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The Phillies had a bleak winter. Coming off their first losing season since 2002, they made only modest additions to a team that had trouble scoring runs — and preventing them — in 2013. The framework of the club that won five NL East titles and a World Series from 2007 to 2011 remains, but age and poor health have taken the shine off what was once a star-laden group. On the hot seat, general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. hopes that a high-mileage core — five of the team’s eight starting position players are 34 or older — can turn back the odometer and return the team to contention in its first full season under manager Ryne Sandberg. It won’t be easy. This club still looks closer to the breakdown lane than the high-speed lane.
The team’s strength sits atop the starting rotation, where lefties Cole Hamels and Cliff Lee form one of the elite tandems in the game. No other set of teammates in the majors combined for more innings than the 442.2 that Hamels and Lee delivered in 2013. But these guys aren’t just workhorses; they’re thoroughbreds who can dominate opposing lineups with command, smarts and pure stuff. Both reached 200 strikeouts in 2013, and they combined for 49 quality starts. If run support hadn’t been such a problem, they certainly would have combined for more than 22 wins. Hamels, the younger of the two, has dealt with a balky shoulder all spring. He will likely start the season on the disabled list, but shouldn’t miss more than two starts. Even with Hamels and Lee combining for a 2.97 ERA after the All-Star Break, Phillies starters finished with a 4.41 ERA, second-worst in the NL. There remains a huge drop after Hamels and Lee, and this team could struggle to get enough innings from the back end of its rotation. A.J. Burnett, who enjoyed somewhat of a resurgence in Pittsburgh the last two seasons, is slotted in the No. 3 hole. Burnett has made at least 30 starts for the past six seasons, but at age 37 doesn’t make the rotation any longer. Kyle Kendrick, who profiles as a No. 5 starter, had a wobbly second half in 2013 that does not instill confidence. The Phils spent $12 million on power-armed Cuban defector Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez, but he has pitched just a handful of competitive innings the last two years because of a suspension in his homeland, and has also had elbow issues. Nonetheless, the Phillies hope he can be in the starting five. In recent offseasons, the Phils acquired Lee and Roy Halladay. Wary of more long-term, big-dollar commitments, the team opted for less pricey Burnett and Roberto Hernandez (formerly Fausto Carmona), who has a 5.03 ERA the last six seasons.
Less than two seasons after signing Jonathan Papelbon to the largest contract ever for a reliever — four years, $50 million — the Phillies began shopping their closer last July. There were no takers then and none this offseason, so the Phillies hope Papelbon, age 33 and owed $26 million through 2015, can rebound from a season in which he blew seven saves and aired his frustrations about the direction of the team. Papelbon’s fastball sagged from the mid- to the low-90s in 2013, and his strikeout rate dipped to a career-low 8.3 per nine innings. Papelbon wasn’t the only Phillies reliever to struggle in 2013. The bullpen’s ERA of 4.19 ranked 27th in the majors. The Phils need more than just Papelbon to rebound in 2014. Lefty Antonio Bastardo missed the final 50 games of 2013 on a PED suspension, and veteran Mike Adams is a huge question mark as he tries to come back from shoulder surgery at 35. Veteran Brad Lincoln, added in a trade with Toronto, should help, while three homegrown power arms offer reason for hope. Lefty Jake Diekman and righthanders B.J. Rosenberg and Justin De Fratus all gained valuable experience last season. They need to build on that and become strong contributors to a unit that needs help. The side-arming Diekman is particularly promising. He averaged 95 mph in 2013 and hit 99 several times.
Over the last decade, Jimmy Rollins and Chase Utley have started 1,072 games together, the most by a current middle-infield tandem. Rollins is reaching some rarified statistical air; he needs only 60 hits to pass Mike Schmidt as the franchise’s all-time leader. Utley, a blue-collar reflection of the town he plays in, is one of the most popular players in team history. While both players are club icons, the reality is they have gotten old. Both are 35 and past the apex of their careers. Rollins had the lowest OPS of his career in 2013 but did play in 160 games and remains a top defender. Utley rebounded from two years of degenerative knee problems and was productive offensively and defensively in 131 games, his most since 2009. Utley must stay healthy and productive and Rollins must improve offensively for this team to have a chance.
Is Ryan Howard ready to rock after two injury-plagued seasons? This might be the most important question facing this fragile club. Howard has missed more than half of the Phillies’ games the last two seasons, and the offense has sputtered badly. If he’s on the field — and all signs point to him being healthy — he’s a threat for 30 homers and 100 RBIs. If he’s not, the Phillies are looking at another rough season. Across the diamond, the Phils haven’t produced a homegrown regular at third base since Scott Rolen. Cody Asche showed promise in the field and at the plate in a two-month cameo in 2013 and might end up being the guy.
Desperate for some youth, the Phils received positive offensive contributions from left fielder Domonic Brown and center fielder Ben Revere in 2013. Brown, 26, was an All-Star and led the team in homers and RBIs but tailed off in the second half. Revere, 25, survived a rough April and slapped his way to .300 before suffering a season-ending broken ankle in mid-July. Neither player is strong defensively, and that’s a concern. Unwilling to pursue top free agents, the Phils signed 36-year-old Marlon Byrd to play right field. His production has ranged from poor to very good in recent seasons. The Phillies hope to see Byrd’s best as his right-handed bat balances out a lefty-heavy lineup.
Amaro raised eyebrows when he re-signed 35-year-old Carlos Ruiz for three years and $26 million. Amaro wanted a top game-caller and receiver to handle the pitching staff, and with no one ready in the minors, paid the price for Ruiz. The Phillies hope they are not paying for a lot of past performance. Ruiz had a career year in 2012 but tested positive for a banned stimulant. He struggled at the plate in the first half of 2013 but came alive in the second half, fueling hopes that he could be a solid contributor for the bulk of his contract. Pitchers love throwing to Ruiz, so they are happy he’s back. At this stage of his career, Ruiz is about a 110-game guy, so backup Wil Nieves will be important.
Sandberg, devoted to the ways of the NL, has vowed to use his bench and will have to as he tries to get the most from a well-worn roster. The problem is, this isn’t a high-quality bench. Freddy Galvis, a premium defender at three infield positions, is the best of a group that includes Kevin Frandsen, John Mayberry Jr. and Darin Ruf. Former Philadelphia All-Star Bobby Abreu is in camp, with a good chance to make the team.
Amaro has admitted to being embarrassed by the team’s decline, and his popularity in his hometown has sunk along with the club’s place in the standings. With Charlie Manuel gone, the bull’s-eye is on the GM, and he knows it. “I put myself under the gun,” Amaro said after last season’s fourth-place finish. “I’m accountable for the things that have happened.” The Phillies went 20–22 after Sandberg took over last August. He will run a tighter ship than Manuel, and with a three-year deal, has more job security than Amaro.
This club doesn’t appear to be much improved from the 73-win clunker of 2013. But with perfect health, continued excellence from Hamels and Lee at the top of the rotation, strong contributions from Utley, Brown, Revere, Ruiz and Byrd, and big rebounds from Rollins, Howard and Papelbon, the Phillies might be able to hang around long enough to make it an interesting summer. If not, Lee could be gone by the trade deadline, and management could finally commit to rebuilding.
CF Ben Revere (L)
Hit .347 in his final 65 games before season-ending broken ankle last July.
SS Jimmy Rollins (S)
He made just three errors in his final 101 games in 2013.
2B Chase Utley (L)
His .823 OPS ranked third among MLB second basemen in 2013.
1B Ryan Howard (L)
Thirty-two percent of his plate appearances the last two seasons have ended with a strikeout.
RF Marlon Byrd (R)
Career year in 2013 included .511 slugging percentage, fifth-best in the NL.
LF Domonic Brown (L)
Twelve of 27 homers and 25 of 83 RBIs last season came in torrid May.
C Carlos Ruiz (R)
Leads Phillies in batting average (.295) and on-base percentage (.374) since 2010.
3B Cody Asche (L)
Had 43 extra-base hits in 404 at-bats at Triple-A prior to July 30 promotion.
INF Freddy Galvis (S)
Valuable glove man will see time at second base and shortstop.
INF Kevin Frandsen (R)
Had 14 pinch-hits in 2013, but hit just .192 after the All-Star break.
OF/1B Darin Ruf (R)
Made 70 starts in 2013 and led club with 12 homers after the All-Star break.
OF John Mayberry Jr. (R)
Hit just .237 with .687 OPS in 863 plate appearances last two seasons.
C Wil Nieves (R)
Hit .299 in 278 at-bats for Colorado and Arizona last two seasons.
LH Cole Hamels
Received ninth-worst average run support (3.36) in MLB en route to career-high 14 losses in 2013.
LH Cliff Lee
Has 1.049 WHIP, third-best in MLB, in 666.1 innings during last three seasons.
RH A.J. Burnett
Phils need his 30-start streak to continue as well as his sub-4.00 ERA trend.
RH Kyle Kendrick
After solid start to the season, had 6.48 ERA in his final 14 starts in 2013.
RH Roberto Hernandez
Left-handed hitters feasted to .305 batting average and .905 OPS in 2013.
RH Jonathan Papelbon (Closer)
Converted just 81 percent of save chances in 2013, a career low.
RH Mike Adams
Once a top setup man, he’s a big unknown as he comes back from shoulder surgery.
LH Antonio Bastardo
A valuable contributor, but what will he be after 2013 PED suspension?
LH Jake Diekman
Hard-throwing sidearmer improved control, had 1.82 ERA in final 34 games in 2013.
RH B.J. Rosenberg
Gained confidence while striking out 17 over final 14.2 innings in 2013.
RH Justin De Fratus
Finished the season with a scoreless streak of 8.2 innings.
RH Brad Lincoln
Former first-round pick could be ready to blossom with third team.
2013 Top Draft Pic k
J.P. Crawford, SS
As Phillies scouts studied pitcher Shane Watson, their eventual top pick, before the 2012 draft, they became smitten with the smooth-fielding shortstop behind him. For a year, the Phillies targeted Crawford, and they got him with the 16th overall pick in 2013. Lakewood (Calif.) High School is a favorite of the Phillies. Before Crawford and Watson, they landed catcher Travis d’Arnaud, now a Met, from the school. Crawford, a left-handed hitter with long limbs, has the athleticism Phillies scouts love, but he’s no project. He has advanced baseball skills and projects to be a difference-maker offensively and defensively. Crawford dazzled in the Gulf Coast League last summer, hitting .345 with a .908 OPS in 39 games. He finished in the South Atlantic League, a nice jump for an 18-year-old. Moments after being drafted, Crawford said he wanted to take Jimmy Rollins’ job. In time, that should happen.
LHP Jesse Biddle (22)
The 6'4" lefty projects as a big-league starter, but might need to return to Double-A to hone control.
OF Kelly Dugan (23)
Hard-working corner outfielder has hit his way onto the 40-man roster.
3B Maikel Franco (21)
Corner infielder projects as the middle-of-the-order right-handed bat Phils have long sought.
RHP Severino Gonzalez (21)
Panamanian came out of nowhere in 2013 and dazzled with control and pitching savvy.
C Tommy Joseph (22)
Still highly regarded even though concussion at Triple-A hurt his development in 2013.
OF Carlos Tocci (18)
Batted just .209 at Single-A last season, but the Phillies love his upside and expect him in Philadelphia in 2017.
Beyond the Box Score
Back to his roots Ryne Sandberg made his name and Hall of Fame playing career with the Cubs, but don’t forget that he was originally a Phillie. He was drafted by the Phillies in 1978, made a cameo with the club in 1981 and was traded to the Cubs as a “throw-in” in the Larry Bowa-Ivan DeJesus swap that offseason. Passed over for the Cubs’ manager job in 2010, Sandberg managed the Phils’ Triple-A team for two years and now has the top job. At Sandberg’s insistence, Bowa is back with the club (he’s been a player, coach and manager) for a fourth time.
To rebuild or not Phillies management has been reluctant to rebuild, but a third straight season of no playoffs might give it no choice. “At some point we might have to do that, but not right now,” GM Ruben Amaro Jr. said in December. The comment was the first time a club official had acknowledged that rebuilding was a possibility.
Right here, kid Chase Utley took a liking to Cody Asche during spring training 2013. When Asche was promoted from Triple-A in late July, he was assigned the locker next to Utley’s. It was no accident; Utley arranged it. “I know when you’re a young guy, it’s nice to have someone who has been around to help navigate you in the right direction,” Utley says.
At the turnstiles Though the Phillies have drawn three million for seven straight seasons, attendance has dropped as the team has slipped. The Phils had drawn at least 3.5 million four straight seasons before slipping to 3,012,403 in 2013. The average attendance dropped from 44,021 in 2012 to 37,190 in 2013.
Hello, 21st century The Phillies have long been a scouting-based organization. In fact, the team’s two World Series-winning clubs were led by scouts, Paul Owens and Dallas Green in 1980 and Pat Gillick in 2008. But the Phils have added analytics to player evaluations. They added Scott Freedman, on loan from the commissioner’s office, to help institute more analytical practices during the offseason. Before you knew it, GM Ruben Amaro Jr. was citing Roberto Hernandez’ ground-ball rate as a reason for signing the righthander. “We’re going to continue to be a scouting organization,” Amaro says. “That said, I think we owe it to ourselves to look at some other ways to evaluate.”
The Mets have had five losing seasons in a row, tied with the Astros for the longest such streak in baseball. The streak coincides with the 2009 opening of Citi Field, where attendance has dropped every year. The Mets do not seem ready to contend, but with reinforcements from the free-agent market, they could challenge .500 as they wait for their breakout ace, Matt Harvey, to return from Tommy John surgery in 2015.
Even without Harvey, the Mets have a respectable rotation. They signed Bartolo Colon to a two-year, $20 million contract, hoping that Colon, who turns 41 in May and has a 2012 PED suspension on his résumé, can maintain the All-Star form he showed for the A’s last season, when his 2.65 ERA was the best of his career. Jon Niese withstood a partial rotator cuff tear to return near the end of the season, but he’s had some arm issues this spring that bear watching. He is a solid middle-of-the rotation guy, essentially a left-handed version of Dillon Gee. The healthy starter with the most upside is Zack Wheeler, who made an impressive debut last season with a 3.42 ERA in 17 starts. Wheeler, who turns 24 in May, worked 168.2 innings between Class AAA and the majors, meaning that he should be ready to cross the 200-inning threshold this season. Daisuke Matsuaka appears likely to make the rotation as a non-roster player this spring. He made seven starts for the Mets at the end of last season. In his final outing, he threw 7.2 shutout innings in a 1-0 win at Cincinnati. Elbow tendinitis cost Jeurys Familia much of the season, but he enters camp as a leading candidate for spot starts should Niese not be ready by Opening Day. One factor to watch: Colon and Gee both ranked in the top 25 last season in fly ball percentage — not as much of an advantage as it once was at Citi Field, where the walls are closer than they originally were, but still a source of strength that the Mets can exploit.
The Mets finally gave the closer’s job to hard-throwing Bobby Parnell last season, and he responded with 22 saves in 26 chances and a 1.00 WHIP, the best of his career. At 95 miles per hour, Parnell’s fastball remains his best pitch. But he threw it less often last season and utilized his curveball on more than a quarter of his pitches. The Mets lost veteran LaTroy Hawkins, who had 13 saves, to the Colorado Rockies as a free agent, but they like what they have in righty Vic Black, a former first-round pick by the Pirates, who traded him to the Mets last August in a deal for Marlon Byrd and John Buck. Black had 217 strikeouts in fewer than 180 innings in the minors. Scott Rice emerged from the shadows of a long minor-league career to establish himself as a dependable lefty from the pen. But the rest of the unit is suspect, with largely unproven Josh Edgin and Gonzalez Germen getting a chance to make the team. The Mets brought veterans Jose Valverde and Kyle Farnsworth to camp to compete for spots in spring training. Both have experience as closers, but are viewed as stopgap material at this point.
The Mets’ second baseman, Daniel Murphy, had 188 hits and 92 runs scored last season, but his on-base percentage was only .319. Murphy had some pop, with a team-leading 55 extra-base hits, but advanced metrics showed that his defense was among the worst in the majors, ranking 17th of 19 qualified second basemen in Ultimate Zone Rating, according to Fangraphs. The likely shortstop, Ruben Tejada, is a better defender but backslid badly at the plate last season, hitting just .202 in 208 at-bats, and general manager Sandy Alderson called his dedication into question. Naturally, the Mets explored options to upgrade and likely will continue to look. But Tejada is only 24 and did hit .289 as a regular in 2012.
David Wright injured his hamstring on Aug. 2, missed a month and a half, and when he returned in late September, homered in his first two games to lead the Mets to victories. Even with the downtime, Wright had a fantastic season, with a .904 OPS that was his best since 2008, the Mets’ last season at Shea Stadium. He is easily the team’s best player, and the Mets must win with him while he is still in his prime. Across the diamond, the team has options at first in Ike Davis and Lucas Duda, two lefty hitters with power who struggle against left-handed pitching. Davis is a much better fielder, while Duda reaches base more reliably. The presence of somewhat redundant players means that the Mets may trade one before the season.
The Mets’ outfield was such a shambles last offseason that Alderson cracked, “What outfield?” when reporters asked about it. He’s not joking anymore, after making three moves to put legitimate major leaguers in each position. Eric Young Jr. led the NL in steals with 46 and made 84 starts in left field for the Mets after a giveaway trade from Colorado. Center fielder Chris Young was an All-Star for Arizona in 2010, and the Mets hope he can restore his power and timing in an everyday role after slumping in part-time duty with Oakland last season. Right fielder Curtis Granderson, signed for $60 million over four years, will be counted on to have the biggest impact, with his power complementing Wright and Young in the middle of the order. Granderson is also polished and fan-friendly, an important value for the Mets as they seek to restore a tattered brand. “He brings a tremendous amount of professionalism,” Alderson said while introducing Granderson at the winter meetings in December. “He brings a personality. He brings credibility. He brings experience, and he brings talent.” That last aspect, of course, matters most of all, and after losing most of 2013 to broken bones, Granderson is eager to prove he still has it. At 33, it’s safe to expect that he does.
Travis d’Arnaud was traded for two Cy Young Award winners, Roy Halladay and R.A. Dickey, before turning 24. Injuries have restricted his playing time, but not his advancement up the professional ladder. He fractured his left foot when it was hit by a foul ball last April and played only 32 games in the minors before making his major-league debut in August. The results were inconclusive (20-for-99 with a home run), but d’Arnaud hit .286 with solid power in the minors, and there is every reason to believe he will soon be among the better hitting catchers in the game.
The Mets have some positional flexibility in Young, who can play the outfield and second base, and Duda, who can play first and a corner outfield spot, although not especially well. Josh Satin can back up at first and third, with a knack for reaching base. Juan Lagares offers superior outfield defense, while Anthony Recker is a capable backup to d’Arnaud behind the plate. Omar Quintanilla, who can play second, third and short, is a reliable backup infielder.
The financial problems plaguing Fred Wilpon, whose son Jeff runs the team, severely impacted the Mets in recent seasons. They still do not operate like a big-market behemoth, but with the burdensome contracts of Johan Santana and Jason Bay finally off their books, the Mets did spend nearly $90 million in free-agent deals. That gives Alderson and his talented assistants a better chance to build the roster as they see fit, adding the right pieces to the Mets’ exciting young talent. Manager Terry Collins, a good soldier through three years of rebuilding, has more to work with in the first season of his two-year contract extension. Collins comes from the Jim Leyland mold — neither of them played in the majors, but both command respect from their teams for the way they treat players and for keeping open lines of communication. Collins even wears No. 10 as a tribute to Leyland, who gave him his first major-league coaching job with Pittsburgh in 1992. The feisty Collins turns 65 in May, but his energy for the job has never been in question.
It feels like another bridge season for the Mets, with their ace on the disabled list all season. But it is safe to say that the team is transitioning, not merely rebuilding, and with more pricey veterans on the roster, expectations should tick upward. The Mets could surprise this season — Granderson, at his introductory press conference, noted that the Red Sox went from last place to a championship, while the Mets just finished third. But the first winning season of the Citi Field era would represent real progress, and without much star power besides Wright, that is probably the most realistic ambition to have.
LF Eric Young Jr. (S)
Credit GM Sandy Alderson with a steal (38 to be exact) in getting Young from the Rockies for Collin McHugh.
2B Daniel Murphy (L)
Set career highs in games, at-bats, hits, runs, homers, RBIs and steals last season.
3B David Wright (R)
Mets’ ongoing struggles make him the rare New York player who is probably underrated nationally.
RF Curtis Granderson (L)
Brings credibility and power, but lots of strikeouts, to a needy lineup.
CF Chris Young (R)
Mets are betting $7.25 million that his .200 average last season was an aberration.
1B Ike Davis (L)
Hit .267 in July and August before oblique injury cost him all of September.
C Travis d’Arnaud (R)
At 25, he will have the chance to start delivering on his potential, if he stays healthy.
SS Ruben Tejada (R)
Alderson said it was like “pulling teeth” to get Tejada to do extra work, but the Mets have limited options.
INF Josh Satin (R)
His .398 OBP in minors supports the notion that his .376 mark with the Mets last season was no fluke.
OF Juan Lagares (R)
Standout defender must improve .281 OBP to become an everyday player.
1B/OF Lucas Duda (L)
Big power, but similarity to Davis gives the Mets an attractive trade chip.
C Anthony Recker (R)
The team will look to improve this spot, given d’Arnaud’s youth and health history.
INF Omar Quintanilla (R)
Made 89 starts at shortstop for the Mets last season.
RH Bartolo Colon
Made 30 starts last season for the first time since 2005. Turns 41 in May.
LH Jon Niese
Partially tore rotator cuff in June but returned after seven weeks to finish strong.
RH Zack Wheeler
Won seven games in impressive debut season, with fastball averaging 94.3 miles per hour.
RH Dillon Gee
Lowered walk rate while leading staff with 199 innings. Has a 33–26 career record.
RH Daisuke Matsuzaka
In his seven starts for the Mets last season, Dice-K had a better WHIP (1.271) than in any of his years with Boston.
RH Bobby Parnell (Closer)
Lowered WHIP to 1.00 with career-best 2.16 ERA in his first full year as closer.
LH Scott Rice
Six years ago, had a 15.68 ERA for the Long Island Ducks. Now, he’s cemented a spot in the bullpen.
RH Vic Black
Came to the Mets from Pittsburgh in Marlon Byrd/John Buck trade last August.
RH Jeurys Familia
Healthy and still only 24, he gets a chance to reestablish himself in rotation.
RH Kyle Farnsworth
Had 25 saves for the Rays in 2011, but only one save and a 4.41 ERA and 1.362 WHIP in 82 games since then.
RH Carlos Torres
Rotation option is 4–8 with a 5.61 ERA in 15 career starts for White Sox and Mets.
