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In a weird spring training moment on Sunday between the Angels and Royals, bees invaded a microphone attached to the net behind home plate at Tempe Diablo Stadium. Fans cleared the first six rows behind home plate and moved to the concourse. The Angels were forced off the field after already completing warm ups, and the start of the game was delayed 10 minutes while a beekeeper arrived to try and take care of the swarm.
The beekeeper was called upon again in the fourth inning when he shook the net and sprayed the bees causing another 10-minute delay. The fire department was called in last year during spring training to take care of the same problem at Tempe Diablo Stadium. But nothing in the past has been quite as dramtic as the swarm this weekend.
Check out some of the pictures of the swarm below.
Here's a video of the swarm:
The American League East is completely up for grabs in 2015. For most teams in the East, scoring runs won’t be much of a problem, but the fact there is not one single, proven, ace in any team’s rotation is telling.
No team in the division can boast about either their benches or bullpens which could make for some high-scoring affairs throughout the summer.
Here are a few storylines to keep you focused on the ailing American League East.
Red Sox Reload
It might feel like the Red Sox are just toying with the emotions of the Fenway faithful. The Sox went from choke in 2011 to worst in '12, to World Series champions in '13, back to worst last season, and are once again gearing up for a major postseason run this season.
General manager Ben Cherington spent this past winter wheeling, dealing and spending, adding major veteran talent to a team that was essentially a conglomerate of prospects late last summer. Cherington used the free agent market to sign a new third baseman and October standout in Pablo Sandoval for $95 million and shortstop Hanley Ramirez for $88 million. Sandoval is not seen as a long-term option at third, but will do for the time being. Ramirez, after adding about 25 pounds of muscle, is leaving the infield and being shifted to play in front of the Green Monster in left field — defensive comedy could ensue as Ramirez has never played outfield in his career.
Adding Ramirez and Sandoval should improve this Red Sox lineup that ranked 18th in runs last season. With a full season of Cuban prospect Rusney Castillo in center, resurgent campaigns from Dustin Pedroia and Mike Napoli, to go along with the big bat of David Ortiz, the Red Sox lineup should prove to be much more productive in 2015.
After Jon Lester and John Lackey were dealt last summer, holes needed to be filled in the rotation. Cherington sent Yoenis Cespedes, whom he acquired from the A's in the Lester deal, to Detroit for his prized target, Rick Porcello. Porcello is just 26 and coming off his best season ever (3.43 ERA, 204.2 IP, 129 K). Boston is hoping Porcello can mold into the ace of this Red Sox staff.
Behind Porcello, there is plenty of quality depth. Wade Miley, acquired from Arizona, has what it takes to be a top of the rotation arm if he can put it all together for an entire summer. Clay Buchholz has been streaky, but will remain the Sox’ number three arm, followed by veterans Justin Masterson and Joe Kelly.
While the Red Sox might not run away with the AL East crown this summer, they are certainly the most well-rounded team in the division and in prime position to return to the postseason in 2015.
Blue Jays Ready to Take Flight
Blue Jays’ General Manager Alex Anthopoulos has made it quite clear that this Toronto team is ready to win in 2015. The Jays haven’t been to the postseason since 1993 when “touch ‘em all” Joe Carter’s walk-off homer in Game 6 of the World Series locked up back-to-back titles.
Speaking of home runs, the heart of the Jays’ lineup could be the scariest in the American League. Between Edwin Encarnacion, Jose Bautista and newcomer Josh Donaldson, the Jays feature 98 home runs and 298 RBIs from 2014 in spots three through five on the lineup card. With shortstop Jose Reyes leading off, and newly acquired catcher Russell Martin in the two hole, the top half of this Blue Jays’ lineup has serious potential — it’s the bottom half that is going to be an issue.
If Toronto is hoping to end its 22-year postseason skid, simply put, their young arms are going to have to deliver in 2015. The raw talent is there, but Toronto is hoping that one or two of these arms grow into an ace while the others develop into quality starters. The Jays have three young righthanders 25 or younger that need to produce in Marcus Stroman (2014: 20 GS, 3.65 ERA, 103.2 IP) Drew Hutchison (32 GS, 184.2 IP, 184 SO), and Aaron Sanchez (24 G, 1.09 ERA, 0.697 WHIP). Waiting in the wings is top prospect and lefty Daniel Norris, who could cut his teeth in the bullpen or spot start this season. The addition of Martin behind the plate adds a fantastic teacher that can lead these young hurlers to take the next step.
At the top of the rotation are veterans R. A. Dickey and Mark Buehrle. Buehrle and Dickey had a resurgence in 2014, throwing a combined 417 innings and averaging a 3.55 ERA and 1.29 WHIP —not shabby for 39 and 35 years old. While Dickey and Buehrle both proved they can still be effective in The Show, it's time for the young guns of the Blue Jays to prove they can lead this team to the postseason.
While the Alex Rodriguez circus will be in New York headlines for the foreseeable future, the true story of the 2015 Yankees can be found in the box score under letters DNP — as in Did Not Play. Last season the Yankees were the walking wounded, and this summer probably won’t be any different considering how old this team is.
Ace CC Sabathia claims that he is ready to roll in 2015 after season-ending knee surgery limited him to just eight starts last year. The Yankees' highlight signing of last offseason was Japanese sensation Masahiro Tanaka to the tune of $155 million. Tanaka didn't disappoint when he was on the mound, posting a 2.77 ERA and striking out 9.3 batters per nine innings. The honeymoon didn't last as Tanaka, however, as he was sidelined for a portion of 2014 with a partially torn UCL. Righty Michael Pineda was only able to start 13 games for the Yanks in 2014 after missing '12 and '13 with shoulder injuries. When Pineda did pitch, he was outstanding, posting a 1.89 ERA over 76 innings, surrendering just 56 hits.
While the pitching staff has a tendency to get beat up, the defense behind them isn’t too much healthier. Carlos Beltran wasn’t able to produce much for the Bronx Bombers in 2014 due to bone spurs in his elbow, causing him to miss 53 games. Center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury has a long and painful history of not being able to stay fit for duty, playing 140 games or more just four times in his eight-year career. And Mark Teixeira, who played in just 15 games in 2013 before undergoing major wrist surgery, hit just .216 last summer, almost 60 points under his career average.
If the Yankees' roster of full of aging and hurting veterans has any hope at competing in the AL East in 2015, the training staff may want to make sure the players take the field in bubble wrap instead of pinstripes — or just find the nearest time machine.
- By Jake Rose
The Oklahoma City Thunder point guard has been carving out a pretty significant page in the NBA encyclopedia these days. With his seventh triple-double of the season — his fifth in six games — Westbrook pushed the Thunder to a 108-104 home victory against the Toronto Raptors yesterday, and entered some pretty rare air.
"If you can find somebody who has slowed him down, let me know,” said Raptors guard DeMar DeRozan. “But it's definitely tough. You've got to give him credit.”
Russ collected 30 points, 17 assists — tying a career high — 11 rebounds and four steals in the win. With Kevin Durant sidelined with prolonged foot troubles, Westbrook has put OKC on his back, and created a fleeting circumstance: If he continues this fantastic play, he could win the MVP, which Durant won last year. Not since the dominant Boston Celtics of the 1950’s have we seen a team field two different MVP winners in consecutive seasons.
Westbrook was named the Western Conference Player of the Month for February, and also won the MVP nod in the All-Star game in New York City — there’s not much he isn’t doing these days.
More than any statistical achievements, though, Westbrook’s biggest feat has been leading the Thunder through weird times. With KD out and a huge roster shake-up underway in the midst of a playoff run, he’s provided the consistency that’s kept them in the postseason picture.
Regardless of who you’re rooting for, this is a run worth appreciating. We have to reach back more than 25 years and evoke a nascent Michael Jordan to find a streak of performances that can compare to what Westbrook is doing right now. This is one of those “where were you when” stretches in the NBA, and we suggest you get in front of a TV for it.
— John Wilmes
The Nationals’ talented but underachieving roster reached a crossroads this winter, with a slew of critical players heading into their walk years in 2015. The choices were clear: Keep the band together for one more run at a title, even if it meant losing some key pieces at season’s end, or trade a major piece or two for a chance at perpetuating this run of success. The third choice — pony up and re-sign everyone — never appeared to be a viable option. In the end, the Nationals more or less stood pat other than adding another weapon to an already loaded rotation, giving this core one last chance for glory. A quick look at this roster, which changed little from the one that won 96 games in 2014, tells you it should be a World Series contender, but folks have been saying that for a few years now, and the Nationals still haven’t gotten past the Division Series.
Even before signing Max Scherzer to a seven-year, $210 million contract, this rotation was in fine shape. Jordan Zimmermann is perhaps the most important name on that list of Nationals who will be heading into their final season before free agency in 2015. Though he was the subject of many trade rumors, the team ultimately kept the understated righthander who has been the most consistent member of this high-powered rotation for several years now. With Zimmermann returning, this rotation — also featuring Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez and Doug Fister — will rank as the best in the game. Fister, in particular, was a revelation in 2014, his first season in the NL following the trade that brought him to D.C. from Detroit. In most other rotations, he would be a solid No. 1 starter. Here, he either will be the No. 4 or 5 guy option. All told, Nationals starters went 70–49 with a 3.04 ERA in 2014, including Tanner Roark, who has been squeezed out because of the quality arms ahead of him. And now this group adds Scherzer (18-5, 3.15 ERA with the Tigers) to the mix. There’s every reason to believe this quintet can match, if not exceed, those numbers in 2015, as long as everyone stays healthy.
Two winters ago, the Nationals made the surprising move to sign free-agent closer Rafael Soriano, widely interpreted as a sign the team didn’t trust holdover Drew Storen with the ninth inning. Soriano did a decent enough job in 2014, converting 32 of 39 save opportunities. But the Nationals made no effort to keep him, preferring to turn the ninth back over to Storen, who saved 43 games in 2011 and last year was one of the most unhittable relievers in the game. Tyler Clippard, who had handled eighth-inning duties the past few seasons, was traded to Oakland for Yunel Escobar. Casey Janssen, who saved 87 games for Toronto over the past three seasons, signed in early February and will likely take over Clippard’s role. The rest of this highly functional bullpen appears mostly set, with righthanders Craig Stammen and Aaron Barrett and lefties Jerry Blevins and Matt Thornton holding down spots. The seventh spot is up for grabs from among a group that includes righty Blake Treinen, lefties Matt Grace and Xavier Cedeno, as well as veteran Heath Bell, a December minor league free agent signee.
Second base has been the Nationals’ most volatile position the last couple of years, going from Danny Espinosa to Anthony Rendon, then back to Espinosa and — following a trade deadline move last July — to veteran Asdrubal Cabrera. The Nationals acquired Escobar from the A’s in January if anything to give Espinosa competition. Escobar is a career .276 hitter who provides excellent defense when his head is in the right place. However, don’t rule out veteran Dan Uggla, signed to a minor league deal in December. Shortstop is an interesting position for the Nationals, if only because veteran Ian Desmond, a three-time Silver Slugger winner and cornerstone of the clubhouse, is in his final season before free agency. The Nationals can take comfort in penciling him in for 20 homers and 90 RBIs in 2015, but it will be unsettling to not have him signed beyond that.
The long-speculated move of erstwhile third baseman Ryan Zimmerman across the diamond to first base — forced by his shoulder injuries and a decline in his ability to throw — became official when the Nationals declined their 2015 option on Adam LaRoche. The estimable “Face of the Franchise” is still an elite glove man (though he will have a tough act to follow in LaRoche), and the Nationals hope some closure to the inevitable position-switch, which found him mostly in left field in 2014, will help his bat. Third base thus is bequeathed — for good this time — to Rendon, whose first full big-league season produced a dazzling .287/.351/.473 line, a league- leading 111 runs scored and a fifth-place finish in MVP balloting.
Picking up Denard Span’s $9 million club option for 2015 was a no-brainer after a resurgent 2014 in which he set career highs in hits, extra-base hits and stolen bases. As a result, the Nationals return their entire 2014 outfield intact, with Bryce Harper and Jayson Werth at the corners — with their positions expected to be flip-flopped (Harper shifting to right and Werth to left). Though Harper will play the entire year at age 22, this is his fourth big-league season, and the way he closed out 2014, with 10 homers in his final 46 games, portends what could be a monster 2015. That, however, assumes Harper can stay healthy, which has proven to be a problem since he burst on the scene. Werth, meantime, will turn 36 in May — as he enters the fifth year of his seven-year deal with the Nationals — but shows few signs of slowing down, with 2014 numbers more or less in line with his career norms.
Injuries continue to confound Wilson Ramos, who has played more than 90 games in a season only once in a four-plus-year career. But when he is healthy, he is one of the best catchers in the game. His litany of maladies grew in 2014 to include a broken hamate bone suffered on Opening Day and a hamstring strain that nagged him much of the year. In an ideal world, Ramos replicates his breakout 2011 season — 113 games and a .267/.334/.445 line. But that may be more than the Nationals can expect.
The Nationals’ bench situation was clarified by the December trade that sent outfield prospect Steven Souza to the Rays, a move that elevates fellow prospect Michael Taylor into the discussion for a big-league bench job in 2015. Veteran Nate McLouth returns to the primary fourth outfield role, but the Nationals may keep Taylor as well for his combination of speed and power. Otherwise, he would go to Class AAA and stay on the ready. Tyler Moore will also be around as a reserve first baseman/corner outfielder, as will the loser of the second base battle between Escobar and Espinosa, barring a trade. Backup catcher Jose Lobaton is a solid enough replacement for those days (or weeks) when Ramos can’t go.
Matt Williams’ rookie season as the Nats’ manager was a rousing success, producing 96 wins and earning him NL Manager of the Year honors. October, however, was a different story, as the Nationals’ surprising exit in the NLDS pivoted on Williams’s decision to remove Zimmermann with 100 pitches, one out from a complete-game shutout. Despite the Nationals’ loaded roster, this wasn’t as easy a managing job as some would argue, as Williams had to navigate numerous crises and work without his ideal everyday lineup for most of the season. In Year 2, he brings his entire coaching staff back, a significant mark of stability. General manager Mike Rizzo has built the Nationals into a perennial contender, but the move that has defined his tenure — the decision to bench Strasburg due to an innings limit late in the 2012 season — continues to resonate all these years later.
Every season is crucial, of course, but 2015 takes on even more significance for the Nationals, with so many important players about to reach free agency and having made the huge commitment to Scherzer. One does wonder whether they will miss LaRoche, a steady influence in the lineup and clubhouse, more than they anticipated. But on most days of the week, the Nationals will run a starting pitcher to the mound who is significantly better than the guy on the other team. With a roster this loaded, anything short of a trip to the World Series will be considered a disappointment.
2015 Prediction: 1st in NL East
CF Denard Span (L) Led the National League in hits with 184 and hit a sizzling .346/.403/.459 in second half.
3B Anthony Rendon (R) The Nats’ best position player in 2014, with 6.5 WAR and league-leading 111 runs scored.
1B Ryan Zimmerman (R) Injured shoulder has also hurt his power at plate; 42.8 AB/HR was worst ratio of his career.
RF Bryce Harper (L) Nationals believe Harper is due for a 40-homer breakout season if he stays healthy.
LF Jayson Werth (R) At age 35, Werth ranked third in the National League in OBP, eighth in OPS and fifth in walks.
SS Ian Desmond (R) Effort to hit deeper in counts led to career highs in walk rate (7.1%) and K rate (28.2%).
C Wilson Ramos (R) Has played only 191 games last three seasons — 88 in 2014 — due to series of injuries.
2B Yunel Escobar (R) After entering 2014 at plus-46 for his career, cost the Rays 24 runs on defense (Baseball Info Solutions).
C Jose Lobaton (S) Capable backup, but total non-factor (.234/.287/.304) at the plate in 2014.
2B Danny Espinosa (S) Acute strikeout problem (554 in 1,761 career ABs) could be lessened by abandoning switch-hitting.
1B/OF Tyler Moore (R) The Nats’ top bat off the bench back in 2012, Moore had only one pinch-hit (in 14 ABs) in 2014.
OF Nate McLouth (L) Shoulder surgery ended season in August, but expected to be fully healthy for spring training.
OF Michael Taylor (R) Spent most of the 2014 season in Double-A, where he hit .313 and stole 34 bases.
INF Kevin Frandsen (R) Saw time at four different positions in 2014 and had some big hits for Nationals off bench.
RH Stephen Strasburg Once babied, former No. 1 overall pick now horse of the Nationals’ rotation (34 starts, 215 IP in 2014).
RH Max Scherzer The 2013 AL Cy Young winner followed up with another top-five showing (18-5, 3.15 ERA).
RH Jordan Zimmermann Reliable veteran coming off best season of career in terms of ERA, ERA+, WHIP and FIP.
LH Gio Gonzalez His 10 wins, 158.2 IP and 162 strikeouts were all his lowest totals since 2009.
RH Doug Fister In first year in NL, this former Detroit Tiger led a star-studded rotation in wins, ERA and ERA+.
RH Drew Storen (Closer) In dominating season, most important number was 10 straight saves during September fill-in.
RH Casey Janssen Potential Tyler Clippard replacement saved 25 games in 30 chances for Toronto last season.
LH Jerry Blevins Splits tell the story of his 2014: .298/.398/.423 vs. righties, .160/.202/.217 vs. lefties.
RH Aaron Barrett Unheralded rookie from Ole Miss became trusted seventh-inning man by midseason.
LH Matt Thornton August waiver claim pitched brilliantly (0 ER, 11.1 IP) down stretch in first NL tour.
RH Craig Stammen Jack-of-all bullpen roles pitched two-plus innings in 17 of his 49 regular-season appearances.
RH Tanner Roark Squeezed out of loaded starting rotation despite going 15–10 with 2.85 ERA last season.
Beyond the Box Score
Spot secured Tanner Roark may have been the best healthy pitcher ever left off a postseason rotation, getting relegated to bullpen duty last October despite winning 15 games and pitching to a 2.85 ERA. Pressed into relief duty in the 17th inning of the pivotal Game 2 against the Giants in the NLDS, he gave up the winning run in the 18th. A year ago, he had to fight to earn a roster spot, but after his stellar 2014, Roark has a rotation job already locked up this spring.
Trouble in paradise? The relationship between the Nationals and star outfielder Bryce Harper took a contentious turn this winter over a contract grievance regarding Harper’s arbitration eligibility. Although the matter was eventually settled before a hearing, Harper skipped the team’s “NatsFest” fan event, for which GM Mike Rizzo criticized him in some pointed remarks. Harper is eligible for free agency in 2019.
Clean bill of health On a positive note, Harper is expected to enter 2015 completely healthy, after battling a knee injury for much of 2013 and a torn thumb ligament that required surgery in 2014. The latter affected him at the plate even after he returned from the disabled list, but as the thumb improved so did Harper’s production. Over his last 31 games, including the postseason, Harper batted .315 with a .967 OPS — which could portend a huge 2015.
Switch to no-switch? Whether or not he winds up starting the season as the everyday second baseman, Danny Espinosa may be preparing to make a significant change at the plate — by batting exclusively right-handed instead of switch-hitting. Espinosa’s career splits (.213/.284/.362 as a left-handed hitter, .271/.343/.460 as a right-handed hitter) would indicate the move is long overdue.
Player named Turner The Nationals appear to have prepared themselves for Ian Desmond’s eventual departure by acquiring a potential replacement in Trea Turner, a top shortstop prospect and the “player to be named later” in a December three-way trade between the Nationals, Padres and Rays. Because Turner was drafted in 2014, he cannot officially be traded until this June, which has spawned an awkward situation in which Turner must play the first few months of the season for a team that has already traded him. Once he joins the Nationals, he will automatically become the top position player prospect in the organization.
