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Path: /mlb/new-york-mets-2012-preview-0

New York Mets

The Phillies rule the division. The Braves are loaded with pitching. The Marlins spent big in the winter. And the Nationals have dynamic young stars. The Mets? They’ll show up — as long as they keep getting loans to keep the business up and running, anyway. There’s little reason for optimism at Citi Field, where attendance is slipping fast and only blind loyalists expect the Mets to avoid the basement of the National League East.

For all of their injury woes, the Mets somehow had five starters make at least 25 starts apiece last season, which is often a predictor of success. Problem was, their five were decidedly mediocre, going 50–55, with only one starter, knuckleballer R.A. Dickey, posting an ERA below 4.40. Four of the five will return this season, with ace Johan Santana taking the place of Chris Capuano, a one-year fill-in who led the team in strikeouts and then signed with the Dodgers. Serious shoulder surgery limited Santana to only two starts for Class A St. Lucie last season, and the Mets are cautiously hopeful that he will be ready for Opening Day. That may be asking too much, but it seems at least as likely as Dillon Gee, Jonathon Niese and Mike Pelfrey all rising from back- to front-end kind of starters. Gee, Niese and Pelfrey struggled on the road, and they could be exposed this season, with outfield fences now normalized at Citi Field. Dickey, improbably, is the old reliable, finishing the season with 12 quality starts in a row. At $4.25 million this season, Dickey is doubly rare for the Mets: a good player, and an actual bargain.

The Mets needed a bullpen makeover after their 2011 group posted a 4.33 ERA to rank 28th out of 30 teams, ahead of only the Astros and the Twins. So in a market rich with closers, the Mets decided it was wiser to spread their limited funds on multiple arms rather than one big name for the ninth inning. To that end, they signed Jon Rauch and Frank Francisco while trading for Ramon Ramirez, all on the same night at the winter meetings. Rauch and Ramirez (one of the most underrated and reliable relievers of the last few years) should be capable setup men for Francisco, who cost $12 million over two years after a dominant second half with Toronto. Francisco is a hard thrower, combining a splitter with a fastball that averages more than 94 miles per hour. He has 368 career strikeouts in 334 career innings. Holdovers Manny Acosta and Bobby Parnell offer depth in the middle innings. Tim Byrdak, a useful lefty, will miss the first month with a tron meniscus. D.J. Carrasco and Pedro Beato offer depth.

Middle Infield
The Mets made little effort to retain Jose Reyes, understanding that they could never match the motivated, cash-rich Miami Marlins. So Reyes moved on, for six years and $106 million, leaving the Mets with Ruben Tejada in his place. As backup plans go, it’s not too bad — Tejada is only 22 and had a .360 on-base percentage while accumulating 376 plate appearances last season. At second base, the Mets want Daniel Murphy’s bat in the lineup and will do all they can to make the position feel natural to him. Last spring, Murphy hop-scotched around the infield and did not have a set position. “This spring going in,” manager Terry Collins says, “if we concentrate and say, ‘Hey, look, you’re going to get the majority of your playing time at second base,’ I think you’re going to see a little bit more comfort when he takes the field.”

Owner Fred Wilpon stung David Wright early last season by telling The New Yorker that Wright was not a superstar. It was a rude thing to say about the team’s marquee player, who never seems to turn down a charity appearance on behalf of the team — but it was pretty much accurate. Before the Mets moved to Citi Field, Wright had four consecutive seasons with an OPS of .912 or better. In the three years at their new home, his highest OPS is .856. The Mets have brought in the fences this season, which could help Wright rediscover his opposite-field stroke, and they have to hope he moves better in the field after missing time last season with a stress fracture in his back. First baseman Ike Davis never played after May 10 because of a serious ankle injury, but he should be back and ready to resume his career as one of baseball’s top young first basemen. He lacks the power of slugging first basemen like Prince Fielder, Ryan Howard, Albert Pujols and Mark Teixeira, but at 25, Davis’ career arc is headed in the right direction.

In hindsight, the Mets’ four-year, $66 million contract for Jason Bay seems quite foolish, as his two Mets seasons have been disastrous. The Mets need Bay to be the offensive threat he once was, and maybe, with the smaller dimensions at home this season, he can again be the run producer a legitimate corner outfield should be. Bay has been adequate in left field, and the Mets believe they’ve improved defensively in center field with the addition of Andres Torres from the Giants. Torres helped the Giants win the 2010 World Series, but that seems like an aberration in an otherwise ordinary career. Right fielder Lucas Duda thrived after the trade of Carlos Beltran, hitting .315 with a .919 OPS over the final two months of the season. Duda is big and burly, but his bat earns him a spot in the lineup, and with Davis back at first base, right field is the best place to put him.

Josh Thole was born Oct. 28, 1986, in Breese, Ill. That same day, in New York City, an estimated 2.2 million people lined the streets of Manhattan for a ticker-tape parade, exulting in the glory of the Mets’ World Series championship. Thole would love to be behind the plate the next time the Mets win a title, and at his age, he could have staying power. He held his own in 2011, with a .268 average and 40 runs batted in over 114 games as the Mets’ primary catcher. But while Thole caught 44 percent of potential base-stealers in 2010, that figure dropped to 21 percent with more exposure last season. Thole, who was mostly a first baseman early in his minor league career, also led the league in passed balls (16) and admitted to a lack of confidence on defense. Yet with no viable starter ready to supplant him in the system, the Mets will continue to trust in Thole and dream big dreams.

The Mets have little reason to spend money on their bench, which seems likely to be filled by fringe major leaguers and prospects or non-roster invitees who make a good impression in Port St. Lucie this spring. Justin Turner could see some playing time at second base, although Ronny Cedeno will be the primary middle infielder off the bench. Scott Hairston is a valuable pinch-hitter with some pop who can play multiple positions. Mike Baxter will get some opportunities to pinch-hit.

The Mets might not win many games, but it won’t be for lack of effort. Collins demands it, and his team displayed plenty of grit to even flirt with .500 last season. General manager Sandy Alderson and a sharp baseball operations staff will try to give Collins pieces to keep the team respectable enough to get the fans back. The Wilpons continue to seek investors while maintaining majority control of a franchise that incurred $70 million in losses last year.

Final Analysis
Until the Mets completely settle their shaky finances, they will continue to avoid pricey additions, making the development of their mediocre farm system critically important. The upside is that their prospects should have plenty of opportunity to prove themselves, as Davis and Duda have done in recent seasons. But there’s hardly enough star power to make the Mets a playoff contender. The Mets already squandered the Reyes era without reaching the World Series. Wright is a proud company man, but at this point he seems to be lingering by the exit.





Batting Order
CF Andres Torres (S)
Profiles as a classic fourth outfielder who overachieved in 2010, but Mets will see if he’s more.
2B Daniel Murphy (L)
Will work extensively on the fundamentals of second base, to keep bat in lineup and avoid further injury.
3B David Wright (R)
If traded, his option for 2013 is voided and he can be a free agent after the 2012 season.
RF Lucas Duda (L)
Must get really tired of opposing PA announcers playing “Camptown Races” when he bats.
LF Jason Bay (R)
His 18 homers in two Mets seasons are half the total he hit for Boston in 2009.
1B Ike Davis (L)
Had 20 RBIs in month of April, one of only 12 Mets ever to do so.
C Josh Thole (L)
After a slow start, hit .299 from May 26 through the end of last season.
SS Ruben Tejada (R)
If he can maintain his .360 OBP from 2011, he could rise to the top of the order.

UT Scott Hairston (R)
Can play second base or any outfield spot and provides some pop — hit seven HRs in 132 ABs in 2011.
2B Justin Turner (R)
Hit .350 (35-for-100) with runners in scoring position last season.
C Mike Nickeas (R)
Didn’t hit much at Class AAA, but manager Terry Collins likes his defense and attitude.
IF Ronny Cedeno
A .246 career hitter, but a solid defender at both short and second.
1B/OF Mike Baxter
Queens native has played in 709 minor league games, 31 games in the majors.

LH Johan Santana
After a year lost to shoulder surgery, how close can he be to the ace of old?
RH R.A. Dickey
Knuckleballer took a while to establish himself, but has many good years ahead.
RH Mike Pelfrey
Handed the Opening Day starting job last season — and proved he’s not an ace.
LH Jonathon Niese
Intercostal strain ended a promising season in August; can he move beyond a .500 pitcher?
RH Dillon Gee
Opponents’ batting average went up every month from June through September.

RH Frank Francisco (Closer)
New closer’s ERA was 5.92 at the All-Star break in 2011, but 1.37 thereafter.
RH D.J. Carrasco
Had a September to forget, allowing 21 hits in only seven innings.
LH Tim Byrdak
Across 415 career games, lefties are hitting just .206 off the former Rice Owl, but a torn meniscus will keep him out for a month or so.
RH Pedro Beato
Rule 5 pick started his MLB career with streak of 18.2 innings without allowing an earned run. Likely to start the season on the DL.
RH Bobby Parnell
Flamethrower averaged more than a strikeout per inning for first time in career.
RH Manny Acosta
Has a 3.22 ERA in 85 games for the Mets last two seasons, with more strikeouts than innings.
RH Ramon Ramirez
Of the six pitchers with at least 275 appearances since 2008, Ramirez has the lowest ERA, at 2.77.
RH Jon Rauch
Physically imposing at 6'10", 290 pounds, but fastball averaged just 89.5 MPH last season.

Other teams' 2012 Previews:

American League National League
Baltimore Orioles Arizona Diamondbacks
Boston Red Sox Atlanta Braves
Chicago White Sox Chicago Cubs
Cleveland Indians Cincinnati Reds
Detroit Tigers Colorado Rockies
Kansas City Royals Houston Astros
Los Angeles Angels Los Angeles Dodgers
Minnesota Twins Miami Marlins
New York Yankees Milwaukee Brewers
Oakland A's New York Mets
Seattle Mariners Philadelphia Phillies
Tampa Bay Rays Pittsburgh Pirates
Texas Rangers San Diego Padres
Toronto Blue Jays San Francisco Giants
  St. Louis Cardinals
  Washington Nationals

<p> There’s little reason for optimism at Citi Field, where attendance is slipping fast and only blind loyalists expect the Mets to avoid the basement of the National League East.</p>
Post date: Monday, April 2, 2012 - 17:04
Path: /mlb/miami-marlins-2012-preview-0

Miami Marlins

It was the spending spree heard ’round the baseball world. In the span of a few dizzying December days, the newly recast Miami Marlins shelled out $191 million to sign three prominent free agents. And that outlay would have been even richer if Albert Pujols and/or C.J. Wilson hadn’t spurned the Marlins to sign with the Angels instead. In the process, Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria didn’t just bring Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle and Heath Bell into the crowded South Florida sports scene. Loria also served notice that these new Marlins would be doing business in a very different sort of way. With a new 37,000-seat, retractable-roof ballpark set to open this season in downtown Miami, the Marlins have gone from the team with the worst lease in baseball and a starter-kit payroll to a legitimate factor in the annual race for top-shelf talent. And to think, when Ozzie Guillen was brought in as the new manager to succeed the retiring Jack McKeon at season’s end, one of the first questions was about ownership’s willingness to spend on player payroll.