RH Jose Valverde
Averaged 38 saves between 2007-12, but seems much older than 36 now.
2013 Top Draft Pick
Dominic Smith, 1B
After years of chasing veterans, the Mets have stubbornly held to a plan that offers no quick fixes. They have underscored that philosophy in the draft, selecting high school position players with their top picks in each of the last three years, willing to wait for the talent to blossom. Last June it was Smith’s turn to become a Met, signing for $2.6 million out of Serra High School in Gardena, Calif.; it was the most the Mets have ever given a high school prospect. Smith, who attended the draft in New Jersey, rewarded them with a strong first impression, hitting .287 with a .384 on-base percentage in the Gulf Coast League and swatting four doubles in six at-bats at rookie-level Kingsport in the Appalachian League playoffs. Smith, who attended an MLB Urban Youth Academy in Compton, Calif., while growing up near Los Angeles, has a mature approach at the plate, with a smooth swing, solid power potential and a slick glove at first base.
SS Gavin Cecchini (20)
Has one home run and .256 average in 390 pro at-bats; Cardinals took Michael Wacha seven picks later.
OF Brandon Nimmo (20)
Had .397 OBP at Low-A Savannah, but fanned once every three at-bats.
RHP Noah Syndergaard (21)
Husky power starter could advance to majors this season. Former first-round pick of the Blue Jays.
RHP Rafael Montero (23)
Breakout season puts him on verge of big-league rotation, perhaps before Syndergaard.
C/1B Kevin Plawecki (23)
On-base machine who devours left-handed pitching.
RHP Jacob deGrom (25)
Lanky righty has overcome Tommy John surgery to become a rotation option for 2014.
SS Amed Rosario (18)
Received Mets’ largest international bonus ($1.75 million) in 2012; scouts love overall tools.
INF Wilmer Flores (22)
Can’t quite settle on a position, but is a three-time top-100 prospect on Baseball America lists.
Beyond the Box Score
Seizing the opportunity Lefty reliever Scott Rice was leading the majors in appearances, with 73, before sports-hernia surgery ended his season in early September. He allowed just one homer and at the time of his injury had the sixth-best ground-ball percentage among relievers. It was a feel-good story for Rice, who spent 14 seasons in the minors with five organizations and three independent teams.
Veterans Stadium The Mets will institute “Military Mondays” in 2014, saluting veterans by wearing beige-and-brown camouflage jerseys and caps for every Monday home game. On April 21, July 7, July 28, Sept. 8 and Sept. 15, the Mets will give complimentary tickets to active and retired military members and up to three guests. Staff, players and former Mets will visit VA hospitals on those dates, when the team will also honor a “Veteran of the Game.”
Two more for Terry Despite three losing seasons as Mets manager, Terry Collins earned a three-year contract extension just after the regular season. Collins, who turns 65 in May, has shown boundless enthusiasm and energy with an often undermanned roster. “To have a chance to take those pieces and move on absolutely is pretty exciting for me,” Collins says. “So I was thrilled when (GM Sandy Alderson) said, 'Hey, we want you to come back.' You know what? Maybe we can finish what we started.”
Lead recruiter After tying himself to the Mets through 2020, David Wright embraces the role of cheerleader and headhunter for the organization. Wright sent a text message to Curtis Granderson urging him to sign and acknowledged that bringing players to Flushing was not easy after five losing seasons. “Sometimes that first move is the hardest one, to convince a player of that caliber to come here, and maybe we get things turned around,” Wright told Newsday.
Jerry From Queens Jerry Seinfeld, who has a suite on the lower level behind home plate at Citi Field, joined the SNY broadcast booth in September for a few innings behind the mic with Gary Cohen, Ron Darling and Keith Hernandez. He said he enjoyed watching young players break in. “When you want to rebuild the team, you want to see some light on the horizon,” Seinfeld said, “and that’s what young players are.”
Asked about his offseason priorities, new Miami Marlins president of baseball operations Michael Hill didn’t have trouble prioritizing. “Offense, offense, offense,” he said. Formerly the club’s general manager under long-time president of baseball operations Larry Beinfest, Hill and his revamped front office went free-agent shopping. The mission: Improve the 13th team in the modern era to score 513 runs or fewer in a 162-game season. By complementing the club’s strength — a promising, young starting rotation — with more run support, the Marlins hope to achieve vastly better results in 2014. What ensued by Marlins’ standards was a spending spree. In no way did it resemble the reckless expenditures that preceded the organization’s opening of Marlins Park in 2012, when it committed $191 million to free agents Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle and Heath Bell. All were traded after a disastrous campaign, leaving the Marlins with a prospect-rich farm system and at times an unwatchable major-league product. The Marlins, in their trudge back toward respectability, reverted to their cost-conscious spending blueprint. The additions of catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia on a three-year deal, first baseman Garrett Jones for two years, and third baseman Casey McGehee and middle infielder Rafael Furcal on one-year commitments required a modest $32.85 million outlay. What’s to keep the Marlins from a fourth consecutive last-place finish in the National League East? Start with NL Rookie of the Year Jose Fernandez, who arguably had the best age-20 season since Dwight Gooden in 1985. Three of the Marlins’ four other projected starters — Nathan Eovaldi, Jacob Turner and Henderson Alvarez — all will be under age 25 when the regular season opens March 31. How much the club improves hinges on the progress of young position players. Outfielders Christian Yelich and Marcell Ozuna both had promising rookie campaigns in 2013. Shortstop Adeiny Hechavarria is an athletic, gifted defender with a developing bat, and few in the game rival right fielder Giancarlo Stanton’s raw power.
On a 170-inning limit in 2013, Fernandez will have the reins loosened in 2014. He should be on everybody’s preseason Cy Young watch list. Mature beyond his 21 years due in part to a harrowing escape from Cuba as a 15-year-old, Fernandez has to transition from a nothing-to-lose scenario to shouldering big time expectations. In Eovaldi, whom the Marlins acquired from the Dodgers for Hanley Ramirez, the team has another power arm looking for a breakthrough season. He has yet to total more than 22 starts in any of his three big-league campaigns. Like Eovaldi, Alvarez could not complete a full season in 2013. He showed just how dominant he could be in the regular-season finale, when he no-hit the Detroit Tigers. That was his 17th start of 2013 and 58th of his major-league career. Turner is a former Tigers’ first-round pick who opened last season in Triple-A after a horrid spring. He was fantastic during stretches after his promotion, but like the rest of his young counterparts, he needs experience and consistency. Tom Koehler, if he doesn’t open in the rotation, likely will pitch out of the bullpen.
In non-tendering Ryan Webb and opting not to re-sign free agent Chad Qualls, the Marlins lost 142.1 innings from last season’s relief corps. The team believes they have enough in-house options to cover it. Back to handle ninth-inning duties is Steve Cishek, who in 2014 can join Juan Carlos Oviedo and Robb Nen as the only closers in club history with back-to-back 30-save seasons. As a rookie in 2013, A.J. Ramos pitched in every conceivable bullpen role and racked up 80 innings. He should vie for the club’s primary right-handed setup role. Mike Dunn will handle late-inning lefty duties, pairing with fellow southpaw Dan Jennings. Two interesting right-handed arms are Brad Hand and long-time Cubs’ closer Carlos Marmol. The Marlins acquired another promising, hard-throwing righthander in Carter Capps from the Mariners, who with a little more polish could be outstanding. Arquimedes Caminero features another power arm. He can fill Webb’s multi-purpose role of a year ago.
A rocket-armed shortstop, Furcal missed all of 2013 with the Cardinals after Tommy John surgery. The Marlins approached Furcal, 36, about starting at second, and the idea appealed to him. Conceivably, he could add a couple more years to his career on the right side of the bag. The Marlins believe Furcal paired with Hechavarria at short gives them iron-clad up-the-middle defense. Offensively, the switch-hitting Furcal is a seasoned top-of-the-order table-setter, allowing the club to move Yelich down into a run-producing spot. A glove-first shortstop, Hechavarria rivals Braves Gold Glove winner Andrelton Simmons in athleticism. Manager Mike Redmond sees a future No. 2 hitter in Hechavarria, but last season’s .227/.267/.298 slash line won’t keep him there consistently.
Although the Marlins weren’t averse to tapping into their pitching depth to acquire a third baseman via trade, they settled on McGehee, who re-discovered his swing during a championship-winning season in Japan with the Rakuten Golden Eagles. He hopes to duplicate those results with the Marlins as he keeps the position warm for top position player prospect and 2013 first-round pick Colin Moran. Across the diamond at first is Jones, an ex-Pirates teammate of McGehee’s. When the Marlins signed the left-handed-hitting Jones, it became apparent that they had given up on the oft-injured Logan Morrison. Though Jones hasn’t shown the ability to hit left-handed pitching consistently, the Marlins at least initially don’t plan to platoon him.
The general consensus is that Stanton’s days in South Florida are numbered, but the Marlins hope to build around the power-hitting right fielder. With a better supporting cast, the idea is that he’ll see more pitches and become the 40-homer, 120-RBI force the club envisions. Homegrown prospects Yelich and Ozuna both had encouraging starts to their major-league careers in 2013. Yelich is the club’s best pure hitter, and Ozuna, before going down with a fractured hand, showed much-improved plate discipline. Should Ozuna falter, the Marlins have another well-regarded prospect at the ready in Jake Marisnick.
The Marlins thought they had a cornerstone piece in Rob Brantly, but he regressed both defensively and offensively. That prompted the Saltalamacchia signing. The concern is that spacious Marlins Park might negate Saltalamacchia’s power, but the Marlins like his ability to put balls in the gap. Though the Marlins love the way Jeff Mathis works with the young staff, he hits like a backup catcher and should be limited to 50-60 games.
The Marlins signed utility man Jeff Baker, who started games at left, right, first, second, third and DH for the Rangers last season. Not only does he give the club lineup flexibility, but he batted .279 and slugged .545 with a .905 OPS in 2013. He could be a nice right-handed complement to Jones at first. Greg Dobbs will reprise his role as the club’s primary left-handed pinch-hitting option. The Marlins swapped fourth outfielders with the Cubs, sacrificing Justin Ruggiano’s power for Brian Bogusevic’s contact. Donovan Solano is the primary candidate for the remaining backup infielder spot.
The Marlins dumped Beinfest and promoted Hill and Dan Jennings (no relation to the reliever) to the top two spots in baseball operations. The front office also brought in well-respected talent evaluators Craig Weissmann, Mike Berger and Jeff McAvoy. On the field, Redmond returns for his second season as manager.
Taking a wrecking ball to last year’s lineup was a start, but don’t look for the Marlins to contend just yet. With the possible exception of Saltalamacchia, the club’s moves are stopgaps. The hope is that an injection of somewhat flawed yet battle-tested veterans not only spurs a more dynamic offense, but also enhances the development of young, cornerstone players.
2B Rafael Furcal (S)
Three-time All-Star shortstop transitioning to second after missing ’13 recovering from Tommy John surgery.
LF Christian Yelich (L)
Marlins’ first-round pick in 2010 hit .288/.370/.396 in first 273 major-league plate appearances last season.
RF Giancarlo Stanton (R)
Increased walk rate from 9.2 percent in 2012 to 14.7, but isolated power plummeted from .318 to .231.
C Jarrod Saltalamacchia (S)
Coming off career year with World Series champion Red Sox, hitting 40 doubles and knocking in 65.
1B Garrett Jones (L)
Over last two seasons has a combined .266 AVG vs. righties (783 at-bats), .168 (95 at-bats) off lefties.
CF Marcell Ozuna (R)
Promoted to fill in for an injured Stanton in right field, hit .331/.371/.472 over first 142 big-league at-bats.
3B Casey McGehee (R)
Offensive catalyst for Japan Series champion Rakuten, hitting .292-28-93 with 30 doubles in 144 games.
SS Adeiny Hechavarria (R)
11 of 42 RBIs came on three HR swings, including grand slams off Jeff Samardzija and Roy Halladay.
C Jeff Mathis (R)
Started 70 games and had multiple RBIs in five straight (June 26-July 3), tying Hanley Ramirez’s club record.
1B/3B Greg Dobbs (L)
Active major-league leader as a pinch-hitter with 95 hits (including 10 in 2013), 21 doubles and 75 RBIs.
OF Bryan Bogusevic (L)
.273 hitter in 143 at-bats with Cubs last season; acquired in trade for Justin Ruggiano.
INF Donovan Solano (R)
Supplanted as projected starter at second after Furcal signing; has played four different positions since 2012.
UT Jeff Baker (R)
Batted .314 with a 1.073 vs. lefties last season and just .204/,536 against righthanders.
RH Jose Fernandez
Garnered 26 of 30 first-place votes in winning National League Rookie of the Year Award at age 20.
RH Nathan Eovaldi
According to PITCHf/x, 96.1 mph average fastball would have led all qualifying starters in the majors.
RH Henderson Alvarez
Alvarez no-hit Tigers in regular-season finale, and allowed only five hits and no walks to first 24 batters faced in the spring.
RH Jacob Turner
Brutal spring led to start in minors, but returned and logged 3.74 ERA in 20 starts.
RH Tom Koehler
In five September starts went 2–1 with 3.14 ERA and held opponents to a .225/.307/.333 slash line.
RH Steve Cishek (Closer)
After a June 4 blown save in Philadelphia, converted 29 straight opportunities to set franchise mark.
RH A.J. Ramos
Totaled 80 innings and struck out 9.7 batters per nine innings as a rookie in 2013.
LH Mike Dunn
Fourth pitcher in franchise history to total 60 or more appearances in three or more consecutive seasons.
LH Dan Jennings
Logged a reverse split, holding right-handed hitters to a .221 average while lefties hit .282 against him.
RH Carter Capps
In first two seasons with Mariners (2012-13), average fastball velocity per PITCHf/x was 96.4 mph.
RH Arquimedes Caminero
Back on track after ascent through minors slowed in 2011 due to elbow issues.
RH Carlos Marmol
Trying to rediscover some semblance of control and resurrect his once-promising career.
2013 Top Draft Pick
Colin Moran, 3B
With the sixth overall pick, the Marlins selected third baseman Colin Moran out of North Carolina. Considered an advanced college bat, Moran began his pro career with Greensboro of the Low-A South Atlantic League. He hit .299/.354/.442 in 42 games (154 at-bats) with eight doubles, four homers and 23 RBIs. What already was a long season that included a trip to the College World Series with the Tar Heels concluded in the Arizona Fall League. A spent Moran went 20-for-87 (.230) with just three doubles, no homers and 10 RBIs. Moran likely will open 2014 at Double-A Jacksonville and could make his major-league debut by season’s end in preparation for a shot at the everyday third base job in 2015.
LHP Andrew Heaney (22)
Organization’s top prospect after stellar 2013 between High-A Jupiter and Double-A Jacksonville. Should make major-league debut in 2014.
OF Jake Marisnick (23)
Center fielder with great range made major-league debut in 2013. Bat developed nicely at Double-A (.294/.358/.502).
LHP Justin Nicolino (22)
Marlins’ second-best starting pitching prospect behind Heaney went combined 8–4, 3.11 for Jupiter and Jacksonville.
RHP Anthony DeSclafani (23)
The Marlins’ Minor League Pitcher of the Year split 2013 between Jupiter and Jacksonville and went a combined 9–6 with 2.65 ERA, 23 walks and 115 K’s in 129 IP.
RHP Jose Urena (22)
At Jupiter in 2013, he went 10–7 with a 3.73 ERA and a 3.7-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio.
2B Avery Romero (20)
Returned to the short season Class-A New York Penn League, where he hit .297/.357/.411 in 209 at-bats with Batavia.
Beyond the Box Score
Revolving door Since Miguel Cabrera manned third base for Marlins in 2007, the club has used five different primary third basemen — Jorge Cantu, Emilio Bonifacio, Greg Dobbs, Hanley Ramirez and Placido Polanco. Last season alone, five different players started at least one game at third. Casey McGehee in 2014 stands to become the ninth player since 2008 to start at least 20 games in a season at third for the Marlins, joining: Cantu, Wes Helms, Bonifacio, Dobbs, Chad Tracy, Ramirez, Polanco and Ed Lucas.
Love the gloves The Marlins couldn’t hit in 2013, but they caught the ball surprisingly well for a 100-loss team. The 69 teams that have lost 100 or more games since the advent of the 162-game schedule (1961 in the AL and 1962 in the NL) averaged 144 errors. The Marlins committed 88.
Running low If last season wasn’t rock bottom for the Miami offense, the Marlins are in trouble this season. They scored two runs or fewer in 46.9 percent of their 162 games and went 13–63 in those contests. The Marlins will try to avoid becoming the third team ever to play at least 162 games and score 513 runs or fewer in back-to-back seasons; they would join the 1963-64 Houston Colt .45s and the 1967-68 New York Mets.
Strange superlatives The Marlins in 2013 had the tallest player in major league history (6'11" Jon Rauch). In 2014 they’ll field the major-leaguer with the longest last name. Jarrod Saltalamacchia claimed that distinction when he made his debut in 2007. Long surnames don’t faze the Marlins’ equipment staff. Remember, Tim Spooneybarger and Todd Hollandsworth both were members of the 2003 team.
Power shortage Marlins Park in its two years of existence has seen many frustrated hitters jog back to their dugout. According to Baseball Info Solutions, the venue in 2012 had a home run index of 73, meaning the ballpark reduced the number of homers by 27 percent. That was the fourth-lowest in the majors. It got worse in 2013. Marlins Park had a major-league-low home run index of 64. Giancarlo Stanton accounted for 15 of his team’s 36 Marlins Park home runs. Unlike several other teams, the Marlins have not given any indication that they’re inclined to move in the fences.
The Braves, who reeled off 14 consecutive division titles starting in 1991, captured their first since 2005 by going 96–66 to outlast the favored Nationals. They did it despite awful seasons from B.J. Upton and Dan Uggla. Those players can’t be any worse — can they? — so a very young Braves team expects to repeat as division champions, or at least contend with the Nationals, who have bigger-name stars and should get all the hype again. The Braves, who lost their NLDS to the Dodgers, still have not won a playoff series since 2001. And a couple of ill-timed injuries to pitchers Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy have tempered hopes somewhat. But the Braves’ talented core group should keep providing postseason chances in the foreseeable future.
The legacy of the 1990s Braves will be celebrated at the Hall of Fame this summer, as a team built on consistently dominant starting pitching begins to take its place in bronze in the hallowed halls of Cooperstown. It’s asking a lot for any team to replicate the era of Maddux-Glavine-Smoltz & Co., but the Braves are at least in the ballpark, ranking sixth in the majors last season in starters’ ERA, at 3.51. The Braves were one of only two teams in the majors to have three starters with at least 13 victories and an ERA under 3.30: Medlen, Mike Minor and Julio Teheran. But Medlen’s 2014 season is already over, before it began. The talented righthander is having his second Tommy John surgery. The news on Beachy is similarly dismal. After receiving the bad injury news in early March, the Braves jumped quickly to sign free agent Ervin Santana, a victim of the rule regarding draft pick compensation. Santana had gone the entire winter without finding any serious suitors. Due to his abbreviated spring training, Santana, who won nine games each of the last two seasons, will likely not be with the team when it breaks camp. The righthander has averaged 187 innings over his nine-year career — all spent in the American League — and had a career-best 3.24 ERA last season with Kansas City. Veteran Freddy Garcia will take one of the available spots in the rotation. Lefty Alex Wood, who made 11 starts among his 31 appearances last season will join the group as well. Minor’s shoulder was balking a bit in spring training and may cost him a start or two. Youngster David Hale will fill the void until Minor is healthy, which shouldn’t be later than mid-April. Veteran Gavin Floyd, formerly of the White Sox, will return from Tommy John surgery at some point around midseason. Expect the Braves to bring him along slowly.
The Braves had the majors’ second-best bullpen ERA in 2012, and when injuries robbed them of some of their best arms last season, it somehow got even better. Atlanta’s relievers posted a 2.46 ERA, the best mark in the majors last season, led again by the indomitable Craig Kimbrel, who had 50 saves, an 0.881 WHIP and fanned 13.2 batters per nine innings. Two of his better setup men, Anthony Varvaro and David Carpenter, came to the Braves off waivers, and another, Luis Avilan, seamlessly replaced the injured Eric O’Flaherty and Jonny Venters as the resident dominant lefty. Venters, a 2011 All-Star, had Tommy John surgery last May; he could be an option, although the procedure was his second, which is always trickier to return from. Jordan Walden, the former Angels closer, made a nice impression in his first season with the Braves. David Hale is another option out of the pen if his services aren’t needed in the injury-riddled rotation.
How does a player with a .296 on-base percentage rank fourth in the league in overall Wins Above Replacement? He has to play a premium position, shortstop, and field like Andrelton Simmons. His bat had some pop, with 17 homers and 59 runs batted in, but the vast majority of Simmons’ value comes from his glove. Going strictly by fielding performance, Baseball-Reference.com credited Simmons with 5.4 defensive wins above replacement — the highest single-season total in baseball history. Simmons tends to play deep to utilize his outstanding arm and has otherworldly range in all directions. His middle infield partner, Uggla, is a below-average fielder who makes a living with his bat. Uggla led the league in walks in 2012, has made three All-Star teams and has also hit as many as 36 homers in a season. Everything fell apart last year, though, as he batted just .179, with a .122 mark in September that kept him off the playoff roster.
This was a major strength for the Braves last season, with Chris Johnson leading the National League batting race for much of the summer and Freddie Freeman putting it all together with a .319 average, 23 homers and 109 RBIs. Freeman, who turned 24 in September, improves at the plate every season and ranked fourth among NL first basemen in range factor per game, after leading the league in the category in 2012. Johnson hit .321 (second in the NL) with 46 extra-base hits and played well defensively at third. He kept on going in the playoffs, batting .438 (7-for-16) against the Dodgers.
The Upton brothers realized a dream of playing together in the same major-league outfield last season, and while it ended with a playoff appearance — and a joint Sports Illustrated cover with supermodel Kate Upton — neither player had a memorable season. Justin started hot, winning Player of the Month honors in April with a mind-bending .734 slugging percentage. After that, though, he slugged just .409, and wound up with an .818 OPS that was a bit below his career average. B.J., signed to the richest free-agent deal in Braves history (five years, $75.25 million) the winter before, would have gladly taken that season over the one he posted: a .184 average, nine homers, 26 RBIs and 151 strikeouts. Right fielder Jason Heyward endured a beaning against the Mets that cost him a month late in the season. Heyward is only 24 and has power, some speed and a good eye at the plate. He could still develop into a superstar. The Braves seemed to take off last season when manager Fredi Gonzalez inserted Heyward at the top of the batting order.