2014 Top Draft Pick
Eric Fedde, RHP
For the second straight year, the Nationals used their top pick on a pitcher who needed Tommy John surgery, hoping to find value in a talented but injured arm. Fedde, taken 18th overall out of UNLV, had his surgery shortly after the draft and started a throwing program in December. If he pitches at all in 2015, it will be minimal, with careful monitoring by the team. Without the injury, Fedde likely would have been a top-10 pick, complementing a hard, sinking, low-90s fastball with a tight slider and a developing changeup. The Nationals have a strong track record in rehabbing pitching prospects, and the team still believes Fedde can develop into a No. 2 or No. 3 starter in the big leagues.
Top 10 Prospects
1. Lucas Giolito, RHP (20) Elbow injury dropped him to 16th in 2012 draft, but since surgery he has blossomed into one of best arms in the minors, going 10–2 with a 2.20 ERA at Low-A in 2014.
2. Reynaldo Lopez, RHP (21) Mechanical tweak in 2014 sent him zooming into top echelon of Nats prospects.
3. A.J. Cole, RHP (23) Fourth-round pick in 2010 is on big-league doorstep after going 13–4, 3.16 combined at Class AA/AAA, but Nationals’ loaded rotation has no space for him.
4. Trea Turner, SS (21) The player to be named later in three-way Steve Souza trade, he won’t officially join Nationals organization until June, but his talent already makes him franchise’s top position player prospect.
5. Michael Taylor, OF (24) Former prep shortstop has developed into tools-laden outfielder, with plus power and speed. Appears headed to big leagues to stay in 2015 after impressive 2014 in Class AA/AAA.
6. Erick Fedde, RHP (22) The Nationals took him in first round despite knowing he needed elbow surgery. Could be pitching in minors by midseason.
7. Joe Ross, RHP (21) Brother of Tyson Ross reached Class AA as 21-year-old with Padres in 2014, then dealt to Nationals in Steven Souza deal. Has mid-90s fastball, good slider.
8. Brian Goodwin, OF (24) Saw progress slowed by injuries at Class AAA in 2014, but speed and batting eye make him a possible call-up in 2015.
9. Wilmer Difo, SS/2B (23) Dominican product blossomed at Low-A, hitting .315/.360/.470, staking his claim as Nationals’ future second baseman.
10. Jakson Reetz, C (19) Third-round pick in 2014 has the tools to remain at catcher and the bat to advance quickly through minors.
After several years of hoping to coax one more run out of the rusting frame of the team that won five division titles, two pennants and a World Series from 2007-11, the Phillies have finally given in to a full rebuilding effort. Consecutive 89-loss seasons and the organization’s first last-place finish since 2000 did the trick. “What we have isn’t working,” said embattled general manager Ruben Amaro Jr., who started the rebuild by trading franchise pillar Jimmy Rollins to the Dodgers. “It’s time to turn the page. We need to get younger and more athletic.”
More changes are coming. Everyone except the Phanatic has a For Sale sign attached to his back as the Phils look to ship out the old (and expensive) and bring in the new. Despite spending more than a half-billion on payroll (only the Yankees and Dodgers spent more), the Phillies have missed the playoffs three straight seasons, and attendance at once-pulsating Citizens Bank Park has dropped by 1.2 million since 2011. Nothing was done this winter to improve a dreadful offense. It will probably be another three years before this team sniffs the playoffs again.
With Cole Hamels and Cliff Lee, the Phils have a dynamic duo at the top. However, it remains to be seen how long these guys will be around. Both are available for trade and will be attractive to contenders. Hamels, 31, is signed through 2018 (with an option for 2019), and the Phillies are under no pressure to move him. But come at them with some game-breaking young talent, and they will pull the trigger. Hamels remains one of the game’s best starters. He reached 30 starts for the seventh straight season in 2014 and had a career-best 2.46 ERA, including a glistening 2.06 in his final 27 starts. Lack of run support has dogged Hamels for several years. At 9–9, he was the first pitcher since Orel Hershiser in 1989 to post an ERA under 2.50 and not have a winning record. At 36, Lee is eager to pitch for a winner again. The possibility of being traded last summer might have been the reason he pushed to come back from a strained elbow in July. All signs point to Lee being healthy in 2015 — and if that’s the case, he will be prime trade bait. There’s a big drop-off after Hamels and Lee. Veteran Aaron Harang, signed to a one-year deal in January, is all but assured of a spot in the rotation. Right-handed sinkerballer David Buchanan will look to build on a solid rookie season, and journeyman Jerome Williams is back on a one-year deal. Cuban defector Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez, held back by a sore shoulder in 2014, and Chad Billinglsey, the former Dodgers who hasn’t pitched since 2013, also will get chances to impress and possibly win a job in the spring.
This is the one area where there is reason for encouragement. You can hear it in the hiss of Ken Giles’ 100-mph fastball. The 24-year-old righthander overcame health and control issues and turned himself into a cornerstone of the rebuilding effort in 2014. He came up in June and used his fastball and wipeout slider to strike out 64 of the 166 batters he faced. He finished fourth in the NL Rookie of the Year voting. The emergence of Giles and hard-throwing lefty side-armer Jake Diekman, as well as the consistent work of veteran closer Jonathan Papelbon, helped the Phils’ bullpen record a majors-best 2.41 ERA after Aug. 5. Youngsters Justin De Fratus and Mario Hollands also showed promise in 2014. Giles is clearly the team’s closer of the future, but for now the job belongs to Papelbon, whose outstanding command helped him overcome a dip in velocity. Like Hamels and Lee, Papelbon is a prime trade candidate, and he’d love to be dealt to a contender. However, his big salary and headache-causing antics have scared off closer-needy teams. If the Phils finally find a taker for Papelbon, Giles will be ready to step in and fire.
After serving as Rollins’ double-play mate for 1,187 games, the most in NL history, Chase Utley will break in 25-year-old shortstop Freddy Galvis, a defensive whiz who struggles with the bat. Utley, 36, turned back the clock and played in 155 games in 2014, his most since 2009. While Utley’s across-the-board numbers were good — he led NL second basemen in extra-base hits (53) and RBIs (78) — his second-half decline was alarming. He hit .335 with a .937 OPS in 47 games through May 28 and just .239 with a .657 OPS over 108 games the rest of the season. He enters 2015 mired in a homerless streak of 153 at-bats, the longest of his career. Utley is still a solid defender, but more days off or a move to first base, if circumstances permit, could serve him well.
Age and injury have taken a toll on Ryan Howard, and his production no longer matches his $25 million paycheck. Yeah, Howard drove in 95 runs in 2014, but his .690 OPS ranked 20th among big-league first basemen and 120th overall. Howard is a poor defender and baserunner. He has become the symbol of a once-great team gone stale, and the Phillies are willing to eat a significant amount of the $60 million that remains on his contract to trade him. Across the diamond, Cody Asche returns at third base, but he has much to prove as he tries to hold off Maikel Franco, a top defender with a big bat.
The Phillies unloaded Marlon Byrd, who led the team with 25 homers in 2014, to the Reds for prospect Ben Lively in late December. There wasn’t much pop at the other two spots, and that’s a big reason the Phils ranked 27th in the majors with a .665 OPS last season. Domonic Brown had just 10 homers and a dreadful .634 OPS in 2014, and Ben Revere is the definition of a slap hitter — all but 22 of his NL-high 184 hits were singles in 2014. Both Brown and Revere are poor defenders. Brown could make the move from left field to right field, where he played in the minors. Darin Ruf and Grady Sizemore could be in line for a platoon in left field, though Ruf likely will get some at-bats at first base again. Rule 5 Draft pick Odubel Herrera and Jordan Danks, who was claimed off of waivers from the White Sox, also will get a look.
Carlos Ruiz returns for his ninth season as the starting catcher. Though still a fine receiver, thrower, game-caller and favorite of the pitchers, Ruiz is 36, and nagging injuries have hurt his overall production. A decent backup must emerge from the cast of Cameron Rupp, Koyie Hill and John Hester as Ruiz would be best kept to about 110 games.
After numerous injuries, Sizemore is best suited for a part-time role. Ruf has shown an ability to hit lefties, so he and Sizemore could be a productive platoon in left as well as pinch-hitting options. Ruf could also get time at first base against lefties. Cesar Hernandez will serve as the utility infielder, and veterans Andres Blanco and Chase d’Arnaud will get a look in the spring. Herrera’s speed and bat are attractive for a team looking to get younger and more athletic.
The playing field isn’t the only area where changes are brewing. Longtime club president David Montgomery took medical leave in August, and billionaire investor John Middleton — compared to George Steinbrenner for his big wallet and passion for winning — is taking on a more prominent role. Hall of Fame executive Pat Gillick is back in a position of power with lame-duck GM Amaro answering to him. On the field, the jury is still out on low-key skipper Ryne Sandberg. Several players openly disrespected his authority in 2014.
The reconstruction is just beginning. Several older, high-priced vets must still be cleared out, the offensive is feeble, and the farm system, hampered by recent poor drafts, is weak. Another visit to the NL East basement is likely before this thing begins to turn around.
2015 Prediction: 5th in NL East
CF Ben Revere (L) Hit .333 after June 25 and finished at .306, fifth in the National League.
SS Freddy Galvis (S) Good glove, but he went 2-for-42 at the plate to start 2014 and hit .176 for the season.
2B Chase Utley (L) Fans voted him an All-Star starter for the sixth time in 2014.
1B Ryan Howard (L) Led majors with 190 Ks in 2014 and slugged career-worst .380.
C Carlos Ruiz (R) Threw out 27 percent of base-stealers and had team-best .347 OBP in 2014.
LF Grady Sizemore (L) Hit .328 in 14 starts in July, but was 4-for-41 in September.
RF Domonic Brown (L) His .634 OPS ranked 139th in the majors in 2014, and his average dipped to .235.
3B Cody Asche (L) Made 105 starts at third in 2014 and committed team-high 16 errors.
1B/OF Darin Ruf (R) Former 20th-round pick has 20 homers and .805 OPS in 447 big-league plate appearances.
INF Cesar Hernandez (S) He can run and play three positions but has yet to hit consistently in majors.
C Cameron Rupp (R) Could be backup catcher if Phils go homegrown route. Only has 22 MLB games on his résumé.
UT Odubel Herrera (L) Solid minor-league hitter with Texas; recent move to the outfield impressed Phillies.
3B Maikel Franco (R) Dominican native will have a chance to earn everyday job at third and could see time at first.
LH Cole Hamels Had a 1.82 ERA in 16 road starts in 2014 and finished sixth in NL Cy Young voting.
LH Cliff Lee His 3.93 career strikeout-to-walk ratio is second to Dan Haren among active pitchers.
RH Aaron Harang Once led the NL in wins (16 in 2006) and losses (17 in ‘08) in a three-year span. Went 12–12 in Atlanta in ‘14.
RH Jerome Williams Had a 2.83 ERA in nine starts after being claimed on waivers in August.
RH David Buchanan Averaged less than six innings in 20 starts in 2014, but allowed three or fewer earned runs in final 16.
RH Jonathan Papelbon (Closer) First closer to record 200 saves in one league and 100 in the other.
RH Ken Giles Ranked third among NL relievers in WHIP (0.79) and K rate (38.6) in 2014.
LH Jake Diekman Appeared in career-high 73 games and struck out 12.68 per nine in 2014.
LH Mario Hollands Had 19 straight scoreless appearances in 2014, a Phils rookie record.
RH Justin De Fratus Made 50 appearances after late May recall, and 42 were scoreless.
LH Cesar Jimenez Had 1.51 ERA and allowed one homer in 65.2 innings between AAA and the majors in 2014.
RH Luis Garcia Power stuff rates only a tick behind Giles’, but hasn’t carried minor-league success to majors.
Beyond the Box Score
The Papelbon problem When the Phillies signed Jonathan Papelbon to the richest contract ever for a reliever (four years, $50 million), they envisioned him closing out postseason wins. Three seasons later, the Phils have not been to the postseason, and Papelbon, with his big contract and volatile ways, has become an albatross that the team has not been able to escape despite repeated efforts to do so. Things could get interesting this season. Papelbon needs to finish just 48 games to guarantee a $13 million option for 2016. With Ken Giles waiting in the wings and the Phils looking to get younger and cheaper, the team would prefer that not happen. Will the Phils try to limit Pap’s finishes in 2015? If they do, they might be in for a fight.
Money is the root … Ryan Howard played with much on his mind in 2014 as he waged a legal battle against his brother and parents over control of his fortune. The matter was settled out of court. Close friend and former teammate Jimmy Rollins later said the painful matter affected Howard’s play. Maybe a clearer head will help Howard in 2015.
Chomp, chomp, chomp Lefty Jake Diekman continued his maturation in 2014. He struck out 100 batters, third most by an NL reliever and most by a Phillies reliever since 1983. Diekman felt more in control on the mound, and for that he credited a performance-enhancing substance — bubble gum. “It makes me think less,” he said. “I think I’m conscious of not chomping on the gum so I don’t look like a horse on TV. It slows everything down for me. At least it feels like it does.”
New top scout Signs of a franchise retooling began to show in June when the Phillies departed from a long-held philosophy of drafting high-upside athletes regardless of experience level. Looking for more polished, projectable players after a number of poor drafts and several first-round flops, the Phils went the college route with 27 of their first 28 picks. The retooling continued in September when longtime scouting director Marti Wolever was let go. Johnny Almaraz, a longtime scout with the Reds and Braves, was hired as the new boss after six years running Atlanta’s Latin American operation. He will be an important cog in the rebuilding effort.
2014 Top Draft Pick
Aaron Nola, RHP
Painfully thin in quality starting pitching at the top of their system, the Phillies were intent on landing an advanced talent with the seventh overall pick. Aaron Nola is just that. Polished. Mature. Poised. A fast-tracker. These are just some of the descriptions that have been attached to the 21-year-old righthander from LSU. Nola backed up his lofty selection with a 2.93 ERA in 55.1 innings at High-A and Double-A last summer. He struck out 45 and walked just 10. Nola made a good showing with a 2.62 ERA in five starts at Double-A and finished the season with five walk-free shutout innings against the Yankees’ club. Rival scouts and club officials rave about Nola’s ability to command three pitches, particularly his fastball. It’s not the Phillies’ style to push prospects too quickly, but this guy has the stuff and the intangibles to be the exception.
Top 10 Prospects
1. J.P. Crawford, SS (20) Team’s top pick in 2013 projects as franchise-type shortstop. More than held his own in the Florida State League in 2014 and should get to Double-A in 2015.
2. Aaron Nola, RHP (21) He should open at Double-A and could be in Philadelphia by season’s end.
3. Maikel Franco, 3B/1B (22) Organization’s top hitting prospect batted .324 with 11 homers, 47 RBIs and a .924 OPS over final two months at Triple-A in 2014.
4. Roman Quinn, OF (21) Switch-hitter with game-changing speed on bases and in center field. Led the Arizona Fall League with 14 steals. He could be ready for Double-A.
5. Zach Eflin, RHP (20) Phillies liked him in the 2012 draft, but he was off the board, going 33rd overall to the Padres. Phils finally got him in the Jimmy Rollins trade with the Dodgers.
6. Tom Windle, LHP (23) The other piece in the Rollins trade, Windle was 56th overall pick in 2013. Throws three pitches, including mid-90s fastball.
7. Dylan Cozens, OF (20) Second-rounder in 2012 is 6'6", 235 with huge power and upside. Struck out a lot, but had 16 HRs, 25 doubles, six triples and 23 steals at Low-A in 2014.
8. Ben Lively, RHP (23) Was Reds’ Minor League Pitcher of the Year after going 13–7 with a 3.04 ERA in 26 starts at Single-A and Double-A in 2014.
9. Matt Imhof, LHP (21) Second-rounder in 2014 out of Cal Poly stands 6'5". Command of three pitches, deception could make him a quick mover.
10. Deivi Grullon, C (19) He hasn’t hit yet in the low minors, but the tools are there. Has a rock-like presence behind the plate and a rocket arm.
After six consecutive losing seasons, tied with Houston for the longest active streak in the majors, the Mets believe they can finally break the .500 mark — and these days, if you do that, you can contend for a wild card. Anything less would be a bitter disappointment for the Mets. Some of their young players made meaningful strides last season, and their veterans should still have enough left to make a positive impact. After a strong September (15–10), and with a rotation on the rise, the Mets are poised to be relevant again.
A dynamic young rotation is the primary strength of this team. Matt Harvey returns after missing a full year following Tommy John surgery. An alpha dog in the mold of Roger Clemens, Harvey is eager to reclaim his role as staff ace and dominant force. He may be rusty, of course, and don’t expect him to throw 230 innings. But the innings he throws should be high quality. Harvey’s sidekick, the hard-throwing Zack Wheeler, finished with a strong second half, and the duo acquired another running mate along the way in Jacob deGrom, who burst onto the scene to win the NL Rookie of the Year award with a 2.69 ERA in 22 starts, with more strikeouts than innings. Noah Syndergaard could join that trio soon enough, but for now there’s a logjam, with lefty Jon Niese and righties Bartolo Colon and Dillon Gee — all solid, if unspectacular pros who combined to make 83 starts last season, going 31–32. Another option, Rafael Montero, was shaky at times but showed that he could hold his own.
In his first three years with the Mets, Terry Collins’ bullpen ranked 28th, 29th and 22nd in the majors in ERA. Last year, though, the Mets’ relief corps jumped to eighth, with a 3.14 mark. Collins found a young closer in Jenrry Mejia, who converted 28 of 31 save chances and made a habit of dancing off the mound after the final out. The four relievers with the most appearances besides Mejia — Carlos Torres, Jeurys Familia, Vic Black and Josh Edgin — all had ERAs below 3.10. Another standout performance, though, is no sure thing, as Mejia, Black and Edgin all dealt with injury problems in the second half and Torres absorbed a heavy workload. Look for former closer Bobby Parnell, who went down to Tommy John surgery after pitching on Opening Day, to return early in the season.
The ever-consistent Daniel Murphy is good for a lot of singles and doubles every year, and an average of roughly .290. Even his error total at second is steady: 15 or 16 in each of the last three years. His double-play partner is a source of frustration for Mets fans, many of whom still pine for the flash of the long-departed Jose Reyes. After a strong September, it’s Wilmer Flores’ turn to get the starting job that Ruben Tejada never really seized. Flores is only 23 and hit better at each level in the minors. He’s had only 375 plate appearances in the majors, and he just might be the Mets’ long-term answer. Now Flores needs a little patience from fans and media to see if he is.
The Mets finally settled their first base quandary early last season, trading Ike Davis to Pittsburgh and giving Lucas Duda the position. The quiet slugger gained confidence and blossomed, smashing 30 home runs. His patient approach at the plate fits with the Mets’ organizational strategy, and the power should only rise now that the walls in center and right are closer to the plate at Citi Field. At 29, Duda should be right in the middle of his prime, and with teams starving for power, his emergence is a big reason the Mets are so optimistic about 2015. They would feel even better if their captain, David Wright, were coming off a better season, but shoulder problems kept Wright from having his usual standout performance. He avoided surgery on his bruised rotator cuff and was cleared to begin baseball activities in December. Barring a setback, Wright, at 32, should resume his place among the game’s best all-around players: about a .300 average with 20 or so homers and 90 or more RBIs, plus about 15 steals and his usual stellar defense.