One of the biggest reasons the Marlins lost 90 games in 2011, second-most in Loria’s nine seasons as owner, was another disappointing performance by the starting rotation. Signing Buehrle, author of 11 straight 200-inning seasons, to a four-year, $58 million contract, was a great place to start. But if the Marlins want to finish higher than 12th in ERA as a rotation — which is where their 4.23 ERA and 42–60 cumulative record landed them last season — they will need to keep ace righthander Josh Johnson healthy. Johnson was limited to just nine starts last season as his comeback from early season shoulder woes kept getting pushed back. The Marlins made a splash in early January by shipping Chris Volstad to Chicago for embattled starter Carlos Zambrano. The team is hoping that Zambrano, who went 9–7 with a 4.82 ERA with the Cubs before he was suspended in August, will thrive playing for his friend, Guillen. He’s a risk, though the Cubs are paying a reported $15 million of his $18 million salary in 2012. Ricky Nolasco, who signed a three-year extension before last season, tested the club’s patience with his erratic showings. However, Nolasco still led the staff with 206 innings. Anibal Sanchez has put together back-to-back seasons of 195-plus innings for the first time in his injury-plagued career and appears to have turned the corner.

Sixteen closers have reached the 40-save mark over the past three seasons, but Bell is the only one to do it three years running. That, along with Bell’s degree from the Trevor Hoffman School of Closer Leadership, made it seem a little more sensible to authorize a three-year, $27 million deal for the former Padres closer. That’s two-and-a-half times what the Marlins had ever paid their primary closer going into a season. Juan Oviedo, formerly Leo Nuñez, was displaced by the Bell signing and should become the primary setup man. Righthanders Edward Mujica, Ryan Webb and Steve Cishek and veteran lefties Randy Choate and Michael Dunn will round out the bullpen.

Middle Infield
Reyes should be a defensive upgrade over Hanley Ramirez, who still managed to lead the team in errors (14) despite missing 70 games last year. Pairing Reyes with second baseman Omar Infante, who re-upped for two years at $8 million total, should give the Marlins a chance to shine up the middle. Infante ranked fourth in range factor among all big league second basemen, a tribute in part to longtime infield guru Perry Hill, who retired after the season. Offensively, Reyes is just the dynamic sort of leadoff presence Guillen wanted for his lineup. However, the Marlins training staff will have to do a better job of keeping him on the field than their Mets counterparts did over the years.

Don’t believe the hype. No, Ramirez didn’t demand a trade or a fat contract extension in the wake of the Reyes signing. That’s not to say Ramirez was ecstatic about being asked to change positions after six full seasons in the majors, but he’s professional enough to understand what’s at stake this season — both personally and for this franchise. Coming off surgery on his left shoulder will make it tougher for Ramirez to make the transition to the hot corner, but he’s a good enough athlete to figure it out. If he does it sooner than later, the left side of the Marlins’ infield should have ridiculous range. Gaby Sanchez returns at first base after the push for Pujols fell about $50 million short. There won’t be any hard feelings there, not after Sanchez followed his first All-Star selection with a miserable second half at the plate. Defensively, Sanchez has come a long way from prior experiments at third and behind the plate in the minors.

What opened the year as the third-youngest outfield trio since 1990 still has a bright future. Who occupies the middle spot in that future, however, has become an open question after injuries and lost momentum got Chris Coghlan sent back to Triple-A. The former NL Rookie of the Year (2009) will have to battle Emilio Bonifacio and Bryan Petersen for the job. The good news is that Mike Stanton returns in right field — this time as Giancarlo Stanton — and Logan Morrison, borderline tweets and all, is due back in left. That pair combined for 38 percent of the Marlins’ power production. Stanton is expected to take dead aim on that quirky, light-up sculpture the team is planning to unveil in left-center field at the new ballpark. He certainly figures to be the one to make it spin and blink more than anyone else in Marlins colors.

John Buck’s offense was about what most expected it would be after he was signed away from Toronto and the hitter-friendly American League. He still gave the Marlins the defense and staff leadership they hoped for when they gave him a three-year, $18 million deal. That 17 percent success rate against opposing base-stealers needs work, though, as a whopping 83 bags were swiped on his watch. In Buck’s defense, he caught a career-high 1,144 innings and was working for the first time in the South Florida heat.

The best place for Bonifacio, considering his versatility, is probably the same super-utility role he’s held the past few years. However, in light of his offensive growth, he will be given a chance to secure the starting job in center field. If that happens, Donnie Murphy could be the main option at utility infield, with Petersen and Scott Cousins back for outfield depth. Backup catcher Brett Hayes is a glove-first type whose bat likely limits his upside, but he handled himself well in his first full big league season. Greg Dobbs signed a two-year deal in January to serve as the team’s primary left-handed pinch hitter.

How different was this Marlins offseason? Put it this way: That $191 million was just $3 million shy of what the Marlins had spent to field their entire teams the previous five years (2007-11). Most of that change, no doubt, was tied to the new revenue streams that will accompany the long-awaited ballpark. However, there’s no denying the magnetic pull of Guillen. His strong relationship with Buehrle helped lure the durable lefty away from the Midwest, and his reputation as a player’s manager was cited by Reyes and Bell upon their signings as well. The front-office team of Larry Beinfest, Michael Hill and personnel man Dan Jennings has had to do more with less for so long that it should be interesting to see what kind of damage they can do now that the spending field has been evened up a bit.

Final Analysis
For all the hype about the Marlins’ offseason spending, the biggest factor in their ability to roar out of the NL East basement is the health of a pair of holdovers. Get 30 starts out of Johnson atop the rotation and 500 at-bats from a motivated Ramirez at third, and the possibilities for 2012 start to look pretty bright. If nothing else, having Guillen as the daily public spokesman for the franchise will keep them relevant and entertaining, regardless of the standings. After acting like a small-market franchise for virtually all of their two-decade existence, it’s a refreshing change to see the Marlins fall in line with such big-spending Miami brethren as the Heat and the Dolphins. Perhaps that third World Series crown isn’t as far off as some had started to believe.




Batting Order
SS Jose Reyes (S)
His addition gives Marlins two of the past three NL batting champions.
2B Omar Infante (R)
Slick fielder with range who led the league with 17 sacrifice bunts.
3B Hanley Ramirez (R)
His .243 average was down nearly 100 points from his career-high .342 mark in 2009.
RF Giancarlo Stanton (R)
Prodigious power hitter ranked fifth in the NL with 34 homers.
LF Logan Morrison (L)
On-base percentage dipped 60 points during injury-plagued sophomore season.
1B Gaby Sanchez (R)
Of his 19 home runs in 2011, only six of them came in the second half.
C John Buck (R)
Ranked last in OPS among 14 NL catchers with at least 275 plate appearances.
CF Emilio Bonifacio (S)
Played six different positions last year, showing up everywhere but catcher and first base.

C Brett Hayes (R)
Has thrown out 28 percent of attempted base-stealers the past two seasons.
INF Donnie Murphy (R)
Right wrist injury wiped out four months of his 2011 season.
INF Greg Dobbs (L)
Posted a .919 OPS in 30 pinch-hit plate appearances last season.
OF Chris Coghlan (L)
Former NL Rookie of the Year has struggled with knee, defensive problems.
UT Austin Kearns (R)
Likely to fill the last roster spot.
OF Bryan Petersen (L)
Was successful on seven of eight stolen base attempts. Likely to be the odd man out.

RH Josh Johnson
ERA has dropped four straight seasons, but must prove he can stay healthy after elbow, shoulder woes.
LH Mark Buehrle
Has produced 11 straight seasons of 200-plus innings since becoming a starter.
RH Ricky Nolasco
Led the National League in hits allowed with 244, one more than Chris Carpenter.
RH Carlos Zambrano
Three-time All-Star has plenty of baggage, but has the ability to win 15 games in Miami.
RH Anibal Sanchez
Led regular Marlins rotation in ERA and strikeouts, ranking sixth in the league in the latter category.

RH Heath Bell (Closer)
Only big league closer with 40 or more saves each of the past three seasons.
LH Randy Choate
Veteran specialist held lefties to .453 OPS before elbow injury shelved him in August.
RH Juan Oviedo
The deposed closer formerly known as Leo Nuñez averaged 30.7 saves the past three years.
LH Michael Dunn
Ex-Brave’s strikeout rate fell off by 24 percent de-spite staying in the NL East.
RH Edward Mujica
Strikeout/walk ratio of 4.5/1 was easily the best on the staff.
RH Steve Cishek
Durable sidewinder struck out 9.1 batters per nine innings in 2011.
RH Ryan Webb
Sinkerballer pitches to contact but keeps the ball in the park — gave up two HRs in 51 innings.

Other teams' 2012 Previews:

American League National League
Baltimore Orioles Arizona Diamondbacks
Boston Red Sox Atlanta Braves
Chicago White Sox Chicago Cubs
Cleveland Indians Cincinnati Reds
Detroit Tigers Colorado Rockies
Kansas City Royals Houston Astros
Los Angeles Angels Los Angeles Dodgers
Minnesota Twins Miami Marlins
New York Yankees Milwaukee Brewers
Oakland A's New York Mets
Seattle Mariners Philadelphia Phillies
Tampa Bay Rays Pittsburgh Pirates
Texas Rangers San Diego Padres
Toronto Blue Jays San Francisco Giants
  St. Louis Cardinals
  Washington Nationals
<p> It was the spending spree heard ’round the baseball world. In the span of a few dizzying December days, the newly recast Miami Marlins shelled out $191 million to sign three prominent free agents. After acting like a small-market franchise for virtually all of their two-decade existence, it’s a refreshing change to see the Marlins fall in line with such big-spending Miami brethren as the Heat and the Dolphins.</p>
Post date: Monday, April 2, 2012 - 16:42
Path: /mlb/atlanta-braves-2012-preview

Atlanta Braves

If not for the beer-drinking, chicken-eating pitchers’ scandal from the Red Sox clubhouse, the spotlight would have shined brighter on the Braves, who are also left to pick up the pieces from one of the most colossal September meltdowns in history. The Braves led the NL wild card by 8.5 games Sept. 5, only to lose it to the eventual World Series champion St. Louis Cardinals on the season’s final day. Unlike the Red Sox, who dumped Terry Francona, the Braves stuck by first-year manager Fredi Gonzalez, though the scrutiny in the post-Bobby Cox era will intensify. General manager Frank Wren didn’t make wholesale changes to the roster, saying that as it was constructed last Aug. 25, the Braves were on pace to win 96 games, with the fourth-best record in baseball. That thinking, and a lack of available funds, kept Wren from overhauling. With the Marlins having spent nearly $200 million on free agents to go along with a new manager and a new stadium, and the Nationals returning Stephen Strasburg and adding Gio Gonzalez to their rotation, the Braves will have company challenging the Phillies, who have won five straight NL East titles.

Not many teams can lose two All-Star-caliber pitchers — Jair Jurrjens (knee) and Tommy Hanson (shoulder) — in the final two months of the season and make a playoff run, but that’s the depth the Braves have in their rotation. They have standout prospects Mike Minor, Randall Delgado and Julio Teheran vying for a fifth spot in the rotation and Tim Hudson’s replacement while the ace is recovering from back surgery. They also provide insurance for Jurrjens, who’s faded each of the last two seasons with knee problems; and Hanson, who is hoping offseason rest and rehab gets his shoulder back to 100 percent. Hudson expects to be ready by May 1 despite herniated disc surgery. Not completely satisfied with how the youngsters were progressing in the spring, the Braves signed veteran Livan Hernandez, who had been released by Houston. Derek Lowe went from a workhorse to a burden on the rotation last season — he failed to go six innings in seven of 14 starts in the second half and lost his last five starts — and was traded to the Indians in a salary-dumping move. Had the Braves made the postseason, Brandon Beachy would have been their No. 2 starter. He’ll have to pitch deeper in games to improve on seven wins in 25 starts in 2011.

The Braves return NL Rookie of the Year Craig Kimbrel and his rookie-record 46 saves to anchor the bullpen. He blew eight saves and enters the season motivated by his last one in the final game against the Phillies. The 23-year-old rejoins left-handed setup men Jonny Venters and Eric O’Flaherty to give the Braves a back end that compares favorably with any in baseball. The key will be whether they are used more effectively after wearing down in 2011. Kris Medlen could help. The versatile righthander showed during the last week of last season that he was healthy after Tommy John surgery. If the Braves don’t need him in the rotation because of injuries or trades, he can help their bullpen depth. Rule 5 selection Robert Fish could be a factor.