The Braves lost one of their leaders — and a local favorite — in catcher Brian McCann, who signed with the Yankees without his hometown team putting up much of a fight. His departure clears the way for Evan Gattis, 27, who clubbed 21 homers in 354 at-bats but, like a lot of his teammates, had a meager on-base percentage (.291). Gattis was respectable defensively, but McCann was a master at guiding a staff and framing borderline pitches. The Braves have a top catching prospect in Christian Bethancourt, but he has played only one career game above Class AA and has a career .299 OBP in the minors.
The Braves love the versatility that Ryan Doumit provides as a switch-hitter who can back up at catcher, first base and the corner outfield spots, and he gives them a power threat off the bench. The athletic Jordan Schafer started at all three outfield spots last season and is young enough, at 27, to warrant decent playing time in case of injury or underperformance from a starter. Veteran Gerald Laird, who hit .281 last season, is among the more reliable backup catchers in the game, while Ramiro Pena can play second, short and third. Pena missed more than half the season after surgery to repair a torn labrum, but the Braves liked him enough to quickly re-sign him for another year.
Locked into a bad local cable deal for years, the Braves took a step toward generating greater revenues by securing a deal for a stadium in Cobb County that will open in 2017. For now, general manager Frank Wren has maintained a payroll below $100 million with a young but talented roster that reached the postseason in 2010, ’12 and ’13. That success has been undercut by repeated playoff failures, and manager Gonzalez is unsigned beyond this season. He has provided a smooth transition from his Cooperstown-bound predecessor, Bobby Cox, but sooner or later, the Braves must take the next step.
Pitching carried the Braves’ boom-or-bust offense, which led the NL in both homers and strikeouts (tied). The front office did little to remedy that in the offseason, but the formula did produce 96 wins. However, given the injuries to Medlen and Beachy, it will take significant improvement from a few hitters to keep the Braves in position to win again. Repeated early playoff exits have grown tiresome for all concerned.
RF Jason Heyward (L)
Unconventional leadoff man, but the Braves like giving him extra turns at bat.
3B Chris Johnson (R)
Unlikely to repeat near-batting crown, but a verystrong hitter with pop.
LF Justin Upton (R )
Braves saw his impact early, but need more consistency throughout season.
1B Freddie Freeman (L)
Knocked in a career-high 109 runs; no other Brave topped 70 RBIs.
C Evan Gattis (R)
One of four in this order with OBP below .310; that’s a huge risk for the Braves.
CF B.J. Upton (R)
After signing biggest contract in Braves history, must avoid becoming biggest bust.
2B Dan Uggla (R)
Led team with 77 walks; opposing pitchers’ fear of him was a mystery (.179 average).
SS Andrelton Simmons (R)
Surprising power, disappointing OBP, superlative glove work.
C Gerald Laird (R)
Has been backup for three different playoff teams in three years (’11 Cardinals, ’12 Tigers, ’13 Braves).
OF Jordan Schafer (L)
Led the Braves in stolen bases (22) while playing only 94 games.
INF Ramiro Pena (S)
Earned a return trip to roster as solid utility man despite injury-shortened season.
C/OF Ryan Doumit (S)
Has hit 81 of his 99 career homers as a left-handed hitter, including 12 of 14 last year.
OF Jose Canstanza (L)
Offers both speed and a handy lefty bat off the bench.
LH Mike Minor
Quietly establishing himself as one of the premier starters in the NL. May begin this season on the DL with shoulder issues.
RH Julio Teheran
Would have won Rookie of the Year Award in a runaway if he pitched in AL.
RH Ervin Santana
Royals won two of Santana’s three starts against the Braves’ NL East rivals last season.
LH Alex Wood
Delivery evokes White Sox ace Chris Sale; 3.13 ERA gives Braves hope for future.
RH Freddy Garcia
Yep, he’s still in the league and going strong. In three starts in late September for the Braves last season, he allowed just four runs in 19.2 innings.
RH Craig Kimbrel (Closer)
With Mariano Rivera retired, there’s no doubt: He’s the game’s best closer.
LH Luis Avilan
Flummoxed lefty hitters as he took over for Eric O’Flaherty.
RH David Carpenter
One of three regular Braves relievers to have ERA under 2.00 and WHIP under 1.00.
RH Jordan Walden
Defies all convention while literally jumping, both feet in air, as he delivers a pitch.
RH Anthony Varvaro
Pitches to contact, with good results (2.82 ERA last season).
LH Jonny Venters
Former All-Star eases back in after Tommy John surgery. He should be available by the All-Star break.
RH David Hale
First two starts were good enough to earn a place on playoff roster.
2013 Top Draft Pick
Jason Hursh, RHP
The Braves lost their draft position in the first round last season by signing free-agent outfielder B.J. Upton, but chose Hursh with the 31st overall pick as compensation for the departure of Michael Bourn. They liked Hursh in high school and stayed on him through his tenure at Oklahoma State, where he missed the 2012 season after undergoing Tommy John surgery. A strong performance as a redshirt sophomore earned him a $1.7 million bonus from the Braves. With good action on a fastball that has touched 98 mph, Hursh reliably generates ground balls. He posted an 0.67 ERA in nine starts for Low-A Rome, although he was limited to 27 innings. The Braves want to keep Hursh as a starter and are hopeful he can advance quickly if he masters his changeup and slider, but don’t expect to see him in Atlanta this season.
RHP Lucas Sims (19)
The 21st pick in the ’12 draft, Sims went 8–0, 1.59 in his last eight starts, with 57 strikeouts in 45.1 innings for Low-A Rome.
C Christian Bethancourt (22)
Outstanding defensive catcher who could soon challenge Evan Gattis for starting role.
RHP J.R. Graham (24)
Shoulder trouble slowed his path last season, but he has shown promise since converting to pitching in the pros.
2B Tommy La Stella (25)
Dark horse to unseat Dan Uggla at second after .422 OBP at Class AA Mississippi.
RHP Mauricio Cabrera (20)
Fastball touches 100, but had control issues in Low-A (71 walks in 131 innings).
Beyond the Box Score
On the move The Braves, who have played in downtown Atlanta since moving from Milwaukee for the 1966 season, are headed 10 miles northwest of the city, to Cobb County, for the 2017 season. The team announced plans in November for a 42,000-seat stadium that will cost $672 million and replace Turner Field, which was built for the 1996 Olympics and remodeled for baseball in 1997. The Braves cited improved transportation options and the migration of their fans as a reason for the move, and Atlanta mayor Kasim Reed said Turner Field would be razed. Reed said Cobb County was contributing $450 million to the stadium project and that the city would not match.
Uggly Average Dan Uggla came to bat 537 times for the Braves last season and batted .179. Historically, that’s really tough to do. Only one other player in the division-play era (since 1969, that is) has qualified for the batting title with an average that low: Rob Deer of the Detroit Tigers in 1991. Both Deer and Uggla had exactly 80 hits in 448 at-bats and stayed in the lineup for their power; Deer hit 25 homers, Uggla 22. Good news for Uggla: Deer bounced back the next season and hit 32 homers while batting a respectable .247.
Not just a throw-in It was easy to overlook infielder Chris Johnson in last year’s blockbuster deal for Justin Upton, but the Braves knew what they were getting. The Braves and Astros are spring-training neighbors, and they had seen a lot of Johnson when he played for Houst von. Johnson also had a champion in Chipper Jones, whose godfather, Pete Dunn, had coached Johnson at Stetson. Johnson led the NL in hitting for much of the season and finished at .321.
Detour to Atlanta Reliever David Carpenter finished the 2012 season with the Toronto Blue Jays, then migrated to Atlanta with a peculiar stopover in Boston. The Red Sox needed to compensate the Blue Jays for hiring manager John Farrell, so they sent infielder Mike Aviles. But because managers cannot be directly traded for managers, the Blue Jays had to send a player to the Red Sox. That player was Carpenter, who was designated for assignment by Boston, claimed by Atlanta and in the Braves’ bullpen for good by the end of April. He posted a 1.78 ERA in 56 games but took the loss in the playoff finale in Los Angeles.
Feeling the breeze Of the 14 players in the majors last season who fanned at least 150 times, three played for Atlanta: Dan Uggla (171), Justin Upton (161) and B.J. Upton (151). The only others on the list who spent the full season in the NL were Pedro Alvarez of Pittsburgh and Jay Bruce of Cincinnati.
Top Craig Kimbrell photo from Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Craig_Kimbrel_2013_Spring_Training.jpg
They’re the cream of the major championship crop, circa 2014 — the Athlon Major Championship Dream Team. Leading up to The Masters, we'll be unveiling Athlon Sports’ 30 players to watch for majors season, with commentary on each from the Golf Channel’s Brandel Chamblee.
No. 21: Ian Poulter
Born: Jan. 10, 1976, Stevenage, England | Career PGA Tour Wins: 2 (12 on European Tour) | 2013 Wins (Worldwide): 0 | 2013 Earnings (PGA Tour): $1,723,463 (49th) | World Ranking: 18
Brandel Chamblee's Take
Ian Poulter has been as high as fifth in the world rankings, although he's never reached the height he predicted in 2008 when he said, if he played to his potential, it would be just Tiger and him. As I write this he is 18th in the world, so while his peers may have snarled at the comment, the fact is that he is not far off from his boast. It is said that belief matters more than anything in sport, and that is certainly evidenced by the success of Ian. Year after year, he is one of the worst ball-strikers in the game, and yet he plays at a high level and especially so in match play, where his brusque manner and hot putter drive opponents to distraction. This being a Ryder Cup year, Ian will make a lot of noise, I have no doubt.
Major Championship Résumé
Masters - Cut
U.S. Open - T21
British Open - T3
PGA Championship - T61
Best Career Finishes:
Masters - 7 (2012)
U.S. Open - T12 (2006)
British Open - 2 (2008)
PGA Championship - T3 (2012)
Top-10 Finishes: 7
Top-25 Finishes: 17
Missed Cuts: 7
Athlon's 2014 Golf annual provides in-depth previews of this year's four majors, including the top 30 players to watch this season. One of these elite players, Dustin Johnson, also takes you tee to green with full-swing instruction and short game essentials. BUY IT NOW.
Now that Selection Sunday is over, it's time for March Madness to kick into high gear. It's that time of year when everyone—even the guy in the cubicle next to you who still plays Dungeons & Dragons—starts caring about college basketball. Most of the excitement comes from NCAA Tournament bracket games, where anyone can fill out a March Madness bracket in hopes winning cash — even Warren Buffett wants to give away a billion dollars — and bragging rights among friends and co-workers. Of course, the majority of people have no clue which teams to pick.
This is your daily link roundup of our favorite sports and entertainment posts on the web for March 17.
• Reese Witherspoon is launching her own Southern lifestyle company, providing an excuse to look at old Reese Witherspoon photos.
• The best story of championship weekend: Ed Cooley and Providence win the Big East.
• The weekend's other big winner: Phil Martelli's adorable grandson.
• Get some expert advice on filling out your bracket. Or, be like me and humiliate yourself with your own hunches.
• The 10 worst people in your office NCAA pool. I'm always the "My bracket is dead" guy.
• Speaking of idiots, here are nine buffoons you'll bump into on St. Patrick's Day. I particularly hate the pinching bandit.
• World Top 10 golfer Justin Rose hit one of the worst shots a pro has ever hit. Or, as I call it, a typical wedge.
• This morning's LA earthquake produced this priceless live reaction from a couple of newscasters.
-- Email us with any compelling sports-related links at [email protected]
Texas A&M was supposed to be the team that could step into the SEC and compete right away. And after a Heisman Trophy for the Aggies and seven losses for Missouri in their first trip through the league, it appeared that basic sentiment was correct.
That all changed last season, however, as Mizzou won the SEC East and 12 games in impressive fashion in just their second year in the SEC. Many will point to a chip-on-the-shoulder attitude that permeated Tigers camp last spring as the foundation for the run at an SEC championship.
Now, Gary Pinkel, Missouri's all-time winningest coach, must rebuild without his star quarterback, his cult hero tailback, a host of veteran leaders on defense and a load of lofty new expectations. There is a ton of talent left on this roster and Pinkel has proven his ability to quickly reload, so Missouri won't take too big of a step back this fall and should be right in the thick of the SEC East race again. But it all starts in spring camp.
|Aug. 30||South Dakota State|
|Oct. 4||Bye Week|
|Nov. 8||Bye Week|
Missouri Tigers 2014 Spring Preview
2013 Record: 12-2 (7-1 SEC)
Spring Practice Opens: March 11
Spring Game: April 19
Three Things to Watch in Missouri's 2014 Spring Practice
Find leadership on defense
Andrew Wilson, Michael Sam, Kony Ealy and E.J. Gaines will go down in Mizzou history as one of the great defensive classes to ever come through Columbia. Replacing their statistical production, especially in the front seven, will be nearly impossible but so too will be replacing their veteran leadership. Guys like nose guard Lucas Vincent and end Markus Golden will need to step up their play this spring to replace the massive voids left by SEC Defensive Player of the Year Sam and potential first round pick Ealy. Others like rising juniors Kentrell Brothers (70 tackles) and Shane Ray have a chance to step into playmaking roles at linebacker and defensive end, respectively. How Pinkel and defensive coordinator Dave Steckel fill these leadership gaps on defense will be a huge focus this spring for the Tigers.
Plug holes on the left side of the offensive line
First-team All-SEC left tackle Justin Britt and left guard Max Copeland have expired their eligibility, and Pinkel is left with a large void on the left side of his offensive line. Evan Boehm and Conner McGovern are talented players who have experience and will have to be leaders for this group because replacing Britt at the most important offensive line position won't be easy. That said, Mizzou has plenty of options and this unit shouldn't take a huge step back. Mitch Morse figures to be one of the better blockers at left tackle while others like Anthony Gatti, Ole Miss transfer Mitch Hall and a host of quality newcomers will compete for starting time up front for the Tigers. The running backs have talent despite the loss of Henry Josey, and the quarterback position is in good hands despite the loss of James Franklin, so if the offensive line comes together quickly this spring like many expect, then this offense could be as good if not better in 2014.
Get Maty Mauk ready to shine
In a league where Johnny Manziel, AJ McCarron, Aaron Murray, James Franklin and Connor Shaw departed, there are some (me included) who think Mauk has a chance to be the best signal caller in the SEC in 2014. And with his collection of elite wide receivers and his track record of elite success — both in the prep ranks and last year in spot duty for Mizzou — there is no reason to think Mauk won't press for All-SEC honors in just his first season. But getting comfortable as the leader of the program and face of the franchise isn't something that just happens. Big-time college football is loaded with tales of elite recruits and heir apparents falling well short of expectations — See John Brantley or Garrett Gilbert — so making sure Mauk is grounded, focused and maybe not speeding through campus on a scooter is just as important as getting him comfortable with his route progressions and new-look running game.
2014 Early Projected Win Range: 8-10
Despite losing a ton on both sides of the ball, Pinkel has Mizzou pointed in the right direction. This program won't win 12 games again but will be back in the thick of the SEC East title race. The crossover schedule is excellent as Alabama, Auburn, LSU and Ole Miss (the likely top four picks in the West) are absent from the schedule. The key will be surviving critical road tests within the division against South Carolina in the other Columbia, Tennessee in Knoxville and Florida in The Swamp. Should the Tigers navigate an interesting non-conference slate that includes the reigning Fiesta Bowl champs and improving Indiana squad, Missouri should be in position to compete at a high level once again.
FAU will be under the direction of a new coach in 2014, as former Arkansas assistant Charlie Partridge takes control in Boca Raton this year.
The Owls have unveiled a couple of different jersey and helmet tweaks in recent years, and it appears they will have a new red helmet in 2014.
This photo was tweeted by @UniformSwag, showing FAU’s new red design:
March Madness allows for a handful of programs each season to enjoy their moment in the sun for the teams making the field for the first time, ending a long drought or continuing a tradition.
And thanks to another expansion in 2011, the NCAA Tournament gives us 68 data points each season.
One season the Big Ten has bragging rights, the next the Big 12. One season, California has plenty of state representation in the field. In others, even a state like Indiana can be shut out.
That’s part of the beauty of the first Thursday and Friday of the NCAA Tournament, where 64 programs from coast to coast have a chance to be the major sports story of the day.
As usual, Selection Sunday gave us another set of superlatives to watch for this year's NCAA Tournament.
COMPLETE REGION PREVIEWS
East | Midwest | South | West
The 2014 NCAA Tournament By the Numbers
4. Teams in the top 20 of offensive and defensive efficiency
Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency ratings have been kingmakers of sorts for the national title. Every champion since 2003 has ranked in the top 20 nationally in both offensive and defensive efficiency. Four teams are in that category this season: Florida, Louisville, Villanova and Wichita State.
8. Coaches with Final Four experience in Wichita State’s region
Wichita State earned the No. 1 seed in the Midwest region, which may be the toughest as far as coaching goes. The 17 teams in the region feature eight coaches with a combined 27 Final Four appearances and seven national champions. The tally includes Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski (11), Louisville’s Rick Pitino (7), Kentucky’s John Calipari (4) and Wichita State’s Gregg Marshall, Texas’ Rick Barnes, Michigan’s John Beilein, Texas Southern’s Mike Davis and Kansas State’s Bruce Weber (1). No other region has more than 14 Final Fours among its coaches.
7. Bids for the Big 12, the most represented conference
The Big 12 had the look all season as the nation’s most balanced conference through the top nine. TCU, which finished without a conference win, was the only easy out in the league. The Big 12 sent seven of its 10 teams to the NCAA Tournament in Baylor, Iowa State, Kansas, Kansas State, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Texas. It’s the most for the league since 2010 when the Big 12 had 12 members.
Three NCAA Tournament regulars left the Atlantic 10 before this season (Butler, Temple and Xavier), and only the Musketeers, now in the Big East, are in the field. The A-10, though, got the better end of conference expansion as far as the NCAA Tournament was concerned. The A-10 garnered more bids than the the Big East and the SEC and as many as the ACC and Pac-12. The conference tournament was a major boon for the league as St. Joseph’s, a bubble team entering championship week, won the league’s automatic bid. Meanwhile, Dayton and George Washington completed their at-large resumes to join Saint Louis, VCU and UMass.
4. Bids from California and Ohio, the most represented states.
UCLA and San Diego State were locks entering the final weekend. Stanford played its way in during the Pac-12 Tournament. But the most surprising bid out of the delegation from California was Cal Poly. The seventh-seeded Mustangs won the tournament in the Big West, a league with eight teams from the Golden State. Ohio also had its own bubble teams play their way in with Dayton and Xavier earning two of the final bids to join Ohio State and Cincinnati from the Buckeye State.
0. Teams from the state of Indiana
No Indiana. No Purdue. No Notre Dame. Not even Valparaiso. The Hoosier State is without an NCAA team for only the second time since the field expanded in 1985. The only other year Indiana was shut out was 2005.
1. Team with a losing record in the field
Speaking of Cal Poly, the Mustangs erased a lackluster season with a hot streak in the Big West Tournament. After going 13-19 overall and 6-10 in the Big West, Cal Poly defeated No. 2 seed UC Santa Barbara, No. 1 seed UC Irvine and No. 5 seed Cal State Northridge to become the only team with a losing record in the field. This marks three seasons in a row a team with a losing record made the field as an automatic bid (Western Kentucky in 2012, Liberty in 2013). Northeast Conference champion Mount St. Mary’s needed to win its league tournament to achieve a .500 record at 16-16.
2. Teams making their first appearance in the NCAA Tournament
Cal Poly is one. The other is MEAC champion North Carolina Central, which shares Durham, N.C., with Duke.
5. Teams with the nickname Wildcats
So this wasn’t a great year for Kentucky, but it was a great season to be the Wildcats. Five teams with the nickname are in Tournament: Arizona, Kansas State, Kentucky, Villanova and Weber State. Other mascots with strong representation include the Bears (Baylor and Mercer), Eagles (American and North Carolina Central), Panthers (Milwaukee and Pittsburgh) and Tigers (Memphis and Texas Southern).
25. Consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances for Kansas, the active record
Maybe it’s easy to take an NCAA Tournament bid for granted. Something that shouldn’t be overlooked is going year in and year out. Kansas has played in every NCAA Tournament since 1990 making the Jayhawks the active leader for most consecutive appearances. Make the field in 2015 and 2016, and Kansas will tie North Carolina for the all-time record. Only eight teams have played in the last six Tournaments with streaks for Marquette (since 2006), Temple (since 2008) and Missouri (since 2009) snapped this season.
Most consecutive NCAA appearances, active streaks only:
Michigan State, 17
Ohio State, 6
1985. Last NCAA appearance for Mercer, the longest drought ended in 2014
Mercer was the first upset victim of Florida Gulf Coast’s postseason run last season as the Bears won the Atlantic Sun regular season title only to lose to FGCU in the league tournament. That didn’t happen this time around as Mercer captured the league’s automatic bid.
1998. Last NCAA appearance for Nebraska, the longest drought ended by a power conference team in 2014
Nebraska’s celebration after defeating Wisconsin to cap the regular season was not in vain. Coach Tim Miles led Nebraska to its first NCAA Tournament appearance since 1998. Nebraska’s absence has included three coaching changes and two conference affiliations.
Longest droughts ended in the 2014 NCAA Tournament
Mercer, last appeared in 1985
Coastal Carolina, 1993
25. AP rank last week for NIT-bound SMU
The Mustangs spent four of the last five weeks of the season ranked in the AP top 25, but SMU was not able to end an NCAA Tournament drought that dated back to 1993. SMU is the first ranked team not to make the field since Utah State in 2004.
12. No. 1 seeds from conference tournaments playing in the NIT
Even the NIT bubble was tough this season for at-large teams. The glut of upsets in the conference tournaments created a crunch for NIT spots. Regular season conference champions that don’t receive NCAA bids are guaranteed a berth in the NIT. That means 12 teams received automatic bids for the NIT, leaving only 20 spots for at-larges.
The day after Selection Sunday is not a great time to get caught up on the college basketball season.
As you start to fill out NCAA Tournament brackets for your pools, Athlon Sports did some of the homework for your basketball cram session. March Madness is unpredictable, and we expect it to be again.
But there are some tried and true trends in the Tournament, and we’ll break them down here.
These are our favorite rules for picking our brackets, along with some of the examples from this year’s field.
COMPLETE REGION PREVIEWS
East | Midwest | South | West
Advance all the No. 1 seeds (and probably all of the No. 2 seeds)
A No. 1 seed has never lost in the round of 64. We have little doubt it will happen one day, but you’re more likely to wreck your bracket by advancing a No. 16 seed. The No. 2 seeds have been more vulnerable in the last two seasons than ever before. Two No. 2 seeds lost in 2012 and No. 15 seed Florida Gulf Coast advanced all the way to the Sweet 16. If you must drop a No. 2 before the Sweet 16, do your homework. Find a vulnerable No. 2 and a No. 15 that either dominated its low-major conference or scored an upset over a major team earlier in the season. None of this year's No. 15 seeds fit that profile.