The Mets’ outfielders will have a bit less ground to cover at Citi Field this season, with portions of the walls in center and right field pulled in from three to 11 feet. Of course, the change had nothing to do with the Mets’ defense and everything to do with their offense. Had these dimensions been in place last season, the Mets say, their hitters would have hit 17 more homers, and their pitchers would have allowed 10 more. The pull-hitting Curtis Granderson should benefit most from the new dimensions, but on defense he’ll have to adjust to left field, where he started eight times last season and 11 times in 2013. Granderson says he is fine with the switch, which accommodates newcomer Michael Cuddyer, who takes over in right. Cuddyer missed most of last season with a fracture to his left shoulder socket, but he passed his physical and should be a solid bat in the middle of the order. Granderson, age 34, and Cuddyer, age 36, will benefit from flanking the majors’ best defensive center fielder, Juan Lagares, who won his first Gold Glove last season while improving his batting average from .242 to .281. Lagares still doesn’t walk much, but his bat is viable enough and his glove is so dazzling that he’s earned the right to start every day.
Travis d’Arnaud was hitting .180 with a meager .544 OPS when he was demoted to Class AAA Las Vegas last June. The hitting coach there, George Greer, told him to try to hit a double every time he came to bat. He learned how to better cover the outer half of the plate, and hit like he always has in the minors, where he is a .290 career hitter with an .838 OPS. d’Arnaud was better after he returned, hitting .270 with an .805 OPS and 10 homers in 69 games. The Mets would gladly take that production for a full year, and at 26, d’Arnaud needs to put together that kind of season — a demand that takes on greater urgency because Kevin Plawecki, a top catching prospect, is coming on fast in AAA. Backup Anthony Recker’s .197 career average obscures his decent power and his skill at working with the pitching staff.
The Mets won’t plan to use many, if any, platoons this season, but their corner outfielders will need a break now and then to stay fresh. Matt den Dekker and Kirk Nieuwenhuis are used to the backup role and play excellent defense when called upon. Eric Campbell can play five positions, and he hit .263 in a part-time role last season. Outfielder John Mayberry Jr. is dangerous against lefties.
The Mets have seen enough progress to give Sandy Alderson and Collins more time. Alderson signed a three-year contract extension in September and said that Collins would return as manager for 2015. The team has a 2016 option for Collins, the majors’ oldest manager at age 65. The Mets failed to meet Alderson’s goal of 90 wins last season, but this offseason Collins spoke optimistically of a playoff run, so both GM and manager are expecting a lot. If Collins fails to deliver, it’s safe to wonder if the Mets will make a change. But in his fifth season, Collins should have his first legitimate chance to make a playoff push.
Teams often follow years of losing with a transition year in which they contend for a while but ultimately fall short, absorbing the lessons of a pennant race and applying them the next season. This could easily happen for the Mets in 2015, and if so, it would ultimately be an improvement over the last few years. But their goals are higher than that, and they should be. This team features a playoff-caliber rotation, and the offense showed real signs of life last season. The Mets will be a legitimate factor in the chase for a spot in the postseason.
2015 Prediction: 3rd in NL East
CF Juan Lagares (R) Gold Glover’s bat came around late, with .323 average from Aug. 22 through end of season.
2B Daniel Murphy (L) Mets’ only All-Star in 2014 has had at least 35 doubles three years in a row.
3B David Wright (R) Rotator cuff problems limited his effectiveness and ended season early. Mets need him to bounce back.
1B Lucas Duda (L) A monster vs. righties, but had just four of his 57 extra-base hits off lefties.
RF Michael Cuddyer (R) Turned down $15.3 million for one year from Rockies to sign with Mets for $21 million over two years.
LF Curtis Granderson (L) Hit just seven HRs at Citi Field, a figure that should rise with fences moved in.
C Travis d’Arnaud (R) Oft-injured catcher had surgery Oct. 1 to remove bone chips from elbow.
SS Wilmer Flores (R) Venezuelan hit four homers and scored team-best 15 runs in September.
C Anthony Recker (R) Since Recker joined team in 2013, Mets are 44–33 (.571) when he starts.
OF Matt den Dekker (L) Strong defender was leading Class AAA PCL in hitting when recalled on Aug. 9.
OF Kirk Nieuwenhuis (L) Oddly, Nieuwenhuis had 18 extra-base hits and only 11 singles.
OF John Mayberry Jr. (R) Free-agent acquisition has strong .857 career OPS against lefties.
UT Eric Campbell (R) Has started games at first, second, third, left field, right field and as a DH.
SS Ruben Tejada (R) Went 778 at-bats without a HR at Citi Field until going deep in final AB of 2014.
RH Matt Harvey Challenge, for player and fans, will be understanding his limits in first year back after Tommy John surgery.
RH Bartolo Colon One of five active pitchers with 2,000 Ks (CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett, Jake Peavy and Tim Hudson).
RH Jacob deGrom Former ninth-round pick earned Rookie of the Year honors — and also hit a respectable .217.
RH Zack Wheeler Went 8–3 with a 2.71 ERA from June 30 through end of season.
LH Jon Niese ERA was more than a full run higher on the road (3.96) than at home (2.74).
RH Jenrry Mejia (Closer) Converted last 11 save chances, then had offseason surgery for sports hernia.
RH Jeurys Familia After rocky start, had 1.81 ERA from April 25 through season’s end.
RH Dillon Gee Should wind up in some team’s rotation — Mets or elsewhere — before end of spring training
LH Josh Edgin Did not allow an earned run in 10 innings after Aug. 1, but also battled sore elbow.
RH Vic Black Ended a fine year (26 hits allowed in 34.2 IP) with a strained rotator cuff.
RH Carlos Torres First Met to pitch 90-plus relief innings since Terry Leach in 1988.
Beyond the Box Score
Awesome autograph For most ballplayers, the signature has devolved into a mess of unintelligible lines and squiggles. As long as they include their uniform number, players say, fans can find out who they are. Fortunately, Mets newcomer Michael Cuddyer appreciates quality penmanship. Cuddyer was raised in the Minnesota Twins organization at a time when the late Harmon Killebrew implored young players — sometimes loudly — to take pride in the way they wrote their names, so future generations would always know who they were. Cuddyer took the lesson to heart, with a neat, legible autograph that is a true keepsake for fans. He is such a disciple of Killebrew that he wears his No. 3 to honor him.
No Strasburg scenario In Stephen Strasburg’s first full year after Tommy John surgery, 2012, the Nationals infamously shut him down because of a pre-determined innings limit and did not allow him to pitch in the playoffs, even though he was healthy. Matt Harvey, like Strasburg, is a Scott Boras client, but the Mets will take a different strategy. While general manager Sandy Alderson says the Mets have a “soft” number of innings for Harvey in the regular season, he insists that the workload will be managed so Harvey can pitch in the postseason if the Mets make it there.
Long answer The Mets fired their hitting coach, Dave Hudgens, last May and re-assigned his replacements after the season. In October, they found a solution across town. Kevin Long, who guided the Yankees’ hitters the last eight seasons, makes the move to Citi Field as the new hitting coach for the Mets. Long, a tireless worker with a relentlessly positive approach, is eager to work again with Curtis Granderson, whom he helped with the Yankees, where Granderson twice topped 40 homers.
Silent tweeter Mets general manager Sandy Alderson had fun when he first joined Twitter in 2012, cracking wise about the Mets’ money problems, showing off pictures of his dog, and joking (we think) about giving his wife an IHOP gift card for Valentine’s Day. Alas, Alderson was all business last season. After tweeting about an MLB Network promotion a few times last February, @MetsGM went all season without a single message for his 66,000 followers.
2014 Top Draft Pick
Michael Conforto, OF
Conforto comes from an interesting athletic background. His father, Mike, played football at Penn State. His mother, the former Tracie Ruiz, won two gold medals in synchronized swimming at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics and a silver medal at the Seoul Olympics four years later. Michael dove into baseball and has played in the Little League World Series and the College World Series, for Oregon State, where he was the Pac-12 Player of the Year in 2013. A lefty hitter with power, he possesses plate discipline that appealed to the Mets, who stress that trait throughout their farm system. He had a .403 on-base percentage while hitting .331 in his professional debut at Brooklyn, and he projects to have decent power in the major leagues. Conforto is 22, and if he progresses as the Mets hope, he should be ready to take over a corner outfield spot in 2017, after Michael Cuddyer’s contract expires.
Top 10 Prospects
1. Noah Syndergaard, RHP (22) A 6’6” right-hander acquired in the R.A. Dickey trade, Syndergaard had 145 strikeouts and just 43 walks while allowing only 11 homers in a full PCL season.
2. Kevin Plawecki, C (24) He would seem blocked by Travis d’Arnaud, but given d’Arnaud’s injuries and inconsistency, it’s plausible to think that Plawecki, at 24, could make a move up.
3. Brandon Nimmo, OF (22) The athleticism and instincts the Mets saw in him as an amateur in Wyoming started to show at Class AA last season; solid in all five tools.
4. Dominic Smith, 1B (19) Showed excellent strike-zone discipline in first full pro season, but managed just one homer.
5. Michael Conforto, OF (22) First-round pick last June had one of the best power bats in college baseball the last few years.
6. Dilson Herrera, 2B (21) Skipped AAA to go to Mets last season, hitting three HRs in 18 games.
7. Matt Reynolds, SS (24) After hitting .343 at two levels and reaching AAA, Reynolds may force his way into the mix in New York.
8. Rafael Montero, RHP (24) Solid mid-rotation prospect who made eight respectable starts for Mets last season; trade bait?
9. Amed Rosario, SS (19) Excellent defender who hit .289 at age 18 in Brooklyn last season; possible long-term answer at shortstop.
10. Steven Matz, LHP (23) Former second-rounder got the Mets’ attention with a 2.24 ERA in 24 starts between High-A and AA last season.
As Marlins manager Mike Redmond pointed out during the winter meetings, it was difficult to envision a scenario in which his team would be better without right fielder Giancarlo Stanton. The Marlins, in spite of a widely held belief that Stanton’s departure was imminent, locked up the slugger with a 13-year, $325 million contract, the largest in North American professional sports history. In conjunction with the Stanton announcement, the Marlins promised they would surround their superstar with sufficient talent to become a factor in the NL East.
In the team’s estimation, contending for a division title meant building around arguably the best outfield in baseball. Stanton, Christian Yelich and Marcell Ozuna excelled both offensively and defensively in 2014. With that trio in place, changes would have to come on the infield. The Marlins replaced three-quarters of that group with first baseman Mike Morse, second baseman Dee Gordon and third baseman Martin Prado.
With ace righthander Jose Fernandez on the shelf until June or July while recovering from Tommy John surgery, the Marlins came to terms with the Reds on a deal for Mat Latos and secured Dan Haren from the Dodgers along with Gordon.
“They want to win,” Morse says. “They’re proving it. They’re showing it right now. … We’re right on the cusp of doing something great.”
Whether the Marlins do something great will hinge on their rotation. That group expects a midseason boost when Fernandez completes his rehab from Tommy John surgery. The 2013 National League Rookie of the Year was limited to eight starts before a torn ulnar collateral ligament ended his sophomore season. With Fernandez on the shelf, several other pitchers stepped up. Henderson Alvarez logged a 2.24 ERA over his final 21 starts. Tom Koehler did not allow more than three earned runs in 15 of his last 18 outings. At the July 31 trade deadline, the Marlins struck a deal with the Astros for Jarred Cosart, and the NL agreed with him, evidenced by his 2.39 ERA. Those who didn’t raise their games in 2014 will be pitching elsewhere in 2015. Nathan Eovaldi, in spite of boasting one of the biggest fastballs in the game, did not blossom, and the Marlins dealt him to the Yankees in the Prado deal. Latos was limited to 16 starts last season with the Reds but has been one of the NL’s top pitchers when healthy. Aaron Crow, acquired from the Royals, has pitched exclusively as a reliever in the majors, but the Marlins may give him a look as a starter. David Phelps, a former Yankee who arrived as part of the Prado deal, also will be in the mix for a back-end rotation spot along with lefthanders Brad Hand and possibly Justin Nicolino. The X-factor is Haren, who after mulling retirement following his trade from the Dodgers to a non-West Coast team has decided to give it a go with the Marlins.
Steve Cishek in 2015 can become the first closer in Marlins history to record 30 or more saves in three consecutive seasons. During his two full seasons on the job, Cishek has converted 73 of 79 chances. The Marlins have an abundance of right-handed power arms to bridge the innings from starter to Cishek. Acquired from the Pirates last season, Bryan Morris did an exceptional job in the setup role. He had a 4–1 record and 0.66 ERA in 39 games with Miami. A.J. Ramos is a bulldog who has had more strikeouts than innings pitched in each of his two full seasons. The Marlins are hoping a healthy Carter Capps fulfills his potential. What the bullpen lacks is a true lefty specialist. Mike Dunn, who retires right-handed hitters as effectively as lefties, fills that role. Rule 5 pick Andrew McKirahan will get a look in spring training, as will Hand and prospects Adam Conley and Grant Dayton.
The Marlins believe shortstop Adeiny Hechavarria is on the verge of winning a Gold Glove. His defensive skills have been as good as advertised, and the bat is catching up. Hechavarria improved his average from .227 in 2013 to .276. Before the 2014 season, the Marlins signed free agent Rafael Furcal to be their everyday second baseman. Injuries limited him to nine games last season, and the team never found a suitable replacement. The Marlins, who won their second of two World Series in 2003 with speedsters Juan Pierre and Luis Castillo atop the order, wanted to recapture that element and targeted Gordon. He stole 64 bases and earned an All-Star selection in 2014. The question with Gordon is whether he can maintain a high enough on-base percentage to remain atop the order.
The Marlins supplanted both of their corner infielders. Signed to a two-year deal before last season, first baseman Garrett Jones struggled defensively and wasn’t a consistent run-producer. They traded him with Eovaldi and pitcher Domingo German to the Yankees for Prado, Phelps and cash. Morse, who hit 16 home runs for the World Series champion Giants last season, was signed to a two-year deal to replace Jones. The Prado acquisition set off alarms for Casey McGehee, whom the Marlins signed to be their third baseman after a 2013 championship-winning season with Rakuten in Japan. McGehee hit cleanup most of 2014 and was NL Comeback Player of the Year, but not long after the Marlins landed Prado they shipped McGehee to the Giants. The Marlins love Prado’s athleticism and ability to hit anywhere in the lineup.
In addition to Stanton, one of the game’s superstars and arguably its top right-handed power hitter, the Marlins feature a pair of homegrown studs in Yelich and Ozuna. The left-handed hitting Yelich is a future three-hole hitter and already has a Gold Glove. Ozuna probably is more suited for right field, but center did not prove a challenge, even in cavernous Marlins Park. He has one of the top arms in the game. MLB Network ranked the Marlins’ trio as the majors’ top outfield in 2014. Miami also signed veteran Ichiro Suzuki, who is 156 hits away from 3,000 in his MLB career, to a one-year deal for depth.
Coming off a World Series-winning season with the Red Sox in 2013, free agent Jarrod Saltalamacchia signed a three-year deal with the Marlins. Year 1 was a fiasco. Saltalamacchia led all NL catchers with 15 errors, and he didn’t make up for the substandard defense with his bat. Saltalamacchia hit .220 with a .362 slugging percentage. Backup Jeff Mathis doesn’t offer much offensively, but he possesses all the physical tools and intangibles.
The Marlins have an array of backup infielders with guys like Donovan Solano, Jeff Baker, Jordany Valdespin, Miguel Rojas and Derek Dietrich and only one established reserve outfielder in Suzuki. The left-handed swinging Justin Bour also will vie for a bench job this spring. He’s a natural first baseman but has logged some time in left.
Redmond returns for his third season as the team’s manager. On the final day of the 2014 season, the club announced it had extended his contract through 2017, giving the Marlins some stability in the manager’s office and coaching ranks. Redmond was a big leaguer as recently as 2010, and his relative youth (43) has allowed him to connect with his players.
Redmond is well aware that going from 77 to 92 wins is much more challenging than the club’s previous jump from 62 to 77. That next big leap could take more than one season, especially without 30-plus starts from Fernandez. Nonetheless, the Marlins have every expectation of playing meaningful games in late September.
2015 Prediction: 2nd in NL East
2B Dee Gordon (L) Speedster acquired from Dodgers stole more bases (64) in 2014 than entire Marlins team (58).
LF Christian Yelich (L) Gold Glove winner in 2014, Yelich could hit third if Marlins opt to slot Martin Prado in two-hole.
RF Giancarlo Stanton (R) Led the National League with 37 homers despite missing final two-and-a-half weeks of season.
1B Mike Morse (R) Fort Lauderdale native will play his best defensive position on hometown team.
3B Martin Prado (R) Hit .316 with .877 OPS in 137 plate appearances after 2014 trade from Diamondbacks to Yankees.
CF Marcell Ozuna (R) Hit 23 homers and knocked in 85 runs, second on club in 2014 behind Stanton’s 37 and 105.
C Jarrod Saltalamacchia (S) Signed to a three-year deal before last season; looking to rebound offensively and defensively.
SS Adeiny Hechavarria (R) Gold Glove-caliber defender hit 49 points better (.276) in 2014 than he did in 2013.
C Jeff Mathis (R) Makes up for light hitting with gritty play and manner in which he handles young pitchers.
OF Ichiro Suzuki (L) After 2,204 career games with AL teams, Suzuki comes to the NL 156 hits shy of 3,000.
INF Jeff Baker (R) Rebounded well from rough first half with productive second half in 2014, his first season with the Marlins.
INF Donovan Solano (R) Saw extended time at second base in August and September, and can play outfield in a pinch.
INF Miguel Rojas (R) Ex-Dodger played second, short and third during 85-game rookie season in 2014.
RH Henderson Alvarez Pitched like an ace after Jose Fernandez underwent Tommy John surgery in May.
RH Mat Latos Limited to 16 starts with Reds in 2014 due to knee injury and arm trouble, and saw dip in velocity.
RH Jarred Cosart Logged 2.39 ERA in 10 starts after he was acquired from Astros at July 31 trade deadline.
RH Tom Koehler Back-of-the-rotation workhorse finished just shy of 200-inning plateau (191.1).
RH Dan Haren Marlins hoped to convince Haren to pitch for them rather than retire or force trade to West Coast team.
RH Steve Cishek (Closer) Former fifth-round pick struck out 84 in 65.1 innings en route to a career-high 39 saves in 2014.
RH Bryan Morris Logged 1.82 ERA with a 1.275 WHIP in 2014 between 60 appearances with Pirates, Marlins.
RH A.J. Ramos Allowed only 36 hits in 64.0 innings while recording a 7–0 record out of the pen in 2014.
RH Carter Capps Hard thrower limited to 27 appearances between majors and minors in 2014 due to elbow injury.
RH Aaron Crow Ex-Royals reliever may get a look as a starter, but at the least will open season in bullpen.
LH Mike Dunn For his career has held left-handed hitters to a .220 average and righties to .238 mark.
LH Andrew McKirahan Rule 5 pick split 2014 between Cubs’ High-A and Double-A affiliates and recorded a 2.08 ERA.
Beyond the Box Score
Tat man The trade to Miami should afford Mat Latos a chance to meet one of his idols: Heat forward Chris “Birdman” Andersen. If nothing else, the two can find some common ground when it comes to body art; both are heavily tattooed. Latos said he gave serious consideration to sporting his Birdman Heat jersey to his introductory press conference. Asked about a possible photo shoot with the two, Latos added: “That would be embarrassing for me. … I’m not as hardcore as Birdman. He has a neck tattoo. That’s awesome to me.”
Role model While in the Dodgers’ organization, Dee Gordon learned from Maury Wills, one of the top base-stealers in baseball history. With the Marlins, Gordon will work under another ex-Dodgers favorite. Third base coach Brett Butler totaled 179 of his 558 career steals as a member of the Dodgers from 1991-94 and 1995-97. Unlike Gordon, who nabbed 64 in 2014, Butler never totaled more than 52 steals in a season. “From what I’ve seen and heard, our games pretty much match up,” Gordon says. “To be able to pick (Butler’s) brain on a daily basis and learn from him is going to be amazing.”