Middle Infield
Dan Uggla could use some middle ground after a tumultuous 2011. Through his first three-plus months as a Brave, Uggla hit .173 before breaking out with a 33-game hitting streak, tied for the third-longest ever by a second baseman. He managed to maintain his power throughout, finishing with a career-high 36 homers. The Braves are counting on another 30-plus homers, like he’s hit each of the past five years. Uggla will break in a new double-play partner. Looking for an offensive upgrade at shortstop, the Braves parted ways with Alex Gonzalez, who hit .241 with .270 on-base percentage last year, and opened the door to 22-year-old rookie Tyler Pastornicky. Pastornicky is not the leather-flashing Gonzalez, and he’s played only 27 games above Double-A, but he hit .365 with a homer and seven steals in those 27 games for Triple-A Gwinnett. The Braves like his speed and grit and project him as a 20-steal threat.

By now the Braves know what they’re going to get from 39-year-old Chipper Jones, who had ACL surgery on his left knee in 2010 and arthroscopic surgery on his right knee in 2011. They figure on 120 to 130 games, with Martin Prado ready to spell him at third base. If they can get another .275 year with 15-20 homers like they did from Jones in 2011, the Braves will be pleased. At the other corner, first baseman Freddie Freeman hopes to avoid the sophomore slump his close friend Jason Heyward endured. Freeman’s swing isn’t as violent and his approach is more refined, giving the Braves confidence he can repeat his success. At times Freeman was the Braves’ best hitter coming down the stretch. If not for Kimbrel, Freeman would likely have been NL Rookie of the Year.

For the second straight offseason, the Braves sought pop in the outfield. They ranked second to last in the National League last year in home runs (41) and last in slugging percentage (.375), after ranking last among NL outfields in home runs (40) and 15th in slugging percentage (.389) in 2010. The Braves upgraded in center field at the trade deadline last year and have Michael Bourn through the end of the 2012 season. But they need Heyward to be the player he was as a rookie, not the injury-laden easy out he became last season when pitchers jammed him inside. Prado’s left field experiment was largely a flop. Whether he was focusing too much on learning a new position, or the five weeks he missed with a staph infection cost him his rhythm, he was a shadow of his 2010 All-Star self offensively.

Brian McCann’s five Silver Slugger awards and six trips to the All-Star game in his first six full seasons make the Braves the envy of the National League and maybe all of baseball. Even by his own lofty standards, McCann was on pace for a career year last year, but his season stalled after an oblique injury. He came back after only about two weeks and maintained that he was healthy upon his return, but his timing was off. He hit .180 with a .346 slugging percentage and 16 RBIs in 37 games after returning from the disabled list. He still hit .270 with 24 home runs for the season, the most by any catcher in the majors, but he shouldered significant blame for the Braves’ September fall-off. David Ross returns as his backup, giving the Braves a little pop, a great signal-caller and a veteran presence in the clubhouse.

Eric Hinske returns to bolster the bench, which is another area where the Braves saw production drop off a year ago. Hinske hit double-digits in homers for the second straight year but drove in just over half as many runs with 28 RBIs vs. 51 in 2010. Brooks Conrad, who was subsequently non-tendered, didn’t spark the Braves as he had in the past, and without Omar Infante and Prado like the year before, the bench didn’t provide much of an offensive lift. Matt Diaz returned via trade from the Pirates in August and should provide some right-handed power. The Braves added veteran shortstop Jack Wilson for insurance if Pastornicky struggles. But a calf injury has slowed Wilson, who may not be available for the first month.

Gonzalez enters the season determined not to overuse the back of the bullpen as he admittedly did in the first half of 2011. The Braves’ lack of offense and propensity for extra-inning games didn’t make it any easier. The Braves hope new hitting coach Greg Walker will help them get back to good fundamental offensive play, and that they won’t be the pull-happy team they turned into down the stretch.

Final Analysis
If the Braves are going bounce back from last season’s epic collapse and make a run in an ever-improving division, they’ll need to see significant improvement from players such as Heyward and Prado. To offset any potential injuries in their rotation, they’ll need some of their good young arms to pitch deeper into games, not just through the fifth inning. The NL East might be the most competitive in baseball, with both the Marlins and Nationals making significant steps forward and the Phillies a continuing threat with that vaunted rotation.




Batting Order
CF Michael Bourn (L)
First true leadoff hitter for Braves since Rafael Furcal in 2005; led majors with 61 stolen bases in 2011.
LF Martin Prado (R)
Followed All-Star season by hitting career-low .260; missed five weeks with staph infection.
3B Chipper Jones (S)
Underwent arthroscopic surgery on right knee last season, but still played 126 games, hit .275 with 18 HRs and 70 RBIs. Had more surgery in the spring and won’t be ready for Opening Day.
C Brian McCann (L)
Provides power in the middle of the lineup, but hit only .180 in final six weeks coming off oblique injury.
2B Dan Uggla (R)
His 33-game hitting streak was longest since Chase Utley’s 35-gamer in 2006.
1B Freddie Freeman (L)
Led the Braves in batting average as a rookie. Runner-up in Rookie of the Year race.
RF Jason Heyward (L)
Followed breakout rookie season with sophomore slump; benched for parts of stretch run.
SS Tyler Pastornicky (R)
Hit .314 in 117 games at Double-A and Triple-A combined last season, with 27 steals.

UT Eric Hinske (L)
Best power threat off bench, hitting double-digit homers each of past two seasons for a total of 21.
OF Matt Diaz (R)
Failed to homer in 116 games last season with Pirates and Braves, but hit .286 in 16 games for Atlanta.
C David Ross (R)
Braves were 28–14 in his starts, and 9–5 when he caught Tim Hudson.
OF Jose Constanza (L)
Speedster was a surprise spark for Braves last year, hitting .372 in first 23 games of call-up.
3B Juan Francisco (L)
Was hitting below .200 for Cincinnati in spring training when Braves acquired him.

RH Tim Hudson
Went at least seven innings in 10 of last 16 starts. Coming off back surgery and will miss at least the first month.
RH Tommy Hanson
10–4, 2.44 ERA in first half, but shoulder injury led to 1–3, 8.10 ERA in five second-half starts. Will be the Opening Day starter.
RH Jair Jurrjens
First-time All-Star after 12–3 first half, but knee problems cost him another September.
RH Brandon Beachy
Started 25 games as a rookie and had 10.7 Ks/nine innings, but had trouble finishing big inning.
LH Mike Minor
Poised to join rotation full-time after Braves won nine of his last 12 starts filling in for injured starters.
RH Randall Delgado
Held opponents to a .220 average over 35 innings in his seven starts last season. Either he or Hernandez will take the fifth spot until Hudson returns.
RH Livan Hernandez
Signed late in spring training as insurance for the youngsters and Jurrjens.

RH Craig Kimbrel (Closer)
Lived up to billing with rookie-record 46 saves but blew three saves in September.
LH Jonny Venters
Established as one of majors’ best relievers; only allowed 53 hits in 88 innings in 2011.
LH Eric O’Flaherty
Proved more than lefty specialist by leading all major league relievers with a 0.98 ERA.
RH Kris Medlen
Missed all but two outings in 2011 following Tommy John surgery.
RH Cristhian Martinez
Valuable long man, as evidenced by six shutout innings in 19-inning marathon vs. Pirates.
LH Yohan Flande
Earned a spot in the bullpen this spring. In eight games he gave up eight hits, struck out eight and walked eight.
RH Anthony Varvaro
Earned Fredi Gonzalez’s trust in call-up, allowing only four runs in 15 innings in September (2.40 ERA). Starts the season on the DL.
RH Julio Teheran
Had a dominant Triple-A season and held his own in three major league starts. Will start 2012 at Triple-A.

Other teams' 2012 Previews:

American League National League
Baltimore Orioles Arizona Diamondbacks
Boston Red Sox Atlanta Braves
Chicago White Sox Chicago Cubs
Cleveland Indians Cincinnati Reds
Detroit Tigers Colorado Rockies
Kansas City Royals Houston Astros
Los Angeles Angels Los Angeles Dodgers
Minnesota Twins Miami Marlins
New York Yankees Milwaukee Brewers
Oakland A's New York Mets
Seattle Mariners Philadelphia Phillies
Tampa Bay Rays Pittsburgh Pirates
Texas Rangers San Diego Padres
Toronto Blue Jays San Francisco Giants
  St. Louis Cardinals
  Washington Nationals

<p> The Braves are left to pick up the pieces from one of the most colossal September meltdowns in history. If they are going bounce back from last season’s epic collapse and make a run in an ever-improving division, they’ll need to see significant improvement from players such as Jason Heyward and Martin Prado.</p>
Post date: Monday, April 2, 2012 - 16:08
Path: /mlb/texas-rangers-2012-preview

Texas Rangers

The American League West race likely won’t be a runaway in 2012, as it was the past two seasons, but the Rangers remain the team to beat. They have the best infield in baseball and one of the top outfields. They received production from their catchers in 2011 that they hadn’t had since Ivan Rodriguez was in his prime. All that offense overshadows a young, talented rotation — which now includes Yu Darvish and Neftali Feliz — and some stingy relievers. The bullpen, which faltered early last season and prevented the Rangers from pulling away sooner, is one of the AL’s best. The two-time defending league champions have a chance to be better in 2012 and erase the sting of missing out on their first championship in a terrific World Series against St. Louis.

The biggest pitching story of the offseason was the Rangers’ pursuit of Darvish. The righthander agreed to terms in January after the Rangers bid a record $51.7 million for the posting fee. Darvish is seen as less of a risk than previous Japanese pitchers who came to the majors. He’s 25, 6'5" and has a fastball that clocks in the mid-90s. Darvish, 93–38 with a 1.99 ERA in Japan, is also a premium strike-thrower. While Darvish has ace potential, he won’t top the rotation. Colby Lewis, who resurrected his career in Japan, will likely get the Opening Day nod as the lone veteran on the staff after C.J. Wilson jumped to the Angels. Big things are expected from Derek Holland after he won 16 games in 2011. The Rangers rewarded him with a five-year, $28.5 million contract that takes him through the first year of free agency. Another lefthander, Matt Harrison, should be in the rotation after also breaking through last season with 14 wins. Feliz, the closer the past two seasons, is the most intriguing piece. He was thought to be a No. 1 starter when acquired in 2007 as part of the Mark Teixeira haul. Feliz will be paced, as Alexi Ogando was in 2011, but the Rangers expect him to succeed.

A weakness early last season, the Rangers’ bullpen became a strength down the stretch and in the playoffs. The team worked in the offseason to make sure there are no holes in 2012. The biggest move was the acquisition of free agent closer Joe Nathan to replace Feliz. Nathan returned last season after missing 2010 due to Tommy John surgery. He hit his stride in the season’s second half, though he is not the Joe Nathan of old when he saved 246 games over six seasons for the Twins. Mike Adams will work the eighth inning. The Rangers still have high hopes for righthander Koji Uehara, who struggled last season in Texas after being acquired from Baltimore at the trade deadline. Uehara’s ability to retire left-handed hitters was a factor in how aggressively the Rangers pursued lefty relief help. With Feliz and Darvish in the rotation, the Rangers had the option of moving Ogando back to the bullpen. He was an All-Star last year as a member of the rotation, but he showed in the postseason how effective he could be as a shutdown reliever. Scott Feldman, another starter, was a valuable late-season piece as a long man and spot starter.