Consider dropping a No. 1 or a No. 2 in the round of 32
In the last four Tournaments, eight of the 32 No. 1 or No. 2 seeds lost before the Sweet 16. The teams in seeds 7-10 are talented but streaky, capable of knocking off a top seed on a quick turnaround. Take a look at the names in the 8-9 games alone: Kentucky, Oklahoma State, Memphis, Pittsburgh and Gonzaga.
Our picks for vulnerable top-two seeds: Arizona, Villanova, Wisconsin
Wichita State, Butler, VCU and George Mason in the Final Four are all memorable. So is Florida Gulf Coast’s run to the Sweet 16 last year. Still, don’t get too caught up trying to look smart by advancing a double-digit seed to the Final Four. Of the last 52 Final Four teams, 44 were top-four seeds, and four of the seven who were not top-four seeds were No. 5 seeds. Butler, VCU and George Mason (and last year’s ninth-seeded Wichita State) are memorable because they're outliers.
Don’t go chalk all way the Final Four
Statistically, advancing every higher seed every round might not be a bad idea, but what’s the fun in that? Only once have all four No. 1 seed advanced to the Final Four. Want to know if your Final Four is risky or too safe? Add up the seeds of your Final Four. The median for the last 20 Final Fours is 14. If the seeds for your Final Four add up to 10 or fewer, you’ve picked a safe Final Four. If the Final Four seeds add up to 20 or more, you’re picking the kind of Final Four that has happened only three times in 20 years.
The real upset potential starts at the No. 5 seeds
Since the field expanded in 1985, the No. 4 seed wins 78 percent of the time. That drops to 64.7 percent for the No. 5 seed, 66.4 percent for the No. 6 and 60.3 percent for the No. 7
12-5 Upsets We Like: Stephen F. Austin over VCU, Xavier/NC State over Saint Louis, Harvard over Cincinnati
11-6 Upsets We Like: Nebraska over Baylor, Tennessee over UMass, Providence over North Carolina
10-7 Upset We Like: Arizona State over Texas
Related: March Madness by the numbers
Pay attention to extreme free throw numbers
Expect closer games in the NCAA Tournament. That means free throws will play a critical role. If you’re on the fence about a team, give free throw numbers a look. Avoid falling in love with teams that can’t hit free throws.
Key teams with high free throw percentages: Connecticut, Creighton, Michigan, Oklahoma, Oregon, UCLA
Key teams with low free throw percentages: Arizona, Kansas State, Louisville, Memphis, North Carolina
All that talk about bubble teams, forget it
We spent the last six weeks talking about bubble teams. Time to stop paying them any mind, especially bubble teams from major conferences. Teams had trouble clinching a Tourney bid because they couldn’t win consistently. Teams from major conferences had chances all year to prove they were Tourney teams and didn’t do it until the last week of the season. Knock them out early. The exception: Bubble teams from mid-major conferences. The inclusion of VCU and George Mason in recent years were criticized ... until they reached the Final Four.
Bubble teams to avoid beyond round of 32: Arizona State, BYU, NC State, Providence, St. Joseph’s, Xavier
When picking a mid-major to advance, do your homework
Look beyond the record. We like mid- and low-major teams that tested themselves against major competition, whether or not they won games. In this space last year, we told you to watch Florida Gulf Coast and Wichita State based on regular season schedules. Also make sure to look at a mid-major team's conference record. Did a team play well during its conference season, or did it wait until the conference tournament to get hot?
Teams that challenged themselves in the non-conference: Dayton, George Washington, Mercer, New Mexico State, Tulsa, UMass
Teams that didn’t: American, Manhattan, Stephen F. Austin, Texas Southern, Western Michigan
Use caution with teams that faded since February and early March
Are teams tired? Was there a major personnel change? Was there an injury? Did opponents catch up? In any case, we don’t like teams limping into the Tournament, no matter what they did from November through January. On the flip side, give credit to teams that got better as the season went along.
Teams that faded: Arizona State, Iowa, Saint Louis, Syracuse, Texas, UMass
Teams that improved through the season: Baylor, Dayton, Louisville, Nebraska, Oregon, Tennessee, Virginia
Find balance on offense and defense
Defense wins championship is a football saying. Don't let it take over your bracket. The key to winning in March is balance on both sides of the court, especially for teams that can play multiple tempos and styles. The last 10 national champions ranked in the top 20 in both of Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted offensive and defensive rankings. Steer clear from advancing teams to the Elite Eight or Final Four if they have a great offense and questionable defense or vice versa.
The teams in the top 20 in both this season are: Florida, Louisville, Villanova, Wichita State
Good offense, bad defense: Baylor, BYU, Creighton, Iowa, Michigan
Good defense, bad offense: Kansas State, Ohio State, San Diego State, Saint Louis
For the Big Ten, the BCS Era was marred with lackluster BCS national championship game performances. The league as a whole won just one national title during the 16-year BCS Era and that title came all the way back in 2002.
But from a national awards standpoint, the Big Ten matches up with the best college football has to offer. During the BCS Era alone, the Big Ten's trophy case looks like this: Two Heisman Trophies, six Rimington Trophies, five Doak Walker Awards, five Outland Trophies, five Thorpe Awards, four Bednarik Awards, four Butkus Awards, three John Mackey Awards, three Maxwell Awards, three Ray Guy Awards, three Walter Camp Awards, two Biletnikoff Awards, two Davey O’Brien Awards, two Lombardi Awards, two Lott IMPACT Trophies, two Lou Groza Awards, two Ted Hendrick Awards, and one Nagurski Award.
Trying to narrow this list down to 25 names was nearly impossible but here are Athlon Sports' Top 25 Big Ten players of the BCS Era. The only stipulation is that you must have played at least one season between 1998-13 in the conference.
1. Drew Brees, QB, Purdue (1997-2000)
Stats: 11,792 yds, 90 TDs, 45 INTs, 61.2%, 925 yds, 14 TDs
The two-time Big Ten Player of the Year led Purdue back to the Rose Bowl and finished among the top four in Heisman voting twice (1999, 2000). He set the NCAA record for passes attempted in a game with 83 against Wisconsin in 1998 (broken in 2013) and is the Big Ten's all-time leader in completions (1,026), passing yards, passing touchdowns, total offense (12,692) and total touchdowns (104). His 39 touchdown passes in 1998 are still a single-season Big Ten record by a wide margin. He was a second-round pick of the Chargers in 2001, has posted four of the eight 5,000-yard passing seasons in NFL history and is a Super Bowl champion.
2. LaVar Arrington, LB, Penn State (1997-99)
Few college players were as intimidating as the rabid Nittany Lions linebacker. Arrington was an elite leader who helped Penn State to a 28-9 record during his three-year tenure in Happy Valley. He was named as the Butkus and Lambert Award winner as the nation’s top linebacker and was the recipient of the Chuck Bednarik Award as the nation’s top defensive player after 72 tackles, 20 for a loss, nine sacks and two blocked kicks in 1999. He was a consensus All-American and is credited with arguably the signature defensive play of the BCS Era when he leapt over the Illinois offensive line on 4th-and-1 to secure the win. Arrington consistently delivered crushing blows and wound up as the No. 2 overall pick in the 2000 NFL Draft by the Redskins.
3. Ron Dayne, RB, Wisconsin (1996-99)
Stats: 1,220 att., 7,125 yds, 71 TDs, 31 rec., 304 yds
Ricky Williams’ NCAA rushing record didn’t last for very long as the New Jersey native came along the very next year and put everyone in the history of the sport in his rearview mirror. Dayne is the only player in history with 7,000 yards rushing and is one of four players to score at least 70 rushing touchdowns. He carried the ball more than any player in NCAA history (1,220) and he owns multiple BCS bowl rushing records with his two Rose Bowl MVP performances. He capped his illustrious career with a magical 2,000-yard Heisman Trophy and Big Ten championship season. The consensus All-American won Big Ten Player of the Year, Maxwell, Walter Camp and Doak Walker recognition in his final season in Madison. His 2,109 yards in 1996 are still a Big Ten single-season record. His career 7,429 yards from scrimmage may never be broken.
4. Joe Thomas, OT, Wisconsin (2004-06)
One of the few big-time recruits from the state of Wisconsin, Thomas was a two-time All-American and Outland Trophy winner for a team that went 31-7 during his three seasons as the starting left tackle. He has rare foot speed, agility and overall athletic ability — and it’s why he has been to the Pro Bowl in all seven of his NFL seasons. He was taken No. 3 overall in 2007 by the Cleveland Browns and is the best Big Ten offensive lineman of the BCS Era.
5. James Laurinaitis, LB, Ohio State (2005-08)
Few players in the nation were as decorated, productive, talented and successful as the Minneapolis native. Laurinaitis won the Butkus, Nagurski, two Lambert Awards and two Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year awards while being a three-time All-American. He posted three straight seasons of at least 115 tackles and helped Ohio State win a share of four Big Ten titles, including two trips to the BCS National Championship Game. The Buckeyes' tackler was taken in the second round of the 2009 NFL Draft.
6. Antoine Winfield, CB, Ohio State (1995-98)
Winfield might be the most underrated defensive back in the history of all levels of football. The consensus All-American helped Ohio State win 43 games in four years and nearly (or should have) played in the first BCS National Championship Game in 1998. He was given the Thorpe and Tatum honors as a senior as the nation’s top defensive back before being selected 23rd overall in the 1999 NFL Draft.
7. Paul Posluszny, LB, Penn State (2003-06)
As a junior, the Nittany Lions tackler was recognized as the nation’s top LB when he posted 116 tackles (11.0 TFL) en route to a Big Ten championship, consensus All-American honors and both the Butkus and Bednarik Awards. He followed that up as a senior with a second Bednarik Award and second consensus All-American nod. The in-state Aliquippa (Pa.) Hopewell product was a second-round pick by the Bills in 2007. He left school as Penn State's all-time leading tackler with 372 total stops.
8. Braylon Edwards, WR, Michigan (2001-04)
Stats: 252 rec., 3,541 yds, 39 TDs
Not many players have three consecutive seasons with at least 1,000 yards and 10 touchdowns but that is what the Detroit native did at Michigan. He was uncoverable during his time at Ann Arbor, setting school records in every major receiving category. His 39 career touchdowns remain a Big Ten record. Edwards claimed Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year honors and the Biletnikoff Award as a senior in 2004. The consensus All-American finished 10th in the Heisman voting that season as well.
9. Greg Eslinger, C, Minnesota (2002-05)
Not many centers have an Outland Trophy on their mantle at home but Eslinger has one when he was named the best lineman in America in 2005. He was a freshman All-American in 2002, a third-team All-American as a sophomore, a first-teamer in '04 and earned consensus All-American honors as a senior. He won the Rimington Trophy as the nation’s top center and earned Big Ten Lineman of the Year honors in ’05 as well. The best stat for Eslinger, however, is that Minnesota never had a losing record during his four-year career and he helped lead the Gophers to their first 10-win campaign since 1905.
10. Andy Katzenmoyer, LB, Ohio State (1996-98)
His pro career notwithstanding, this Buckeye was one of college football’s greatest tacklers during his time in Columbus. He was the first true freshman to ever start at linebacker for the Buckeyes, won the Butkus and Lambert Awards as just a sophomore and nearly led OSU to the inaugural BCS title game in 1998. He started all 37 games of his college career and finished with 18 sacks and 50.0 tackles for a loss. He was a first-round pick by the Patriots in 1999.
11. Russell Wilson, QB, NC State/Wisconsin (2008-11)
Stats: 11,720 yds, 109 TDs, 30 INTs, 60.9%, 1,421 yds, 23 TDs
Not many players own school records for two different programs but Wilson excelled in both the ACC and Big Ten. He posted the single greatest season by a Wisconsin quarterback in history en route to a league crown and near national title berth. He owns the NCAA record for consecutive games with a touchdown pass (38) and the single-season mark for passing efficiency at 191.8. His 33 touchdown passes in 2011 are second all-time in B1G history to only Brees' 39. He was elite at NC State, elite at Wisconsin and has already led Seattle to its first Super Bowl championship. Needless to say, he is one of the greatest college quarterbacks in history.
12. Jamar Fletcher, CB, Wisconsin (1998-2000)
The Badgers’ coverman has as complete a resume as any during the BCS Era. He was a two-time, first-team All-American and three-time, first-team All-Big Ten selection. He helped Wisconsin to back-to-back Big Ten and Rose Bowl championships and was the only Big Ten defensive back of the BCS Era to be named the outright Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year. He holds UW’s all-time record with 21 interceptions and was named the nation’s top defensive back with the Thorpe and Tatum Trophies as a senior in 2000. He was a first-round pick in 2001.
13. Jake Long, OT, Michigan (2004-07)
The No. 1 overall pick in the 2007 NFL Draft by the Miami Dolphins was a two-time All-American and Outland Trophy finalist. He was a Freshman All-American in his first year and was named Big Ten Lineman of the Year twice (junior and senior seasons) — one of just two players to accomplish this feat during the BCS Era. The 6-foot-7, 320-pounder won a Big Ten championship as a freshman and has been to four Pro Bowls in his six-year NFL career.
14. Steve Hutchinson, OG, Michigan (1997-2000)
Starting for four seasons for the Wolverines, Hutchinson helped the Maize and Blue win the 1997 national championship. He capped his career with consensus All-American honors, was an Outland Trophy finalist and didn’t allow a sack in his final two seasons at Michigan. He was a first-round pick by the Seahawks in 2001 and earned seven Pro Bowl invites during his 12-year NFL career.
15. Charles Rogers, WR, Michigan State (2001-02)
Stats: 135 rec., 2,821 yds, 27 TDs, 110 rush, TD, 177 ret. yds, TD
The in-state product from Saginaw played just two seasons for the Spartans but was an All-Big Ten performer both years. He posted back-to-back seasons with at least 1,200 yards and 12 touchdowns, earning consensus All-American and Biletnikoff honors in 2002. He set an NCAA record with 13 straight games with a TD catch (since broken) and owns just about every Michigan State receiving record. His 1,470 yards in 2001 trail only one player in Big Ten history…
16. Mike Doss, S, Ohio State (1999-2002)
The Buckeyes safety was a rare three-time All-American, three-time, first-team All-Big Ten pick and was named co-Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year in 2002 for the BCS National Champions. Doss started 40 of 50 possible career games and was named the 2002 Fiesta Bowl MVP. He finished his career with 331 career tackles, eight interceptions, eight fumbles recovered and 6.0 sacks. He was a second-round pick in the 2003 NFL Draft.
17. Montee Ball, RB, Wisconsin (2009-12)
Stats: 924 att., 5,140 yds, 77 TDs, 59 rec., 598 yds, 6 TDs
Ball won’t ever be confused with the most talented running backs of the BCS Era but few have been as successful and productive. No one player in the history of the sport has scored as many touchdowns (77 rushing, 83 total) as the Missouri native. He also finished fourth in the Heisman balloting as a junior and won the Doak Walker Award as a senior while leading the Badgers to three straight Big Ten championships. His 39 touchdowns in 2011 tied Barry Sanders for the all-time single-season record and Ball earned consensus All-American honors in both seasons. He is fourth all-time in Big Ten history in rushing and is one of just five players in league history to top 5,000 yards in a career.
18. Larry Johnson, RB, Penn State (1999-02)
Stats: 460 att., 2,953 yds, 26 TDs, 65 rec., 681 yds, 7 TDs, 1,181 ret. yds, 3 TDs
The State College local prospect was starter for just one season, but it was special. He rushed for 2,087 yards (second all-time only to Dayne) and 20 touchdowns on 7.7 yards per carry in 2002, earning consensus All-American honors as well as the Doak Walker, Maxwell and Walter Camp Awards. He finished third in the Heisman Trophy race and brought elite size and speed to the backfield. His 327 yards against Indiana in '02 is the sixth-best single-game total in Big Ten history and his 2,655 all-purpose yards that year are still a single-season Big Ten record. He was a first-round pick of the Chiefs in 2002.
19. A.J. Hawk, LB, Ohio State (2002-05)
Yet another Buckeyes great, Hawk started 38 of his 51 career college games for Ohio State. He contributed to the 2002 BCS National Championship squad as a freshman before earning two-time consensus All-American honors in 2004-05. As a senior, Hawk earned the Lombardi and Lambert Trophies for his play and was named Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year. He finished his career with 394 tackles, 41.0 for a loss, 15.5 sacks and seven interceptions. He was the fifth overall pick in the 2006 NFL Draft by the Packers.
20. Dallas Clark, TE, Iowa (2000-02)
Stats: 77 rec., 1,251 yds, 8 TDs
The walk-on began his career as a linebacker but quickly developed into a star at tight end. He earned All-Big Ten recognition as a sophomore and then became the nation’s top tight end as a junior in 2002. The John Mackey Award winner caught 43 passes for 742 yards and four touchdowns while helping Iowa (11-2) to a Big Ten co-championship and Orange Bowl berth. The dynamic in-state talent was a first-round pick and proved in the NFL that his college career was no fluke.
21. Gabe Carimi, OT, Wisconsin (2007-10)
Carimi perpetuated the run of elite Badgers blockers by stepping in for the departed Joe Thomas and starting all 13 games as a freshman. By his senior season, Carimi was the Big Ten Offensive Lineman of the Year, the Outland Trophy winner as the best blocker in the nation, and was a consensus All-American. He started 49 games in his career, capping it with a Rose Bowl appearance and Big Ten championship in 2010. Carimi was a first-round pick by the Bears in 2011.
22. LaMarr Woodley, DE, Michigan (2003-06)
The Wolverines' terror off the edge posted 12 sacks as a senior en route to the Lombardi and Hendricks Awards as the nation’s best lineman and defensive end respectively. He was a unanimous All-American before being drafted in the second round of the 2007 NFL Draft by the Steelers. His 10 career forced fumbles are seventh all-time in Big Ten history and his work on the ’06 Michigan team that started 11-0 before losing to Ohio State in memorable fashion earned him Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year honors. Woodley also was a finalist for the Bednarik, Lott, Outland and Nagurski awards as well.
23. Malcolm Jenkins, DB, Ohio State (2005-08)
The Ohio State Buckeyes have a long tradition of great defensive backs and Jenkins is one of the most decorated. He was a three-time, first-team All-Big Ten pick, including twice as a starter for two unbeaten regular-season teams that made it to the BCS National Championship Game in both 2006 and ’07. He was a two-time All-American, Jim Thorpe winner and was the 14th overall pick in the 2009 NFL Draft.
24. Bob Sanders, S, Iowa (2000-03)
One of the hardest hitting players to ever suit up, Sanders made big plays all over the field during his time in Iowa City. He helped lead Iowa to the Orange Bowl in 2002 and was an All-American as a senior in '03. He finished his career with 348 tackles, 16.0 for loss, four sacks, seven interceptions and 13 forced fumbles (he led the nation in FF with six as a senior). The Colts took him in the second round of the 2004 NFL Draft and he went on to two Pro Bowls and also won a Super Bowl.
25. Troy Smith, QB, Ohio State (2003-06)
Stats: 5,720 yds, 54 TDs, 13 INTs, 62.7%, 1,168 yds, 14 TDs
Smith won the AP Player of the Year, Davey O'Brien, Walter Camp awards and is the only Big Ten quarterback to win the Heisman Trophy since Les Horvath won the award at OSU in 1944. Only Smith and Wisconsin's Ron Dayne won a Heisman for the Big Ten during the BCS Era. Additionally, his Heisman Trophy in 2006 was en route to a perfect season, Big Ten championship and BCS Championship Game berth against Florida. The consensus All-American was the first Buckeyes quarterback to go 3-0 against Michigan since the 1930s and is one of just four players in league history to throw at least 30 touchdowns in a single season. His career QB rating of 157.1 is the best in league history. The 2006 Fiesta Bowl MVP was a part of three BCS bowl teams and was a fifth-round pick in the '07 NFL Draft.
The Next 10:
26. Lee Evans, WR, Wisconsin (1999-2003)
Stats: 175 rec., 3,468 yds, 27 TDs
Despite missing extended time with a torn ACL, Evans is the best wide receiver to play at Wisconsin since Al Toon. His two-year run was as good as any in Big Ten history, posting a league-record 1,545 yards in 2001. He came back after the knee injury and nearly duplicated his numbers with 1,213 yards and 13 TDs in 2003. His 10-catch, 258-yard, 5-TD game against Michigan State might have been the best single performance by any Badger. Evans is one of two B1G players to ever catch five TDs in one game (Omar Douglas) and he is fifth all-time in Big Ten history in receiving yards.
27. Greg Jones, LB, Michigan State (2007-10)
The stabilizing force for four years in East Lansing, Jones was a three-time, first-team All-Big Ten selection and a two-time consensus All-American. In both of those seasons, Jones led the Big Ten in tackles and no one since 2005 has made more stops than Jones. He was named Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year in 2009. The star playmaker finished third in school history in tackles (465), second in tackles for a loss (46.5) and sixth in sacks (16.5). He started 46 of 52 career games for the Spartans.
28. Dan Connor, LB, Penn State (2004-07)
The Nittany Lions know something about playing linebacker and Connor is yet another elite tackler. He was a two-time All-American and won the Bednarik Award in 2007 as the nation's top defensive player. He was a leader and was huge part of the '05 Big Ten/Orange Bowl championship team before posting back-to-back 100-tackle seasons. He broke Posluszny's all-time school record with 419 career stops when he graduated in '07.
29. Tamba Hali, DE, Penn State (2002-05)
A unanimous All-American and Big Ten Defensive Lineman of the Year, Hali pushed Penn State to its last Big Ten championship as well as a win in the Orange Bowl following the 2005 season. He led the Big Ten with 17.0 tackles for a loss and 11 sacks and added 65 total tackles for a team that lost just once (in the final second) all season. The undersized end was picked 20th overall in the 2006 NFL Draft and has blossomed into one of the league’s top edge players.
30. Chris Borland, LB, Wisconsin (2009-13)
Few players have been as productive and as successful as the Original Honey Badger. He finished his career with 420 tackles, second most in the Big Ten since 2005, 17.0 sacks, 50.0 tackles for a loss and an NCAA-record 14 forced fumbles. He helped lead his team to three consecutive Big Ten championships and did just about everything for the Badgers, including fake punts, blocked kicks and returning kicks. He was a consummate hard worker and leader for Wisconsin and it earned him Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year and the Butkus-Fitzgerald Big Ten Linebacker of the Year award in 2013.