Native sons Latos and Mike Morse have special ties to the Marlins. Both attended the franchise’s inaugural game on April 5, 1993. Morse, born in Fort Lauderdale, and Latos, a product of Coconut Creek High School and Broward College, both were raised in South Florida.
Early test The Marlins will get an early barometer of how they compare against their division rivals. With the exception of a three-game interleague home series against the Rays, the Marlins play exclusively within the National League East through May 6. Last season, the Marlins were a combined 33-43 versus the Nationals, Braves, Phillies and Mets.
Brothers … and teammates? Marlins infielder Donovan Solano has shared the same major league field with his brother Jhonatan a handful of times. Jhonatan and Donovan may find themselves in the same big-league dugout at some point. After the Nationals released Jhonatan, a catcher, the Marlins signed him to a minor league contract. The Solano brothers are two of 14 native Colombians to appear in the majors and the second set of brothers.
2014 Top Draft Pick
Tyler Kolek, RHP
The last time the Marlins had the second overall pick in the draft, they selected a hard-throwing Texas high school righthander in Josh Beckett. Picking second again in 2014, they went the same route. Kolek is a hulking 6'5", 260-pounder whose fastball touched 102 mph while at Shepherd High School about 60 miles outside of Houston. Kolek received a franchise-record $6 million signing bonus and began his professional career in the rookie Gulf Coast League. A minor back issue limited him to nine appearances. He lost all three decisions and struck out just five more batters (18) than he walked, but the Marlins were pleased with his progress. After the season, Kolek went to the instructional league, where he adjusted his delivery. After Andrew Heaney’s departure via trade, Kolek is now the club’s undisputed top prospect.
Top 10 Prospects
1. Tyler Kolek, RHP (19) The hard-throwing, physically imposing Kolek complements a triple-digit fastball with a hard curve. Among his goals in his first full pro season will be finding a changeup.
2. Jose Urena, RHP (23) Urena had an impressive 2014 season with Double-A Jacksonville. His fastball and changeup ultimately could make him a compelling late-inning reliever.
3. J.T. Realmuto, C (24) A quarterback and shortstop, Realmuto is among the organization’s best athletes. He made his major league debut last season and should open 2015 at Triple-A New Orleans.
4. Justin Nicolino, LHP (23) He was the ace of the Class AA Jacksonville rotation, going 14–4 with a 2.85 ERA, 20 walks and 81 strikeouts in 170.1 IP.
5. Avery Romero, 2B (21) A stocky 5'8", 190 pounds, Romero projects to have above-average power for a middle infielder.
6. Isael Soto, RF (18) The Marlins believe they have a Raul Mondesi-type talent in Soto, who is coming off his first professional season.
7. Austin Dean, LF (21) Drafted in the fourth round as a shortstop in 2012, Dean made the transition to the outfield and is coming off his best pro season.
8. Trevor Williams, RHP (22) He complements a four- and two-seam fastball with a slider, curve and changeup.
9. Matt Ramsey, RHP (25) Last July, the Marlins sent the Rays their second, third and fourth international bonus slots for Ramsey, who at the time was mowing down Southern League hitters.
10. Brian Anderson, 3B (21) In his first pro season, he demonstrated an advanced hitting approach in the short-season Class-A New York-Penn League.
NFL free agency hasn’t even officially started, but the Miami Dolphins are already making waves, reportedly landing former Detroit Lions All-Pro defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh. The biggest fish on the market, it’s fitting that Suh ends up with the Dolphins, with the bait being a six-year, $114 million deal with $60 million in guaranteed money.
Give Miami credit. The team made it very clear that Suh was their No. 1 target and the Dolphins went out and got their man. Miami’s defense was 24th against the run last season and adding Suh, who anchored the league’s No. 1 rushing defense, should have an immediate impact in that department.
The Dolphins figure to field one of the strongest defensive lines in the NFL next season with Suh joining Cameron Wake, Olivier Vernon, Earl Mitchell and Dion Jordan. Suh and Wake alone give Miami a pair of Pro Bowl defensive linemen who can wreak havoc.
But while the front four of the Dolphins’ defense is in great shape, the same cannot be said for the back seven. Before Miami lured Suh to South Beach, the team cut ties with cornerback Cortland Finnegan and linebacker Philip Wheeler. Dannell Ellerbe, another linebacker, could be next.
It’s not just the defense that’s seen some attrition, as wider receivers Brian Hartline and Brandon Gibson were both released. And there’s still a chance that Mike Wallace, the Dolphins’ leading target and big free-agent acquisition two offseasons ago, could end up getting traded.
To put it another way, Miami has 21 current free agents of its own, but its spending spree is probably limited to Suh. The Dolphins were tight against the cap prior to signing Suh, a position that doesn’t look to get any better considering the $60 million he’s slated to get in the first three years of his new deal.
So while the team can scratch off the top thing on its offseason to-do list, there’s still plenty of work left to be done. Between the players that have already been released, the other free agents on their roster and last year’s results, it’s fair to say the Dolphins still have needs at cornerback, safety, linebacker and guard, and possibly even wide receiver and tight end. With limited wiggle room as it relates to the salary cap, most of these holes are going to have to be addressed via the draft. This puts pressure on general manager Dennis Hickey, head coach Joe Philbin and the rest of the coaching and player personnel staff who will be involved in those critical decisions come the end of April.
Ready and willing to make Suh the highest-paid defensive player in NFL history, it’s clear Miami is in win-now mode. The Dolphins finished 8-8 last season, two games out of the final Wild Card spot. There’s no question Suh is a game-changer who will have a tremendous impact on the defense, but he’s just one piece to the puzzle Miami’s brain trust is putting together. A playoff berth in 2015 certainly seems possible for the Suh-led Dolphins, although that could depend on how the rest of the team fills out around him.
Athlon Sports has polled 10 experts from around Major League Baseball in an effort to find the best place to watch a game.
Based on criteria like fan support, home-field advantage, amenities, tradition, surrounding area, facilities, gameday atmosphere and more, our 10 experts have ranked all 15 National League parks for 2015.
Remember, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
Tyler Kepner, NY Times
Andy Baggarly, AndrewBaggarly.com
Jeff Wilson, Fort Worth Star-Telegram
John Tomase, WEEI
Juan Rodriguez, South Florida Sun-Sentinel
Gordon Wittenmyer, Chicago Sun Times
Bill Plunkett, Orange County Register
C. Trent Rosencrans, Cincinnati Enquirer
Derrick Goold, St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Jack Magruder, FoxSportsArizona.com
Scoring: A first-place vote is worth one point, a second-place vote is worth two points and a 15th-place vote is worth 15 points. The lowest score is voted the best stadium in the National League.
|1.||AT&T Park||14 (7)|
|2.||PNC Park||32 (1)|
|3.||Dodger Stadium||48 (1)|
|5.||Coors Field||60 (1)|
|7.||Citizens Bank Park||75|
|13.||Great American Ballpark||111|
Much like Fenway in the American League, the clear-cut best place to watch a game in the National League is AT&T Park where the defending World Series champion Giants play ball. A beautiful setting, competitive teams and normally comfortable summers make this West Coast shrine a must-see. San Francisco’s home park got seven of the 10 first-place votes.
Best in the West
The Giants were voted the best park in the NL but Dodger Stadium in Chavez Ravine also got a first-place vote and finished third. Coors Field in Denver got a first-place vote as well, finishing fifth overall. Not to be outdone, Petco Park in San Diego ranked sixth, giving the West Division four of the top six stadiums in the National League. Which brings us to…
Chase for last place
It wasn’t ranked as poorly as The Trop or O.co Coliseum in the American League, but Arizona’s Chase Field was voted the worst place to watch a game on the senior circuit. It finished just behind Atlanta’s Turner Field — which, of course, is getting replaced by a new stadium on the North side of town very soon. Interestingly enough, the worst two stadiums in the National League are two of the biggest in the majors. The Braves park is fourth with a capacity of 49,586 while the Diamondbacks' home field is seventh at 48,633.
It doesn’t boast the same charm as Fenway, which finished as the No. 1 place to see a game in the AL, but it still is well respected at No. 4 in the NL. This is likely due to the age and much-needed renovations that Wrigley is currently undergoing (Fenway has already gone through its facelift). All I know is, as a Mets fan, I went to Wrigley last summer for the first time as a 32-year-old and nearly cried when I first walked under the marquee.
While the West Division appears to be loaded with great places to watch baseball, the East Division seems to be lacking. The Mets, Marlins, Nationals and Braves all saw their home parks ranked in the bottom six. Only Philadelphia was even moderately respected, finishing seventh in the NL. So much for East Coast bias.
Quarterback battles are easily one of the biggest storylines in any college football offseason. And it’s even more under the microscope in 2015, as the position lost several top performers, including Florida State’s Jameis Winston, Oregon’s Marcus Mariota, Baylor’s Bryce Petty and UCLA’s Brett Hundley.
With spring practice already underway for a handful of teams, it’s time to preview the biggest (and most important) quarterback battles for 2015 spring practice. Ohio State’s battle will garner all of the attention, but because of injuries, it’s unlikely the job will be settled until the fall. Alabama needs a big spring from Jake Coker to replace Blake Sims, while Sean Maguire opens practice at Florida State with an edge on J.J. Cosentino.
College Football's Top 15 QB Battles for Spring Practice
1. Ohio State
Cardale Jones (Junior)
Braxton Miller (Senior)
J.T. Barrett (Sophomore)
Urban Meyer has a good problem on his hands. The Buckeyes have three quarterbacks capable of winning the Heisman Trophy. Injuries to J.T. Barrett and Braxton Miller make it unlikely a pecking order is determined this spring.
Who Takes the First Snap of the 2015 Season: Jones
Jake Coker (Senior)
Blake Barnett (Freshman)
David Cornwell (Redshirt Freshman)
Alec Morris (Junior)
Cooper Bateman (Sophomore)
Florida State transfer Jake Coker was the favorite to win the job last season but was unable to beat out Blake Sims. It’s Coker’s job to lose again this spring. Freshmen Blake Barnett and David Cornwell might be his biggest challengers.
Who Takes the First Snap of the 2015 Season: Coker
3. Florida State
J.J. Cosentino (Redshirt Freshman)
Sean Maguire (Junior)
John Franklin III (Sophomore)
De’Andre Johnson (Freshman)
Deondre Francois (Freshman)
Sean Maguire has one start under his belt, throwing for 304 yards and one touchdown in a 23-17 overtime win over Clemson – arguably the best defense in college football – in 2014. Maguire is the safe pick here, but the upside is with J.J. Cosentino and Deondre Francois.
Who Takes the First Snap of the 2015 Season: Maguire
4. Notre Dame
Everett Golson (Senior)
Malik Zaire (Sophomore)
Golson started all 12 of Notre Dame’s regular season matchups, but was passed by Zaire on the depth chart prior to the Music City Bowl. In the upset win over LSU, Zaire passed for 96 yards and added 96 more on the ground. He’s the man to beat in spring practice.
Who Takes the First Snap of the 2015 Season: Zaire
Vernon Adams (Senior)
Jeff Lockie (Junior)
Travis Waller (Freshman)
Morgan Mahalak (Redshirt Freshman)
Ty Griffin (Sophomore)
The Ducks make an appearance here in the quarterback battle column, but it would be a major surprise if anyone unseats Eastern Washington transfer Vernon Adams. The senior has a chance to be one of the Pac-12’s top quarterbacks in 2015.
Who Takes the First Snap of the 2015 Season: Adams
Anthony Jennings (Junior)
Brandon Harris (Sophomore)
Justin McMillan (Freshman)
Upgrading the passing attack should be the top priority for LSU this spring. The Tigers completed only 50 percent of their passes and ranked last in the SEC in passing offense. Jennings posted a 48.9 completion percentage, while Harris didn’t get on the field much in the second half of 2015. LSU should know what it has in Jennings. It’s time to see what this team has in Harris.
Who Takes the First Snap of the 2015 Season: Harris
Brice Ramsey (Sophomore)
Jacob Park (Redshirt Freshman)
Faton Bauta (Junior)
Georgia’s offense should revolve around running back Nick Chubb, but contending for the SEC title could depend on how quickly this battle is settled. There’s a new play-caller in Brian Schottenheimer, so there’s a clean slate among this group. The upside is with Park. Experience edge goes to Ramsey.
Who Takes the First Snap of the 2015 Season: Ramsey
Shane Morris (Junior)
Alex Malzone (Freshman)
Wilton Speight (Sophomore)
Zach Gentry (Freshman)
Michigan’s offense will show improvement under new coach Jim Harbaugh. But how much improvement? That depends on the development of the quarterbacks. Morris has the edge in experience (43 of 87, 389 yards in career), but Zach Gentry and Alex Malzone are both part of Harbaugh’s first signing class in Ann Arbor.
Who Takes the First Snap of the 2015 Season: Morris
Trevor Knight (Junior)
Bake Mayfield (Junior)
Cody Thomas (Sophomore)
Justice Hansen (Redshirt Freshman)
Knight appeared poised for a breakout season in 2014, but he never was able to capitalize off of a strong Sugar Bowl performance against Alabama. Mayfield sat out due to transfer rules from Texas Tech, while Thomas started the final three games of the regular season. New coordinator Lincoln Riley is an Air Raid disciple. That may give Mayfield a slight edge for the job.
Who Takes the First Snap of the 2015 Season: Mayfield
Josh Rosen (Freshman)
Jerry Neuheisel (Junior)
Asiantii Woulard (Sophomore)
Brett Hundley leaves big shoes to fill at UCLA, and there’s an intriguing battle ahead this offseason. Rosen – the No. 12 prospect in the 247Sports Composite – is battling Jerry Neuheisel – the son of former coach Rick Neuheisel. Rosen has the edge in talent and enrolled in time to compete in spring practice.
Who Takes the First Snap of the 2015 Season: Rosen
11. Ole Miss
Chad Kelly (Junior)
Ryan Buchanan (Sophomore)
DeVante Kincade (Sophomore)
This quarterback battle is one of the toughest to project on this list. Kelly – a former Clemson quarterback – has the edge in talent but Kincade and Buchanan have worked in coach Hugh Freeze’s system for the last two years.
Who Takes the First Snap of the 2015 Season: Kelly
Treon Harris (Sophomore)
Will Grier (Redshirt Freshman)
New coach Jim McElwain’s background on offense is going to pay dividends for the Gators. Harris threw for 1,019 yards and nine scores in nine games last season, while Grier – the No. 48 recruit in the 2014 247Sports Composite – spent last year as a redshirt.
Who Takes the First Snap of the 2015 Season: Grier
Reggie Bonnafon (Sophomore)
Will Gardner (Junior)
Pat Thomas (Junior)
Lamar Jackson (Freshman)
Kyle Bolin (Sophomore)
Tyler Ferguson (Junior)
Three quarterbacks – Bonnafon, Bolin and Gardner – all made starts for Louisville in 2014. Bonnafon and Gardner suffered knee injuries, which allowed Bolin to start against Georgia in the Belk Bowl. Ferguson is a transfer from Penn State and completed 10 of 15 passes for 155 yards for one score with the Nittany Lions in 2013.
Who Takes the First Snap of the 2015 Season: Ferguson
Seth Russell (Junior)
Chris Johnson (Sophomore)
Jarrett Stidham (Freshman)
Technically, there’s a quarterback battle with Bryce Petty departing. However, all signs point to Seth Russell as the favorite. True freshman Jarrett Stidham is a name to watch for the future.
Who Takes the First Snap of the 2015 Season: Russell
Jerrod Heard (Redshirt Freshman)
Tyrone Swoopes (Junior)
Kai Locksley (Freshman)
This position is under the spotlight after Texas averaged only 21.4 points per game in 2014. Swoopes had some promising efforts but threw for only 257 yards and five interceptions over the last two games. Heard – the No. 72 recruit in the 2014 247Sports Composite – is off a redshirt season and ready to push for the starting job.
Who Takes the First Snap of the 2015 Season: Heard
Other Key QB Battles to Watch in Spring Practice
Coming off of back-to-back Pro Bowl seasons, Julius Thomas is looking to cash in as the top tight end in this year’s free agent class. Unheralded when Denver drafted him in the fourth round in 2011, the former Portland State football and basketball player has developed into one of the most productive tight ends in the NFL.
Thomas played in just nine games in his first two seasons with the Broncos before breaking through in a big way in 2013. The season Peyton Manning also came to town, Thomas exploded for 65 catches for 788 yards and 12 touchdowns. He followed that up this past season with another 12 scores, although an ankle injury limited him to just 13 games and his other numbers went down (43, 489).
An athletic target with outstanding hands making him one of the most dangerous red-zone threats in the league, Thomas could be a difference-maker for a team looking to upgrade at tight end. A return to Denver looks unlikely, so the question must be asked – how will Thomas fare without Manning throwing passes to him?
Here are five potential landing spots (in alphabetical order) for Thomas, whether it’s based on need or available cap space or both, as well as a few other teams to keep an eye on with free agency set to officially begin on Tuesday at 4 p.m. ET.
Everyone knows how good the Falcons’ offense was with Tony Gonzalez a part of it. I’m not saying Thomas is a future Hall of Famer like Gonzalez, but he would have to be considered an upgrade over Levine Toilolo. Atlanta has plenty of cap space to give Matt Ryan another weapon in the passing game.
Jordan Cameron is a free agent, but I think both he and the Browns are ready to move on. Tight end isn’t Cleveland’s biggest need, but the Browns have plenty of cap space and an uncertain situation at quarterback. Whomever ends up under center, he will need targets to throw to and Thomas would fit the bill, especially in the red zone.
Green Bay Packers
As good as the Packers’ offense is, can you imagine what it would be like if it added Thomas to the mix? Green Bay has other positions to address (including trying to re-sign Randall Cobb), so tight end may be more of a luxury than need right now. But oh what a potential luxury it could be for Aaron Rodgers if Thomas were to sign with the Packers.
The Jaguars can pretty much be considered an option for any big free agent because of two things – 1) they have plenty of holes to fill and 2) they have plenty of cap space. That said, Thomas also makes a lot of sense because of what his presence could mean to the development of second-year quarterback Blake Bortles. Call it a win-win for both the team and player.
With Marshawn Lynch back in the fold, the Seahawks’ focus this offseason will shift to signing Russell Wilson and other key players to long-term contracts. However, that doesn’t mean the team won’t look at adding some new pieces too. Thomas would definitely give Seattle’s passing game a different element.
Other Teams to Watch
Rex Ryan has his running back in LeSean McCoy, but Thomas could be the next Pro Bowler to join the new-look Buffalo Bills. Adding Thomas to the offense would make things easier on both the quarterback and the likes of McCoy and wide receiver Sammy Waktins … With Andre Johnson seemingly on his way out, the Houston Texans probably need a wide receiver more than a tight end. However, that doesn’t mean that Thomas wouldn’t fit nicely in head coach Bill O’Brien’s offense… The Oakland Raiders already have a young tight end in Mychal Rivera and much bigger holes to fill elsewhere. But since they have so much cap space and apparently are itching to spend it, they at least need to be mentioned here.
The Packers are certainly intriguing, given the quarterback similarities, but I don’t think they can offer Thomas enough money to make it worth his while. And if it’s all about the money, then it’s a two-horse race between the Jaguars and Raiders. However, I also like the Falcons’ and Seahawks’ chances. Seattle would give Thomas a chance to play for a legitimate Super Bowl contender not far from where he played his college ball, while Atlanta has been a good place for tight ends to thrive. In the end, I think the Jaguars will simply present Thomas with an offer he can’t refuse.
DeMarco Murray led the NFL with 1,845 yards rushing last year, but will the free agent running back re-sign with the Dallas Cowboys? The team used its franchise tag on wide receiver Dez Bryant, which put Murray on the open market with free agency set to kick off on Tuesday at 4 p.m. ET.