Middle Infield
Second baseman Ian Kinsler, a two-time 30-30 man, and shortstop Elvis Andrus excel in all facets of the game and rate as two of the most exciting players in the game. The Rangers like Kinsler’s pop and knowledge of the strike zone atop the lineup. He finished with a team-high 89 walks and a .355 on-base percentage that helped offset a .255 batting average. Andrus, meanwhile, has hit ninth, first and second in his first three seasons, and has swiped at least 30 bases each year. But it’s not just the steals that make him and Kinsler so good on the bases. They both get terrific reads on balls put into play and go from first to third as well as anyone. Andrus is known as much for his glove as his legs. Though he committed a league-high (for a shortstop) 25 errors, he played the final 33 games without one. Many of his errors were on balls that average shortstops never reach. Kinsler’s 11 errors were second-most (among second basemen) in the league, but his .850 zone rating was second-best.

Adrian Beltre exceeded expectations in his first year, even though he missed all of August with a hamstring injury. He hit for power (32 homers) and average (.296) while playing Gold Glove defense at third base, all of which helped him shake the label that he performs only in a contract year. Beltre’s biggest impact was in the field. He was an instant upgrade over predecessors Michael Young and Hank Blalock, and he and Andrus combine to give the Rangers the best defensive left side of any infield in baseball. Across the diamond, though, first baseman Mitch Moreland enters 2012 dogged by doubts. He started 2011 well, hitting .300 the first two months. But an injured right wrist affected his swing in the second half, and he lost out on playing time. Young and Mike Napoli will also see time at first.

Talent isn’t an issue, but avoiding the disabled list has been a problem. Josh Hamilton and Nelson Cruz combined for 54 homers and 181 RBIs in 2011 even though Hamilton was down for more than a month early in the season and Cruz had two DL stints. Hamilton, who can be a free agent after the season, will play primarily in left field to keep his body fresh. Cruz, who saw David Freese’s two-out, two-strike drive sail over his head to tie Game 6 of the World Series, has a big arm in right field. Julio Borbon, Craig Gentry and Leonys Martin will compete for time in an unsettled center field. Hamilton could become the regular there if no one distinguishes himself during spring training, and fourth outfielder David Murphy would become the left fielder. That’s the alignment that has prevailed the past two postseasons.

Napoli developed into an all-around force, hitting for average and shedding the tag he acquired in Anaheim as a poor defensive catcher. He had always hit for power, but a torrid second half (.383) pushed his final average to .320. He fell 70 plate appearances short of qualifying for league-leader status, but was sixth in average, third in on-base percentage (.414) and first in slugging percentage (.631) among players with 400 plate appearances. Napoli also earned the trust of the pitching staff and threw out base runners at a far better rate than the Rangers had expected. The offense-defense combination made him the No. 1 catcher down the stretch and in the playoffs. Yorvit Torrealba won’t be glued to the bench. He caught a team-high 98 games in 2011, hitting .273 and throwing out 32.5 percent of attempted base-stealers. He will catch at least twice a week as the Rangers monitor the wear and tear of the Texas heat on their backstops.

Young will play first, second and third base again this season, but most of his time will be spent as a designated hitter. He adapted quickly to the role after being a regular in the field over his first 10 seasons, and finished up at .338 with 106 RBIs and 213 hits. Murphy is the team’s best pinch-hitter when he isn’t filling in for an injured outfielder, but the Rangers don’t call on their bench often. Torrealba has pinch-hitting experience from his days in the National League, but he is only 1-for-27 lifetime. Alberto Gonzalez is the leading candidate for a backup infielder.

Ron Washington has seen his record improve each of the past four seasons since he took over as manager in 2007. The Rangers play hard for him because of his enthusiasm and loyalty to the players. Highly regarded pitching coach Mike Maddux turned down two chances to become a manager during the offseason and will return to Texas. General manager Jon Daniels isn’t afraid to make midseason acquisitions to bolster the roster, and he’s attempting to keep a talented core together for the long haul.

Final Analysis
A third AL West title is within the Rangers’ grasp. The division got tougher when the Angels snagged Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson, but the Rangers didn’t go quietly through the offseason. Darvish and Feliz ooze talent and will fortify the rotation despite Wilson’s departure. The Rangers’ offense might be the most dynamic in baseball. With the bullpen built to avoid the early-season woes it encountered in 2011, the Rangers enter this season as the team to beat in the AL West.




Batting Order
2B Ian Kinsler (R)
Turned back critics of his .255 batting average with 32 home runs, 30 steals and a team-high 89 walks.
SS Elvis Andrus (R)
Ability to hit-and-run, bunt and steal bases makes him a table-setter for the middle of the lineup.
LF Josh Hamilton (L)
The 2010 MVP missed 36 games with an early-season arm injury but finished with 25 homers and 94 RBIs.
3B Adrian Beltre (R)
Had MVP-type numbers (.296 AVG, 32 HRs, 105 RBIs) despite missing 37 games; wowed with the glove.
DH Michael Young (R)
His first season primarily as DH resulted in 213 hits (tied for the MLB lead) and a career-high 106 RBIs.
RF Nelson Cruz (R)
Two stints on the DL prevented this slugger from hitting 30 homers, but he drove in a career-high 87 runs.
C Mike Napoli (R)
Acquired to bash lefthanders, Napoli was an all-around force at the plate and a pleasant surprise defensively.
1B Mitch Moreland (L)
The Rangers are hoping that an injured right wrist is behind him.
CF Julio Borbon (L)
Has been the Opening Day starter the past two seasons but hasn’t lasted.

OF David Murphy (L)
One of the best extra outfielders in the game typically gets off to a slow start before finishing strong.
C Yorvit Torrealba (R)
Will see plenty of playing time as the Rangers try to limit their catchers’ exposure to the Texas heat.
OF Craig Gentry (R)
The fastest player on the team is also the best defensive outfielder, and he made strides in 2011 at the plate.
INF Alberto Gonzalez (R)
The search for a steady hand to serve as a backup shortstop could end with Gonzalez.

RH Colby Lewis
Has registered consecutive 200-inning seasons and rates as the veteran leader of a young starting crop.
LH Derek Holland
A breakthrough 16–5 season and a near-shutout in Game 4 of the World Series has raised expectations.
RH Yu Darvish
All eyes will be on the Japanese superstar, who could wind up as a staff ace for several seasons to come.
RH Neftali Feliz
A reliever in his two-plus big league seasons, Feliz was groomed as a starter in minors and has ace potential.
LH Matt Harrison
It’s not often that a 14-game winner has to prove himself, but he’ll have to win a spot in spring training.

RH Joe Nathan (Closer)
Second half in Minnesota gave the Rangers confidence that he has recovered from Tommy John surgery.
RH Mike Adams
A top setup man, Adams will be the primary eighth-inning reliever in his first full season with the Rangers.
RH Alexi Ogando
Though an All-Star starter in 2011, Ogando goes to the bullpen role he excelled in during the postseason.
RH Koji Uehara
The Rangers are looking past the rough two final months of 2011 and expect him to be a key contributor.
RH Mark Lowe
No one questions the arm and the stuff, but he suffered periods of inconsistency throughout 2011.
RH Scott Feldman
Though he prefers starting, Feldman proved to be a valuable piece as a long man and spot starter.
LH Michael Kirkman
Lefties batted .214 vs. the 2005 fifth-round pick during his stint with the Rangers in 2011.
RH Yoshinori Tateyama
Allowed just 37 hits and whiffed 43 in 44 innings last season.

Other teams' 2012 Previews:

American League National League
Baltimore Orioles Arizona Diamondbacks
Boston Red Sox Atlanta Braves
Chicago White Sox Chicago Cubs
Cleveland Indians Cincinnati Reds
Detroit Tigers Colorado Rockies
Kansas City Royals Houston Astros
Los Angeles Angels Los Angeles Dodgers
Minnesota Twins Miami Marlins
New York Yankees Milwaukee Brewers
Oakland A's New York Mets
Seattle Mariners Philadelphia Phillies
Tampa Bay Rays Pittsburgh Pirates
Texas Rangers San Diego Padres
Toronto Blue Jays San Francisco Giants
  St. Louis Cardinals
  Washington Nationals

<p> The American League West race likely won’t be a runaway in 2012, as it was the past two seasons, but the Rangers remain the team to beat.</p>
Post date: Monday, April 2, 2012 - 14:18
Path: /mlb/seattle-mariners-2012-preview-0

Seattle Mariners

On the morning of July 6, 2011, the Mariners were 43-43 and two and a half games out of the AL West lead. Less than three weeks later, they were 43-60 and 15.5 games back. The 17-game losing streak came to define the Mariners' season, plunging them back into the same last-place abyss they had occupied in three of the previous five seasons. In the process, they reached new lows for offensive futility, posting franchise records for lowest batting average and most strikeouts. And despite bolstering their offense with the addition of Jesus Montero in a January trade, the Mariners are in danger of falling even further behind division rivals Los Angeles and Texas, both of which made significant moves over the winter. Despite small pockets of progress, and some promising young players, the Mariners appear to be nowhere close to contending any time soon.

The Mariners split up one of the best young rotation duos in the game when they traded Michael Pineda to the Yankees for Montero, a slugging catcher/DH, in arguably the biggest deal of the offseason. They still have Felix Hernandez as the No. 1 starter, who remains one of the elite pitchers in the game despite a rather mediocre (by his lofty standards) season in 2011._Newcomer Hisashi Iwakumi, a righthander signed out of the Japanese league in January, could slide into the No. 2 spot vacated by Pineda. Iwakumi was 24 games over .500 in five seasons in Japan with a 1.130 WHIP. Lefty Jason Vargas is locked in as the No. 3 starter, while righthander Blake Beavan and lefty Charlie Furbush figure to vie with veteran Kevin Millwood for the final two spots. Vargas, in his second full season as a starter, went 10-13 with a 4.25 ERA. He has averaged just under 200 innings over the past two years. If one of the starters falters, the Mariners can look to young guns Danny Hultzen, Erasmo Ramirez and James Paxton to camp to step into the rotation. Hultzen, the No. 2 overall pick last June out of the University of Virginia, is quite polished for someone who has yet to throw his first pitch in the minors, but it remains doubtful that the Mariners would allow him to break camp with the big league club.

The December signing of George Sherrill satisfied two different bullpen needs for the Mariners - veteran leadership, and help from the left side. Though he was once a solid closer, Sherrill is pretty much used strictly as a left-handed specialist these days, something for which the Mariners had an acute need. Despite being the subject of trade rumors all winter, Brandon League is back as the Mariners' closer, coming off a solid 2011 that saw him named to his first All-Star team. The former Blue Jay saved 37 games in his first season as a closer. Tom Wilhelmsen and Shawn Kelley are penciled in as right-handed setup men, but Chance Ruffin, acquired in the Doug Fister deal with Detroit, has enormous back-end potential. He struck out 60 in 48.2 innings pitched in the minors last season. Hector Noesi, acquired with Montero from the Yankees, can start or come out of the bullpen.

Middle Infield
Picked one spot behind Stephen Strasburg in 2009, second baseman Dustin Ackley arrived in Seattle last June with tons of hype, and despite some stumbles he proved himself worthy. His 2011 numbers may not leap off the page (.273/.348/.417), but that is solid production at Safeco. He should get better in 2012, with a year under his belt, but it is a bit disconcerting that his OPS declined in every month of the season. Ackley's double-play partner once again will be the sure-gloved Brendan Ryan, who hit just .248/.313/.326 in 2011. But on this Mariners team, numbers like those practically qualify him as a middle-of-the-order force. He is far from this team's worst problem.