31. Antwaan Randle El, QB, Indiana (1998-2001)
Stats: 7,469 yds, 42 TDs, 37 INTs, 49.8%, 3,895 yds, 44 TDs
The electric athlete sparked the glory years of Indiana football. Well ahead of his time as one of the original dual-threat quarterbacks, Randle El had the top three rushing seasons in Big Ten history, including the only 1,000-yard season, by a quarterback until the likes Denard Robinson and Braxton Miller came along and topped his 1,270-yard season of 2000. The Hoosiers star is fifth all-time in Big Ten history with 11,364 total yards of offense and was named the Big Ten Player of the Year in 2001, finishing sixth in the Heisman voting. He was a second-round pick and is the only wide receiver to ever throw a touchdown pass in a Super Bowl.
32. J.J. Watt, DE, Wisconsin (2009-10)
The NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 2012 was dominant in his short stint in Madison. After originally signing with Central Michigan as a tight end, Watt emerged as a hidden gem for the Badgers. He posted an absurd 106 tackles, 36.5 tackles for a loss, 11.5 sacks, four forced fumbles and a number of big blocked kicks (see Arizona State). He won the Lott Trophy given to the most impactful defensive player in college football in 2010 before being picked with the 11th overall selection in the 2011 NFL Draft. He is arguably the best defensive end on the planet right now.
33. Tyrone Carter, S, Minnesota (1996-99)
The Florida native was a tackling machine for the Golden Gophers, finishing his career with an NCAA-record 584 total tackles and 414 solo stops He was a two-time, first-team All-American and won the 1999 Thorpe Award and Tatum Trophy as the nation’s top defensive back. Carter also was a return specialist, totaling over 1,800 combined punt and kick return yards. He was a fourth-round pick in the 2000 NFL Draft. The Gophers increased their win total every year of his four-year, 46-game career.
34. Jim Leonhard, S, Wisconsin (2001-04)
A cult hero walk-on in Madison, Leonhard was a two-time, first-team All-Big Ten pick before even earning his first collegiate scholarship before his senior season. He went on to a third first-team All-Big Ten selection and All-American honors in his final season. He led the nation with a Big Ten single-season record 11 interceptions as a sophomore and broke the Big Ten record for punt return yardage with 1,347 yards (since broken). He played every game of his career, starting 39 times and registering 281 tackles and a Wisconsin-record 21 career interceptions (tied with Fletcher) — which is good for fourth all-time in Big Ten history and the most by any B1G player during the BCS Era.
35. David Baas, C, Michigan (2001-04)
The interior blocker was a three-time, first-team All-Big Ten selection and capped his career with a Rimington Trophy as the nation’s top center. He also earned consensus All-American honors, was named the Big Ten’s top lineman and was an Outland Trophy finalist. Baas was a second-round pick by the San Francisco 49ers in the 2005 NFL Draft.
A region-by-region preview of this year's NCAA Tournament, complete with a rundown of March Madness' top teams, Sweet 16 sleepers to watch out for, potential first-round upsets and Cinderella stories from this year's Big Dance.
Top Team – Florida (1)
The Florida Gators (32–2, 18–0 SEC) are fresh off a perfect 18–0 SEC regular season followed by the SEC Tournament title. Florida is the top No. 1 seed in the Big Dance, their first No. 1 seed since 2007 — when the Gators chomped their way to a second straight national championship with Joakim Noah and Co. This year’s team has just two losses — at UConn (on a fluke finish) and at Wiconsin (in the season’s second game). The Gators have not tasted defeat since Dec. 2, 2013 — beating Kansas, Memphis and every team in the SEC since then. In this one-and-done era, UF has the rare star-studded senior class led by point guard Scottie Wilbekin (13.0 ppg, 3.7 apg), leading scorer Casey Prather (14.3 ppg, 5.0 rpg) and monster in the middle Patric Young (11.0 ppg, 6.2 rpg). Oh yeah, and the Gators are coached by two-time NCAA champion Billy Donovan. Florida is clearly the team to beat.
Sweet 16 Sleeper – Ohio State (6)
The Buckeyes have a tough in-state Round of 64 matchup with Daytona in a 6-11 potential trap game. But if Ohio State can avoid the fate of Goliath, it will face the winner of Syracuse and Western Michigan. On one hand, Cuse has gone 2–5 since opening the season with a 25–0 record. On the other hand, WMU is a No. 14 seed for a reason. The Buckeyes would have to feel good about their chances, either way. The next loss will be the last for OSU senior point guard Aaron Craft. Don’t be surprised if the overly scrappy guard hustles his way to the second weekend of the Big Dance.
Upset Alert – Stephen F. Austin (12) over VCU (5)
Wait a minute, isn’t VCU the underdog that could? Not this time. Southland champion Stephen F. Austin is on a 28-game winning streak that dates back to Nov. 23, 2013. The Lumberjacks have five players who average 9.6 points or more, including a pair of wings — Jacob Parker (14.2 ppg, 7.1 rpg) and Thomas Walkup (12.9 ppg, 5.0 rpg) — who both shoot over 54 percent from the field. Obviously, Shaka Smart and VCU will bring the havoc. But SFA will be ready to keep chopping wood.
South Region Preview
East Region Preview
West Region Preview
Midwest Region Preview
A region-by-region preview of this year's NCAA Tournament, complete with a rundown of March Madness' top teams, Sweet 16 sleepers to watch out for, potential first-round upsets and Cinderella stories from this year's Big Dance.
Top Team – Arizona (1)
The Arizona Wildcats (30–4, 15–3 Pac-12) opened the season with a 21–0 mark, including impressive wins over Duke, Michigan and UCLA. Although the Wildcats went 9–4 to close out the season — losing to UCLA in the Pac-12 Tournament title game — this is still a team to be reckoned with. Junior guard Nick Johnson (16.2 ppg), freshman phenom forward Aaron Gordon (12.1 ppg, 7.8 rpg), and sophomore big men Kaleb Tarczewski (10.1 ppg, 6.6 rpg) and Brandon Ashley (11.5 ppg, 5.8 rpg) make UA a matchup nightmare. Coach Sean Miller has yet to lead a team to the Final Four, despite coming painfully close in Elite Eight losses at Xavier (2008) and Arizona (2011). This could be the year Miller finally breaks through for Zona’s first Final Four since Lute Olson’s Cats cut down the nets in 1997.
Sweet 16 Sleeper – Oklahoma State (9)
The Pokes will have to outlast Gonzaga in the 8-9 game and take down the best out West in Arizona. But that is doable. O-State has been a different team since Marcus Smart returned from his three-game suspension following a run-in with a fan at Texas Tech. The Cowboys are 5–2, with both losses coming in overtime, to Iowa State and Kansas, respectively. Along with Smart (17.8 ppg, 5.7 rpg, 4.7 apg, 2.8 spg), OSU features senior Markel Brown (17.1 ppg, 5.3 rpg) and junior Le’Bryan Nash (14.2 ppg, 5.7 rpg), giving coach Travis Ford’s team three players capable of taking over offensively. Then again, the Cowboys have looked good on paper all year, but that hasn’t translated on the court most of the season.
Upset Alert – Nebraska (11) over Baylor (6)
Warren Buffett’s billion-dollar perfect bracket may be a 1-in-128 billion longshot. But the Oracle of Omaha could get a priceless matchup in the Round of 32 if Nebraska can take down former Big 12 rival Baylor and No. 3 seed Creighton can hold serve against No. 14 seed Louisiana-Lafayette. The Cornhuskers played solid basketball since hitting rock bottom on a five-game losing streak from Dec. 28 until Jan. 12. The Huskers have wins over Michigan State, Ohio State and Wisconsin since those dark days and appear capable of upsetting Baylor.
South Region Preview
East Region Preview
West Region Preview
Midwest Region Preview
A region-by-region preview of this year's NCAA Tournament, complete with a rundown of March Madness' top teams, Sweet 16 sleepers to watch out for, potential first-round upsets and Cinderella stories from this year's Big Dance.
Top Team – Wichita State (1)
The Wichita State Shockers (34–0, 18–0 Missouri Valley) had an impressive encore following last season’s unbelievable run to the Final Four. Coach Gregg Marshall’s team ran the table with a perfect 34–0 regular season record that included wins over five teams — Tulsa, BYU, Saint Louis, Tennessee and NC Central — in this year’s NCAA Tournament field of 68. Led by senior big man Cleanthony Early (15.8 ppg, 5.9 rpg) and sophomore guards Fred VanVleet (12.1 ppg, 5.3 apg) and Ron Baker (13.1 ppg), Wichita State has the balance, talent and experience to make a repeat trip to the Final Four. And if it comes down to free throw shooting down the stretch, the Shockers’ top three scorers all shoot over 82 percent from the charity stripe.
Sweet 16 Sleeper – Kentucky (8)
The preseason No. 1 team in the country didn’t enjoy the 40–0 season some in the Big Blue Nation hoped for, but the Wildcats could take down a team that still has a shot at an undefeated 2013-14 campaign. If UK can sneak past Kansas State in the 8-9 game, the Cats will go toe-to-toe with a Wichita State team that has yet to play a team as talented — at least on an individual level — as Kentucky. Coach John Calipari’s team was a botched final possession away from potentially upsetting No. 1 Florida in the SEC Tournament. The notoriously young Wildcats may be maturing at just the right time.
Upset Alert – Arizona State (10) over Texas (7)
Historically, 7-10 games are ripe for upset — and so is Texas coach Rick Barnes, who has lost a combined 10 of his 20 career NCAA Tournament Round of 64 matchups at Texas, Clemson and Providence. Even when Barnes had Kevin Durant on his roster, the Longhorns only advanced to the Round of 32. Arizona State is a difficult draw, thanks to the underrated backcourt duo of point guard Jahii Carson (18.6 ppg, 4.5 apg, 4.0 rpg) and sharpshooter Jermaine Marshall (15.0 ppg, 40.0 3P%).
South Region Preview
East Region Preview
West Region Preview
Midwest Region Preview
A region-by-region preview of this year's NCAA Tournament, complete with a rundown of March Madness' top teams, Sweet 16 sleepers to watch out for, potential first-round upsets and Cinderella stories from this year's Big Dance.
Top Team – Virginia (1)
The Virginia Cavaliers (28–6, 16–2 ACC) became the first team other than Duke or North Carolina to win the ACC regular season conference title outright since Maryland in 2002 — the same year the Terrapins were crowned NCAA Tournament champs. The Wahoos also swept the ACC Tournament title before earning their first No. 1 seed since the days when Ralph Sampson patrolled the paint in Charlottesville. Coach Tony Bennett’s team may not be the most exciting to watch and the Cavs roster doesn’t read like an NBA Draft preview, but UVa has proven capable of beating any team in the country on any stage. With a methodical style of play, suffocating defense and backcourt — Malcolm Brogdon (88.6 FT%) and London Perrantes (82.9 FT%) — that knows how to ice a game in the closing minutes, Virginia will be a maddeningly tough out in March, or maybe even early April.
Sweet 16 Sleeper – North Carolina (6)
It’s been a roller coaster ride for Tar Heel hoops fans this season. UNC jumped out of the gate with a loss to Belmont, then reeled off wins over Louisville, Michigan State and Kentucky, followed by a 1–4 start to ACC play. A 12-game winning streak was halted by back-to-back losses — at Duke and vs. Pitt — heading into the NCAA Tournament. But with heady point guard Marcus Paige (17.4 ppg, 4.3 apg), forward James Michael McAdoo (14.2 ppg, 6.7 rpg) and two-time NCAA champion coach Roy Williams, the Heels have the pieces to dance into the Sweet 16.
Upset Alert – Harvard (12) over Cincinnati (5)
The Crimson don’t play like a stereotypical Ivy League champ. Tommy Amaker’s club is not going to small-ball and backdoor-cut like the great Princeton teams of yesteryear. Harvard can go blow-for-blow with some of the best in the nation, as it did during a five-point loss at Connecticut and a 15-point win over Boston College earlier this season. The Crimson have six players who average at least 9.3 points per game, led by wingman Wesley Saunders (14.0 ppg, 4.7 rpg, 3.9 apg), point guard Siyani Chambers (11.1 ppg, 4.7 apg) and active big man Steve Moundou-Missi (10.5 ppg, 5.8 rpg).
South Region Preview
East Region Preview
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Midwest Region Preview
As usual, the first surprises of the NCAA Tournament start with Selection Sunday. The brackets you’ve just printed may still be warm, and a few teams are still in shock.
NC State is in. SMU is out. Virginia is No. 1. And Louisville is not happy.
Those aren't the only teams taking a long look at the next three weeks. Here's what stood out from the Selection Show and what we learned about the NCAA selection committee this time around.
No one will doubt Wichita State if the Shockers advance
The Shockers maybe hoped to get Kansas as the No. 2 seed in their region. They won’t get the Jayhawks, but they’ll get darn near everyone else. Provided Wichita State advanced to the round of 32, the Shockers will draw Kansas State ... or an eighth-seeded Kentucky team filled with McDonald’s All-Americans. Also in Wichita State’s region: Big Ten regular season champion Michigan, Duke and defending national champion Louisville. The Midwest is arguably the toughest region.
Virginia got the last No. 1 seed
Florida, Arizona and Wichita State had been sure things for No. 1 seeds for at least two weeks. The wild card was the last one that went to ACC regular season and tournament champion Virginia over Michigan, Villanova or Wisconsin. Anyone who started following the season in January would think this makes perfect sense since Cavaliers went 16-2 in the league and defeated Syracuse, Duke and North Carolina. Anyone who paid attention back in November and December might be perplexed. The earlier version of Virginia lost to VCU, Wisconsin, Green Bay and by 35 to Tennessee.
Louisville is the defending national champion, the American Tournament champion, fifth in the polls and second in Ken Pomeroy’s ratings. Yet the selection committee slapped the Cardinals with a No. 4 seed. The seeding is more in line with Louisville’s rank of No. 18 in the RPI. Rather than Louisville’s recent results, the Cardinals’ overall body of work, which includes the 149th-ranked non-conference schedule, played a role here. The committee also hammered American Athletic Conference co-champion Cincinnati with a No. 5 seed.
NC State was the most shocking name in the field
And this is funny because the argument against ACC leading scorer T.J. Warren winning league player of the year was that he played for a team going to the NIT. The Wolfpack benefitted from a late push that included a win over Pittsburgh on the road and against Syracuse in the ACC Tournament. NC State will face Xavier in the First Four.
SMU was the biggest snub
Congratulations, NIT, you’ll have a ranked team in your event. SMU is 25th in the Associated Press poll but won’t be in the NCAA Tournament field. SMU only two RPI top 100 teams out of conference, losing to Virginia and defeating Arkansas. The flimsy non-conference schedule and weak bottom half of the American Athletic Conference contributed to 22 games against teams outside the RPI top 100. Losses to three of those (Houston, Temple and USF) certainly didn’t help.
Florida’s region will be interesting, but we’re not sure if it will be competitive
The Gators benefited from being the No. 1 overall seed by drawing a region with a No. 2 seed in Kansas with an ailing Joel Embiid and a No. 3 seed in Syracuse that has lost five of its last seven since starting 25-0. The first two weekends also have their share of flawed teams: The 8-9 winner will be either a Colorado team without point guard Spencer Dinwiddie or a Pittsburgh team with one top-50 win all year.
Arizona got the 8-9 game no one wanted
Oklahoma State seemed destined for an 8-9 game since Marcus Smart returned from suspension and proved the Cowboys were a solid NCAA team. The Pokes will face Gonzaga in the round of 64 before a likely matchup against Arizona.
Dayton will not play at home ... but Xavier kind of will
A major question for a Dayton team on the bubble was if the selection committee would allow the Flyers to play on their home court in the first four. Sending Dayton to Buffalo to face Ohio State to prevent a First Four game. Instead, the committee pegged No. 11 seed Xavier in the First Four, playing NC State 46 miles away from campus.
Best round of 64 games
• VCU vs. Stephen F. Austin: The Lumberjacks are a threat to be a Cinderella ... against a VCU team that knows about surprises.
• Ohio State vs. Dayton: Flyers coach Archie Miller faces his old boss in Thad Matta.
• Kansas State vs. Kentucky: Bruce Weber’s Wildcats are the kind of tough defensive team that will give Kentucky trouble.
• Cincinnati vs. Harvard: Much of the same cast that upset New Mexico last season returns.
• North Carolina vs. Providence: Big East tourney champs have a superstar guard in Bryce Cotton.
Best potential round of 32 games
• Wichita State vs. Kentucky: The team that hoped to go 40-0 vs. the team that can actually do it.
• Cincinnati vs. Michigan State: Provided the Bearcats can get past Harvard
• Creighton vs. Nebraska: A state title game pitting Doug McDermott against coach Tim Miles.
• Villanova vs. UConn or St. Joseph’s: Nova draws either a former Big East foe or a Big 5 rival.
• VCU vs. UCLA: UCLA couldn’t pry Shaka Smart from the Rams before hiring Steve Alford.
• Arizona vs. Oklahoma State: Marcus Smart faces Aaron Gordon and a tough Wildcats defense.
Preparations for the 2014 Athlon Sports preview magazines have started, and this season, we’re taking you inside the debates that shape our rankings.
The first in a series that will cover every major conference covers the Big 12. Athlon Sports writers and editors Braden Gall, David Fox and Steven Lassan cover every team in the Big 12 and what we’re watching in the league.
Oklahoma and Baylor have separated themselves as favorites, but there’s some debate as to which team should be the preseason pick in the league. We also debated what Texas can expect in its first season with Charlie Strong and if this will be a down year for Oklahoma State.
The podcast can be found on athlonsports.com, iTunes and our podcast RSS feed.
Please send any comments, questions and podcast topics to @AthlonSports, @BradenGall, @DavidFox615 and @AthlonSteven on Twitter or email [email protected].
Short on their normal offensive production and long on injuries to their rotation in 2013, the Texas Rangers have their fingers crossed that a revamped lineup will hit again and that their starting pitchers will remain healthy this year, although the good health part is not off to a rousing start. Prince Fielder, acquired in a blockbuster trade for Ian Kinsler, is expected to put pop into a lineup that managed a relatively low 176 homers in 2013. Shin-Soo Choo was added a month later as the everyday left fielder and leadoff man. Matt Harrison, a former 18-game winner, is expected to return to the rotation after missing all but two starts, and the Rangers are hoping that Alexi Ogando can stay healthy, too. Harrison’s back is balky and that could prevent him from making his first start until mid-April. Lefthander Derek Holland may miss half the season after knee surgery. The only major piece missing from this team entering spring training was a closer, but Joakim Soria and Neftali Feliz are still competing for the job. Manager Ron Washington has indicated he may use both depending on situations, at least until one proves worthy of the job full-time. Even with health issues in the rotation and a question of closing, this team has enough talent to contend in the American League West for a sixth straight season.
Yu Darvish led major league baseball in strikeouts (277) and finished second in American League Cy Young voting. Darvish also held opponents to an AL-best .194 average and posted the fourth-best ERA (2.83). His critics point to multiple starts in which he surrendered late leads, as well as an over-reliance on his slider. The Rangers have urged him to work on his fastball command. Holland, one of three lefthanders in the rotation, logged a team-high 213 innings but was only 10–9 after another roller-coaster ride. Included were two complete-game shutouts, but also wins in only two of his final 14 starts and a 1–3 mark in September. He will be a welcome addition for the second half. Lefty Martin Perez is facing his first full season after holding onto a rotation spot after a June 22 call-up. He won 10 games and was the Rangers’ starter in their tie-breaking game against Tampa Bay. The biggest questions marks are Harrison and Ogando. Harrison was the Opening Day starter in 2013 but made only two starts before having back operations in April and May for a herniated disc. He later had surgery for thoracic outlet syndrome in his right shoulder. Ogando, meanwhile, hit the disabled list three times with arm issues. He returned as a starter in September and pitched well enough to again convince management that he belongs in the rotation. Ogando has thrived as a starter in his career (19–12, 3.40 ERA in 48 starts). But many believe he is better suited as a reliever. The Rangers signed veterans Tommy Hanson and Joe Saunders to fill in gaps until all health issues are resolved.
The Rangers aren’t sure about their closer after Joe Nathan, who saved 80 games the past two seasons, wasn’t re-signed. Joakim Soria and Neftali Feliz, former All-Star closers, should be near the form they showed before undergoing Tommy John surgery in 2012. Tanner Scheppers, who emerged as a top-flight setup man in 2013, could grab the job. The team’s primary lefty relievers will be Neal Cotts, coming off a terrific comeback season, and Robbie Ross, a starter in the minors who will be given a chance in the spring to return to that role. Jason Frasor, who finished with a flurry last year, re-signed early in the offseason and is the bullpen’s veteran presence along with Soria. A third veteran could be Jose Contreras if he makes the team as the long man. A pair of lefties, Joe Ortiz and Michael Kirkman, will be among the competitors for that spot.
After a season of biding his time, 21-year-old Jurickson Profar will be an everyday player in 2014. Profar, a shortstop in the minors, played well defensively in flashes at second base when Kinsler was out of the lineup, but his bat lagged. Profar, baseball’s top prospect entering 2013, hit only .234 in 286 at-bats, and the switch-hitter batted only .188 from the right side. He’ll have Elvis Andrus as a double-play partner. Andrus, one of the longest-tenured Rangers (six years with the team) at just 25, is the face of the franchise. He opened the second half in 2013 with a 16-game hitting streak and ended up hitting .313 in his in final 64 games. Andrus finished with a .271 average, down 15 points from 2012, but he drove in a career-high 67 runs and stole a career-best 42 bases. The Rangers would like to see him drive the ball more.
The combination of Fielder at first base and Adrian Beltre at third gives the Rangers a top pair of corner infielders. Fielder fell out of favor in Detroit after a lousy postseason and a sub-par regular season, but he still hit .279 with 25 homers and 106 RBIs. The Rangers will take that at first, where Mitch Moreland has struggled. Most believe that Fielder, a left-handed slugger, will flourish at Rangers Ballpark. Beltre was the Rangers’ MVP after leading them with 30 homers, 92 RBIs, a .315 batting average and a .509 slugging percentage. Defensively, though, Beltre was off his game, possibly because of persistent leg injuries, and missed out on a third consecutive Gold Glove. He still is considered one of the best defensive third basemen in the game. The Rangers, though, will take a hit defensively with Fielder at first.
The Rangers filled a significant lineup hole just before Christmas. They reached a seven-year, $130 million agreement with Choo, who will be the left fielder and leadoff man. He should score more than 100 runs if he gets on base as frequently as he did last season (.423 OBP). Leonys Martin and Alex Rios will join Choo. Martin, the center fielder, has one of the top arms in the game. He needs more patience at the plate, but he is a serious threat to steal bases. So is Rios, who stole 16 of his 42 bases with the Rangers after an August trade from the White Sox. The right fielder swatted 18 homers with 81 RBIs, and he figures to bat fifth in the lineup.