The perceived value of running backs appears to be changing, as evidenced by the recent trade of another former rushing champion, LeSean McCoy. However, Murray is just 27 years old and has rushed for 1,100 yards in back-to-back seasons, so he appears to be the best option in a market that doesn’t lack for options. There are about 30 running backs (and eight fullbacks) that are unrestricted free agents.
Murray does come with some durability questions, as last season was the first in his four-year career that he played in all 16 games, and there are some observers who credit much of his success to Dallas’ outstanding offensive line.
With all of this in mind, here are five possible destinations (in alphabetical order) for Murray and a few other teams that may be interested in adding him to their backfield.
The Cardinals went 11-5 and made the playoffs last season despite dealing with a rash of injuries and getting next-to-nothing from its running game. Arizona was second to last in the NFL with 1,308 yards rushing. Murray led the league with 1,845 by himself. Emmitt Smith went from Big D to the desert, why not Murray?
Even though the Cowboys used the franchise tag on Bryant rather than Murray, I don’t think it’s any secret they want to keep their No. 1 running back too. We’ve already seen what Murray can do behind one of the best offensive lines in the league. It’s just a matter of making the financials work.
The Colts made it to the AFC title game thanks in large part to Andrew Luck’s right arm. As talented as Luck is, he can’t do it alone (Exhibit A: AFC Championship Game vs. New England), and beefing up the running game would certainly help. Not only would it make Luck that much more dangerous in the pocket, it also would likely mean less punishment from opposing pass rushers. Luck already has been sacked 100 times in just three seasons.
The Jaguars haven’t had a 1,000-yard rusher since 2011. The offensive line is a work in progress, but the Jaguars are in position to do something that other teams are becoming less and less willing to do – pay big money for a running back. If it’s all about the money for Murray, than Jacksonville could be his destination.
The Raiders have a new head coach in Jack Del Rio, who has a ton of cap space to use to overhaul his roster. Derek Carr is a young quarterback who may be the long-term answer under center and what better way to help him develop than to give him plenty of ground support? Oh there’s also the intrigue of Oakland going with a Murray & Murray running back tandem in DeMarco and Latavius.
Other Teams to Watch
The Atlanta Falcons have plenty of cap space to add Murray to the mix, but I think other areas on the roster are more of a priority. The Falcons seem content to see how Devonta Freeman, last year’s fourth-round pick out of Florida State, fares with a larger workload… Adrian Peterson is still a member of the Minnesota Vikings, but for how long? Going from Peterson to Murray doesn’t seem like that much of a drop off, if that’s the direction the team chooses to go… The San Diego Chargers also appear to have a need with Ryan Mathews a free agent, Danny Woodhead coming back from a broken leg and second-year back Branden Oliver unproven. The Chargers were 30th in rushing last season.
Although plenty of teams need a running back the caliber of Murray, I’m just not sure how many are willing to pay him accordingly. Unless the Colts or Jaguars or Raiders decide to break the bank, I think the offers will be close enough that Murray will decide to stay put. The benefits of being a Cowboy, such as running behind one of the best offensive lines in the league, outweigh the potential financial windfall he can make elsewhere. It will take some work as it relates to the salary cap, but in the end, Dallas gets to keep its No. 1 wide receiver and running back, which makes Jerry Jones, Jason Garrett and especially Tony Romo happy.
Recent talk has suggested that even more rest could soon be in line for the league, but without losing any games. With the year’s spate of injuries to superstars and role players alike, it’s hard to argue that stretching the schedule out and giving some more relief to basketball bodies is a bad idea.
San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich, though, doesn’t like the concept. "If there is a game in July, count me out," Popovich said last week. "Count me out. Count me out. Life is too short… I think the season is long enough," Popovich said. "I will not come to work in July.”
The Spurs, quite famously, have gotten their rest through alternative means over the years: by simply taking it. Popovich and Co. were once fined $250,000 for sitting Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker and Danny Green for a nationally televised game in December of 2012, but they’ve continued to employ such strategies anyway.
For teams without as strong of a culture, though — the kind that kind win regular season games even with the back of their bench in the starting lineup — no such luxury exists. The New Orleans Pelicans can’t beat too many teams without Anthony Davis; the Los Angeles Clippers face similarly poor odds without Chris Paul… the list goes on and on. Rest is not an option for most of the NBA playoff-starved NBA, and exhausting back-to-back arrangements are a fact of life.
Reducing the total number of games, while being a smart idea, is probably the least probable solution of all, because less television time less means less revenue for everyone involved. So either we’ll see Popovich’s least favorite notion come to life, or we’ll likely keep seeing ragged bodies fall to the injured reserve at unfortunate rates.
— John Wilmes
They’re the cream of the major championship crop, circa 2015 — the Athlon Major Championship Dream Team. Leading up to The Masters, we'll be unveiling Athlon Sports’ 30 players to watch for majors season, with commentary on each from the Golf Channel’s Brandel Chamblee.
No. 23: Hunter Mahan
Born: May 17, 1982, Orange, Calif. | Career PGA Tour Wins: 6 | 2014 Wins (Worldwide): 1 | 2014 Earnings (PGA Tour): $3,097,983 (22nd) | World Ranking: 30
Brandel Chamblee's Take
Mahan has not finished worse than 30th on the money list in the last nine years and is the only player in the world who has made it to the season-ending 30-man Tour Championship every year since the FedExCup’s inception in 2007. That being said, neither has he ever finished higher than 9th on the money list nor higher than 6th in the FEC. His highs are restricted by an inability to save shots around the green, and his lows are minimized by an almost unmatched repetitive game from tee to green. With top 10s in all four majors, he is a threat on any course and under any circumstances, but he needs one great week around the greens to become a major winner, something that was predicted of him over a decade ago as the country’s best amateur.
Major Championship Résumé
Masters - T26
U.S. Open - Cut
British Open - T32
PGA Championship - T7
Best Career Finishes:
Masters - T8 (2010)
U.S. Open - T4 (2013)
British Open - T6 (2007)
PGA Championship - T7 (2014)
Top-10 Finishes: 7
Top-25 Finishes: 14
Missed Cuts: 13
Athlon's 2015 Golf annual provides in-depth previews of this year's four majors, including the top 30 players to watch this season. One of these elite players, Billy Horschel, also takes you tee to green with full-swing instruction and short game essentials. BUY IT NOW.
The ACC is losing some significant star power with the departure of Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston, Clemson defensive end Vic Beasley, Louisville safety Gerod Holliman and Miami running back Duke Johnson (just to name a few).
All 14 teams in the ACC will be busy this spring filling key personnel question marks for 2015, and the loss of several star players shows why most preseason rankings have Florida State, Clemson and Georgia Tech all outside of the playoff picture.
As spring practice begins around the ACC, it’s never too early to take a peek at what’s ahead in 2015. Here’s a quick primer on the top 15 players in the ACC for next season, as well as a few names to watch.
ACC's Pre-Spring Top 15 Players for 2015
1. James Conner, RB, Pittsburgh
2015 Year of Eligibility: Junior
2014 Stats: 1,765 yards, 26 TDs
Conner was the ACC’s Player of the Year in 2014 and will remain the centerpiece of Pittsburgh’s offense in 2015.
2. Jalen Ramsey, S, Florida State
2015 Year of Eligibility: Junior
2014 Stats: 79 tackles, 9.5 TFL, 3 sacks, 2 INT, 12 PBU
Ramsey’s all-around ability is a huge asset for Florida State’s defense. He led the team with 12 pass breakups last season and could slide to cornerback to help replace the production lost by P.J. Williams and Ronald Darby.
3. Kendall Fuller, CB, Virginia Tech
2015 Year of Eligibility: Junior
2014 Stats: 54 tackles, 2 INT, 15 PBU
Fuller has a variety of accolades in just two seasons with the Hokies. The Baltimore native was the ACC Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2013 and earned All-America honors last year. He should lead a tough Virginia Tech defense in 2015.
4. Tyler Boyd, WR, Pittsburgh
2015 Year of Eligibility: Junior
2014 Stats: 78 receptions, 1,261 yards, 8 TDs
Boyd has started his career with back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons and has grabbed 15 touchdown receptions in two years. The Pennsylvania native will be the ACC’s No. 1 receiver in 2015.
5. Dalvin Cook, RB, Florida State
2015 Year of Eligibility: Sophomore
2014 Stats: 1,008 yards, 8 TDs, 22 rec., 203 yards
Cook is primed for a monster season as Florida State’s go-to back. As a true freshman in 2014, Cook led the team with 1,008 yards. All-America honors in 2015 would not be a surprise.
6. Deshaun Watson, QB, Clemson
2015 Year of Eligibility: Sophomore
2014 Stats: 93 of 137, 1,466 yards, 14 TDs, 2 INTs
Watson could be the No. 1 player on this list by the end of the 2015 season. He’s recovering from ACL surgery, but the sophomore lived up to his recruiting hype by throwing for 1,466 yards and 14 touchdowns in limited action last year.
7. Justin Thomas, QB, Georgia Tech
2015 Year of Eligibility: Junior
2014 Stats: 1,719 passing yards, 18 TDs, 6 INTs, 1,086 rush yards, 8 TDs
Thomas is the perfect fit as the catalyst in Georgia Tech’s option offense. The Alabama native led the team with 1,086 rushing yards last season and connected on 14 pass plays of 30 yards or more.
8. Dadi Nicolas, DE, Virginia Tech
2015 Year of Eligibility: Senior
2014 Stats: 72 tackles, 18.5 TFL, 9 sacks
Nicolas had a breakout season in his first full year as a starter. After recording four sacks in 2013, Nicolas upped that total to nine and ranked second among ACC defenders with 18.5 tackles for a loss.
9. Marquise Williams, QB, North Carolina
2015 Year of Eligibility: Senior
2014 Stats: 270 of 428, 3,068 yards, 21 TDs, 9 INTs, 788 rush yards, 13 TDs
Williams will miss spring practice due to a hip injury, but the senior isn’t expected to miss any snaps in the fall. He ranked second among ACC quarterbacks (conference-only games) by completing 62.9 passes last year. Williams ranked second in the ACC by averaging 296.6 total yards per game.
10. Brad Kaaya, QB, Miami
2015 Year of Eligibility: Sophomore
2014 Stats: 221 of 378, 3,198 yards, 26 TDs, 12 INTs
Kaaya started all 13 games as a true freshman and guided Miami's offense to an average of 29.2 points per game. The California native is only going to get better as a sophomore, which is critical for a team dealing with key losses on defense (Denzel Perryman), at running back (Duke Johnson) and on the offensive line.
11. Jeremy Cash, S, Duke
2015 Year of Eligibility: Senior
2014 Stats: 111 tackles, 10.5 TFL, 5.5 sacks, 2 INT, 7 PBU, 4 FF
Cash sat out spring ball due to knee injury, but the senior is expected to be at full strength by the fall. He’s one of the top defensive playmakers in the ACC after recording four forced fumbles and two picks last season.
12. Jacoby Brissett, QB, NC State
2015 Year of Eligibility: Senior
2014 Stats: 2,606 yards, 23 TD, 5 INTs, 529 rush yards, 3 TDs
Brissett turned in a solid all-around in his debut at NC State, and bigger and better things should be coming for the senior in 2015. The Florida transfer did not throw an interception over the last three games of 2014.
13. Quin Blanding, S, Virginia
2015 Year of Eligibility: Sophomore
2014 Stats: 123 tackles, 2.5 TFL, 1 sack, 3 INT, 6 PBU
Blanding certainly lived up to his five-star recruiting hype coming out of high school. On his way to earning second-team All-ACC honors, Blanding led the team with 123 tackles and tied for first on the defense with three interceptions.
14. Luther Maddy, DT, Virginia Tech
2015 Year of Eligibility: Senior
2014 Stats: 9 tackles
Maddy missed nearly all of 2014 due to a knee injury. In 2013, he recorded 55 tackles (13.5 for a loss) and 6.5 sacks. If Maddy is healthy, he will rank higher on this list in the fall.
15. Mackensie Alexander, CB, Clemson
2015 Year of Eligibility: Sophomore
2014 Stats: 21 tackles, 2 TFL, 6 PBU
It’s a little bit of a projection to put Alexander here, but he’s poised for a breakout year after starting all 13 games last season. According to Clemson’s game notes, Alexander ranks first in school history in snaps by a freshman.
Six Names to Watch in Spring Practice
KeShun Freeman, DE, Georgia Tech
As a true freshman, Freeman’s emerged as one of Georgia Tech’s top defensive linemen in 2014. He should make an even bigger impact in 2015.
Rod Johnson, OT, Florida State
Rising star anchored the left side of Florida State’s line for the final five games of 2014 - as a true freshman.
Artavis Scott/Mike Williams, WR, Clemson
This duo combined for 133 catches for 1,995 yards and 14 scores last season. It’s a good bet one of these receivers rank on the top 15 players for the ACC at the end of 2015.
Cam Serigne, TE, Wake Forest
Serigne was a bright spot for a struggling Wake Forest offense last season. He caught 54 passes for 531 yards and five scores.
Wyatt Teller, OL, Virginia Tech
Teller moved from the defensive line to the offensive line in 2013 and started the last six games in his redshirt freshman season. Virginia Tech’s offensive line is a huge question mark entering 2015. Teller is one of the few certainties heading into this season.
Joseph Yearby, RB, Miami
Duke Johnson leaves big shoes to fill, but Yearby is capable of handling the starting role in 2015.
John Hart has tried his best to convince Braves fans that the team wasn’t simply rebuilding for the opening of the new stadium in 2017. The newly named president of baseball operations tried to argue that the Braves would be “very competitive” in 2015, but after trading Justin Upton and Evan Gattis in separate deals that netted the team seven prospects, his actions seem to speak otherwise. While adding a much-needed infusion of talent into an otherwise depleted farm system, Hart shipped off a combined 51 home runs and 154 RBIs from an offense that ranked second to last in the National League last season.
The Braves’ rotation figures to be solid again — losing only Ervin Santana and gaining Shelby Miller and several other young arms — but the offense is not exactly on solid ground. Especially not with Upton, Gattis as well as leadoff man Jason Heyward all wearing other uniforms.
The Braves couldn’t hang with the big spenders in the Jon Lester sweepstakes, leaving Miller as the biggest infusion of new blood into their rotation. The status quo centers on Julio Teheran, who is in his third full season and poised to lead a Braves rotation that finished fifth in the majors last year with a 3.42 ERA. Even pitching alongside Santana a year ago, the 23-year-old Teheran proved to be the Braves’ ace in his first All-Star season. He posted a career-best 2.89 ERA while pitching two shutouts and putting up career highs in starts (33) and innings pitched (221). His command of both a slider and curveball with the addition of a two-seam fastball has made him more than the power pitcher that earned him top prospect accolades in the organization for three years running. Teheran and lefthander Alex Wood give the Braves a formidable young righty-lefty combination at the top of their rotation. The Braves tried to limit Wood’s innings by bringing him out of the bullpen for stretches each of the past two seasons, but the team now needs him in the rotation. Miller and Mike Minor round out a rotation that figures to be solid Nos. 1 through 4. Veteran southpaw Eric Stults should get a chance to win the final spot in spring training, but Manny Banuelos and Mike Foltynewicz, a pair of prospects acquired this offseason, are waiting in the wings and could force their way into the discussion.
The Braves reshaped their bullpen around closer Craig Kimbrel after trading away Jordan Walden and David Carpenter and signing a pair of former closers looking to bounce back after subpar seasons. Jim Johnson and Jason Grilli are veteran candidates to serve as setup men for Kimbrel. Shae Simmons would have been included in this group, but he underwent Tommy John surgery in February and will miss the season. The Braves are hoping pitching coach Roger McDowell can work some magic with Johnson and his sinker. The former Orioles closer tanked last season after his trade to Oakland but posted 101 saves the previous two years. Grilli went 1–5 with 12 saves for the Pirates and Angels last year coming off his first All-Star season in 2013. Kimbrel became the first closer in MLB history to open his career with 40 or more saves in each of his first four seasons and only the third to do it in four consecutive seasons over any stretch. James Russell and Luis Avilan give the Braves some depth from the left side with the losers of the rotation competition likely to fill out the remaining spots.
It’s only a matter of time before Jose Peraza is starting at second base and batting leadoff for the Braves. The 20-year-old Venezuelan is the pure leadoff hitter the Braves haven’t had since Rafael Furcal. The trick will be to figure out when Peraza is ready for the call-up from Triple-A to the majors. Meanwhile, Alberto Callaspo and Phil Gosselin, and possibly even Jace Peterson, will battle for the second base job and could wind up in a platoon. Shortstop is in good hands, literally. Andrelton Simmons has won two Gold Gloves and one Platinum in his first two full seasons in the big leagues. He regressed offensively last year from a slash line of .248/.296/.396 to .244/.286/.331 as he got caught up swinging for the fences. He’ll be high on the priority list for new hitting coach Kevin Seitzer, who made inroads with Alcides Escobar — another young shortstop — during his time as the hitting coach of the Royals.
Even with Upton and Heyward in the lineup, Freddie Freeman was still the Braves’ best hitter. Now even more falls on the shoulders of the 25-year-old two-time All-Star first baseman. When the rest of the lineup was defined by big swings and high-strikeout totals, Freeman was one of the few Braves to use the opposite field with any consistency. His homers (23 to 18) and RBIs (109 to 78) were down last year, but his doubles were up (27 to 43). He’s going to have even less protection in the lineup without Upton behind him, so nothing will come easy this season. Chris Johnson’s name was bandied about in trade scenarios in the offseason. If he opens the season at third base for the Braves, he’s got to prove that his 2013 season, when he made a run at the National League batting title, wasn’t the fluke — that his 2014 season was. His defense at third was much improved, though.
For those puzzled by the four-year, $44 million commitment to former Oriole Nick Markakis during what otherwise appeared to be a rebuilding effort, consider that his approach is more in line with the philosophy the Braves are aiming for offensively. He’s a left-handed contact hitter who handles lefties (career .288). Markakis will take over for Heyward in right field and bat near the top of the lineup. Markakis doesn’t bring the power or speed of a Heyward or Upton, but he should be more consistently productive. The Braves are trying to move past the home run-or-bust mentality, but they still will have the other Upton brother in the lineup. B.J. changed his name to Melvin Upton Jr. during spring training, but he says it wasn’t because of his struggles (.198 with 324 Ks) since signing a five-year, $72.5 million free-agent contract with Atlanta in 2013. Adding to his woes, Upton could miss the first month of the season, if not more, after inflammation of a bone in his left foot was discovered during spring training. His injury opens up competition for the starting center field job, which could go to non-roster invitee Eric Young Jr., a switch-hitting speed threat who also is capable of playing second. Veteran Jonny Gomes was signed to a one-year deal and will try to supply some of the power that was lost in the departures of Justin Upton and Gattis.
Even if Gattis remained with the Braves, he wasn’t going to be able to stay behind the plate. Instead, the team will turn to Christian Bethancourt, an athletic young prospect. Bethancourt is agile and has a dynamic arm, but he’s still refining his pitch-calling and needs to increase his stamina. He wore down in September, and it showed with six passed balls. The Braves signed veteran A.J. Pierzynski to a one-year deal to serve as Bethancourt’s backup.
The bench will likely include both Young and Gomes, at least when each isn’t starting, as well as whomever loses the battle for the starting job at second. The remaining holdovers have very little experience — Gosselin, who’s had a total of 50 major league games, and the likes of outfielder Todd Cunningham (eight games) and outfielder/first baseman Joey Terdoslavich (64 games). However, Upton’s injury opens the door for one of these to potentially receive more playing time.