First baseman Justin Smoak's first full year in the majors began with such promise - 12 homers by mid-June and an OPS that hovered in the mid-.800s until late June. But a thumb injury derailed him physically, and the death of his father brought untold mental anguish, and Smoak declined fast. He wound up hitting just .234/.323/.396. It goes without saying that an AL first baseman needs to do better than that. At third base, youngsters Kyle Seager and Alex Liddi, who looked solid down the stretch in 2011, will compete this spring for the regular job, with veteran Chone Figgins and his disastrous contract (which runs through 2013 with $17 million still owed) still the favorite. Figgins hit only .188 last season in 288 at-bats, almost 100 points below his career average. The Mariners hope a move to Figgins' more familiar role at the top of the order will spark the veteran who thrived in that position for the Angels.

Ichiro Suzuki arrived on these shores in 2001 at the age of 27, and 10 years later looked as if he hadn't aged a day. But that changed over the course of the 2011 season, when Ichiro suddenly seemed to have added those 10 years all at once. His paltry .272/.310/.335 line - easily career-worsts in all three - called into question his long-term future in Seattle (he is a free agent after the season). Of Ichiro's 1,733 games started, 1,720 of them have come out of the leadoff spot (the other 13 were all as the No. 3 hitter). But manager Eric Wedge has not committed to Suzuki as his leadoff hitter in 2012, after his career-low .310 OBP in 2011. On the other hand, the emergence of Mike Carp as an offensive force in the second half of 2011 - he hit 10 home runs in 212 at-bats after Aug. 1 - was arguably the team's best surprise of the year; he will likely split time between left field and designated hitter. In center field, former Gold Glover Franklin Gutierrez faces a pivotal year in which he has to do better at the plate than the anemic .224/.261/.273 he put up during an injury-plagued 2011. While he recovers from a torn pectoral muscle, Michael Saunders will assume the job in center.

The Mariners pulled off a surprising trade in November that netted them catcher John Jaso (in exchange for young pitcher Josh Lueke), who is likely to join veteran Miguel Olivo in a platoon for 2012. Jaso, who hits from the left side, struggled at the plate for Tampa Bay in 2011, but he is only two seasons removed from an impressive .263/.372/.378 year. Olivo, meantime, hit 19 homers for the Mariners in 2011, but his awful OBP (.253) and high strikeout rate (27.6 percent) put a serious drain on their offense. Montero will see the majority of his at bats as the DH unless he shows significant improvement defensively.

The Mariners are hoping Montero will provide some much-needed pop in the middle of the lineup. He hit 18 home runs in 463 at bats in Triple-A last year before impressing during a September call-up with the Yankees. The Mariners got almost no production from the position in 2011, with their DHs posting a combined OPS of .650 for the year. Casper Wells will see time as the fourth outfielder - if he doesn't beat out Carp - but also figures to get some ABs as the DH. Seager, Liddi and the odd man out in the catching platoon will form the bulk of the bench.

General manager Jack Zduriencik brought impeccable player-development credentials with him when he took over in October 2008, but after a promising debut in 2009 he has now overseen back-to-back last-place finishes, and one can imagine that if his 2012 youth movement doesn't pan out, then his days at the helm of the Mariners could be numbered. Wedge received a vote of confidence of sorts when his entire coaching staff was preserved, despite a last-place finish in 2011. Clearly, the Mariners franchise could use some stability in management, but to earn that Zduriencik and Wedge will need to win.

Final Analysis
With plenty of talent and youth around the diamond and on the pitching staff, the Mariners should be better than a 95-loss team in 2012. You can certainly build around a core of Hernandez, Paxton, Hultzen, Carp, Smoak, Montero and Ackley. But the Mariners are stuck in the brutal American League West, and with the Angels loading up this winter (Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson) and the two-time defending AL-champion Rangers still a force, a .500 record and a third-place finish would appear to be the outer limits of hope for the Mariners. And in a worst-case scenario, they could easily tumble back into a loss total in the 90s. There is little hope in the short term for this franchise.




Batting Order
3B Chone Figgins (S)
$36 million contract has been disaster, but a return to his old lead-off role could still salvage the deal.
2B Dustin Ackley (L)
Might be better as No. 2 hitter, but Mariners think he will become a big-time run-producer.
RF Ichiro Suzuki (L)
If his acute 2011 decline doesn't turn around, his days at leadoff could be numbered.
LF Mike Carp (L)
Batted .286/.325/.494 with 12 homers in second-half breakthrough in 2011. Sprained shoulder in Japan and is on the DL.
DH Jesus Montero (R)
Too young to be a full-time DH, not polished enough to be a full-time catcher, but his bat is MLB-ready.
1B Justin Smoak (S)
Improved numbers across the board in second big league season; needs to improve even more in 2012.
C John Jaso (L)
Offensive numbers slipped in 2011, but he hits righthanders very well.
SS Brendan Ryan (R)
Seattle pitchers love his glove at shortstop where he makes their jobs easier. Opposing pitchers love his bat at the plate where he makes their jobs easier.
CF Michael Saunders (L)
Will fill in while Franklin Gutierrez recovers from a torn pectoral muscle.

INF Kyle Seager (L)
Will fill in at 2B, SS and 3B. Carp's injury is an opportunity for Seager.
C Miguel Olivo (R)
Ability to crush left-handed pitching makes him perfect platoon-mate for Jaso.
3B Alex Liddi (R)
Mariners took a good look at him in September and liked what they saw.
OF Casper Wells (R)
Has 15 homers, 44 RBIs in only 340 career plate appearances.

RH Felix Hernandez
With all he's accomplished, amazing to think he'll still be only 25 on Opening Day.
LH Jason Vargas
Not the hardest thrower, but 10 wins, a 4.25 ERA and 201 innings for a bad team are impressive.
RH Hisashi Iwakumi
Went 107-69 in 222 games in Japan; won the Pacific League MVP in 2008 with a 21-4 record, 1.87 ERA.
RH Kevin Millwood
Veteran impressed with nine starts for Colorado last season. He was 4-3 and the Rockies won one of his no-decisions and the bullpen blew a four-run lead in the other.
LH Charlie Furbursh
Went 3-7 with a 6.62 ERA in 11 games (10 starts) after coming over from Detroit last July.
RH Blake Beavan
Big (6'7") Texan pitched his way into rotation discussion with impressive 2011 rookie year.

RH Brandon League (Closer)
Key to All-Star 2011 season was his career-low walk rate (1.5 per nine innings).
RH Tom Wilhelmsen
Thrived in eighth-inning audition as 27-year-old rookie in 2011.
RH Shawn Camp
Averaged 73 innings over the past three seasons with Toronto.
RH Shawn Kelley
Mariners hope 2009 standout is healthy again after two elbow surgeries.
LH George Sherrill
Former All-Star closer returns to Seattle as top lefty specialist.
RH Chance Ruffin
Flamethrower has chance to be closer some day if he reins in his walks.
RH Hector Noesi
Came out of the pen 28 times for the Yankees in 2011 but could pitch his way into the rotation.

Other teams' 2012 Previews:

American League National League
Baltimore Orioles Arizona Diamondbacks
Boston Red Sox Atlanta Braves
Chicago White Sox Chicago Cubs
Cleveland Indians Cincinnati Reds
Detroit Tigers Colorado Rockies
Kansas City Royals Houston Astros
Los Angeles Angels Los Angeles Dodgers
Minnesota Twins Miami Marlins
New York Yankees Milwaukee Brewers
Oakland A's New York Mets
Seattle Mariners Philadelphia Phillies
Tampa Bay Rays Pittsburgh Pirates
Texas Rangers San Diego Padres
Toronto Blue Jays San Francisco Giants
  St. Louis Cardinals
  Washington Nationals

<p> With plenty of talent and youth around the diamond and on the pitching staff, Seattle should be better than a 95-loss team in 2012. But the Mariners are stuck in the brutal American League West, and with the Angels loading up this winter (Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson) and the two-time defending AL-champion Rangers still a force, a .500 record and a third-place finish would appear to be the outer limits of hope.</p>
Post date: Monday, April 2, 2012 - 13:20
Path: /mlb/oakland-2012-preview-1

Oakland A's

Billy Beane's offseason left little doubt among A's fans that the team was shifting its focus beyond 2012. Beane traded away Trevor Cahill, Gio Gonzalez and Andrew Bailey, the only three players who have represented Oakland as All-Stars over the past three years. In return, the A's received a handful of prospects whom they plan to use to build toward the opening of their new ballpark, whenever that may be. Oakland did make a small splash by signing Cuban outfielder Yoenis Cespedes to a four-year, $36-million deal. Unless you count signing Manny Ramirez to a minor league deal knowing he must serve a 50-game suspension before being active, the A's were quiet in the free agency market. Beane has said he has no choice but to operate under the assumption that the A's will eventually be moving into a ballpark that produces enough revenue to let them compete. In the meantime, he's got a team with a skimpy payroll and almost no chance to contend in 2012.

The Opening Day starter will be Brandon McCarthy, a nomadic righthander whose career had been floundering until he busted out with a 3.32 ERA in 25 starts for the A's in 2011. The two true “aces” will likely start the season on the disabled list. The A's were optimistic about Dallas Braden's rehab from shoulder surgery, but shoulders are always tricky, so they'll be cautious with him, especially in a rebuilding year. But he will be ready months before Brett Anderson, who isn't expected back until midseason at best after undergoing Tommy John surgery last July. They bought some insurance with veteran Bartolo Colon, who was a revelation in the first half for the Yankees last year. If Colon's 2011 season, which came after being out of the big leagues for a year, wasn't a total fluke, which it may have been, he can eat innings and allow the A's not to rush so many young pitchers. The A's essentially have five pitchers fighting for the final two spots in the rotation (three if Braden starts on the DL). Graham Godfrey and Tyson Ross come back after bouncing between Triple-A and the majors with the A's, and Tom Milone and Brad Peacock who each had impressive cameos in the bigs last year before the A's acquired them this winter. If even two of those five can establish themselves as better-than-average big league starters sometime in 2012, the A's have a shot at a decent rotation in 2013 and beyond.

The A's could afford to deal Bailey and Craig Breslow (to Arizona, in the Cahill deal) because they still have Brian Fuentes and Grant Balfour, two veterans who have track records of late-inning success in the majors. Fuentes has 195 saves since 2005. Balfour has a 2.85 ERA over the past four seasons. Those two pitchers will each be free agents at the end of 2012, so they'll simply be holding the late innings warm while the A's figure out who their next young closer will be. One of the leading candidates is Fautino De Los Santos, who showed electric stuff at times in his rookie year in 2011. Joey Devine might also be a candidate. He missed two years because of Tommy John surgery, but he came back last year with a 3.52 ERA in 26 games. Ryan Cook was a closer in the Arizona system before he came to the A's in the Cahill deal.

Middle Infield
There were reports that Beane went into the winter with only one player on his untouchable list: Jemile Weeks. The second baseman came up in June and wasted little time establishing himself as someone who could hit and make an impact on the bases. His defense isn't quite what the A's had come to expect with Mark Ellis, though. Across the bag, Cliff Pennington is a very good defensive shortstop who has some offensive shortcomings. Pennington's numbers in 2010 and '11 were eerily similar - his OPS was .687 both years. It's a safe bet that he'll be somewhere in that range again, which makes him a below-average hitter, even for a shortstop.

Daric Barton looked like the long-term answer at first base after he showed significant defensive and offensive improvement three years in a row, but last season he started terribly and got hurt. He was a candidate to be non-tendered, but the A's re-signed him for $1.1 million, signaling that they plan to let him have a crack at getting back into their good graces. He is still recovering from shoulder surgery. They have plenty of candidates in Brandon Allen and Kila Ka'aihue (both acquired in trades since July) and the tantalizing Chris Carter, whose raw power allows him a long leash while the A's hope for him to put it together. Carter will start the year at AAA, but will return if he shows more consistency. At third, the A's seemed settled on Scott Sizemore as the answer, for the short term anyway, that is until he tore an ACL early in the spring and will miss the season. That left the A's scrambling a bit, but Adam Rosales and Josh Donaldson are the best options.