Geovany Soto will be the regular catcher after playing behind A.J. Pierzynski in 2013. Soto thrived in September and became the catcher pitchers preferred behind the plate. In particular, Darvish favored Soto, who is considered a better receiver than Pierzynski. Soto batted .440 in September, another reason for his promotion. That’s 246 points higher than his backup, J.P. Arencibia, batted in 2013 with Toronto. Once a franchise cornerstone, Arencibia fell out of favor in Toronto after hitting .194 with 148 strikeouts and only 18 walks in 2013. Still, he hit 21 home runs and is viewing his stint with the Rangers as a fresh start.
The Rangers turned away several teams that were interested in Moreland, who lost his job at first base to Fielder but will be the top choice at designated hitter against right-handed pitching. Moreland has power (23 homers), but he hasn’t been able to find a consistent stroke at the plate. He batted only .232 — .194 over his final 98 games — in 2013. Arencibia is the primary backup catcher, but Robinson Chirinos can catch as well as play first and third. Adam Rosales is a valuable utility infielder. Engel Beltre is a speedy defensive ace who can play all three outfield spots.
Washington enters his eighth season as manager. Fans continue to belly-ache about his love for the bunt and question his bullpen management, but no other manager in franchise history has won more games or achieved more in the postseason. Tim Bogar replaces Jackie Moore as bench coach. Jon Daniels has control over all baseball moves, and his recent track record suggests he has been among the game’s best general managers.
Any worries among the fan base, and possibly inside the organization, about the 2014 season were quieted in December with the addition of Choo. He fills a big hole in the lineup and puts the Rangers in a position to score a bunch of runs — as usual. Now, the worry turns to the pitching staff, where the rotation needs to stay healthy.
LF Shin-Soo Choo (L)
The Rangers love his knack for getting on base, and his power and speed fit well atop the lineup, too.
SS Elvis Andrus (R)
Batted .313 in 64 games after the All-Star break to prevent the worst offensive season of his career.
1B Prince Fielder (L)
Four homers, 15 RBIs and a .592 slugging percentage in 13 career games at Rangers Ballpark.
3B Adrian Beltre (R)
Collected 14 homers, 40 RBIs in July and August 2013, but only two homers, 10 RBIs in September.
RF Alex Rios (R)
Fit in seamlessly after August trade, hitting .280 with 19 extra-base hits and 16 steals in 47 games.
DH Mitch Moreland (L)
Woeful stretch in final 98 games (.194) has sent him from regular first baseman to part-time DH.
C Geovany Soto (R)
Fewer tweaks in his swing produced a .440 September average and faith that he can return to All-Star form.
CF Leonys Martin (L)
Hit .281 in 2013 in 108 games as the No. 8 or No. 9 hitter in 2013, but only .238 in 31 games atop lineup.
2B Jurickson Profar (S)
The former top prospect struggled in his first year, but the belief is he will flourish with regular playing time.
C J.P. Arencibia (R)
A lousy 2012 (.194, 148 Ks) led to his breakup with Toronto. The Rangers like his power and durability.
OF Engel Beltre (L)
Out of options, the speedy defensive ace could take on the same role as Craig Gentry the past few years.
INF Adam Rosales (R)
Rangers liked this high-energy player who can play all four infield spots enough to claim him twice in ’13.
UT Robinson Chirinos (R)
He can catch and play the infield corners, and his presence could allow Soto and Arencibia to DH some.
RH Yu Darvish
The Cy Young runner-up led baseball in strikeouts and is on the verge of becoming a true ace.
LH Matt Harrison
Coming off of three surgeries, the former 18-game winner is the key to this rotation’s success in 2014.
LH Martin Perez
He finally showed the promise the Rangers had seen in the minors, and now he’s a rotation fixture.
RH Al exi Ogando
Despite three stints on the disabled list, Ogando is in the rotation plans, though some see him as a reliever.
RH Tommy Hanson
Was a consistent starter for the Braves from 2009-12, but struggled with the Angels last season with a 5.42 ERA and 1.548 WHIP.
LH Derek Holland
After knee surgery, the Rangers don’t expect him back until around the All-Star break.
RH Neftali Feliz (Closer)
Worked in winter ball to help regain his pre-Tommy John velocity. Could get first chance to close.
RH Joakim Soria
The former All-Star has the experience and work ethic the Rangers want at the back end of pen.
RH Tanner Scheppers
A candidate to be the closer, Scheppers excelled as a setup man in 2013 and is likely to start 2014 there.
LH Neal Cotts
Returned to the majors for the first time in four seasons and won a league-high eight games in relief.
LH Robbie Ross
Don’t be surprised to see this lefty start games, but early in the season his value will be as a reliever.
RH Jason Frasor
The veteran re-signed early in the offseason, hoping the Rangers can put him in the postseason again.
LH Joseph Ortiz
Lefty opened 2013 on the roster but bounced between Triple-A after hitting some rookie road bumps.
2013 Top Draft Pick
Alex Gonzalez, RHP
The Rangers ended four straight years of using their first pick on a high school player by taking Gonzalez, a righthander from Oral Roberts, and he advanced enough after his professional debut to be considered among the organization’s top prospects. Gonzalez had a few early hiccups in July, a result of missing up in the strike zone, but was pitching in the High-A playoffs two months later. He could very well open 2014 at Double-A. Gonzalez’s best pitch is a cut fastball that was hailed by some experts as the best in the draft. He throws a slider that has more tilt and depth than the cutter, and continues to work on a changeup that could become a plus pitch. Gonzalez is part of the next wave of pitchers in the Rangers’ system. The problem, though, is that they are all at or on the cusp of Double-A. That could play into the favor of Gonzalez, who has more polish.
OF Lewis Brinson (19)
The 29th overall pick in 2012 impresses with his athleticism, arm and power, but he is a strikeout machine who needs to make more contact.
2B Rougned Odor (20)
Loaded with talent and desire, the Venezuelan could eventually push Jurickson Profar for a big-league job.
C Jorge Alfaro (20)
He will likely open 2014 at High-A Myrtle Beach after a big 2013 at Low-A Hickory and a strong Arizona Fall League.
RHP Luke Jackson (22)
After finishing 2013 with a flourish at Double-A, Jackson rates as the minor-league pitcher closest to joining the Rangers.
3B Joey Gallo (20)
The top power hitter in the minors, Gallo crushed 40 homers in 2013.
SS Luis Sardinas (20)
Injury-plagued early in his career, Sardinas is finally showcasing his talents.
Beyond the Box Score
No more Nolan Nolan Ryan resigned as the Rangers’ CEO in October and sold his small ownership stake, ending a tumultuous year in which his role was put into question after general manager Jon Daniels added president of baseball operations to his title. The Rangers went 536–437 during Ryan’s six seasons with the organization.
Strange pick The Rangers made the biggest splash of the annual Rule 5 Draft at the winter meetings when they selected second baseman Russell Wilson — the same Russell Wilson who stars at quarterback for the Seattle Seahawks. Wilson was drafted in the fourth round by Colorado in 2010 and played parts of two minor-league seasons. He was on the Rockies’ inactive list when drafted by the Rangers, who admire his character and hope to show him off at spring training to their minor leaguers as an example of the kind of makeup it takes to be successful.
New career? Lefthander Derek Holland, known as much for his baseball accomplishments as his off-the-field quirkiness, landed a small role in the opening scene of the movie “Dumb & Dumber To”. Holland was captured with former teammate Justin Grimm re-enacting the tuxedo scene from the original move starring Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels, and the producers invited him after seeing clips of his performance. The movie is scheduled to be released later this year.
Boot camp In the second inning of the Rangers’ Sept. 26 game against the Angels, three players combined for four errors, all with two outs, to help turn a 3–1 lead into a 4–3 deficit. Mitch Moreland started it by bobbling a grounder at first base, and former second baseman Ian Kinsler booted a grounder and threw a ball away two batters later. An Adrian Beltre throwing error on the next play capped the sloppiness.
Walk-off Wonders The four-error inning didn’t cost the Rangers as they beat the Angels on a walk-off homer for the fourth straight game at Rangers Ballpark. The streak started July 29, as Geovany Soto won it with a solo homer in the ninth, and Leonys Martin hit a three-run game-winner in the 10th the next night. Adrian Beltre took his turn July 31 with a leadoff homer in the ninth, and Jurickson Profar started the ninth on Sept. 26 with a pinch-hit shot to right field.
It’s been a rollicking offseason in the Pacific Northwest that began, actually, in the final week of September when manager Eric Wedge exited in a public pique over his failure to receive a long-term contract extension. Wedge elaborated on his frustration to the Seattle Times in an early December article that portrayed the Mariners’ front office as a meddling, dysfunctional mess. That story ran after general manager Jack Zduriencik hired Lloyd McClendon to replace Wedge but before the club finalized details on the winter’s most eye-popping move: signing free-agent second baseman Robinson Cano to a 10-year deal for $240 million. The Mariners were, in fact, linked to virtually every major free agent on the market along with several intriguing trade targets (including Rays pitcher David Price and Royals designated hitter Billy Butler). They did sign free-agent first baseman/outfielder Corey Hart and acquired Miami first baseman/outfielder Logan Morrison prior to the holidays, but Zduriencik and his staff entered the new year with a roster imbalance that suggests further moves are necessary to turn a 71–91 club into a postseason contender.
Any rotation that starts with Felix Hernandez and includes Hisashi Iwakuma has a chance to be special. Now add two of the game’s top prospects, Taijuan Walker and James Paxton, and the Mariners have the potential to run out one of the game’s better units. A few complications cropped up during spring training. Iwakuma has a finger injury that could cost him a month or more. Walker’s shoulder is flaring up. The club hopes it’s nothing serious, but Walker will take it easy this spring. Veteran righthander Scott Baker will fill in for at least a handful of starts at the beginning of the season. The mix for more permanent spots at the back end of the rotation includes Brandon Maurer, Erasmo Ramirez and Blake Beavan.
Last season left some painful memories for the relief corps. The bullpen coughed up 13 walk-off losses and 14 more defeats in which the winning run scored in the opponent’s final at-bat. The M’s also set a franchise record with 15 extra-inning losses. That’s a lot of bad bullpen work. Seattle signed former Rays closer Fernando Rodney to rescue the group. After excelling in the World Baseball Classic, Rodney struggled for much of last season. He was almost unhittable in 2012 with a 0.777 WHIP and 0.60 ERA. He converted 48 of 50 save chances. Last season was bit of a different story. He blew eight chances, saved 37 with a 3.38 ERA and 1.335 WHIP. The M’s believe he can return to his 2012 form. Rodney’s setup mates will be Danny Farquhar, who secured 16 saves in 18 chances after becoming the closer in early August, and former closer Tom Wilhelmsen. The latter was erratic last season, which is why he lost his job, but he was a reliable option a year earlier in compiling a 2.50 ERA in 73 games. So there’s bounce-back potential there. Yoervis Medina produced a solid rookie season with a 2.91 ERA and 71 strikeouts (but 40 walks) in 68 innings. Lefty Charlie Furbush held opponents to a .199 average and struck out 80 in 65 innings. That hope isn’t necessarily hopeless.
Adding Cano, one of the game’s premier players, is a game-changer. The arguments against his massive deal, and there are plenty, are generally aimed at its long-term risk, i.e., how long he can remain a dominant player. But right now? There’s not much not to like. Cano, 31, is durable and has averaged 25 homers and 99 RBIs along with a .307/.358/.508 slash over the last seven years. He is a five-time All-Star, a two-time Gold Glove winner and a five-time Silver Slugger recipient. Adding Cano turns former first-round pick Nick Franklin into a trade chip. Franklin showed potential last season as a rookie, and club officials say it’s possible he battles Brad Miller for duty at shortstop or even shifts, like Dustin Ackley, to the outfield. More likely, Franklin heads back to Triple-A Tacoma for regular playing time (he has options) until the Mariners find an acceptable trade. Miller became the shortstop at midseason, which is when the M’s could no long tolerate since-departed Brendan Ryan’s ultra-anemic bat. Miller is the anti-Ryan; he has hit throughout his minor-league career, and batted .265 last year in 76 games, but generally rates below average in advanced defensive metrics.
Third baseman Kyle Seager was picked by the Seattle chapter of the BBWAA as the club’s MVP for each of the last two seasons. That says a lot about the Mariners, because his numbers, while solid, are hardly All-Star quality. Still, the problem isn’t Seager; it’s what the Mariners have put around him. Speaking of which … check the crowd at first base. Incumbent Justin Smoak’s size and swing seems to offer enviable switch-hitting power potential, and he has hit 39 homers over the last two seasons. But he’s also batted .227 with a .387 slugging percentage. The Mariners’ response was to sign Hart and acquire Morrison in a trade for reliever Carter Capps. McClendon says that Smaok is his guy at first base — for now anyway. The general view outside of Seattle is it’s a matter of time before Smoak gets traded, and Hart and Morrison split time at first base and DH. For now, converted catcher Jesus Montero, the erstwhile franchise cornerstone, appears ticketed for Tacoma.
The Mariners hope Ackley follows the route that Alex Gordon blazed in Kansas City in rising from a disappointing can’t-miss prospect into an All-Star by shifting from the infield to the outfield. Like Gordon (2005), Ackley (2009) was a No. 2 overall pick in the draft. Early indicators are promising. Ackley batted .285 with a .354 on-base percentage in 68 games after returning June 25 from one month of outfield training at Tacoma. He probably fits best in a corner. The center field job could fall to Abraham Almonte, a rookie who flashed potential over 25 late-season games. Michael Saunders is versatile enough to play any of the three spots but must rebound at the plate to get regular time. Defensively, McClendon doesn’t want to use Hart or Morrison in the outfield, but he may have to at times.
Mike Zunino batted just .214 with five homers and 14 RBIs as a rookie last year in 52 games after not doing much better earlier in the season at Tacoma. His ratings in the major defensive metrics aren’t pretty either. Even so, club officials see Zunino, the third overall pick in the 2012 draft, as a long-term answer behind the plate. The M’s had better be right, and Zunino had better stay healthy (he missed more than a month last season because of a broken hand). The tentative backup is veteran John Buck.
The DH plan is to rotate Hart, Morrison and Smoak. Veteran Willie Bloomquist returns to serve as the utilityman. He’s a solid addition who can do everything but pitch and catch. After Franklin Gutierrez announced he would sit out this season dealing with gastrointestinal issues, the door opened for Cole Gillespie, who batted .203 in limited time with the Giants and Cubs last season.
Zduriencik deserves credit for paring down a bloated payroll to the point where he could attempt to remake the club through a series of high-profile moves. But he’s entering his sixth season, and it’s time to show progress.
Adding Cano makes any team better. Adding Hart, Morrison and Bloomquist should help a roster that last year often appeared overly young and overmatched. The rotation has the potential to be among the league’s best. But is this a playoff contender as the roster is currently set up? Not unless a lot of things go right.
LF Dustin Ackley (L)
Second pick of the 2009 draft regained status last
season as key part of future.
CF Abraham Almonte (S)
Lefty-heavy lineup could push him toward top. Hit .314 and slugged .491 in Triple-A.
2B Robinson Cano (L)
How will he respond to always being in spotlight? The pressure will be on the $240 million man.
RF Corey Hart (R)
Knees a concern because his righty bat is big element. Hit 87 HRs over last three seasons in Milwaukee.
3B Kyle Seager (L)
Consistent performer — has hit .258, .259, .260 last three seasons — should improve with better cast.
1B Justin Smoak (S)
Had only 50 RBIs despite hitting 20 HRs last year.
DH Logan Morrison (L)
Acquired from Miami in a December trade. Not a great fit in outfield but must play somewhere.
SS Brad Miller (L)
Has decent pop for a middle infielder but needs to improve defensively to solidify infield.
C Mike Zunino (R)
Rookie year wasn’t great but has tools to be a top-flight catcher.
C John Buck (R)
The durable veteran has logged at least 398 plate appearances in nine of last 10 seasons.
UT Willie Bloomquist (R)
Solid veteran should help in many areas. Drafted by the Mariners in both 1996 and ’99.
OF Cole Gillespie (R)
For his career, he’s a .207 hitter as a starter but that jumps to .294 coming off the bench.
OF Michael Saunders (L)
Could regain regular spot if bat bounces back. He hit .236 in 2013.
RH Felix Hernandez
Prototype for a No. 1 starter. ERA has been under 3.10 in four of the last five seasons.
RH Hisashi Iwakuma
By end of last season, nobody anywhere was better. Allowed only three earned runs in last five starts. A sprained tendon in his finger will delay the start of his season.
RH Taijuan Walker
There’s a reason other teams keep asking about the No. 43 pick in the 2010 draft. Shoulder inflammation during the spring has management a bit concerned.
LH James Paxton
If not for Walker, would be getting a lot more attention. Shined in four starts last season.
RH Erasmo Ramirez
23-year-old native of Nicaragua is the best bet to win starting job in spring training.
RH Scott Baker
After missing 2012, Baker made three starts for the Cubs late last season — two of them were very good. He’ll fill in for Iwakuma and Walker until they are pronounced healthy.
RH Fernando Rodney (Closer)
Considering last season was a bit of a struggle, 37 saves isn’t too shabby. He should enjoy pitching in spacious Safeco Field.
RH Danny Farquhar
Was 16-for-18 in save opportunities after getting job. Struck out 79 in 55.2 innings.
RH Yoervis Medina
Command still an issue but projects as top setup man. Allowed 49 hits in 68.0 innings as a rookie.
LH Charlie Furbush
A power arm — struck out 80 in 65 innings in ’13 — who should be top lefty setup man.
RH Tom Wilhelmsen
Looking for bounce-back year after rocky 2013 in which ERA increased from 2.50 to 4.12.
LH Lucas Luetge
Fits well as unit’s situational lefty on a staff that lacks southpaws.
RH Brandon Maurer
Likely swingman if he fails to win job in the starting
rotation. Made 14 starts last season.
RH Stephen Pryor
Will the hard-throwing righthander be recovered from his back injury by Opening Day?
2013 Top Draft Pick
D.J. Peterson, 3B
The 12th overall pick, Peterson, 22, quickly validated the Mariners’ assessment that he provides impact potential as a right-handed power bat before his season ended in a beaning that resulted in his jaw being wired shut. Prior to that, he had a .303/.365/.553 slash with 13 homers in 55 games at short-season Everett and Low-A Clinton. Club officials will watch closely to see how Peterson, who played collegiately at New Mexico, responds in his return. Assuming no problems, he’ll be back on a very fast track. It’s not impossible that he gets a late look this season, although 2015 seems more likely. Some scouts aren’t sold on his defensive skills at third base and believe he’ll eventually shift to a corner outfield spot.
LHP Danny Hultzen (24)
Was one of the top lefty pitching prospects in baseball entering 2013 but could miss all of 2014 while recovering from surgery on rotator cuff and labrum.
LHP James Paxton (25)
Has big-time potential and is penciled into rotation but could end up back to minors if command issues surface.
RHP Victor Sanchez (19)
Draws strong marks for strike-throwing skills at his age after allowing just 18 walks last season in 113.1 innings.
LHP Tyler Pike (20)
Command is an issue, but he’s on fast track after yielding only 73 hits in 110.1 innings at Low-A Clinton.
SS Chris Taylor (23)
Has made quick progression in two pro seasons; ended last year at Class AA Jackson. Has .411 on-base percentage in 183 games.
RHP Edwin Diaz (20)
Made major jump last year in allowing only 18 walks and 45 hits in 69 innings while compiling 1.43 ERA at short-season Pulaski.
Beyond the Box Score
Eight and counting Felix Hernandez has recorded at least 150 strikeouts in each of his first eight full big-league seasons. The only other pitchers to achieve that feat are in the Hall of Fame: Walter Johnson (1908-15) and Bert Blyleven (1971-78). Johnson ran his streak to 11 years; Blyleven did it in his first 10 full seasons.
Century mark When Hernandez got his 100th career victory April 22 in a 7–1 win at Houston, he became the sixth-youngest pitcher, at 27 years and 14 days, to hit triple figures since the divisional era began in 1969. Those who were younger: Dwight Gooden (24, 215 days), Bert Blyleven (25, 76 days), Fernando Valenzuela (26, 162 days), Don Gullett (26, 199 days) and Vida Blue (26, 361 days).
Youthful achievement Taijuan Walker became the youngest starting pitcher in franchise history to record a victory when he worked five scoreless innings Aug. 30 in a 7–1 victory at Houston. Walker was 21 years and 17 days old. The previous record belonged to Travis Blackley at 21 years, 240 days on July 1, 2004, in an 8–4 victory over Texas at Safeco Field.
Historic slam Kyle Seager became the first player in big-league history to hit a game-tying grand slam in extra innings when he went deep with two outs in the bottom of the 14th inning on June 5 against White Sox closer Addison Reed. It merely prolonged the agony. The Mariners lost 7–5 in 16 innings. It was one of a club-record 15 losses in extra innings.
1-2 punch Hisashi Iwakuma (2.66) and Hernandez (3.04) combined for a 2.84 ERA at the front of the Mariners’ rotation. That marked the lowest combined ERA by two starting pitchers (who pitched sufficient innings to qualify for the ERA title) in franchise history. Those marks were also the fifth- and sixth-lowest qualifying ERAs in franchise history. Hernandez holds the club record at 2.27 in 2010.
Iron man Robinson Cano has not only been one of the best second basemen in baseball since breaking into the Yankees lineup in 2005, he’s also been one of the most durable players in the game. Cano has played in at least 159 games in seven straight seasons and started at least 150 games at second base in each of those seasons.
The A’s won two straight division titles and followed with a bunch of offseason moves. It was business as usual for a team with a relatively tiny payroll, so-so attendance and an antiquated ballpark. The A’s don’t rebuild. They recreate — even when they’re good, and they were good in 2013 en route to winning 96 games and running away with a division that included the high-spending Rangers and Angels. GM Billy Beane still felt the need to deal for relievers Jim Johnson and Luke Gregerson and outfielder Craig Gentry and sign starting pitcher Scott Kazmir and utility infielder Nick Punto. With ace Bartolo Colon and closer Grant Balfour (Oakland’s two All-Stars last season) lost to free agency, the A’s again must prove themselves against the big boys of the division, which welcomes the Mariners’ Robinson Cano. Given their track record, the A’s seek nothing less than an AL West three-peat.
With Colon no longer around, the co-aces figure to be Sonny Gray, 24, and Jarrod Parker, 25. A.J. Griffin and Dan Straily are in the same age group, which makes Kazmir the old man at 30, a decade younger than Colon. The rotation ranked second in ERA in the AL and first in complete-game shutouts and opponents’ batting average, and Gray was around for only 10 starts. Oakland’s latest phenom to hit the rotation, Gray won the division-clinching game and threw eight shutout innings in a memorable playoff duel with Justin Verlander. A’s fans are eager to see the Vanderbilt product over a full season. He has a 96 mph fastball, wicked 12-to-6 curve and bulldog mentality that makes up for a slight frame. Parker has had time to rest after ending his season with fatigue and a forearm strain, coming in the wake of a 19-start unbeaten streak, the longest by an A’s starter since Lefty Grove in 1931. The Kazmir signing (two years, $22 million) made Brett Anderson, who started the 2013 opener, expendable, and he was dealt to Colorado. But Kazmir is a risk, considering that he struggled in independent ball in 2012 before making 29 starts for Cleveland last year.