The Braves fired general manager Frank Wren and assistant Bruce Manno and restructured their front office with Hart taking over as president of baseball operations and John Coppolella, his heir apparent, getting increased responsibility as an assistant general manager. The subplot, though, is the return to greater influence of John Schuerholz and Bobby Cox, who had eschewed much of the baseball decision-making when Wren was at the helm. The other significant change was at hitting coach, with Seitzer taking over for Greg Walker. Seitzer is charged with getting the Braves’ lineup back to a more fundamentally sound, contact-oriented approach at the plate.
The Braves have won a total of two playoff games in the past nine seasons since their run of 11 straight division titles ended in 2005. Now they’re determined to get back to the formula that generated their run of success, which centers on scouting and developing their own players. That might take a while — the Braves hope no longer than 2017, when they open their new ballpark in the Atlanta suburbs of Cobb County. The success or failures of 2015? It’s going to depend once again on if the Braves can produce much offense to complement a solid young pitching staff.
2015 Prediction: 4th in NL East
LF Eric Young Jr. (S) If he wins a starting job and gets on base, his speed (30 SB in 100 G in 2014) will be an asset atop the lineup.
RF Nick Markakis (L) Career .294 hitter with .353 OBP in leadoff spot, which is where he’ll likely stay until Jose Peraza is ready.
1B Freddie Freeman (L) Second in majors with .443 average with runners in scoring position in 2013; dropped to 64th (.294) in 2014.
3B Chris Johnson (R) Second in the majors with a .395 average against lefties last year but hit only .231 against righties.
C Christian Bethancourt (R) Threw out five of 15 base-stealers but also charged with six passed balls in 31 games.
2B Alberto Callaspo (S) Braves sought this contact hitter, who has one strikeout every 11.16 career plate appearances.
SS Andrelton Simmons (R) Numbers were down a bit in second full season in the bigs, but his real value is with his glove.
CF Melvin Upton Jr. (R) Set Braves’ single-season franchise record for strikeouts with 173 in 2014, likely to miss at least the first month because of injury.
OF Jonny Gomes (R) Could beat out Young for starting job, but more suited for spot and pinch-hitting duty.
INF Phil Gosselin (R) Hit safely in 24 of his 30 starts for the Braves last season, batting .284 (33-for-116) as a starter.
C A.J. Pierzynski (L) Veteran is coming off the worst offensive season of his career, hitting a combined .251 in Boston, St. Louis.
OF Todd Cunningham (S) The Braves need a fill-in center fielder with Upton’s injury, which gives him an edge over Joey Terdoslavich or Jose Constanza.
INF Jace Peterson (L) Hit .113 in first MLB action with Padres last year but is coming off back-to-back .300 seasons in the minors.
RH Julio Teheran Sixth Braves starter since 2000 to make at least 30 starts (33) and post an ERA under 3.00 (2.89).
LH Alex Wood Led Braves with 2.78 ERA in 2014 but went 11–11 thanks to a staff-low 2.75 runs of support.
RH Shelby Miller After striking out 169 in 173.0 IP in breakout 2013 season, he K’d only 127 in 183.0 IP in ’14.
LH Mike Minor Shoulder soreness forced late start and early exit to 2014 season.
LH Eric Stults Veteran went 8-17 with 4.30 ERA in 32 starts for Padres last season.
RH Craig Kimbrel (Closer) Converted 47 of 51 saves and finished second in the majors behind Fernando Rodney (48).
RH Jim Johnson Once-dominant closer saw his ERA balloon to 7.09 last season in stints with the A’s and Tigers.
LH James Russell Veteran lefty was actually better against righties in 2014 (.284 vs. lefties, .165 vs. righties).
LH Luis Avilan Posted a 1.69 ERA in first two seasons, but it jumped to 4.57 in 2014 as he struggled with breaking pitches.
RH Jason Grilli Posted 2.74 ERA over three seasons with Pirates and converted 30 of 31 saves as closer in 2013.
LH Manny Banuelos Former Yankee pitched 76.2 innings in the minors last season in first year back from Tommy John surgery.
RH Mike Foltynewicz Former Astros first-round pick will get a shot to earn a spot in the rotation after working out of the bullpen last year.
Beyond the Box Score
Come together Shortly after signing a four-year, $44 million contract with the Braves, right fielder Nick Markakis underwent spinal fusion surgery for a herniated disc in his neck Dec. 17. His pre-spring routine will be altered, but the Braves are fairly confident Markakis will be able to make up ground during spring training and be a full go by Opening Day.
Roy returns Former Braves scouting director Roy Clark, who spent a handful of seasons helping stock the Nationals’ farm system, returned to the Braves front office, where he spent 22 years making a name for himself signing the likes of Brian McCann, Jeff Francoeur, Jason Heyward and Craig Kimbrel, among others. As special assistant to the general manager, Clark aims to build the Braves farm system back to the “Baby Braves” days of 2005, when 18 rookies made the major league roster during the last year of the team’s run of 11 straight division titles.
Masterful advice Shelby Miller honed his sinker during the second half of last season in St. Louis with the help of Justin Masterson, who came to the Cardinals at the trade deadline from Cleveland. Miller used the two-seamer to pitch deeper into games and keep hitters from sitting on his four-seam fastball. He posted a 2.08 ERA over his final seven starts after recording a 4.25 ERA in his first 25 games (24 starts).
Otro outfielder The Braves missed out on Cuban outfielder Yasmany Tomas, who signed with the Diamondbacks for $68.5 million. But while evaluating Tomas in the Dominican Republic, they also got a good look at a lower-profile Cuban outfielder named Dion Toscano. The Braves signed the left-handed hitter to a four-year, $6 million contract and will send him to the minor leagues to get a better idea of how soon he might be able to help at the big-league level.
Mending fences Former third baseman Chipper Jones didn’t take too kindly when the Braves sent the mascot out to catch his ceremonial first pitch before a 2013 division series playoff game against the Dodgers, a series in which Jones had predicted on a local radio broadcast the Braves would lose in four games. Jones did not return to spring training as a guest instructor last spring like he had the year prior. Jones is expected back in the fold as a regular around the batting cages this year after manager Fredi Gonzalez asked him to serve as an occasional hitting consultant.
2014 Top Draft Pick
Braxton Davidson, OF
The Braves are hoping some of the T.C. Roberson High School magic will rub off with their top pick in June. Davidson, a protégé and friend of Cameron Maybin from the Asheville, N.C., area, is a left-handed, power-hitting corner outfielder hoping to follow in the footsteps of his mentor. Davidson, who attended Maybin’s draft party 10 years earlier, was taken 32nd overall, in the supplemental round. He was considered the best power hitter in the draft, and the Braves also like Davidson’s feel for the strike zone — though he took his lumps in rookie ball (batted .224 in 50 games with 42 strikeouts in 147 at-bats). He drew comparisons to Freddie Freeman and Brandon Belt as a high school first baseman, though the Braves moved him to the outfield. He had shed 35 pounds during his senior year of high school in anticipation of that move.
Top 10 Prospects
1. Jose Peraza, 2B (20) Triple-A seasoning is all that stands between Peraza and a job as the Braves’ everyday second baseman and leadoff hitter.
2. Mike Foltynewicz, RHP (23) Biggest piece in the Evan Gattis trade with Houston will get shot in spring training to earn spot in starting rotation.
3. Lucas Sims, RHP (20) Jump from Low- to High-A proved to be a big one for Sims — 12–4 with a 2.62 ERA in Rome to 8–11 with a 4.19 ERA in Lynchburg. The Braves still covet his power arm.
4. Christian Bethancourt, C (23) Braves’ Opening Day catcher, barring injury or meltdown in spring training, given Evan Gattis’ move to left field.
5. Jason Hursh, RHP (23) Braves’ 2013 first-round pick from Oklahoma State coming off solid Double-A season (11–7, 3.58 ERA).
6. Rio Ruiz, 3B (20) Acquired in the Gattis deal, likely ticketed for Double-A Mississippi after batting .293-11-77 in High-A last season.
7. Max Fried, LHP (21) The No. 7 overall pick by the Padres in 2012 who arrived in the Justin Upton trade, Fried is coming off Tommy John surgery and likely to miss all of 2015 season.
8. Ozhaino Albies, SS (18) Another talent from Curacao trying to live up to the legacy of Andruw Jones and Andrelton Simmons. He led Appalachian League in hitting (.356) and OBP (.429) as a 17-year-old.
9. Braxton Davidson, RF (18) Braves aren’t sure if 2014 first-rounder has the arm strength to play right field, but he’s slated to continue there as he opens his first full season in High-A Rome.
10. Tyrell Jenkins, RHP (22) Shoulder injuries stalled minor league progression, but fastball back in mid-90s for former Baylor football signee who had standout Arizona Fall League.
This college basketball season has been one of mixed emotions.
We’ve celebrated the careers of legends Dean Smith and Jerry Tarkanian while mourning their passing. We watched Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski and Philadelphia’s Herb Magee celebrate their 1,000th win. We’ve watched day-in and day-out greatness at Kentucky.
Yet we’ve also watched another Hall of Fame coach see his legacy tainted and the future of the program thrown into doubt due to NCAA violations, and Jim Boeheim wasn’t alone in dealing with off-court issues when programs should be gearing up for postseason.
Amid all of this, March Madness and the unpredictability of tournament season is here. Remember, at this point last season, Connecticut was on no one’s radar as a national championship contender. Neither was Kentucky. A series of upsets, though, led us to UConn winning a national title. Madness, indeed.
For any fan just getting into college basketball in time for championship week and office pools: What took you so long?
You have some catching up to do. By waiting until the final weeks, you’ve missed a historic season. Every season is historic for one reason or another, so maybe this season will be among the most memorable even before the NCAA Tournament.
You may need to catch up a bit, but that’s what you’ll learn here.
Kentucky is going for perfection
College basketball hasn’t had a story like this since — when, exactly? Kevin Durant vs. Greg Oden in the first year of one-and-done in 2007? The Christian Laettner Duke years? This is the No. 1 story in college basketball as Kentucky tries to match Indiana’s undefeated national championship team in 1975-76. Only five teams since have entered their league tournament undefeated, and only 1991 UNLV could claim to be as divisive. No fan base is more invested than Kentucky’s, and John Calipari may be the only coach to match Mike Krzyzewski as a love-him or hate-him figure in the sport. One way or another, Kentucky will make history in this Tournament — either by becoming the first team to go 40–0 or being on the wrong end of a monumental upset.
The Player of the Year race may go down to the wire
Maybe it’s for the best that the race for the Wooden or Naismith awards doesn’t get the same hype as the Heisman Trophy. A year after the Player of the Year award was a season-long coronation for Creighton’s Doug McDermott, the sport has a legitimate two-player race between Duke’s Jahlil Okafor and Wisconsin’s Frank Kaminsky. Both play center for national championship contenders, but they don’t fit the same profile. Okafor, who does his best work around the basket, has been a contender for the No. 1 overall draft pick since he was in high school. Kaminsky, who is more of a threat from the perimeter, was a virtual unknown two years ago. This will be the most heated Player of the Year race since Duke’s J.J. Redick and Gonzaga’s Adam Morrison shared the award in 2005-06.
A Final Four drought could end out West
The two best coaches who have never reached the Final Four both reside out West, and both may have their best chance to reach the final weekend of the NCAA Tournament. Gonzaga’s Mark Few has a 30-win team that may be better than his Bulldogs team that was a No. 1 seed in 2013 or the team with Adam Morrison in 2006. Meanwhile, Sean Miller’s Arizona team recent wrapped up another Pac-12 championship and will enter postseason with one of the best rosters in the nation. Miller has been to the Elite Eight three times in his career, once with Xavier and twice with Arizona.
Mike Krzyzewski reached 1,000 wins and should keep adding more
Earlier this season, Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski became the first Division I coach to reach the 1,000-win mark, and he has a team that should be able to build upon that total in the NCAA Tournament. He has Okafor anchoring the center spot, but his backcourt of freshman Tyus Jones and senior Quinn Cook may be the most clutch duo in the country. Depth and defense remain an issue for the Blue Devils, so there’s hope for the Duke haters who enjoyed the Devils’ recent Round of 64 losses to Mercer (2014) and Lehigh (2012).
Tony Bennett is college basketball’s newest miracle worker
Virginia hasn’t been this good since Ralph Sampson played for the Cavaliers, but what’s most remarkable is that the Cavs aren’t doing it with a ton of stars or flash. Virginia has won back-to-back ACC regular-season titles and enters conference tournament season with just two losses. Coach Tony Bennett has done this without a five-star prospect or a McDonald’s All-American and without his top player, Justin Anderson, for the final eight games of the regular season. The style isn’t for everyone — Virginia ranks 349th of 351 team in terms of tempo — but it is effective.
Villanova is the best team no one is talking about
Villanova has only lost two games yet is flying under the national radar — a bit puzzling for a program that has won a national championship, been to a Final Four in recent years and has a star coach on the bench. The reason? Maybe it’s because the Big East doesn’t get much exposure from ESPN since most its games are on FOX Sports 1. Or possibly because Villanova lost last season as No. 2 seed in the Round of 32. Whatever the reason, don’t hold it against this year’s Villanova team. The Wildcats are in the top 20 in both offensive and defensive efficiency, a trademark of teams that go on to win the national title.
The Hall of Fame announcement will actually be interesting
Speaking of Bo Ryan... the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame probably isn’t something even the most ardent fans spend time pondering, especially during the week of the Final Four. This season, though, the announcement may carry more weight than usual. Active coaches John Calipari and Bo Ryan are on the ballot this year. The announcement of new inductees will be made April 6, the same day as the national championship game. Will one or both be involved?
Off-court issues threaten to mar a great tournament
Speaking of Hall of Famers, this has not been a good year for Hall of Fame coaches. Krzyzewski dismissed a player who was later revealed to be facing sexual assault allegations. Syracuse banned itself from the postseason months before the NCAA hammered the Orange and coach Jim Boeheim for a wide range of violations. North Carolina coach Roy Williams has an athletic department embroiled in an ongoing academic scandal that seems to get worse every passing week. SMU coach Larry Brown hasn’t had his best player eligible all season. Kansas’ most highly touted freshman and pro prospect might not play again this season while the NCAA investigates possible contact between his family and an agent. Why don’t we all get back to basketball for a bit.
You’re going to get annoyed at officials
The NCAA Tournament is the crown jewel of the college basketball season and the only college athletics event that comes close to rivaling football. If that’s the case, then why is the product sometimes so crummy? If you’re just checking in with the sport, be prepared: Officiating is inconsistent, defensive players are allowed too much contact and the end of games take for-ev-er due to too many team and official timeouts. This, unfortunately, is the norm.
Power teams will be at home
Hope you didn’t expect to tune in to watch Syracuse, UConn, Memphis and Florida in this field. They’re home. Sorry. UCLA and Texas are also flirting with the NIT.
Big names will be back
In the place of those powerhouses, you should be able to welcome back Larry Brown, who hasn’t been to the NCAA Tournament since 1988. Brown’s SMU team was snubbed last season, and now the Mustangs are ready to be in the field for the first time since 1993. Other powers due to be back from long absences: Purdue (2012), Maryland (2010), Utah (2009) and Arkansas (2008).
If Kentucky and Duke meet in the Final Four or the national championship game this season, the matchup will be between a pair of coaches who have met only twice in their illustrious careers and never in the postseason.
It will also be between the top two coaches in the game today, according to an Athlon Sports expert poll.
In the last three weeks, Athlon Sports surveyed 26 college basketball experts in the media for a range of topics in the sport. In our first question, we asked simply “who are the top three coaches in the game today.” We did not ask our respondents to rank their coaches (though some did). Each coach named counts as one point in our results. The answers are...
Athlon Sports College Basketball Expert Poll
Question 1: Who are the top three coaches in the game today?
|1||Mark Few (Gonzaga), Fred Hoiberg (Iowa State), Jim Larranaga (Miami), Bob McKillop (Davidson), Sean Miller (Arizona), Shaka Smart (VCU), Roy Williams (North Carolina)|
• The top two in our poll were overwhelming. Krzyzewski appeared on 23 of 26 ballots, and Calipari appeared on 20 of 26. Not that those two would be bad choices in any year, but we wonder if there might be a bit of recency bias in the response. (And since we said “in the game today,” that makes perfect sense). These top two coaches have been at the top of people’s minds this season in particular with Krzyzewski crossing the 1,000-win mark and Calipari leading an undefeated team.
• Wisconsin’s Bo Ryan is a logical coach on anyone’s ballot this season, but consider where he would have been before last year’s Final Four. Ryan has gone from the most underrated coach in the country to royalty in the sport.
• It’s worth nothing both Calipari and Ryan are finalists for the Naismith Hall of Fame this season.
• Florida’s Billy Donovan received only two votes. Hard to believe we’d get the same response this time last year. He was ESPN’s No. 1 coach before the season and Athlon’s No. 4. It’s been a rough year in Gainesville.
• Give our panel credit for mentions of Davidson’s Bob McKillop and Miami’s Jim Larranaga.
• A few notable names that didn’t appear on anyone’s ballot: Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim, Michigan’s John Beilein and Wichita State’s Gregg Marshall. Boeheim and Beilein make sense as neither of their teams are going to play in the NCAA Tournament. Marshall is a curious absence considering McKillop, Larranaga and VCU’s Shaka Smart all received at least one vote.
More than two dozen college basketball experts from throughout college basketball media participated in the Athlon Sports survey conducted in late February and early March this year.
All were notified their individual responses to our six questions would not be revealed on AthlonSports.com, but they were free to post their responses to their own sites, on their broadcasts or to their social media outlets.
The panel was comprised of:
Rick Bozich, WDRB Louisville
Mike DeCourcy, Sporting News
Chris Dortch, Blue Ribbon
Wes Durham, ACC Network/Fox Sports Network
Ryan Fagan, Sporting News
John Feinstein, Washington Post/NBC Sports
Pat Forde, Yahoo! Sports
John Gasaway, ESPN
Scott Gleeson, USA Today
Jeff Goodman, ESPN
Seth Greenberg, ESPN
Steve Greenberg, Chicago Sun-Times
Raphielle Johnson, College Basketball Talk
Blair Kerkhoff, Kansas City Star
Will Leitch, Sports on Earth
Mike Lopresti, NCAA.com
Troy Machir, Sporting News
Matt Norlander, CBSSports.com
Jerry Palm, CBSSports.com
Brendan Prunty, SI.com
Joe Rexrode, Detroit Free Press
Lindsay Schnell, SI.com
David Teel, Virginia Daily Press
Jerry Tipton, Lexington (Ky.) Herald Leader
Dick “Hoops” Weiss, Blue Star Media
Luke Winn, SI.com
New Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh is a Twitter superstar. That much has been established.
Now, we’ll find out if he can judge a guy should try to turn a single into a double.
Harbaugh arrived at Oakland Athletics spring training in Mesa, Ariz., on Saturday — in uniform — to coach first base for a game against the Los Angeles Angels.
Harbaugh and A’s manager Bob Melvin are friends from Harbaugh’s days in San Francisco.
The best part of the whole thing? The tall stirrups.
Jim Harbaugh old style socks (stirrups). YESSS! pic.twitter.com/8JNxUL624a— Steve Vucinich (@stevevuc) March 7, 2015
Jim Harbaugh specifically requested the high socks. And his old No. 4. pic.twitter.com/1fkpTa41EU— Jane Lee (@JaneMLB) March 7, 2015
"It's disbelief, you know?" he told reporters after he learned of the diagnosis. "I'm sitting up there in that tube having an MRI, and I don't hear noise, I don't feel my Achilles, I'm just … I can't believe I'm up there while my team's battling. I just haven't processed all of it yet … I've made that same cut hundreds of thousands of times in my life. I felt the initial pop, and I think you guys could tell on the replay, I looked back, and it feels like someone kicked you. I was praying that someone was back there. No one was back there, and I heard Ron [Garretson], the ref, he actually says, 'Oh no' like he knew.”