Halfway through the winter, the A's had an entire outfield worth of unproven players, but then in a two-week span in January, they re-signed Coco Crisp to play center and traded for Seth Smith to play left, then signed Cespedes in mid-February to complete the group. Cespedes offers good speed and power, but is still a little raw. He may look overmatched at times, but the A's will allow him to learn at the big-league level. A word of caution could be his maturity. That seemed to scare off a few teams. Crisp is an above average defender and he can be a dynamic player at the top of the lineup, but he's had injury problems over the past few years. With Weeks slated to lead off, and considering the dearth in the heart of the order, Crisp will be forced into the No. 3 hole. Smith has been a fairly consistent performer over his three full seasons in Colorado, but if he hit only 15-17 homers there, he's not likely to do better in Oakland. Smith is not such a proven commodity that the A's couldn't slide him to the bench if more than one of the young players proves worthy, though. Josh Reddick, who came from Boston in the Bailey deal, is the top of the pack. He's solid defensively and has some pop, but, like Smith, probably not enough to be a long-term answer in a corner outfield spot. The A's also have Collin Cowgill, who will get just enough of a shot in 2012 to show whether he can be a part of the long-term solution. The real budding star, top prospect, Michael Choice, also could be ready to make his debut sometime this year.

Kurt Suzuki appeared to be on his way to becoming one of the best young, two-way catchers in baseball. The A's were betting on it when they gave him a four-year, $16.25-million deal early in 2010. But he has struggled in the two seasons since. The A's don't have any alternatives in the short term, so they'll hang with Suzuki and hope that he can figure out what went wrong offensively and defensively. They may have to drop him into the middle of their young lineup, though, which is only going to add more pressure.

Whoever doesn't get the bulk of the playing time out of the first base jumble - Barton, Allen and Ka'aihue- is going to get a good crack at the DH spot. The odd man out in the outfield sweepstakes will see some time there as well. Smith is the most likely candidate given that Reddick is better defensively. If the A's are going to punt this season and look to the future, there's no reason not to let Carter (49 Triple-A homers the past two years) see what he can do.

When Beane hired Bob Melvin to replace Bob Geren last June, it marked the first time in his tenure as a GM that he'd hired a manager with any big league managerial experience. Perhaps it's a sign that Beane is yielding more power to his on-field boss. Melvin has been widely heralded by his players for his touch with a team, but he's going to have a big job with this bunch. In any case, don't expect much pressure on Beane or Melvin this season. Ownership most likely understands exactly what's happening here. As long as Beane and Melvin can show some development among the young players, their jobs will be safe. Beane also owns a small piece of the club, so that never hurts.

Final Analysis
The A's have some pieces to have a passable pitching staff. Between the guys coming back and the prospects coming in, this team should be in the middle of the pack in pitching. The problem is going to be scoring runs. They didn't score much last year, and the guys who provided what little pop they had (like Josh Willingham and Hideki Matsui) are gone. Weeks and Cespedes are still unproven and the A's best offensive prospects (Choice and Green) are not likely to see the majors until late this season, at the earliest, so it's hard to imagine how this team is going to avoid being one of the lowest-scoring teams in the majors again. The A's have managed to win at least 74 games in the five seasons since their last playoff berth, and they'd probably be ecstatic to win that many this year. More likely they'll be fighting to crack 70 victories.




Batting Order
2B Jemile Weeks (S)
Picked a bad year to be a rookie; got no votes for Rookie of the Year despite hitting .303.
SS Cliff Pennington (S)
Slick fielder with a cannon arm who will hit in the .260 range.
LF Coco Crisp (S)
His .693 OPS in '11 was second-lowest of his career, but he led the AL with 49 stolen bases. Is out of place hitting in the middle of the order.
RF Josh Reddick (L)
A nice fourth outfielder on a good team - but he will be forced to start in Oakland.
CF Yoenis Cespedes (R)
Cuban outfielder is expected to prop up A's lineup immediately - a tall order.
DH Seth Smith (L)
Served as Eli Manning's backup at Ole Miss; has a chance to play everyday in Oakland.
C Kurt Suzuki (R)
Should be a 15 HR, .270 hitter, but slumped badly last two years; he's expensive, too.
1B Brandon Allen (L)
Hit .354 in first 13 games after July trade from Arizona, then .133 in last 28. Has an opportunity to prove himself with Daric Barton recovering from shoulder surgery.
3B Eric Sogard (L)
Batted .200 and hit two homers in 27 games for the A's last season.

1B Daric Barton (L)
Hit zero homers in 280 PAs in the majors in '11; not good for a first baseman. Coming off shoulder surgery.
1B Kila Ka'aihue (L)
Former Royal spent parts of four seasons at Triple-A, with a .412 OBP.
C Anthony Recker (R)
Hit double-digit HRs every full season in the minors, including 16 in 345 ABs in 2011.
INF Adam Rosales (R)
Probably the fastest HR trot in the majors; played five positions in 2011.
OF/DH Manny Ramirez (R)
Manny will be available in June after serving a 50-game suspension.
OF Jonny Gomes (R)
Redundant once Ramirez becomes available.
C/3B Josh Donaldson (R)
Primarily a catcher, he has 53 games of experience at third base in the minors, none in the majors.

RH Brandon McCarthy
Had a 3.32 ERA in '11 but better known for his cult following on Twitter (@BMcCarthy32). Already named as Opening Day starter.
RH Bartolo Colon
Was out of the majors for a year but returned to throw 164.1 innings for the Yankees in 2011.
LH Tom Milone
Not the most talented, but probably the most polished of the pitchers acquired this winter.
LH Dallas Braden
Has eight wins and one shoulder surgery since May 2010 perfect game. Likely not ready Opening Day.
LH Brett Anderson
Ace of the staff had Tommy John surgery in July, so a midseason return is optimistic.
RH Tyson Ross
Definite major leaguer (2.75 ERA in limited duty last season) who could start or relieve in 2011. Will get opportunities to start with Braden and Anderson on the shelf.

LH Brian Fuentes (Closer)
Established veteran will be trade bait in July; will be a major surprise if he lasts the season in Oakland.
RH Grant Balfour
Fiery Australian is a dependable setup man who only gave up 44 hits in 62 innings in 2011. Will also be used as a closer.
RH Joey Devine
Has the stuff to be a closer, and he might get a chance to prove it late this season. He will begin the season on the DL with minor biceps injury.
RH Fautino De Los Santos
Could help make the Nick Swisher trade look like one of Billy Beane's best.
RH Ryan Cook
Power righty with some potential to be a set-up type reliever.
LH Jerry Blevins
Has held left-handed batters to a .232 BA in his career.

Other teams' 2012 Previews:

American League National League
Baltimore Orioles Arizona Diamondbacks
Boston Red Sox Atlanta Braves
Chicago White Sox Chicago Cubs
Cleveland Indians Cincinnati Reds
Detroit Tigers Colorado Rockies
Kansas City Royals Houston Astros
Los Angeles Angels Los Angeles Dodgers
Minnesota Twins Miami Marlins
New York Yankees Milwaukee Brewers
Oakland A's New York Mets
Seattle Mariners Philadelphia Phillies
Tampa Bay Rays Pittsburgh Pirates
Texas Rangers San Diego Padres
Toronto Blue Jays San Francisco Giants
  St. Louis Cardinals
  Washington Nationals
<p> The A's have managed to win at least 74 games in the five seasons since their last playoff berth, and they'd probably be ecstatic to win that many this year. More likely they'll be fighting to crack 70 victories.</p>
Post date: Monday, April 2, 2012 - 12:16
Path: /college-basketball/ncaa-tournaments-biggest-upsets-and-closest-calls

While none of the 112 No. 16 seeds has won a game in the NCAA Tournament (more on that below), six No. 15 seeds have shocked No. 2s since the field expanded to 64 teams in 1985. And two of them took place during this year's March Madness. Here's our look at the biggest upsets and closest calls from college basketball's NCAA Tournament. 

THE BIGGEST UPSETS: No. 2 vs. No. 15 (6-106)

Norfolk State 86, Missouri 84 (2012)

The Missouri Tigers were a chic pick to make it to the Final Four in 2012 after winning the Big 12 tournament. But Mizzou failed to make it out of the first round despite shooting 52.7% from the floor and making 13 three-pointers. It wasn’t enough to top the MEAC tournament champs from pulling off the monumental upset. Kyle O’Quinn led the Spartans with 26 points on 10-of-16 shooting and 14 rebounds. A big reason the guard-heavy Tigers got beat? Norfolk State dominated the glass 35-23 in the two-point victory.

Lehigh 75, Duke 70 (2012)

The Mountain Hawks entered the tournament as Patriot League champions, led by superstar guard C.J. McCollum. The junior finished with 30 points, six rebounds and six assists in the startling upset of the powerhouse Blue Devils. Making the upset even more improbable was where the shocker took place: Greensboro, N.C. Duke missed 20 of its 26 three point shot attempts in the five point loss.

Hampton 58, Iowa St 57 (2001)

The Pirates of Hampton became only the fourth 15-seed to win in the first round when Tarvis Williams made a four-foot jumper with less than seven seconds left in the game. The Cyclones’ Jamaal Tinsley went the length of the floor and missed a point-blank lay-up to give Hampton the historic win. One of college basketball’s most memorable images is Hampton head coach Steve Merfeld sprinting around the court and being hoisted into the air, legs flailing wildly, by backup David Johnson.

Coppin St 78, South Carolina 65 (1997)

The Eagles of Coppin State entered their first-round tilt against South Carolina as a 30-point underdog. After Coppin State took the lead with just over six minutes left, the Gamecocks crumbled. For a team that, to this day, has not reached the second round of the tournament since 1973 — much less the Final Four — the loss to Ron “Fang” Mitchell’s upstart Eagles was especially painful.

Santa Clara 64, Arizona 61 (1993)

A Canadian freshman point guard by the name of Steve Nash knocked down six of eight free throws down the stretch to key the Broncos’ upset win over the Wildcats. Arizona, featuring a roster littered with future NBA players — Reggie Geary, Damon Stoudamire, Chris Mills and Khalid Reeves — put together a 25–0 run that spanned the end of the first half and the opening minutes of the second half. The Broncos answered with their own 19–7 run, and Pete Eisenrich’s jump shot gave them the lead late in the game before Stoudamire missed a three at the buzzer. Nash would go on to win two WCC Player of the Year awards.

Richmond 73, Syracuse 69 (1991)

The Spiders, led by 18 points and six assists from Curtis Blair, pulled off the first upset by a No. 15 seed in NCAA Tournament history. Billy Owens and the Syracuse zone were ineffective, as Richmond never trailed during the game. A Michael Edwards 3-point attempt that would have tied the game fell short with four seconds remaining, and 12-year coach Dick Tarrant had his signature moment as the Spiders’ head man.



It’s been well-documented that a No. 16 seed has never beaten a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, but there have been some extremely close calls. Did you know that five teams have nearly pulled-off what might be considered the biggest obstacle in mainstream sports?

Here are five 1 vs. 16 games decided by four points or less.

Purdue 73, Western Carolina 71 (1996)

The Southern Conference champs, coached by first-year head man Phil Hopkins, employed a zone defense that stymied Purdue for most of the game. The Catamounts actually had two chances to put themselves in a category all their own, but both the potential game-winning 3-pointer by Joel Fleming and the possible game-tying Joe Stafford 15-footer hit off of the back of the rim in the final seconds. Ironically, this Boiler team had to forfeit 18 of its 26 wins, including this game, the most recent near-miss by a 16 seed. Another interesting sidenote: Hopkins’ top assistant at the time, Thad Matta, is now the head coach at Ohio State.