The A’s broke ground when acquiring Johnson as their closer. They have a history of creating closers, including Balfour and Andrew Bailey and going back to Jason Isringhausen and even Dennis Eckersley. With Johnson, they’ve got a ready-made closer who saved 101 games the past two years for Baltimore. The bullpen was deep, and now it might be deeper with the addition of Johnson, who’s replacing Balfour (38 saves), and Gregerson, who boasts one of the game’s most effective sliders. Returning setup men Ryan Cook, Sean Doolittle and Dan Otero combined for a 2.52 ERA. With the absence of Anderson and Jerry Blevins, who was dealt to the Nationals, Doolittle won’t have much left-handed company unless Tommy Milone — an effective starter in 2012 who fell from grace in ’13 —former Rockie Drew Pomeranz or Fernando Abad, acquired from the Nationals in November, is in the mix. An ace in the hole down the stretch could be former Brave Eric O’Flaherty. The accomplished lefty setup man is coming off Tommy John surgery last May, so he could be back in top form for the second half.
Jed Lowrie is the undisputed shortstop. Not necessarily a defensive whiz, Lowrie makes the routine plays and is coming off his most durable and productive season, appearing in 154 games, 57 more than his previous high. He was the projected second baseman last year but played mostly short, because Hiro Nakajima of Japan spent the season in the minors. The A’s finished 2013 with an Eric Sogard-Alberto Callaspo platoon at second and added Punto. Sogard is something of a cult figure with his spectacles and aggressive style, prompting fans to embrace “Nerd Power.” But the double-play combination won’t wow you — the A’s turned only 112 DPs, fewest in the majors and fewest by an Oakland team in a non-strike season. Meantime, big-time prospect Addison Russell was solid in the Arizona Fall League and could play some shortstop for the A’s by season’s end.
Third baseman Josh Donaldson and first baseman Brandon Moss give the A’s plenty of pop. Donaldson might have been the majors’ best position player not to make an All-Star team or win an MVP or Gold Glove. But in Oakland, he was cherished. The former catcher had a breakout year and was especially adept in clutch situations, hitting .336 with runners in scoring position and going 8-for-12 with the bases loaded. His All-Star chances improved with the news that Detroit’s Miguel Cabrera, the league’s MVP, was moving from third to first. Moss is a dead pull hitter who hit 30 homers and struck out 140 times. Nate Freiman, a Rule 5 acquisition, platooned with Moss for much of the season and could continue to hang around for at-bats against lefties unless Callaspo — mentioned by manager Bob Melvin as an option at first base — supplants him. Lefty-swinging Daric Barton, the team’s longest-tenured player, was re-signed to a non-guaranteed contract. He’s a better defender than Moss, so his presence allows Moss to DH.
Left fielder Yoenis Cespedes and right fielder Josh Reddick seek bounce-back years. Reddick should be stronger after undergoing postseason surgery on his right wrist, which bothered him last summer. Cespedes is more of a mystery. The Home Run Derby champ had similar power numbers to 2012, but his average slipped 52 points to .240, and his on-base percentage dropped 62 points to .294. It has been speculated the A’s might trade Cespedes, but they were 165–96 the past two years with him in the lineup, 25–38 without. At 34, Coco Crisp remains a valuable leadoff man and defensive center fielder, bringing oomph to the lineup when healthy. He’ll get some help. Gentry was acquired from Texas, where he posted a .373 OBP. He should be an upgrade over last year’s fourth outfielder, Chris Young, whose OBP was .280.
The A’s wouldn’t mind some stability. Last season began with a Derek Norris-John Jaso platoon. It ended with Stephen Vogt as the No. 1 catcher. Vogt is a nice story, having been acquired on the cheap from the Rays to provide depth in the minors. Jaso sustained a concussion and Norris broke a toe, and suddenly Vogt was playing (and succeeding) in the majors, hitting well and shedding his image as an iffy defender. Pitchers are comfortable throwing to Vogt. Once again, it’s likely that Jaso and Norris will see most of the time, with Jaso also getting some at-bats as DH.
At times last season, Melvin platooned at four spots, and it could be more of the same in 2014. Gentry will get significant time as the fourth outfielder, considering the health record of the top three guys. The A’s snagged two other outfielders from the Nationals: Corey Brown, whom they drafted in 2007 and shipped to Washington in the Josh Willingham trade, and Billy Burns, who stole 74 bases in 81 attempts in the minors. The switch-hitting Punto could find himself anywhere on the infield, perhaps mostly at second. Tampa Bay catcher Chris Gimenez was claimed off waivers as insurance. The lefty-swinging Jaso could get plenty of DH at-bats, but Melvin plans to rotate other players at DH, including Moss, Cespedes and Crisp.
No one works a roster quite like Melvin, who was named AL Manager of the Year in 2012 and finished third in the voting last year. Melvin platoons at several positions, relies heavily on left-right matchups and again has a group of versatile players furnished by Beane. No GM was busier in December than Beane, who pulled off five trades and a free-agent signing over nine days. In one 48-hour stretch, Beane traded for Johnson, Gregerson and Gentry and signed Kazmir, in the process replacing free agents Colon, Balfour and Young.
The A’s appear at least as well-rounded as last year. The bullpen is deeper with Gregerson, and the bench is deeper with Gentry and Punto. As always, it starts with the rotation, and the A’s must prove they can flourish without Colon, who had 18 wins and a 2.65 ERA. The A’s finished 5.5 games ahead of the Rangers, who added Prince Fielder and Shin-Soo Choo. Oakland’s most expensive acquisition was Kazmir at $22 million, but the A’s never try to keep up with their free-spending division foes. They simply try to outplay them, which they have designs on doing for a third straight year.
CF Coco Crisp (S)
Energizes lineup. Set career highs in homers, walks and runs and played errorless ball.
3B Josh Donaldson (R)
Can he improve on finishing fourth in MVP voting? His 174 hits were A’s most since Mark Kotsay’s 190 in ’04.
SS Jed Lowrie (S)
Coming off career year (.290, 15 HRs, 75 RBIs). Eligible for free agency after the season.
LF Yoenis Cespedes (R)
Average dropped by 52 points and slugging dipped from .505 to .442 from first to second MLB season.
1B Brandon Moss (L)
Grip and rip, and never mind a two-strike approach. Led A’s with 30 HRs, 140 strikeouts.
RF Josh Reddick (L)
Coming off wrist surgery, looking for bounce-back season after his homers total dipped from 32 to 12.
DH John Jaso (L)
Life is safer as a DH. Missed final two months with concussion, which left his catching career in jeopardy.
C Derek Norris (R)
Season hit detour with broken toe suffered in August. After returning, hit .325 in 40 at-bats.
2B Eric Sogard (L)
Hit himself onto roster in spring training (.444) and stuck all year, appearing in 130 games.
OF Craig Gentry (R)
Superior runner and defender, and he can play any spot in the outfield.
INF Nick Punto (S)
Could share time with Sogard at second and play short or third when Lowrie or Donaldson rest.
INF Alberto Callaspo (S)
Candidate to platoon at either first or second. Played six positions in big-league career but never at first.
1B Daric Barton (L)
The seven-year veteran had 488 plate appearances in 110 games at Triple-A Sacramento last season; just 120 in 37 games with Oakland.
RH Sonny Gray
Huge expectations for the kid who was selected over Bartolo Colon to start Game 5 of ALDS.
RH Jarrod Parker
Fatigued late last season. Diagnosed with forearm strain that didn’t require surgery.
LH Scott Kazmir
Will he live up to the highest average annual value ($11 million) ever for an A’s starter?
RH A.J. Griffin
Entering second full season. Won 14 and led staff with 200 innings, finished with elbow tendinitis.
RH Dan Straily
Trying to avoid the Sacramento shuttle, which he took several times in 2013. Still managed 27 starts.
RH Jim Johnson (Closer)
Struggled early last season for the Orioles, but a 50-save season is a 50-save season.
LH Sean Doolittle
Tough against both righties and lefties. Would have been good closer option if A’s hadn’t acquired Johnson.
RH Luke Gregerson
Accomplished setup man with mean slider. In five years with Padres, had 2.88 ERA and 1.092 WHIP.
RH Ryan Cook
Posted 2.54 ERA but allowed 50 percent (15 of 30) of inherited runners to score. He’s dealing with shoulder inflammation during the spring.
RH Dan Otero
Worked way into a setup role by yielding three earned runs in final 35.1 innings (0.76 ERA).
RH Jesse Chavez
You know you’ve got a quality long reliever when he throws the final 5.2 innings in an 18-inning win.
LH Drew Pomeranz
Hoping to improve away from Coors Field. Could make team as reliever/spot starter.
2013 Top Draft Pick
Billy McKinney, CF
The A’s love on-base percentage, and McKinney’s was .585 as a senior at Plano West Senior in Plano, Texas — 36 walks, just six strikeouts in 130 plate appearances. After McKinney was selected 24th overall in the draft, his parents rented “Moneyball,” the movie that offers a slightly fictionalized portrayal of GM Billy Beane’s behind-the-scenes work during the A’s 2002 season, including emphasizing OBP. “Awesome movie,” said McKinney, who quickly signed and accumulated a .387 OBP in 55 games in rookie league and Low-A. Scouts love his left-handed swing, which he modeled after Josh Hamilton’s, having grown up in Texas close to the Rangers’ ballpark. McKinney played center in his first pro season, but he could be moved to a corner. In 243 plate appearances as an A’s minor leaguer, 15 of his 70 hits went for extra bases: nine doubles, three triples, three homers.
SS Addison Russell (20)
The 2012 first-round pick hit .302 with .389 OBP in first two pro seasons; could be A’s shortstop by 2015 with Jed Lowrie’s contract expiring after 2014.
RHP Michael Ynoa (22)
Signed as 16-year-old in 2008. Progress slowed by injuries but had a 2.14 ERA in 15 starts at Class A Beloit last year.
SS Daniel Robertson (19)
In Russell’s shadow, also from 2012 draft (34th pick overall). Hit .277 with Beloit. Could switch positions down the road.
CF Billy Burns (24)
Obtained in Jerry Blevins trade. Stole 74 bases in 81 tries in Nationals’ farm system last season.
3B Renato Nunez (19)
Collected 19 homers and 85 RBIs in A-ball three years after being signed out of Venezuela.
1B Matt Olson (19)
The 47th overall pick in 2012 had low average (.225) but hit 23 homers with 93 RBIs at Beloit.
Beyond the Box Score
Consistency The A’s were the only team in the majors with winning records all six months of the regular season. In fact, the streak is 10 months, dating to June 2012. Problem is, they’ve had two straight losing Octobers, dropping the Division Series in five games to Detroit in back-to-back seasons.
Couple of pros Nate Freiman, who hit .274 as a rookie, isn’t the only athlete in his family to reach the pro ranks. His wife, Amanda Blumenherst, was on the LPGA tour for several years, and Freiman served as her caddy in offseasons. They met at Duke, where they were the school’s senior athletes of the year in 2009. How’s Freiman’s golf game? “I can’t even shoot under 100. I’m the least competitive person on the golf course,” he says. Blumenherst stepped away from the tour late last year to travel with her husband.
Clean shaven Josh Reddick trimmed his long beard in November, having lost a “beard off” to pro wrestler Daniel Bryan. Reddick made the announcement by sending his cleaner-looking mug out on Twitter. The right fielder had a breakout 2012 with 32 homers and 85 RBIs. In 2013, a bearded Reddick hit 12 homers and 56 RBIs, but the reason for the decline wasn’t about facial hair as much as a sore wrist that required postseason surgery.
Quick start The A’s have been known as a second-half team, amping it up when the weather warms up. But last year, they had two solid halves. Of the franchise’s last eight playoff teams, dating to 1992, only last year’s club was in sole possession of first place at the All-Star break. The A’s were 56–39 at intermission and weren’t bad after, either, going 40–27 and leading the majors in second-half homers for the second straight year.
Back, back, back Bob Melvin usually throws batting practice to Yoenis Cespedes but took a break in July. Cespedes was invited to the Home Run Derby, and Melvin wasn’t planning to be in New York for the All-Star Game. So third-base coach Mike Gallego became Cespedes’ designated batting-practice pitcher. Gallego threw to Cespedes in the days before the derby. At the big event at Citi Field, he served up 32 home run pitches. Cespedes easily won it, beating Bryce Harper in the final round.
This is your daily link roundup of our favorite sports and entertainment posts on the web for March 14.
• Take a seat: Great MLB strikeout faces.
• Louisville beat Rutgers by 61. Rick Pitino's advice to Knights coach Eddie Jordan? Go have a drink.
• How's this for an occupational hazard: Fox Sports’ Mike Greenlay took a hockey stick to the face and bled all over his shirt.
• For a smart guy, Richard Sherman gets in a lot of stupid Twitter beefs.
• The Marlins mascot shoved a pie in some guy's face. This concludes your Marlins highlights for 2014.
• Remember that doughnut shop that Golden Tate snuck into? They're sorry to see him leave Seattle.
• Charles Barkley almost nodded off at work. That's fine, except he was on the air at the time.
-- Email us with any compelling sports-related links at [email protected]
Each week, Geoffrey Miller’s “Five Things to Watch” will help you catch up on the biggest stories of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series’ upcoming race weekend. This week, Kasey Kahne’s and Tony Stewart’s opposite run of results at Bristol, the effect NASCAR’s revamped title format will have on the amount of in-race aggression at the bullring and an overdue qualifying tweak are just a few of the major topics leading us into Sunday’s 500-lap race at Bristol Motor Speedway.
1. Kasey Kahne an easy pre-race favorite at Bristol
It doesn’t take studying of loop data to see that Kasey Kahne figures to be up front Sunday at Bristol Motor Speedway. Mr. Blue Eyes had a combined average finish of 1.5 last year at the half-mile track after winning the spring race and falling just short of Matt Kenseth in the fall night race.
“I can’t wait to race there,” Kahne said this week in a video posted by Hendrick Motorsports. “It’s a track we’ve performed really well at for a while. We won the spring race last year and had the best car there in the fall race — I just didn’t get by Matt.”
A win for Kahne would start to reveal his No. 5 as the contender that it should be this season. He is, after all, driving one of Rick Hendrick’s Chevrolets.
Kahne was stung by pit road penalties and a crash in the season-opener at Daytona before landing inauspicious finishes of 11th and eighth at Phoenix and Las Vegas, respectively. He’s led just two laps this season.
That number just might change at a track where he started and finished both races better than seventh last season.
2. Does points system really give drivers an incentive for Bristol aggression?
Much has been made over the last few days about the role that NASCAR’s newest points system played on Steve Letarte’s decision to gamble on fuel mileage and go for the win with Dale Earnhardt Jr. last week at Las Vegas. All told, that’s an argument set to NASCAR’s desired narrative and not grounded in fact.
Still, it’s fair to wonder if NASCAR will be forced to reckon with driving more rambunctious than usual Sunday on Bristol’s high banks. While points certainly still do matter in the regular season, the new scoring style does play to the favor of drivers not really expected to be Chase players come September. And in those drivers’ favor is the fact that Bristol’s short track characteristics can provide a more even playing field amongst low-budget and top-tier teams.
That means drivers like AJ Allmendinger, Marcos Ambrose, or Kyle Larson — remember how good Larson was in the Bristol Nationwide Series race last spring? — could be looking to push, pull and generally consider bulldozing as an option to gain track position in Sunday’s race. A win could be their Chase ticket, and they won’t have too many more opportunities.
3. Bristol not a good place for Tony Stewart’s rebound
After three races and only 48 total points collected, Tony Stewart has landed 27th in points without a single top-10 finish, a single lap led and only one lead-lap finish. Those are numbers that are probably worse than Stewart even expected to launch with in 2014 despite coming back from serious injury.
We wondered before Phoenix in this column if Stewart was physically ready to compete on the circuit’s demanding racetracks and the jury remains out. The tight confines of Bristol won’t be especially kind to him if physical pain or strength is making a difference in his ability to tune in the race car.
Even without the injury, Stewart has been woeful at BMS of late. Sunday’s race marks the four-year anniversary of Stewart finishing second at the track. Since then, he’s finished 19th, 28th, 14th, 27th and 31st. (Last season, of course, he missed the August race with the leg injury.)
Voice of Vito: Proving how the new Chase isn't "Chad-Proof"
4. NASCAR averts substantial qualifying issue
We may never known why it took NASCAR until midweek between the Las Vegas race and this weekend’s event at Bristol to finally listen to basically everyone in the garage and a make a change to make qualifying safer. But NASCAR did finally come to its senses and Friday’s session won’t have the extra hazard of slow-driving cars trying to keep engines cool.
That’s because NASCAR changed protocol and will now allow teams to attach cooling hoses from a pit box to valves hidden just under the hood cowl flaps. The hoses will supply cold water to the car’s radiator and engine cooling system while pulling hot water out — allowing teams to make more runs during the “knockout” style qualifying sessions.
It’s a move that makes sense and one that came about two weeks too late. Fortunately, NASCAR avoided any serious incidents in the process despite drivers worried about the generous speed difference between cars trying to cool down while motoring slowly around the track and cars on hot laps. The problem would have been exacerbated at Bristol thanks to the short track having substantially less room for cars to operate.
5. Joe Gibbs Racing a recent Bristol force
The Cup Series has raced three times at Bristol since the resurfaced track had its upper groove altered by a grinding process. The intent was for racing to move down to the bottom of the corners, but that never happened. Instead, drivers live at the top of Bristol’s high-banks and rarely venture down.
The style of racing has seemed to suit Joe Gibbs Racing pretty well. In those three races, JGR has two wins, a second-place and has led 42.9 percent of the laps raced. Was it not for a crash a year ago that knocked Matt Kenseth out of contention — he couldn’t avoid Jeff Gordon when the No. 24 blew a tire — JGR very well could have been three-for-three.
There are no guarantees how Kenseth, Kyle Busch or Denny Hamlin will roll off in Sunday’s race or if they’ll actually compete. But if the last three races are an indication at all, JGR should play in the mix at some point during the 266.5-mile race.
Los Angeles Angels
Owner Arte Moreno’s millions have bought only dysfunction and disappointment the past two years. The mega-millions additions of former MVPs Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton have not gotten the Angels closer to their first playoff berth since 2009. The two have been expensive busts, failing to justify the Angels’ investments and handcuffing GM Jerry Dipoto’s ability to make other moves. The farm system has gone fallow, and Dipoto’s attempts to assemble a pitching staff within the confines of a budget strained by the commitments to Pujols and Hamilton have been failures, forcing him to expend other resources — young trade chips Mark Trumbo and Peter Bourjos — in a desperate search for pitching. This winter’s moves had better get the Angels back into contention, or another winter of discontent lies ahead.
As debilitating as the twin failures of Pujols and Hamilton were last year, the main reason the Angels have been among baseball’s biggest underachievers the past two seasons has been the crumbling of their pitching staff. Only C.J. Wilson and Jason Vargas (now gone via free agency) performed adequately in 2013. Wilson was outstanding, going 17–7 with a 3.39 ERA and giving the Angels their only 200-inning starter. Sidelined for a chunk of the season by an elbow injury, staff ace Jered Weaver took a step back in 2013. Wilson and a healthy Weaver represent the only reliable pieces in the Angels’ rebuilt-for-2014 rotation. Dipoto’s acquisitions a year ago — Joe Blanton, Tommy Hanson and Vargas — were more bust than boost. This year, he is rolling the dice on three young pitchers to fill out the rotation — homegrown righthander Garrett Richards and lefties Hector Santiago and Tyler Skaggs, both acquired in a three-way trade that cost the Angels Trumbo. Santiago must overcome control issues. Skaggs was made available by the Diamondbacks after losing velocity from his fastball last season.
The sagging rotation in 2013 replaced the bullpen as the biggest problem area on the Angels’ pitching staff. After a sad performance in 2012, the relief corps got only marginally better last season as Dipoto swung and missed on a series of moves — trading Jordan Walden for Hanson and signing Ryan Madson and Sean Burnett. Madson (Tommy John surgery) never threw a pitch for the Angels, and Burnett gave them fewer than 10 innings due to his own arm issues. Dipoto will try again this year. He acquired one-time closer Fernando Salas in the trade that brought third baseman David Freese from St. Louis and signed setup man Joe Smith to a three-year deal. Ernesto Frieri will once again close after converting 37-of-41 save chances last season. Kevin Jepsen, Dane De La Rosa and Michael Kohn return to the mix — as will Burnett. De La Rosa is fighting through a forearm strain that will delay his season.
Erick Aybar and Howie Kendrick will return for another season as the Angels’ primary keystone combination — and that is a surprise. Going into the offseason, Kendrick was considered more valuable to the Angels as a trade chip to obtain front-line pitching. The winter didn’t play out that way, and he returns as a steady, complementary bat in the Angels’ lineup and an improved defensive player. Meanwhile, the Angels are still waiting for Aybar to develop into a top-of-the-order hitter. It hasn’t happened, and the switch-hitter has settled in at the bottom of the order with a series of uneven seasons since his .312 breakout in 2009. Defensively, Aybar’s arm and range make him an asset at shortstop.
The last time Pujols and Freese were paired together across the diamond, the St. Louis Cardinals won a World Series title. Things have not gone very well for either in the two years since. The Angels knew they would be getting the worst years of his Hall of Fame career when they signed a 32-year-old Pujols for 10 years two winters ago. They just didn’t realize they’d be getting them at the front end of that contract as well as (almost assuredly) at the back end. Leg and foot problems were largely at fault in 2013 as Pujols put up career lows in every statistical category, including games played (99). Greater DH time should be in order — but the Angels traded away their best alternative at first base (Trumbo) in search of pitching. That leaves the Angels hoping for a return to health to buoy Pujols’ production in 2014. Freese, on the other hand, remains more of a mystery. After his postseason heroics in 2011 and an All-Star selection in 2012, he was discarded by the Cardinals following a power drop-off and whispers of lost bat speed in 2013. Still, he represents the Angels’ best hopes for a productive third baseman since Troy Glaus left as a free agent following the 2004 season.