The gruesome sight was, indeed, a telling one. It evoked the moment that Kobe Bryant suffered a similar fate, at the end of the 2012-13 season. Bryant has not been the same since, playing in just 41 games over the past two seasons.
Matthews is just 28, so he should be able to recover better than Bryant. But this is a rough hit for the Blazers, who must feel especially fortunate to have traded for Arron Afflalo just before the trade deadline. Afflalo will almost certainly take Matthews’ spot in the starting lineup. But, in all likelihood, he won’t be able to recreate the terrific synergy Wes had with Damian Lillard.
— John Wilmes
Syracuse basketball will never be the same.
The NCAA committee on infractions hammered Syracuse on Friday, suspending coach Jim Boeheim for nine ACC games next season and restricting scholarships for widespread violations regarding academics and extra benefits.
For certain, the tarnish that comes with this sort of penalty will put Boeheim’s legacy into question. The man who built the program won’t join his friend Mike Krzyzewski in the 1,000-win club, at least according to the official record books. He might not get back to 900.
Feel free to disregard the vacated wins on Boeheim’s ledger — the NCAA could take away up to 135 of them. The past is the past no matter how the NCAA requires Syracuse to remember it.
Instead, the future of Syracuse basketball is more cloudy than ever.
More than the vacated wins, the suspension of Boeheim or the financial penalties, Syracuse will feel the most pain from harsh scholarship limitations combined with the inevitable retirement of its Hall of Fame coach.
On Friday, the NCAA announced it will dock the Orange 12 scholarships over the course of four seasons. Syracuse will be on probation until 2020. The Orange will lose a quarter of its roster to the scholarship limit provided Syracuse doesn’t get any back on appeal.
If the Orange begin to serve the penalty in 2016-17 — so it does not need to run off players already committed — the program won’t be back to a full scholarship allotment until 2020-21.
And there lies the second peg in what could be a disastrous sanction for Syracuse basketball. At the start of the 2020-21 basketball season, Boeheim will be 76 years old.
Who will be in charge Syracuse basketball at that point is anyone’s guess. Boeheim is stubborn, but is he stubborn enough to coach Syracuse into his late 70s?
If Boeheim retires before the end of the sanctions, who will be in charge? Longtime assistant Mike Hopkins was named Boeheim’s eventual successor in 2007 with no timetable of when he’d take over for his mentor.
If Hopkins, who was not named in the NCAA report, can start elsewhere without an NCAA sanctions, few could blame the up-and-coming coach for giving his head coaching career a better start.
A scandal of this magnitude — one that also involves the football program — is also not a good harbinger for an athletic director.
Syracuse will face the twilight of Boeheim’s career with only three-quarters of a roster for four seasons. Replacing a legend is tough enough as it is. This will only make the change more clumsy when the time inevitably comes.
When Connecticut faced NCAA sanctions at the end of Jim Calhoun’s tenure, the Huskies lost one postseason and three total scholarships in three seasons. There was still enough left for Calhoun’s handpicked successor Kevin Ollie to lead the Huskies to the 2014 national title.
After the Clem Haskins scandal at Minnesota in the late ‘90s, the Gophers lost 12 scholarships over the course of four seasons and have won only one NCAA Tournament game in four trips since.
Granted, Syracuse basketball and Minnesota basketball can’t be mentioned in the same sentence, but the future is no less cloudy.
For the next four or five years, Syracuse basketball is looking at the possibility of a new coach, a shorthanded roster and a brutal ACC schedule.
When Boeheim arrived at Syracuse as a player in 1962, the Orange went 8-13 when he was a freshman. Syracuse went nearly two decades between 20-win seasons.
Syracuse won’t be in those depths when Boeheim departs. But the national title contender that usually occupies the Carrier Dome? That program’s future is more questionable than ever.
Spring training is underway, and the 2015 Major League Baseball is less than a month way. With the first pitch of 2015 fast approaching, Athlon Sports is taking a look at some of the key storylines for the upcoming season. The AL Central produced last year’s World Series’ runner-up in the Royals, and another playoff team in the Tigers. Kansas City lost starting pitcher James Shields to the Padres and has to recapture the magic from the postseason. Detroit is the favorite to win this division, but manager Brad Ausmus needs healthy years from Victor Martinez and Miguel Cabrera.
New Look White Sox, New Central Favorites?
The Chicago White Sox front office made it crystal clear this past winter that the combined 188 loses of the past two seasons weren’t happening again. President of baseball operations Kenny Williams and general manager Rick Hahn broke out the check book and have completely remolded this Sox team into what should be an instant division contender.
This winter the Sox made numerous big moves to shore up all aspects of the team. Budding ace and former Cub, Jeff Samardzija, was traded from Oakland for prospects to give the White Sox another top of the rotation arm to complement Chris Sale. Samardzija is now 30 and is slated to be a free agent after the season, so there is quite a lot to be gained for the pitcher who grew up in Northwest Indiana not far from the South Side of Chicago. Samardzija’s addition also brings a much-needed right arm to a rotation that features three lefties including 200-inning hurler Jose Quintana and veteran John Danks.
The White Sox traded for lefty reliever Dan Jennings, who posted a sparking 1.34 ERA in 47 appearances for the Marlins last summer, giving up just six earned runs in 40.1 innings of work. The Sox kept adding to their 'pen with the addition of former starter turned reliever Zach Duke. Duke, now on his sixth team in 10 seasons, is looking to continue his resurgence coming out of the ‘pen, as he struck out 74 batters and surrendered just three home runs in 58.2 innings of work for the Brewers in 2014. However, the big bullpen signing was former Yankee closer David Robertson, who inked a four-year, $46 million contract in December. The 2015 Sox bullpen will be a much-improved group compared to the 2014 crowd that ranked 28th in ERA (4.38), 25th in saves (36), third in runs surrendered (251) and first in walks (236).
The South Siders’ offense wasn't much to brag about in 2014 either, outside of Jose Abreu, of course. That issue was addressed with several swoops of the pen this offseason. Williams and Hahn were able to sign lefty first basemen Adam LaRoche and the 26 home runs and 92 RBIs he contributed with Washington last season. LaRoche will likely see most of his time as the full-time DH batting behind incumbent first baseman Abreu. Perhaps the best winter signing was that of left fielder Melky Cabrera. Cabrera isn’t without his warts from the Biogenesis case, but on the field he has the potential to be one of the game’s best switch-hitters with a knack for getting on base. The Sox also signed journeyman Emilio Bonifacio to a one-year deal. Bonafacio will be seen all over the Sox lineup and in the field, as he is capable of playing almost every position except pitcher or catcher.
All of the big moves this offseason have put the Sox in fantastic position to overthrow Detroit as division champs. If outfielders Adam Eaton and Avail Garcia can remain healthy and produce as they were projected to in 2014, the White Sox could once again be the toast of the Windy City.
Motor City Uncertainty
The past four seasons, the Detroit Tigers have owned the AL Central, but are still looking for the elusive World Series title that seems to become more evasive with the passing of time. Last year’s team that won 90 games and a division title was a disappointment after getting swept by the Orioles in the ALDS. For the first time in years, the Tigers have more questions than answers as spring training heats up.
The key to the Tigers' lineup will always be Miguel Cabrera. Miggy’s 2014 was impressive especially for being hampered by throbbing pain in his ankle, noticeably inhibiting his footwork and running ability. Cabrera was still able to hit .313/.371/.524 with 51 doubles, 25 homers, and 109 RBIs in 2014, even with the constant discomfort in his lower leg. Cabrera had offseason surgery to remove bone spurs and fix a fracture in his right ankle. Currently, Miggy is not 100 percent but is recovering quickly as he is taking batting practice and preparing to run on flat ground according to the Detroit Free Press.
The other half of the Tigers' one-two punch also is coming off surgery this winter. Victor Martinez underwent surgery on Feb. 10 to repair a torn meniscus in his left knee. The switch-hitting DH was an MVP candidate in 2014, and certainly had an argument for winning after posting a slash line of .339/.409/.565 with 32 homers, 103 RBIs, 33 doubles, and a league-leading .974 OPS. After his stellar campaign, Martinez inked a four-year deal to stay in Detroit. Questions certainly have to be arising within the Tigers' front office about his long-term health, he is 36 after all, and knees don't heal as quickly for players in their mid-30s like they do for players in the early 20s.
After Torii Hunter signed with the Twins, the Tigers sent Rick Porcello to Boston for Cuban slugger Yoenis Cespedes. Detroit is hoping Cespedes’ raw power can blossom with All-Star bats Cabrera and Martinez to protect him in the lineup.
The biggest concern, the starting rotation, is a new issue for the Tigers. Lefty ace David Price was acquired last July and will be the go-to guy for Detroit in 2015. The fall off last season for former Cy Young winner Justin Verlander was scary. The fastball that regularly topped 98 mph was noticeably slower, as his ERA ballooned to 4.54, two full runs higher than his 2011 MVP season, as he gave up a league-leading 104 earned runs.
Verlander isn’t the only uncertainty in the Tigers’ rotation, as veteran Anibal Sanchez looks to rebound from his injury-plagued 2014 after a career year in '13. New to the rotation is righty Shane Greene, who pitched admirably in his rookie campaign for the Yankees with a 3.78 ERA and 81 strikeouts in 78.2 innings. To complicate matters, the 2015 Tigers essentially have the same bullpen from '14 that imploded down the stretch and had a whopping 4.29 ERA.
If the Tigers want to keep a chokehold on the AL Central for a fifth consecutive season, their core group of veterans are going to have to produce like never before in order to keep pace with the more youthful teams in the division.
Do The Royals Have Enough Magic For a Second Straight World Series Run?
The Kansas City Royals were the biggest story of the 2014 baseball calendar, and for all the right reasons. Their unexpected run to the World Series was built on great defense, stealing bases, and lights-out pitching. This season will be much of the same for the Royals, as almost everyone is back from their 2014 run.
James Shields is now in San Diego and Norichika Aoki is now ironically a San Francisco Giant. With the departure of Shields, the Royals turned to free agent signee Edinson Volquez to round out the rotation. Volquez is looking to continue the career renaissance that began last season in Pittsburgh. With the addition of Volquez, the Royals' brass is looking for second-year flamethrower Yordano “Ace” Ventura to morph into the team’s actual ace this summer. Ventura’s fastball regularly reaches triple digits and could be the train that he rides all the way into the Cy Young conversation at season’s end.
For as solid as the Royals' rotation was in 2014, it was their bullpen that took them deep into October. The trio of Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis and Greg Holland was untouchable in 2014 with a record of 65-4 after the 6th inning. With youngster Brandon Finnegan mixed in along with vets Luke Hochevar and Jason Frasor, the Royals' bullpen looks to be the best in the game again in 2015.
Ned Yost’s World Series lineup card remains largely intact. Plug in Alex Rios in right field for the departed Aoki and Kendrys Morales for former DH and current Oakland A, Billy Butler, and that is it.
If the Royals hope to repeat their 2014 success this summer, they are going to need more from their lineup cornerstones Mike Moustakas and Eric Hosmer. Both “Moose” and Hosmer can flash the leather and had fantastic postseasons in 2014, but it is time for both to produce on a more regular and large-scale basis.
This Royals team that was 14th in runs scored (651) and last in home runs (95) in 2014 will need as much offensive firepower it can muster to keep up with the likes of the White Sox and Tigers. Alex Gordon and Lorenzo Cain are two of the best gloves there are in any outfield, but they too will have to step up offensively in 2015. Cain had a coming out party last summer in which he had a slash line of .301/.339/.412 with 29 doubles and 28 stolen bases, and will be counted upon to be the table-setter for much of this Royals offense.
Another player devleoping into a star before our eyes is catcher Salvador Perez. Perez is just 24 but already turning into one of the top catchers in baseball both at the plate and behind it.
With young fire-ballers in the rotation and bullpen, and experienced youth that is still growing in the field and at the plate, the Royals look to be more than just a feel-good story from a year ago. The boys from Kansas City have what it takes to make another run in October by following the same blueprint from a season ago.
- by Jake Rose
The last place the Texas Rangers expected to find themselves in 2014 was last place. But that’s where they finished after injuries conspired to knock them from favorites in the American League West to a 95-loss season and sole occupancy of the AL basement. It wasn’t all injuries, as the Rangers’ lack of depth after a series of past July deadline trades finally bit them. In June, management was convinced to turn the season into a tryout camp. Some players emerged, and they have a chance to make the roster this year after the Rangers did little in the offseason. But their No. 1 offseason goal was to get injured players healthy. The belief is that they are, for the most part, and the Rangers expect to contend in 2015. They gave themselves a better chance after acquiring Yovani Gallardo to bolster the rotation, but offensively they need several hitters to either rebound from down seasons or perform at the next level.
The good news is that each of the five starters expected to be in the rotation went through a normal, healthy offseason, most notably staff ace Yu Darvish. He finished the season on the 60-day disabled list with an elbow strain, but the Rangers’ cautious approach allowed Darvish to start throwing in December. When Darvish is on, he’s a strikeout machine and could be the next pitcher to throw a no-hitter. Lefthander Derek Holland’s strong September (2–0, 1.46 ERA, 37 innings), after missing the first five months following knee surgery, left some talking about him getting the Opening Day start over Darvish. The two new faces are former Brewer Gallardo and former National Ross Detwiler. Milwaukee’s one-time ace, Gallardo was shipped to the Rangers for three players in January. The Brewers also are paying $4 million towards Gallardo’s $14 million salary. Detwiler meanwhile hasn’t started a game since 2013, as he was pushed out of the crowded Washington rotation. Both Gallardo and Detwiler are slated to be free agents after this season. Righty Colby Lewis is probably the front-runner for the final spot, although Nick Tepesch and lefty Matt Harrison, who is on the rebound from another back surgery, could end up factoring into the mix at some point. Another lefty, Martin Perez, should be back on the mound by the All-Star break. He was one of the league’s best pitchers in April but had Tommy John surgery in May.
Neftali Feliz finished 2014 as the closer after a long recovery from Tommy John surgery. He flashed the velocity and effective slider that made him an All-Star in 2010. The biggest questions about Feliz have been his desire and work ethic. Those questions haven’t gone away. If Feliz falters, Tanner Scheppers will be the first option to replace him. Scheppers, derailed by an elbow injury last spring, will open in the eighth-inning role in which he blossomed into a top-flight reliever in 2013. The Rangers added another righty, Kyuji Fujikawa, to give the bullpen a shot of experience. Also coming off Tommy John, the 34-year-old returned last season with the Cubs. The Rangers believe they are getting a pitcher they coveted two years ago at the right time following his surgery. Shawn Tolleson, who had the best 2014 season among Rangers relievers, will bridge the sixth and seventh innings, and hard-throwing Roman Mendez was the best of the rookies who were showcased last season. The Rangers might have room for only one lefty, which could be rookie Alex Claudio. Tepesch or whomever doesn’t make the starting rotation figures to be the long man, with Nick Martinez and Anthony Bass other candidates.
The Rangers believe that shortstop Elvis Andrus is primed for a big year after one of the worst of his career. He started fast but then became a double-play machine and, at times, a liability on the bases. Andrus took it upon himself to train harder in the offseason after doing very little before last season. Andrus’ double-play partner will be Rougned Odor, who is firmly entrenched at second base thanks to Jurickson Profar’s persistent shoulder issues. Odor was one of the best rookies in the American League in 2014, though his aggressiveness worked against him more than it worked in his favor. More patience at the plate will serve him and the Rangers well.
On paper, only a handful of teams should be as stout offensively on the corners as the Rangers’ duo of first baseman Prince Fielder and third baseman Adrian Beltre. But there are questions about how effective Fielder will be after cervical fusion surgery in May. Fielder, one of the game’s top power hitters, swatted only three homers and repeatedly bounced into infield shifts as weakness in his left arm, caused by a herniated disc, slowed his bat and kept him from getting the same lift on balls. Beltre again was the Rangers’ best player and led them in the Triple Crown categories. But he had only 19 homers, in large part because he didn’t have any protection, and teams pitched around him. But when he did get pitches to hit, he did so at a .324 clip. Beltre also had a rebound year defensively.
A vacancy was created when the Rangers bought out a club option on Alex Rios, who played right field and forced Shin-Soo Choo to left field to begin his seven-year, $130 million deal. Choo was lousy defensively but will move to more familiar territory in right with Rios gone. Choo was one of the league’s best players for about six weeks, but an ankle injury and a lingering elbow injury sent him spiraling. He must be productive in the middle of the lineup. Leonys Martin also needs to have a big year and will start in the leadoff spot after batting .295 with a .340 on-base percentage over the final 21 games atop the order. He has never been a consistent hitter, but his speed can be a game-changer. Martin is blessed with perhaps the strongest arm in the game, but he can get in trouble by taking poor routes to balls. Left field is a toss up with veterans Nate Schierholtz and Ryan Ludwick, along with younger guys like Ryan Rua, Michael Choice and Jake Smolinski among the candidates. The winner also could find himself in a platoon with the left-handed-hitting Mitch Moreland, unless it’s Schierholtz. Despite a lousy 2014, Choice has more upside than Rua or Smolinski.
Robinson Chirinos established himself as the No. 1 catcher for 2015. He’s worked to improve his footwork behind the plate and has turned himself into one of the best throwers in the game. Chirinos will also hit the ball out of the park on occasion. The Rangers are weary of his concussion history, which is why they acquired switch-hitter Carlos Corporan from the Astros.
Moreland will be the primary DH but could end up in a platoon with an extra right-handed-hitting outfielder. Moreland is coming off ankle surgery, fixing a problem that has bothered him for years. He has dealt with various injuries and has never realized the potential the Rangers thought he had. Delino DeShields Jr. gives the Rangers an interesting piece. He’s a left-handed hitter who can fly but lacks experience in the majors.
Jeff Banister begins his first season as a big-league manager after four years in Pittsburgh as bench coach under Clint Hurdle, whom Rangers executives love. In Pittsburgh, all voices are welcomed, and scouts and front-office execs are routinely involved. That appeals to Rangers GM Jon Daniels, who is entering his 10th season and occasionally met resistance from Ron Washington when making suggestions. Pitching coach Mike Maddux is one of four holdovers from Washington’s staff, and former Rangers third baseman Steve Buechele joins as bench coach.
The Rangers have a fair share of questions, namely in the back end of their rotation. The bullpen and lineup aren’t perfect, either. Texas needs key contributors to stay healthy and produce either at levels that made them stars or at levels that could make them stars. That’s too many ifs for this team to be considered a serious contender for the postseason.
2015 Prediction: 3rd in AL West
CF Leonys Martin (L) Showed over final 22 games that he could be a capable leadoff man. Will get chance to show it over 162.
SS Elvis Andrus (R) Disappointing year all around for Andrus, whose eight-year, $120 million extension takes effect this season.
RF Shin-Soo Choo (L) A hot start was derailed by ankle and elbow injuries, and he lacked instincts on the bases and in left field.
3B Adrian Beltre (R) The best player on the team and one of the best in the game, Beltre took on more of a leadership role in 2014.
1B Prince Fielder (L) The Rangers hope Fielder still has elite power after neck surgery.
DH Mitch Moreland (L) Texas has been waiting on Moreland to produce since 2011, but injuries keep popping up.
C Robinson Chirinos (R) The Rangers found a catcher amid all their injuries. He has pop and has developed into a good thrower.
2B Rougned Odor (L) Now entrenched at a position thought to belong to Jurickson Profar.
LF Ryan Rua (R) He has hit at every level, and he will work extensively on his defense in spring training to get the starting job.
SS Adam Rosales (R) Another fringe player who took advantage of his opportunity, Rosales brings energy and versatility.
OF Delino DeShields Jr. (R) Former first-rounder needs to show improved work ethic to make the club.