Michigan St 75, Murray St 71 (OT, 1990)

The Ohio Valley champions, led by sophomore center Ronald “Popeye” Jones, pushed the vaunted Spartans to overtime by drilling a 3-point basket at the end of regulation. Jones’ game-high 37 points and 11 rebounds were not enough to slow MSU’s Steve Smith, who posted a team-high 22 points, including six of his team’s 10 overtime points. With 26 seconds left, Jones missed an interior shot and the Spartans snatched the rebound and held on to win the only 1-vs.-16 matchup ever to go to overtime.

Oklahoma 72, ETSU 71 (1989)

In the first of four straight trips to the NCAA Tournament for ETSU, the Buccaneers’ starting lineup featured three sophomores and two freshmen. Point guard Keith “Mister” Jennings, a 5'7" dynamo, led the Bucs to a 17-point lead over OU. The Sooners’ defense led the comeback, and after Jennings fouled out, Oklahoma found itself with the ball and a one-point lead shooting a one-and-one with four seconds left. Oklahoma’s Mookie Blaylock missed the front end, giving ETSU one final heave at the buzzer. The half-court air ball fell short, and Oklahoma escaped the historic upset.

Georgetown 50, Princeton 49 (1989)

In Pete Carril’s 22nd season as the Princeton head coach, the Tigers nearly pulled off one of the biggest upsets in tournament history. With Princeton trailing by one with eight seconds left, Georgetown center Alonzo Mourning blocked two Princeton shots — one by Bob Scrabis and the other by Kit Mueller — to preserve the Hoya victory. To this day, Princeton fans still claim Mueller was fouled.

Michigan 59, Fairleigh Dickinson 55 (1985)

Head coach Tom Green spent 26 seasons leading Fairleigh Dickinson, but it was in his second year when he almost made his biggest mark. Despite losing four players to fouls, the Knights took the top-seeded Wolverines to the wire. Two late Roy Tarpley free throws sealed the win for the Maize and Blue. Villanova, the lowest-seeded team ever to win the title, proceeded to beat Michigan in the second round by the exact same score — 59–55 — en route to its famous upset of Georgetown in the finals.

By Braden Gall  (@BradenGall on Twitter)

<p> While none of the 112 No. 16 seeds has won a game in the NCAA Tournament, six No. 15 seeds have shocked No. 2s since the field expanded to 64 teams in 1985.&nbsp;</p>
Post date: Monday, April 2, 2012 - 10:39
Path: /golf/top-20-golfers-2012-majors-list

Now that it's Masters week, it's time to decide who this year's major players will be, and we've done that for you. They’re the cream of the major championship crop, circa 2012 — the Athlon Major Championship Dream Team. Throughout the month of March, we unveiled Athlon Sports’ 20 players to follow for majors season, with commentary on each from the Golf Channel’s Brandel Chamblee. Below, our list of the players to watch, starting on Thursday in Augusta.

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

No. 1: Tiger Woods



No. 2: Rory McIlroy



<p> From Tiger to Furyk, Athlon Announces the 20 Golfers to Watch for Majors Season</p>
Post date: Monday, April 2, 2012 - 08:36
Path: /college-football/washington-huskies-2012-spring-preview

The journey to claim the 2012 national title begins in February, March and April, as 124 college football teams open up spring practice over the next three months. Athlon will preview some of the top teams and storylines across the nation, as the countdown to 2012 inches closer.

2012 Washington Huskies Spring Preview

2011 Record: 7-6, 5-4 Pac-12

Spring practice: April 2-April 28

Returning Starters: Offense – 6, Defense – 6

Returning Leaders:

Passing: Keith Price, 242 of 362, 3,063 yds., 33 TD, 11 INTs
Rushing: Jesse Callier, 47 car., 260 yds., 1 TD
Receiving: Austin Seferian-Jenkins, 41 rec., 538 yds., 6 TDs
Tackles: Sean Parker, 91
Sacks: Josh Shirley, 8.5
Interceptions: Sean Parker, 4

Redshirts to watch: WR Marvin Hall, DE Jarett Finau, WR Josh Perkins, S James Sample, OL Dexter Charles, DE Corey Waller

JUCO Transfers to Watch: K Travis Coons, DT Josh Banks

2012 Schedule

Sept. 1 San Diego State
Sept. 8 at LSU
Sept. 15 Portland State
Sept. 27 Stanford
Oct. 6 at Oregon
Oct. 13 USC
Oct. 20 at Arizona
Oct. 27 Oregon State
Nov. 2 at California
Nov. 10 Utah
Nov. 17 at Colorado
Nov. 23 at Washington State

Offensive Strength: Quarterback Keith Price had a standout season in his first year as the starter and he should build upon that success in 2012. Price finished with 3,063 yards and 33 scores last season, while completing 66.9 percent of his throws. USC’s Matt Barkley is locked into preseason first-team All-Pac-12 honors, but Price should be the conference’s No. 2 quarterback in 2012. Even with the departure of Jermaine Kearse and Devin Aguilar, the Huskies have plenty of options at receiver and tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins could be an All-American at the end of the year.

Offensive Weakness: There’s no doubt running back Chris Polk will be missed, and making matters worse is the fact the Huskies have no clear replacement on the roster. Polk rushed for at least 1,113 yards in each of his three seasons in Seattle and finished with 79 receptions and 30 overall scores. Jesse Callier and Bishop Sankey will compete for the No. 1 position this spring.

Defensive Strength: After finishing 106th in total defense last season, the Huskies certainly have some work to do on this side of the ball. However, there are some bright spots, including the secondary and linebacking corps. Although the secondary gave up a lot of big plays, cornerback Desmond Trufant and safety Sean Parker are two solid building blocks. A handful of key contributors are back at linebacker, including John Timu and Josh Shirley.

Defensive Weakness: There’s certainly talent for defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox to work with in 2012. However, each level of the defense has concerns. The line must replace two key contributors, including tackle and run stuffer Alameda Ta’amu. The linebacking corps loses second-team All-Pac-12 selection Cort Dennison, while the secondary must replace Quinton Richardson. No loss will be overwhelming, but for a defense that is struggling to find its footing, the Huskies need all of the help they can get.

Spring Storylines Facing the Huskies

1. Coach Steve Sarkisian has Washington on the right track, but after three seasons in Seattle, his record is just 19-19. Progress has been steady under Sarkisian and he took an important step in the offseason by firing defensive coordinator Nick Holt. The Huskies never showed much defensive progress under Holt and turned in an embarrassing performance in the bowl loss to Baylor. New coordinator Justin Wilcox should be an immediate improvement over Holt, while linebacker coach Peter Sirmon and defensive line coach Tosh Lupoi were two of the top assistant coach hires this offseason. The Huskies aren’t ready to challenge Oregon as the Pac-12 North champion, but with Stanford replacing Andrew Luck, the door is open for Washington to finish second in the division this year.

2. With Chris Polk’s decision to enter the NFL Draft, the biggest offensive spring battle will focus on the running backs. Jesse Callier rushed for 260 yards and one touchdown last season, but has never recorded more than 10 carries in a game. Bishop Sankey posted 187 yards and a touchdown as a true freshman last year and trails Callier on the depth chart entering spring practice. Sophomore Deontae Cooper has missed the last two years with a knee injury, but if healthy, will compete with Sankey and Callier for snaps. The wildcard to watch in the backfield will be Antavius Sims. The coaching staff is intrigued by the junior college transfer and he will get an extended look in the backfield this spring. With the uncertainty facing the backfield, true freshman Erich Wilson II could get a look for carries this fall. Washington may not replace Polk’s yardage by one player, but overall, this shouldn’t be a huge concern for this team in 2012.

3. Outside of finding a replacement for Polk, the biggest question for the Huskies’ offense will be the line. Left tackle Senio Kelemete earned second-team All-Pac-12 honors last season, but has finished his eligibility in a Washington uniform. Four starters are back, but guard Colin Porter is coming off shoulder surgery and will sit out spring practice. Fellow guard Colin Tanigawa is recovering from ACL surgery and won’t return until the fall. Right tackle Erik Kohler may also miss time this spring, which means the Huskies will be short-handed up front. If all three players return 100 percent and in time for fall practice, Washington’s offensive line should be fine. However, this group needs time to jell and asking all five players to come together with no practice time before the season opener is a tall task and a concern for Sarkisian and the offensive staff.

4. With Wilcox taking over as the defensive coordinator, Washington is expected to use more 3-4 looks in 2012, which will require a little adjustment in personnel. The line will miss tackle Alameda Ta’amu, who was a key presence in the Huskies’ rush defense. However, Hau’oli Jamora returns after playing in only four games due to an injury and the coaching staff expects big things from sophomore Danny Shelton in the middle. Josh Shirley recorded 8.5 sacks last season and should be a perfect fit as the linebacker/rush end in the Huskies’ 3-4 scheme. With some players moving around and a new scheme, don’t be surprised if there are a few growing pains early in the season. However, the key to the rush defense will be the play of Shelton and if Jamora returns at 100 percent early in the season. 

5. While showing improvement on defense is crucial to pushing Oregon in the Pac-12 North, the special teams suffered some key losses with kicker Erik Folk and punter Kiel Rasp finishing their eligibility. The Huskies have three kickers competing for time – Mihai Ion, Jacob Dunn and Travis Coons – but none have attempted a kick on the FBS level. Freshman Korey Durkee seems to have the inside track at punter after averaging 45.9 yards per kick as a high school senior.

By Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven on Twitter)

Related Pac-12 Content

Ranking the Pac-12's Head Coaches for 2012
012 Recruiting Rankings: No. 21 Washington Huskies

College Football's Top Transfers to Watch for 2012
College Football's Top Spring QB Battles to Watch

Top Transfers to Watch in 2012
Early Top 25 for 2012
College Football's Top Spring Storylines for 2012
College Football's Coaches on the Hot Seat

<p> Athlon previews spring practice for the Washington Huskies.</p>
Post date: Monday, April 2, 2012 - 07:26
All taxonomy terms: News
Path: /news/goodys-fast-relief-500-martinsville-speedway-starting-lineup

The 2012 NASCAR season continues on Sunday with a trip to Martinsville Speedway. This will be the sixth race of the year, with Hendrick Motorsports' Kasey Kahne starting on the pole for the second time this season.

The green flag for the Goody's Fast Relief 500 is set for Sunday at 1:13 ET. 

Starting Position Driver Car Number Make Speed
1 Kasey Kahne 5 Chevrolet 97.128
2 Kevin Harvick 29 Chevrolet 97.048
3 Denny Hamlin 11 Toyota 97.003
4 Clint Bowyer 15 Toyota 97.003
5 Ryan Newman 39 Chevrolet 96.988
6 Brian Vickers 55 Toyota 96.765
7 Brad Keselowski 2 Dodge 96.75
8 Kyle Busch 18 Toyota 96.746
9 Jeff Gordon 24 Chevrolet 96.731
10 Joey Logano 20 Toyota 96.706
11 Paul Menard 27 Chevrolet 96.701
12 Marcos Ambrose 9 Ford 96.627
13 Martin Truex Jr. 56 Toyota 96.583
14 Dale Earnhardt Jr. 88 Chevrolet 96.43
15 Tony Stewart 14 Chevrolet 96.322
16 Bobby Labonte 47 Toyota 96.215
17 Regan Smith 78 Chevrolet 96.2
18 Jeff Burton 31 Chevrolet 96.18
19 Aric Almirola 43 Ford 96.049
20 Jamie McMurray 1 Chevrolet 96.049
21 Matt Kenseth 17 Ford 95.971
22 Jimmie Johnson 48 Chevrolet 95.854
23 Michael McDowell 98 Ford 95.849
24 David Ragan 34 Ford 95.83
25 Casey Mears 13 Ford 95.796
26 Greg Biffle 16 Ford 95.743
27 A J Allmendinger 22 Dodge 95.738
28 Carl Edwards 99 Ford 95.607
29 David Reutimann 10 Chevrolet 95.607
30 Josh Wise 26 Ford 95.583
31 Landon Cassill 83 Toyota 95.511
32 Juan Pablo Montoya 42 Chevrolet 95.477
33 Scott Riggs 23 Chevrolet 95.352
34 Travis Kvapil 93 Toyota 95.347
35 Reed Sorenson 74 Chevrolet 95.223
36 Ken Schrader 32 Ford 95.127
37 Joe Nemechek 87 Toyota 94.936
38 David Gilliland 38 Ford 94.78
39 David Stremme 30 Toyota 94.609
40 Kurt Busch 51 Chevrolet 94.567
41 Hermie Sadler 33 Chevrolet 94.486
42 Dave Blaney 36 Chevrolet 93.18
43 J.J. Yeley 249 Toyota 93.212

<p> Starting lineup for Sunday's Goody's Fast Relief 500 at Martinsville Speedway.</p>
Post date: Saturday, March 31, 2012 - 16:46
Path: /college-basketball/greatest-kentucky-basketball-team-ever

John Calipari’s Kentucky Wildcats play Rick Pitino’s Louisville Cardinals in the Final Four on Saturday in a game that will determine the best team in the Commonwealth this season. But even if UK crushes the U of L, as expected, will Pitino still have bragging rights over Calipari?