As cloudy as the past two seasons have been for the Angels, Mike Trout has been the bright silver lining. At age 22, Trout has already stamped himself as the best player in baseball (status disputed only by Miguel Cabrera’s legion of supporters) with a two-year big-league arrival that ranks among the best in baseball history. After nearly winning a Rookie of the Year-MVP double in 2012, Trout was actually better in some ways last season, finishing as the MVP runner-up to Cabrera for the second consecutive season after leading the AL in runs and walks while posting a .323/.432/.557 slash line. If you like your statistics more New Age, Trout has led the majors in WAR in each of his two full big-league seasons. Trout will be back in his comfort zone, center field, full-time after moving to left field for Peter Bourjos at times in 2013. The Angels plan to flank him with Kole Calhoun and — they earnestly hope — a more productive Hamilton. Hamilton’s massive drop-off for most of 2013 was one of the biggest mysteries in baseball last season. But he did show signs of coming around as the dismal season wound down. The Angels can only hope his .329 average and .518 slugging percentage (albeit with just five home runs) over the final 45 games of last season augurs a rebirth in 2014. Hamilton has been dealing with a calf strain, which has prevented him from working out much of spring training.
Satisfying Mike Scioscia’s defensive demands and still contributing offensively has proved too much for a generation of Angels catchers. Chris Iannetta hasn’t been able to do it. He hit just .225 last season, and it might be time for the Angels to give former first-round pick Hank Conger a larger share of the workload. Conger’s defense has been a work in progress for the past three seasons spent largely on the bench. But he at least holds out the possibility of offensive contributions.
The ideal situation would have Pujols spending a far greater portion of his playing time at DH, putting less wear and tear on his legs, which have broken down each of the past two years. But Pujols doesn’t want that. So, the Angels signed 41-year-old Raul Ibanez to handle most of the DH duty. Behind Ibanez and Conger (who will share catching duties with Iannetta), the Angels’ bench is not likely to offer much. The team signed veteran Carlos Pena, who could spell Pujols at first at times.
The Angels’ dysfunction was not confined to the roster last season. Scioscia and Dipoto have not meshed well since Dipoto was hired before the 2012 season. The expectation was that last season’s failures would cost one or both their job. Instead, it was a couple of minor heads that rolled (coaches Rob Picciolo and Jim Eppard), and both Scioscia and Dipoto return. If the Angels’ playoff drought extends to a fifth season, though, it’s hard to see the status quo continuing.
The decade that followed Scioscia’s arrival as manager was the most successful in franchise history, including the Angels’ only World Series title in 2002. The franchise has drifted away from the foundation upon which that success was built, however. Moreno’s luxury spending binge on stars (Pujols and Hamilton) and other decisions have decimated the farm system and produced a dysfunctional roster that has more name recognition than functional strengths. The Angels now find themselves pinning their hopes on comeback seasons from three players (Pujols, Hamilton, Freese) who almost certainly have passed their best days — the kind of misguided strategy that too often characterized the franchise’s first four championship-less decades.
LF Kole Calhoun (L)
A .402 on-base percentage during his minor-league career makes him a candidate to fill leadoff void.
CF Mike Trout (R)
Only he and Willie Mays ever had consecutive seasons with a .320 AVG or better and at least 25 HRs, 30 SBs.
1B Albert Pujols (R)
Since moving from St. Louis to Anaheim, Pujols’ OPS has dropped more than 200 points as an Angel.
RF Josh Hamilton (L)
Batted .329, raised his average 33 points over final 45 games of 2013 — giving Angels hope for the future.
3B David Freese (R)
Freese would be a hero to Angels fans if he gave them their first prototypical 3B since Troy Glaus.
DH Raul Ibanez (L)
The Angels are banking on the 41-year-old Ibanez being able to keep Father Time at bay for another year.
2B Howie Kendrick (R)
Nearly traded to the Dodgers in midseason and dangled for pitching in the winter.
C Chris Iannetta (R)
The combination of Iannetta and Hank Conger produced pretty much the MLB average for catchers last year.
SS Erick Aybar (S)
Seems to be regressing offensively with his lowest batting average (.271) since 2010.
C Hank Conger (S)
Is it time to take off the “water wings,” as Mike Scioscia likes to say, and let him play?
OF J.B. Shuck (L)
Made defensive play of the year in 2013, tumbling into the outfield seats at Angel Stadium to rob a home run.
OF Collin Cowgill (R)
Journeyman gives Angels coverage in the outfield and some experience off the bench — but little else.
INF Grant Green (R)
A’s soured on their 2009 first-round pick, but Angels have to be more open-minded about his potential.
1B Carlos Pena (L)
Since leading the AL with 39 homers in 2009, Pena has hit just .206 with 83 home runs in four different uniforms.
RH Jered Weaver
Fractured elbow biggest reason for sub-par 2013, but Angels have to be worried about his shrinking velocity.
LH C.J. Wilson
Pillar of stability amid the shambles of the 2013 rotation, essentially matching his All-Star season of 2011.
RH Garrett Richards
GM Jerry Dipoto wanted Joe Blanton and Tommy Hanson in the 2013 rotation instead of Richards.
LH Tyler Skaggs
Dipoto has acquired Skaggs in trades twice (with the Diamondbacks and Angels).
LH Hector Santiago
Needs to harness his stuff or get bumped to the pen; has averaged 4.5 walks per nine IP in the big leagues.
RH Ernesto Frieri (Closer)
Fastball-reliant closer is vulnerable to the big mistake (11 HRs in 2013) but saved 37 games.
RH Joe Smith
After five successful seasons in Cleveland (a 2.76 ERA), Smith moves West to Anaheim.
RH Fernando Salas
Had 24 saves for the Cardinals in 2011 but fell out of favor and back into the minors the past two seasons.
LH Sean Burnett
Gave the Angels less than 10 innings last year before undergoing season-ending elbow surgery.
RH Kevin Jepsen
Has never developed into reliable back-end bullpen presence, but 8.2 career K rate makes him valuable.
RH Dane De La Rosa
Big surprise last year with 6–1 record, two saves, 2.86 ERA and 1.16 WHIP over 75 appearances.
2013 Top Draft Pick
Hunter Green, LHP
Free-agent compensation for their big-ticket signings have robbed the Angels of high draft picks and left their farm system ranked 30th out of the 30 clubs. With that backdrop, the Angels were thrilled to find Green — who had signed a letter of intent to pitch at the University of Kentucky — available in the second round. The Bowling Green, Ky., native made just a handful of appearances in the Arizona Rookie League after signing last summer, going 0–1 with a 4.32 ERA and 11 strikeouts in 16.2 innings. But the 18-year-old already ranks as the Angels pitching prospect with the highest upside in a system thoroughly devoid of high-end pitching.
RHP R.J. Alvarez (22)
Could rise quickly after posting 1.24 WHIP, 3.08 ERA and striking out 117 in 76 innings at Class A level in 2013.
1B C.J. Cron, 1B (24)
Top hitting prospect in system won Arizona Fall League batting title (.413). His path to big leagues is clearer with Mike Trumbo traded.
3B Kaleb Cowart (21)
Took big step back in Class AA (.221/.279/.301). His road to the big leagues now blocked by David Freese’s acquisition.
2B Taylor Lindsey (22)
Offense-minded infielder has hit at every level, showing newfound power (17 home runs) at Class AA last season.
RHP Mark Sappington (23)
The Angels have high hopes for 6'5" righthander who went 11–4 with a 3.38 ERA in Cal League before late-season promotion to Class AA last year.
2B Alex Yarbrough (22)
Ole Miss product blossomed in hitter-friendly Cal League last year — a .313 average, 11 HRs, 80 RBIs, 14 stolen bases.
SS Jose Rondon (20)
Venezuelan hit .293 with 50 RBIs and 13 stolen bases in 68 games in rookie ball last year.
LHP Ricardo Sanchez (17)
He’s young and he’s small (about 160 pounds), but his fastball hits 90 and he’s got an advanced curveball.
Beyond the Box Score
Tough words During his brief tenure on a sports talk radio show in St. Louis last year, former big-leaguer Jack Clark accused Angels slugger Albert Pujols of using performance-enhancing drugs. Clark said he knew for certain that Pujols was “a juicer.” In the aftermath of his comments, Clark’s show was cancelled, and Pujols sued for defamation of character, saying the accusations were “malicious, reckless and outrageous falsehoods.” Clark’s attorney responded by saying his client would be willing to undergo a lie-detector test — if Pujols agreed to do the same.
Big crowds Though attendance dropped slightly for the third consecutive season, the Angels topped three million in attendance for the 11th consecutive season in 2013. Only one team in the American League (the New York Yankees) can match that streak. But last year’s total of 3,019,505 fans drawn to Angel Stadium was the lowest of Arte Moreno’s decade as owner. Not coincidentally, the Angels have missed the playoffs each of the past four seasons.
Staff shakeup Despite speculation throughout the season that he might be fired, Mike Scioscia survived and returns for his 15th season as Angels manager. But his staff underwent some major renovations. Hitting coach Jim Eppard and bench coach Rob Picciolo were dismissed. Dino Ebel moves from third-base coach to bench coach, and two former Angels returned to the fold. Don Baylor was hired as hitting coach and Gary DiSarcina as third-base coach. In addition, the Angels added two positions — assistant hitting coach (Dave Hansen) and player information coach (Rick Eckstein). Both Hansen and Eckstein have been hitting coaches at the major-league level before.
Stadium talk The Angels have begun a potentially acrimonious negotiation with the city of Anaheim over a new lease for the team at Angel Stadium. Amid veiled threats from ownership about building a new stadium elsewhere, the Anaheim City Council agreed to open negotiations on a new lease and grant the Angels an extension on their opt-out clause from 2016 to 2019. The current lease runs through 2029, and the Angels are seeking massive concessions from the city in order to finance approximately $150 million in renovations.
For the Astros, it’s time to move forward. Coming off three consecutive 100-loss seasons, including a club-record 111 losses last year that included a franchise-record 15-game losing skid to end the season in their first year in the American League, the Astros are poised to take a step forward in their rebuilding process after bringing in some pieces this winter that should make them more competitive. In 2014, they should have the makings of a legitimate major-league lineup and bullpen to go along with a promising young rotation. The Astros finished the season with a payroll of about $13 million following years of trading away established players — including pitcher Bud Norris last year — in exchange for prospects. That allowed them to rebuild their minor-league system into one of the best in baseball, which should set them up well for the future. But knowing they couldn’t afford another 100-loss season while they waited on the kids to arrive in Houston, the Astros opened their pocketbook and added about $30 million in payroll by signing starting pitcher Scott Feldman to a three-year, $30-million deal and inking relief pitchers Jesse Crain, Chad Qualls and Matt Albers to bolster baseball’s worst bullpen. The team also made a trade to acquire center fielder Dexter Fowler from the Rockies and plan to plug him into the leadoff spot, giving the Astros a solid 1-2-3 combo at the top of the order with Fowler hitting first, second baseman Jose Altuve hitting second and All-Star catcher Jason Castro batting third.
The Astros have built a wealth of young starting pitching in their system over the last few years, and a few of those promising arms were anchoring the youngest rotation in baseball at the end of the season. What was missing was an established veteran, which led to the signing of Feldman, who split last year between the Cubs and Orioles. For much of the second half of 2013, the Astros went with a six-man rotation in which all were 25 years old or younger. That included rookie sensation Jarred Cosart, who flirted with a no-hitter during his July 12 major-league debut against Tampa Bay and wound up going 1–1 with a 1.95 ERA in 10 starts. He’ll be joined in the 2014 rotation by lefty Brett Oberholtzer, who was 4–5 with a 2.24 ERA in 10 starts (two complete games). Also returning is lefty Dallas Keuchel, who was 6–8 with a 4.90 ERA as a starter and tied with Lucas Harrell for the team lead in innings. The Astros signed veteran Jerome Williams — yes, he’s still in the league — in early February to add depth. It appears Williams will begin the season in the rotation. The highly regarded Brad Peacock, who was 4–3 with a 3.67 ERA in his last 12 starts, and Harrell, who had a disastrous 2013 after a breakout 2012, will be back pushing for a spot.
This was by far the Astros’ weakest link last year, especially after the club traded veteran reliever Jose Veras to the Tigers at the deadline. What followed was a series of late-inning meltdowns, as manager Bo Porter threw a bevy of young arms into closing roles without any success. The Astros led the majors in blown saves and had the highest bullpen ERA, so adding some veteran arms to the mix was the team’s No. 1 task in the offseason. The Astros signed Qualls and Albers — both of whom were drafted and developed by the Astros — and veteran Crain. Houston traded for Anthony Bass. None of the four has closing experience, however. While taking their lumps in the bullpen last year, the Astros did get a good look at arms with some upside in rookies Josh Fields, Chia-Jen Lo, Josh Zeid and Kevin Chapman. They should play even bigger roles during their second seasons in 2014. Alex White, who missed all of last year following Tommy John surgery, is competing for a spot as well.
Altuve slipped a little both offensively and defensively in 2013 following an All-Star campaign the season before, but the club liked him enough to sign him to a budget-friendly four-year contract extension in July. When he’s hot, there may not be a tougher out in the league. While former No. 1 overall pick Carlos Correa, a shortstop, makes his way through the minors, the club plans to get an extended look in 2014 at shortstop Jonathan Villar. The speedster made his debut at 22 last year and hit .243, but he stole 18 bases in 58 games and dazzled with his speed. He also struggled mightily on defense, making16 errors, and didn’t always make the best decisions on the bases.
The Astros found their third baseman of the future, thanks to a breakout 2013 season by Matt Dominguez, acquired in 2012 from the Marlins in the Carlos Lee trade. Dominguez was one of the best defensive third basemen in the AL and hit .241 with 21 homers and 77 RBIs at 23 years old for much of the season. Across the diamond at first base, things aren’t quite as settled. Brett Wallace, Chris Carter and Carlos Peña split playing time at first base last season, and only Carter returns. The slugger provided most of Houston’s punch with 29 homers and 82 runs batted in, while also setting the club record with 212 strikeouts The Astros acquired Jesus Guzman as an option to share time with Carter. Slugger Jonathan Singleton, one of the club’s top prospects, should be in the mix at some point this year.
Fowler will patrol the spacious center field of Minute Maid Park after doing the same at Coors Field the previous six years. He came to the Astros via trade and instantly becomes one of the club’s best offensive weapons and gives them a legitimate leadoff hitter. Astros leadoff hitters had a combined on-base percentage of .310 last year; Fowler's was .369. Robbie Grossman figures to start in left field, and he did enough during the second half of his rookie season to deserve a longer look. He struggled in his first stint with the club (hitting .198) but came back to Houston and hit .322 from July 28 to the end of the season and showed a little pop. Right field figures to be a mix between L.J. Hoes and Marc Krauss, although top prospect George Springer could play his way into the lineup. Springer is a center fielder, but the addition of Fowler means the club could move him to right field.
A former first-round pick by the Astros, Castro was finally healthy last year and wound up having an All-Star season. He should hit third in the lineup in 2014 after batting .276 with 18 homers and 56 RBIs last year. He missed the final three weeks of the season after he had a cyst removed from the surgically repaired knee that he injured prior to the 2011 season. Switch-hitting Carlos Corporan has proven to be a solid backup both offensively and behind the plate for Castro, and the club is also high on rookie Max Stassi, who suffered a concussion in his second career game last year and wound up playing only three games at the major-league level.
Krauss should get the bulk of the at-bats at the designated hitter. The bench isn’t deep. Corporan is a steady hand at catcher. Veteran Cesar Izturis is a solid defender in the middle infield, but provides very little offense thus can’t be counted on as a pinch-hitter. Krauss and J.D. Martinez are power threats who can play outfield and DH.
This will be the third year of general manager Jeff Luhnow’s ambitious overhaul of the roster. The organization has made huge strides in the minor leagues, but with the farm system stocked and the franchise now willing to spend some money, the pressure mounts on Luhnow to start winning more games. Porter made some rookie mistakes, but he held a young team together during 111 losses.
The Astros will probably be bottom-feeders in the league once again, but they have improved and should benefit from the arrival of more of their top prospects, including Springer, Singleton and pitcher Asher Wojciechowski. The veteran additions they made should make them more competitive on a nightly basis, but meaningful baseball in Houston in September is still a few years away.
CF Dexter Fowler (S)
New acquisition gives the Astros a dynamic presence at top of lineup with a career OBP of .365.
2B Jose Altuve (R)
Finished last season with a .283 batting average and 35 steals after a torrid stretch in September.
C Jason Castro (L)
The team’s MVP in 2013 when he hit .276 with 18 homers and 56 RBIs and was an All-Star.
1B Chris Carter (R)
Carter set the club record for strikeouts in a season with 212, but he mashed 29 homers and drove in 82.
3B Matt Dominguez (R)
A steady hand at third base, Dominguez showed surprising power in ’13 with 21 homers and 77 RBIs.
DH Marc Krauss (L)
The broad-shouldered Krauss made his debut last year and flashed some impressive raw power from left side.
RF L.J. Hoes (R)
Acquired from the Orioles in the Bud Norris trade, Hoes is still trying to establish himself in majors.
LF Robbie Grossman (S)
Grossman got better with more playing time and wound up hitting .268 with a .332 on-base percentage.
SS Jonathan Villar (S)
His speed makes him one of the most exciting players to watch, but he needs more discipline in his game.
C Carlos Corporan (S)
Did a solid job while backing up Jason Castro, hitting .225 with seven homers and 20 RBIs.
1B Jesus Guzman (R)
The Astros acquired him in a trade from the Padres as a right-handed option at first base with Brett Wallace.
OF J.D. Martinez (R)
The Astros removed him from 40-man roster after tough 2013, but he had a big winter in Venezuela.
INF Cesar Izturis (S)
The veteran won a Gold Glove and made an All-Star team back in the mid-2000s. More recently, he hit just .225 in only 143 games for four different teams over the past three seasons.
RH Scott Feldman
The lone veteran in the rotation; the Astros needed someone to eat innings and mold youngsters.
RH Jarred Cosart
Former top prospect had a dazzling debut in 2013. Now we’ll find out what he can do in a full season.
LH Brett Oberholtzer
Not considered one of the club’s top minor-league arms, but opened eyes with his solid debut season.
LH Dallas Keuchel
Bounced between the rotation and bullpen last year as the Astros shuffled starters. He’s better suited to start.
RH Jerome Williams
After being out of baseball in 2010, Williams set a career high in innings in 2012, then surpassed that total last season in 25 starts for the Angels.
RH Chad Qualls (Closer)
Returns to Houston as most experienced member of a young bullpen and the likely candidate to close games.
RH Matt Albers
Albers, who was traded from Astros in 2007, returns to hold down a back-end spot. He’s a strike-thrower.
RH Josh Fields
Former Rule 5 Draft pick was only Astros reliever to last entire season on roster, and showed promise.
RH Jesse Crain
Veteran put up tremendous numbers during All-Star season before injuries forced him to miss second half.
LH Kevin Chapman
Will take over as the situational lefty in the bullpen following the departure of Wes Wright.
RH Josh Zeid
Made 24 relief appearances in final two months of last season, posting a 1.23 ERA in September.
RH Lucas Harrell
Pitched in long relief last year after struggling as a starter, though he could wind up back in rotation.
2013 Top Draft Pick
Mark Appel, RHP
After taking a 17-year-old infielder out of Puerto Rico with their first pick in the 2012 draft, the Astros took Appel, a polished right-handed pitcher from Stanford, with the top selection last year. He was drafted high by the Pirates a year earlier and chose to return for his senior season at Stanford, where he was 10–4 with a 2.12 ERA. Appel, who was born in Houston and has tons of family in the area, made 10 combined starts between Class A Quad Cities and short-season Tri-City, going 3–1 with a 3.79 ERA. Appel, 22, will come to major-league camp this spring, but he’s not going to be competing for a spot in the rotation. Expect the Astros to allow him to pitch a full season in the minor leagues before they hope he becomes the ace of their staff sometime in 2015.
SS Carlos Co rrea (19)
Was the second-youngest player in the Midwest League and still led league in OPS (.872) and was third in batting average (.320).
OF George Springer (24)
Put together a monster season, hitting combined .303 with 37 homers, 108 RBIs and 45 steals between Double-A and Triple-A.
2B-OF Delino DeShields Jr. (21)
Will make the move to center field at Class AA this year after hitting .317 as a second baseman at Class A Lancaster.
1B Jonathan Singleton (22)
Should make major-league debut following tough 2013 season that included 50-game suspension for violating minor league baseball’s drug policy.
RHP Lance McCullers Jr. (20)
First full pro season for fire-baller resulted in 117 strikeouts in 104.2 innings at Class A Quad Cities.
RHP Mike Foltynewicz (22)
One of the hardest throwers in the system, he should begin the year in starting rotation at Triple-A.
SS Nolan Fontana (22)
An on-base machine, Fontana drew 102 walks in 104 games for Class A Lancaster in ’13.
RF Domingo Santana (21)
Has a big-time arm and can hit for power, mashing 25 homers at Double-A last year.
Beyond the Box Score
Junior Express Reid Ryan, the son of Hall of Fame pitcher Nolan Ryan, was named the Astros’ president of business operations on May 17. Ryan founded the Double-A Corpus Christi Hooks (Astros) and Triple-A Round Rock Express (Rangers) and was hired by owner Jim Crane to help restore some goodwill in Houston.
See you in court Crane filed a lawsuit in November against former owner Drayton McLane, Comcast and NBC Universal, saying the team had lost tens of millions of dollars or more because of what the plaintiffs contend to be an inflated television deal that was negotiated by McLane, Comcast and the owner of the NBA’s Houston Rockets. McLane sold the Astros to Crane’s group in November 2011.
Springer has sprung Outfielder George Springer had one of the finest seasons in minor-league history en route to Texas League Player of the Year honors. In 2013, he became the first minor leaguer in franchise history and the first since Grant Desme in 2009 to hit 30 homers and steal 30 bases in the same season.
Coaching turnover The Astros made a few changes to their coaching staff for 2014. Brent Strom returns to the Astros as pitching coach, the same role he held in 1996. Pat Listach (first-base coach) joined the organization, and Craig Bjornson returned as the bullpen coach for the second time in three years. Dave Trembley, who served as third-base coach, took over as bench coach, with former bench coach Eduardo Perez moving to the third-base box.
Top pick three-peat For the third consecutive year, the Astros will have the first pick in the MLB Draft in June. After taking shortstop Carlos Correa with the first pick in 2012, the Astros took Stanford pitcher Mark Appel with the top pick in 2013. They are the first team to have the No. 1 pick three years in a row.
Celebrating equality The Astros will play host to Major League Baseball’s Civil Rights Game on May 30 at Minute Maid Park against the Orioles. The game, which will be televised nationally on MLB Network, was developed by MLB to pay tribute to those who fought on and off the field for equal rights for all Americans.
Hope for the future? The Astros set a franchise record by putting six of their minor-league affiliates in the playoffs. Class A Quad Cities and short-season Tri-City both won their respective league championships.