C Carlos Corporan (S) Started 99 games behind the plate for the Astros the past two seasons, but hit just .230 during that span.
OF Nate Schierholtz (L) The eight-year veteran could have leg up on last bench spot because of need for a left-handed bat.
RH Yu Darvish Stuff so good that it seems like a no-hitter is possible each start, except vs. the A’s (1–8 lifetime).
LH Derek Holland 2014 was all but lost to a freakish knee injury, but his strong September should be a springboard into 2015.
RH Yovani Gallardo Had a solid campaign in 2014 statistically, although his record didn’t show it.
LH Ross Detwiler Pushed out of the Nationals’ rotation, he hasn’t started since 2013 but believes he can log 200 innings.
RH Colby Lewis A strong second half, thanks to “hip resurfacing” surgery, helped him earn a one-year contract for 2015.
RH Neftali Feliz (Closer) The closer finished strong, flashing his pre-Tommy John velocity and effectiveness; desire can be fickle.
RH Tanner Scheppers A move to the rotation resulted in a season-ending elbow injury. He’s back where he belongs.
RH Kyuji Fujikawa The Rangers scouted him extensively in Japan and liked him … before two disastrous years with the Cubs.
RH Shawn Tolleson The bullpen’s bright spot in 2014, Tolleson needs to be more efficient when called upon.
RH Roman Mendez He was the best of the young crop of relievers in 2014, and can be better with better mechanics.
LH Alex Claudio The Rangers need a southpaw in the ‘pen and this rookie’s multiple arm angels and quality secondary pitchers make him deceptive against lefty hitters.
RH Nick Martinez Started much of 2014, but showed well early as a multi-inning reliever.
Beyond the Box Score
First-timer Jeff Banister is a manager for the first time in his career, and he’s with a team other than the Pirates for the first time. Banister was drafted by Pittsburgh in 1986, became a player/coach in 1993 and a full-time coach in 1994. But the fact that he had a career in baseball is remarkable after he was diagnosed with two cancerous cysts in his ankle while in high school and after he suffered temporary paralysis and a broken neck following a collision at home-plate while he was in junior college. Banister is active on Twitter (@Bannyrooster28) and ends each tweet with #nevereverquit. He knows what can happen when someone never quits.
Stating his case Adrian Beltre continues to build his résumé for the Hall of Fame. The third baseman, who has two years left on his contract, is tied for 39th all-time in doubles (528), 56th all-time in homers (395) and 79th all-time in hits (2,604). The homer total is fifth all-time among primary third basemen behind Mike Schmidt (548), Eddie Mathews (512), Chipper Jones (468) and Darrell Evans (414). Beltre, George Brett and Jones are the three third basemen in MLB history with 300 homers and 2,500 hits. Beltre also has four career Gold Gloves.
All-Star assistants The Rangers are collecting an impressive stable of special assistants to GM Jon Daniels. The club added another in November with the hiring of Michael Young, a seven-time All-Star and the club’s all-time leader in most offensive categories. Young hopes to work extensively with minor leaguers during spring training and the regular season. He joins Hall of Fame pitcher Greg Maddux, 14-time All-Star catcher Ivan Rodriguez and 20-year veteran reliever Darren Oliver in the Rangers’ front office.
Unhappy reunion The acquisition of outfielder Delino DeShields Jr. in the Rule 5 Draft could make for a few awkward moments in spring training. DeShields is now teammates with right-handed reliever Phil Klein, who plunked DeShields in the cheek during a Double-A game last May, producing gruesome swelling and an infamous selfie that DeShields tweeted. DeShields, then in the Astros’ system, was out only a couple weeks, and Klein would reach the majors in August as injuries riddled the Rangers’ roster.
2014 Top Draft Pick
Luis Ortiz, RHP
The stuff that comes out of Luis Ortiz’s right arm is obvious to any scout. The fastball that can touch 96 mph. A slider that darts down and is an out pitch. The ability to command his two plus pitches. But the Rangers also saw something in Ortiz that told them he was their type of player — a self-made first-round pick who had very little coaching growing up and who lost weight to become more attractive to big-league teams. Ortiz was the 30th overall pick in the June draft, signing for $1.75 million and passing on an opportunity to play collegiately at Fresno State. The Sanger, Calif., native passed his first pro test over a handful of innings at Low-A Hickory. That’s pretty impressive for an 18-year-old, and Ortiz, now 19, could be vying for a Rangers rotation spot after only a few seasons in the minors.
Top 10 Prospects
1. Joey Gallo, 3B (21) Power like this doesn’t come along often. If Gallo can stick to the right approach, he could hit 40 homers a season.
2. Nomar Mazara, OF (20) The son of an officer in the Dominican Republic navy, Mazara has discipline and maturity. He could make a rapid climb to the majors.
3. Jorge Alfaro, C (21) The Rangers are waiting for his mental side to catch up to his physical tools. If that happens, watch out.
4. Alex Gonzalez, RHP (23) The pitcher nicknamed “Chi Chi” could crack the Rangers’ rotation this spring. Some scouts believe he will.
5. Jake Thompson, RHP (21) He’s still young, and it shows occasionally on the mound and in his preparation. He needs more polish, but has talent.
6. Nick Williams, OF (21) Oh, that bat speed. If he tightens up his discipline and plate approach, the Rangers could have a Carlos Gonzalez on their hands.
7. Luis Ortiz, RHP (19) The 2014 first-rounder attacks the strike zone with a plus fastball and plus slider. He could be a quick mover.
8. Ryan Rua, INF/OF (25) He should be in the Rangers’ mix in left field, a position he is still learning. The Rangers like his athletic ability and power.
9. Luke Jackson, RHP (23) A rocky first taste at Triple-A Round Rock kept him from his big-league debut, but he says he knows what needs to be fixed.
10. Josh Morgan, SS (19) A third-round pick in 2014, Morgan is an on-base machine who hits to all fields and defends and runs capably. Power will be the question.
This is your daily links roundup of our favorite sports and entertainment posts on the web for March 6:
• Meet Caitlin Arnett, possibly the world's hottest Rockies fan. Not that there's a huge pool.
• Syracuse just got its hand smacked by the NCAA, to the tune of 200 vacated wins and 12 lost schollies. Jim Boeheim, asleep at the switch when it comes to compliance.
• Today's big NFL news: Brandon Marshall to the Jets. But who will be throwing to him?
• Baby daddies aside, there's a scoring crisis in college basketball.
• You gotta watch this alley-oop video. Trust me.
• For your snow-bound enjoyment: Spring break fail GIFs.
• This blindfolded dunk failed to go as intended.
-- Email us with any compelling sports-related links at [email protected]
This shapes up as a season of hope — and expectation — in Seattle after last year’s 16-game turnaround and the addition of the major leagues’ home run champion. The Mariners fell one game short a year ago of ending a postseason drought that extends to 2001 despite leading the American League in ERA and conjuring up the majors’ best bullpen from a collection of leftover parts that fell into place once free-agent closer Fernando Rodney arrived. The Achilles heel was an attack that finished 14th, 15th and 12th, respectively, among AL clubs in the offensive slash categories. Further, the Mariners sported a lefty-heavy lineup that left them vulnerable to matchup problems in the late innings. Their solution: Sign free-agent outfielder Nelson Cruz, who hit 40 homers last season while playing in Baltimore. They also swung trades for outfielders Seth Smith and Justin Ruggiano, who add a veteran left-right presence in right field.
Felix Hernandez was the best pitcher in the American League in balloting by his peers (the Players’ Choice Awards) and league executives (The Sporting News) even if the BBWAA chose Cleveland’s Corey Kluber as the Cy Young Award recipient. Hernandez, who turns 29 in April, is at the height of his powers and heads what might be the league’s best and deepest rotation. Hisashi Iwakuma is a legitimate No. 2 starter who won 15 games last season despite missing a month because of a finger injury. Now add three (possibly four) talented young arms in James Paxton, Taijuan Walker, Roenis Elias and (possibly) Danny Hultzen. The Mariners also acquired veteran lefty J.A. Happ from Toronto to replace departed free agent Chris Young, who resurrected his career a year ago. Manager Lloyd McClendon says Happ will be the No. 3 or No. 4 starter, which means (barring injuries) that two of those young arms will open the season at Triple-A. Hultzen, the No. 2 pick in the 2011 draft, will almost certainly start in the minors after missing all of last season while recovering from shoulder surgery. Paxton is a near-certainty to make the big-league staff, possibly as the No. 2 guy, to position a lefty between Hernandez and Iwakuma. That sets up Walker and Elias for a spring battle.
Kansas City’s bullpen grabbed the headlines last season, but the Mariners had the majors’ best overall unit by a wide margin in terms of ERA (2.59). Rodney led the majors with a franchise-record 48 saves (in 51 opportunities), and his presence allowed the rest of the pen to fall into place. Yoervis Medina and former closer Danny Farquhar generally shared the eighth inning; Charlie Furbush and Joe Beimel handled lefties; rookie Dominic Leone won eight games by pitching well in middle relief. Former closer Tom Wilhelmsen was invaluable, compiling a 2.27 ERA as a long reliever. The offseason saw Brandon Maurer dispatched to San Diego in the trade for Smith, and Beimel depart as a free agent. No problem. The Mariners have Carson Smith, who sparkled in September, ready to step in for Maurer, while Beimel’s replacement should come from a pool of three candidates: Lucas Luetge, Edgar Olmos and Rule 5-selection David Rollins. There’s no reason this shouldn’t again be a dominant unit.
Robinson Cano remains one of the game’s premier players, but the general sense is that his numbers slipped a bit from what he produced over the previous nine years with the Yankees. You judge: He had a .314/.382/.454 slash last season after averaging .309/.355/.504 in New York. His power took an expected dip in the move to pitcher-friendly Safeco Field, but the bigger factor was likely a lack of lineup protection. Opposing pitchers simply had no reason to challenge him, particularly with the game on the line. It will be interesting to see if that changes this season with Cruz hitting behind him. Shortstop shapes up as a spring battle between Brad Miller and Chris Taylor, who offer a contrast. Miller is generally viewed as a hitter with legit power whose defense is somewhat suspect. He got off to dreadful start last year, but his slash numbers after the break closely mirrored Kyle Seager’s year-long production. Miller’s early slump prompted a July 24 promotion for Taylor, who is seen as a steadier defensive player but lacks Miller’s pop. The Mariners signed free agent Rickie Weeks before the start of spring training. If he makes the team, Weeks can back up Cano as well as fill in at several other spots, including the outfield.
Seager blossomed last season into an All-Star third baseman and a Gold Glove winner, which led to a seven-year deal in the offseason for $100 million. McClendon contends that Seager’s bat still has at least another 20 points in it (after batting .268) along with a corresponding jump in production (he had 27 doubles, 25 homers and 96 RBIs). First base appears to belong to Logan Morrison, who batted .321 over his final 51 games after missing two months earlier in the season because of a severe hamstring injury. That injury is part of a troublesome history, however. Morrison has played fewer than 100 games in each of the last three seasons, and as the new year began, the Mariners didn’t have an obvious backup.
The Mariners want Cruz to serve primarily as a designated hitter, which meant the trade that sent Michael Saunders to Toronto for Happ created a hole in right field. Enter Smith and Ruggiano who, if nothing else, provide a veteran platoon tandem. Either or both could win full-time jobs, particularly if left fielder Dustin Ackley plays to his pre-break struggles (.225/.282/.335) more than his post-break surge (.269/.307/.467). Much depends on center fielder Austin Jackson, who was a huge disappointment after arriving in a July 31 trade from Detroit. That Jackson is in his walk year to free agency should only goose his motivation for a bounce-back season.
Mike Zunino displayed skill in handling a diversified staff in his first full season and showed pop in collecting 44 extra-base hits. But he also batted .199 with a .254 on-base percentage while striking out 158 times in 438 at-bats. Even a marginal improvement in strike-zone recognition would pay dividends in overall production. Backup Jesus Sucre is a solid catch-and-throw receiver, which is how scouts view John Hicks, who figures to open the season at Tacoma.
Cruz, fresh off 40 home runs with Baltimore, will be expected to get most of his at-bats as the DH. Veteran Willie Bloomquist, assuming he is fully recovered from knee surgery, is the ideal utilityman who permits the Mariners, if they choose, to get by with a three-man bench. The others project as Sucre and the non-playing portion of the right field platoon, along with Weeks if the team decides to go with four reserves. Former top prospect Jesus Montero will get a long look.
General manager Jack Zduriencik’s top offseason priority was to acquire an impact right-handed bat (preferably two) for the middle of the lineup. He signed Cruz to a four-year deal for $57 million before acquiring Ruggiano. Both should help balance a lefty-heavy lineup. Priority No. 2 was to find a veteran starting pitcher to replace Young, and Zduriencik came up with Happ from Toronto for Saunders. Zduriencik then replaced Saunders’ lefty bat by getting Smith from San Diego. All boxes checked.
The big-picture hope a year ago was that signing Cano to a 10-year deal for $240 million would serve to reset the franchise. One year later, it’s possible to view the Mariners as a viable division favorite and a strong postseason contender. That’s a pretty effective reset.
2015 Prediction: 2nd in AL West (Wild Card)
CF Austin Jackson (R) Looking to rebound in free-agent walk year from his 2014 struggles.
SS Brad Miller (L) Will battle Chris Taylor during spring training for the starting job.
2B Robinson Cano (L) Just stay healthy; that’s all Mariners want for last season’s big addition.
DH Nelson Cruz (R) He’s unlikely to hit 40 homers again, but 25-plus will be fine with the Mariners.
3B Kyle Seager (L) Can the new $100 million man keep improving at the plate?
RF Seth Smith (L) Disciplined hitter acquired from the Padres; likely will platoon with Justin Ruggiano.
1B Logan Morrison (L) He was productive last season once he got healthy, but can he stay healthy?
C Mike Zunino (R) Lots to like with this young catcher, but the Mariners can’t live with a .199 average again.
LF Dustin Ackley (L) Can he finally put a full year together after a solid second half of 2014?
C Jesus Sucre (R) Doesn’t hit much, but the club is content with him as Zunino’s backup.
UT Willie Bloomquist (R) Veteran is invaluable for his ability to play everywhere on the diamond.
OF Justin Ruggiano (R) Should draw duty against left-handed pitchers; hit .305 vs. lefties in 2014.
2B Rickie Weeks (R) Went from averaging 23 home runs from 2010-12 for the Brewers to just 18 in the last two seasons combined.
RH Felix Hernandez Had a career-high 248 strikeouts and career-lows in ERA (2.14) and WHIP (0.915) but didn’t win Cy Young.
LH James Paxton Former Kentucky Wildcat could slot second in the Mariners rotation to provide right-left mix.
RH Hisashi Iwakuma Check out his numbers (1.086 career WHIP) and then tell us who is more underrated.
LH J.A. Happ Veteran acquisition from Toronto should be a good fit in spacious Safeco Field.
RH Taijuan Walker Possesses high-end stuff but must beat out Roenis Elias for spot in the rotation.
RH Fernando Rodney (Closer) Often a thrill ride but was 48-for-51 in saves in his first season with the Mariners.
RH Carson Smith Funky delivery makes him especially tough on right-handed hitters (.133 average).
RH Yoervis Medina Big Venezuelan righty was a dominant setup man for much of last season.
RH Danny Farquhar Fearless reliever struck out 81 and only allowed 58 hits in 71.0 innings.
LH Charlie Furbush Gets the call in late-inning clutch situations vs. lefthanders.
RH Tom Wilhelmsen Ability to go multiple innings makes him a key piece in Mariners’ pen.
LH Lucas Luetge Pitched 77.2 innings for Mariners in 2012-13 but spent most of ’14 in Class AAA.
Beyond the Box Score
King’s streak Felix Hernandez set an MLB record by making 16 consecutive starts (May 18 to Aug. 11) in which he pitched at least seven innings while allowing two or fewer earned runs. The previous record of 13 such starts belonged to Tom Seaver of the 1971 New York Mets. The previous American League record of 12 belonged to Chief Bender of the 1907 Philadelphia Athletics.
Nine and counting Hernandez has recorded at least 150 strikeouts in each of his first nine full big-league seasons. The only other pitchers to achieve that feat are in the Hall of Fame: Walter Johnson, who had an 11-year streak; and Bert Blyleven, who did it in his first 10 full seasons.
For openers The Mariners carry an eight-game winning streak on Opening Day into their 2015 opener on April 6 against the Los Angeles Angels at Safeco Field. The Angels were the last team to beat the Mariners in a season opener. That was back on April 3, 2006, when Orlando Cabrera’s two-run single in the ninth inning against J.J. Putz produced a 5–4 victory at Safeco.
Double trouble Robinson Cano finished with a club-leading 37 doubles and became only the second player in big-league history to hit at least 30 doubles in each of his first 10 seasons. The other player is Albert Pujols, whose streak ended at 10 years when he finished with 29 in 2011. Cano has 412 doubles in his first 10 seasons. Only three players in history had more: Pujols (426), Joe Medwick (416) and Todd Helton (413).
Beating the best The Mariners posted a winning record against postseason teams (34–27) and against teams that finished with a winning record (45–35). They also had a winning record against each of the American League’s three divisions — 41–35 vs. the West; 19–14 vs. the Central; and 18–15 vs. the East.
Elite company All-Star closer Fernando Rodney became only the sixth player in history to record at least 48 saves in two different seasons. No pitcher has ever done it three times. The 48-times-two club: Dennis Eckersley (1990, 1992), Rod Beck (1993, 1998), Mariano Rivera (2001, 2004), Eric Gagne (2002, 2003), Jim Johnson (2012, 2013) and Rodney (2012, 2014).
2014 Top Draft Pick
Alex Jackson, OF
Generally viewed as the best prep player in last year’s draft, Jackson, 19, landed a $4.2 million signing bonus as the No. 6 overall pick and immediately shifted positions — from catcher to right fielder — in order to accelerate his rise through the farm system. The Southern California native missed a month after he was hit in the face after losing a fly ball in the lights but showed no lingering effects when he returned for a few late games in the Arizona Rookie League. When he played, Jackson (6'2", 215) didn’t disappoint. Baseball America tagged him as the best prospect in the AZL and also at No. 1 in the Mariners’ system. Club officials hesitate to identify a probable launching point this season for Jackson. He figures to open the season at Low-A Clinton in the Midwest League.
Top 10 Prospects
1. Alex Jackson, OF (19) Team’s No. 1 pick in 2014 is already considered the best prospect in the organization.
2. D.J. Peterson, 3B/1B (23) A right-handed power hitter who should get a look in spring training before opening in the minors. Figures to shift this season to first base.
3. Danny Hultzen, LHP (25) The second overall pick in the 2011 draft appears fully healthy after missing last season while recovering from major shoulder surgery.
4. Carson Smith, RHP (25) Wowed club officials in nine scoreless September appearances and seems likely to win a spot in the big-league bullpen.
5. Ketel Marte, SS (21) Currently slotted behind Brad Miller and Chris Taylor in the organization’s shortstop depth chart. But it wouldn’t be a shock if he were starting in the big leagues in 2016.
6. Patrick Kivlehan, INF (25) A versatile player with an unconventional batting style that somehow works. Scouts love the way he peppers line drives.
7. Austin Wilson, OF (23) Still longer on potential than proven performance in part because of injuries. He missed time last year because of Achilles and elbow problems.
8. Gabby Guerrero, OF (21) His always-attack approach at the plate is, no surprise, reminiscent of his uncle, former MVP Vladimir Guerrero.
9. Edwin Diaz, RHP (21) Oozes potential because of an ability to command three pitches. If he adds some weight, he could easily pitch in the mid-90s.
10. Jordy Lara, OF/1B (23) Scouts are mixed on Lara, who put up big numbers last season (primarily) at the High-A High Desert launching pad.