truck Series race after his team sat him out of the Daytona race because he was arrested and charged with DUI after crashing his 2012 BWM on Feb. 7 near Athens, Ga.
RAB Racing reinstated him for Martinsville. NASCAR placed Townley on probation for the rest of the year and he will be subject to random drug and alcohol testing. Townley said his team also has placed “internal sanctions” on him that he would not discuss.
Townley, who was cited in Feb. 2010 for underage possession of alcohol in Las Vegas, says he’s abstained from drinking since the February crash.
“That night I was having a few drinks with some friends and that morning I had to get up really early to go to Charlotte to go get some seats done and I left really early in the morning,” Townley said of what happened Feb. 7. “It was really foggy. It was really rainy outside, and I ran off the road and I hit my head pretty bad. I was disoriented. I went up to somebody's door because I left my cell phone back at the house and when that all happened — that's where I was.
“But I don't want of those conditions to undermine the decision that I made, because it's on me. It was up to me. I’m the one who got in the car. It was just a perfect storm that everything happened that night. I want to send my deepest apologies to anybody.”
The crash is just part of his curious past. Townley suddenly left his ride and the sport in Sept. 2010 before the Richmond Nationwide race.
“I needed to step back and re-evaluate how I felt about continuing on with the sport,” he said. “I didn’t really know where I was at the time and I just needed that time to step back and re-think what I wanted out of life and coming back into it I really just wanted to give it another shot and certainly didn’t want to leave it the way I left it. So to answer your question, I really want to get back into it to show some people that I can really perform out there and give it another shot.”
Townley finished 23rd at Martinsville.
Nike, the NFL's official new apparel provider, didn't take long to shake things up. The most notable change so far being the Seattle Seahawks' new uniforms, which were revealed today, along with the rest of the league. Seattle's uniforms got the most significant revamp with new colors and styling from top to bottom. Check out more photos at the team's website.
To see all 32 new team uniforms, click here.
CBS Sports flashed a headline this morning mocking Kentucky sensation Anthony Davis' now famous uni-brow by proclaiming: "Take A Brow." We had to share it. The screenshot is below.