This UK team appears to have transcended contemporary comparisons, moving on to the ranks of the all-time greats. But where do Calipari’s 2012 Cats stack up against Pitino’s national championship winning 1996 Untouchables?

Which is the best Kentucky basketball team ever? There are seven national champions — 1998, 1996, 1978, 1958, 1951, 1949 and 1948 — with an eighth (2012) possibly on the way.


2012: 36–2 overall, 16–0 SEC; suffered losses at Indiana and to Vanderbilt in the SEC title game. Advanced to the Final Four, where Louisville awaits.

1996: 34–2 overall, 16–0 SEC; suffered losses to No. 1 UMass, a team coached by Calipari and led by Marcus Camby, and Mississippi State in the SEC title game. Defeated Syracuse in the national championship game.

Edge: 1996. Both losses came against teams that ultimately made the Final Four, with Pitino’s Wildcats getting revenge against Calipari’s Minutemen in the national semifinals of the NCAA Tournament. The 1996 squad cut down the nets; only time will tell whether the 2012 team will win it all.


2012: The National Player of the Year, freshman Anthony Davis, averages 14.3 points on 63.3 percent shooting from the field and 71.2 percent from the free throw line, while adding 10.1 rebounds, 4.6 blocked shots and 1.3 steals per game. With a wingspan that seemingly stretches from end line to end line, Davis is the most intimidating defensive presence the college game has seen since Patrick Ewing. Eloy Vargas is essentially an emergency option with five free fouls to give.

1996: Senior Mark Pope played his role on a loaded roster, averaging 7.6 points, 5.1 rebounds and 1.2 blocked shots. Freshman big man Nazr Mohammed played a major role on Tubby Smith’s 1998 title team, but was a raw backup for Pitino in 1996.

Edge: 2012. Davis has been historically great, as the Player of the Year, Freshman of the Year, Defensive Player of the Year and likely No. 1 overall pick in the upcoming NBA Draft.


2012: Freshman phenom Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and enigmatic sophomore Terrence Jones provide Coach Cal with a pair of versatile NBA talents capable of overpowering the opposition in the paint or dribble-driving from the perimeter. Kidd-Gilchrist averages 12 points and 7.6 rebounds per game and is generally perceived as the No. 2 prospect in the 2012 NBA Draft — behind only teammate Davis. Jones adds 12.6 points, 7.2 rebounds and 1.8 blocked shots to the mix; his ability to man up and take over stretches of games is undercut by his oft-immature nature and semi-frequent run-ins with Calipari. Off the bench, senior Darius Miller brings defensive intensity and veteran leadership, while underrated freshman Kyle Wiltjer — who was a McDonald’s All-American out of high school — has a high basketball IQ dangerous outside shot.

1996: Antoine Walker was in his prime as a sophomore. The athletic point-forward who was a terror in the full court press — kicking balls on inbounds plays and trapping ball-handlers in corners with his lateral quickness — in no way resembled the overweight 3-point-happy ‘Toine from late in his NBA career. Walker averaged 15.2 points, 8.4 rebounds, 2.9 assists and 1.7 steals per game as UK’s top all-around player since Jamal Mashburn. Senior Walter McCarty averaged 11.3 points, 5.7 boards, 2.6 assists and 1.4 blocked shots per game while teaming with Walker to give Pitino a dynamic duo capable of taking over at either end of the court. Freshman Ron Mercer was the consensus third-best prospect in his high school senior class, behind Chicago’s Kevin Garnett and New York’s Stephon Marbury. Mercer exemplifies the Cats’ otherworldly depth, averaging 8 points and 2.9 rebounds as an open court terror with a polished mid-range halfcourt game.

Edge: 1996. The length and skill set of Walker, McCarty and Mercer was amplified by the trio’s reliability, compared to the home run or strikeout quartet of Kidd-Gilchrist, Jones, Miller and Wiltjer.


2012: Sophomore combo guard Doron Lamb is the stabilizing influence on this year’s UK crew. A natural shooter with an instinctual feel for the game, Lamb averages 13.6 points while shooting an eye-popping 47.1 percent from the field, 47.1 percent (73-of-155) from 3-point range and 82.9 percent from the free throw line. The New York native is also a suffocating perimeter defender and capable point guard when the situation calls for him to become the primary ball-handler. Freshman Marquis Teague may be the X-factor where the 2012 squad’s national title hopes are concerned. A streak shooter with a ball hog streak, Teague averages 10 points and 4.8 assists; but tends to freelance at inopportune times more than any other player in blue.

1996: Senior bomber Tony Delk as named the NCAA Tournament’s Most Outstanding Player after hitting a record-tying seven 3-pointers against Syracuse in the national title game. A long-armed, pressing menace, Delk averaged 17.8 points while shooting 44.3 percent (93-of-210) from long range. Athletic junior wing Derek Anderson played his role to smooth perfection, averaging 9.4 points, 3.4 rebounds, 2.4 assists and 1.7 steals as a coast-to-coast fast break finisher and athletic defender. Junior Jeff Sheppard, freshman Wayne Turner and junior Anthony Epps were bit players off the bench in 1996 but played larger roles in the 1997 runner-up team that lost to Arizona in overtime of the national title game in Pitino’s last game as coach of Kentucky.

Edge: 1996. Delk and Anderson have the edge in experience, production and athleticism over Lamb and Teague. Depth also is in favor of 1996, with Sheppard, Turner and Epps all capable of producing in big game minutes.


2012: John Calipari is in his coaching prime. No one in the country is better.

1996: Rick Pitino was in his coaching prime. No one in the country was better.

Tie: The 2012 Calipari and 1996 Pitino are nearly mirror images of each other — a fact that fuels the pair’s ongoing personal and professional feud.


The 2012 Kentucky Wildcats may be better at the very top, but the 1996 Kentucky Wildcats were undeniably deep and had a habit of wearing down their opponents with a suffocating full court press on defense and a wide open, bombs away offense that was nearly unstoppable in the open court. Nine players from the 1996 roster went on to play in the NBA; seven saw action in the title game victory.

This year’s UK team is one of the best in the history of college basketball; it’s just not the No. 1 team in the rich history of Kentucky basketball.

<p> The greatest Kentucky basketball team ever? John Calipari's 2012 Kentucky Wildcats or Rick Pitino's 1996 Kentucky Wildcats?</p>
Post date: Friday, March 30, 2012 - 18:16
All taxonomy terms: NFL, News
Path: /nfl/broncos-go-all-peyton-manning

"Plan B? I don't have a Plan B. We're going with Plan A."

Those were the words uttered by Denver Broncos executive vice president John Elway at Peyton Manning’s introductory press conference on March 20. Plan A is to hand the team over to Manning and ride his right arm to the Super Bowl.

That may seem like a lot to ask of Manning, who turned 36 years old a couple of days ago and last played in a NFL game in January 2011. Manning, however, made it clear he and Elway are on the same page as to why he chose Denver over the other teams interested in him, namely San Francisco and Tennessee.

"I'm very excited to begin the next chapter of my playing career with the Denver Broncos," Manning said. "This truly is a special football environment, and I'm glad to be a part of it. ... I'm thrilled to be here. I'm looking forward to meeting my new teammates, and doing whatever I can to help this franchise win another Super Bowl."

On the surface, having Manning, the four-time NFL MVP and future Hall of Famer, as your Plan A is a nice position to be in and no one can fault Denver owner Pat Bowlen, Elway or general manager Brian Xanders for going all in with No. 18.

That was certainly the strategy employed by Indianapolis when the Colts took Manning with the first pick of the 1998 NFL Draft. Manning was immediately handed the starting job in Week 1 of his rookie season and he never relinquished it.

In Manning's 13 seasons as the Colts’ starting quarterback, he led the team to 150 wins (including playoffs), eight divisional titles, two AFC crowns and a win in Super Bowl XLI in 2007. He also didn’t miss a single game, playing in 227 in a row including playoffs, basically making the Colts’ backup quarterback nothing more than a hat-wearing, clipboard holder on the sidelines.

That was until 2011, when a neck injury finally did to Manning what opposing defenses were never able to do – knock him out of the game. For the first time since the final game of the 1997 season, the Colts had to go to Plan B at quarterback.

In Week 1 against Houston that was 38-year-old Kerry Collins. Three weeks later after Collins was sidelined by a concussion, the Colts turned to Curtis Painter, their sixth-round pick in the 2009 draft. Eight losses later, Dan Orlovsky, who was originally drafted by Detroit in the fifth-round of the 2005 draft, took over the reigns for the rest of season.

Collectively, the trio led the Colts to a 2-14 record, the worst in the NFL. In early January, Colts owner Jim Irsay fired head coach Jim Caldwell, vice chairman Bill Polian, vice president/general manager Chris Polian and the vast majority of the coaching staff in the first phase of what has become an extreme makeover of one of the league’s most successful franchises since the arrival of Manning in 1998.

After hiring Chuck Pagano as the Colts’ new head coach and installing Ryan Grigson as the new general manager, Irsay moved on to reconstructing the roster first by parting ways with Manning on March 7 and two days later cutting several other long-time Colts, including running back Joseph Addai, linebacker Gary Brackett and tight end Dallas Clark.

The Colts have since been active in free agency, re-signing veteran wide receiver Reggie Wayne and several other players, but the most significant acquisition will come on April 26.

That’s when the Colts, just as they did in 1998, plan on taking their next franchise quarterback, either Stanford’s Andrew Luck or Baylor’s Robert Griffin III, with the first pick in the 2012 NFL Draft. Whether or not they end up starting right away like Manning did, whoever the Colts end up selecting becomes their new Plan A.

In Denver, the current Plan A is fully in place, secured by the five-year, $96 million contract Manning signed with his new team, and in motion. Since Manning’s introduction, the Broncos have made several other moves, including adding wide receiver Andre Caldwell and tight ends Joel Dreessen and Jacob Tamme, a former Colts teammate, to the offense.

As for Plan B? Initially, Plan B was expected to be Tim Tebow, who replaced Kyle Orton as the Broncos’ starting quarterback after a 1-4 start to the 2011 season. With Tebow under center, the Broncos went 8-5 the rest of the way, winning the AFC West title and defeating the Steelers in the Wildcard round of the playoffs.

However, Tebow’s future in Denver was immediately placed in doubt when news broke that Manning would be signing with the Broncos. And it was sealed the day after the press conference when Elway traded Tebow and a seventh-round pick in the upcoming draft to the Jets for New York’s fourth- and sixth-round picks.

So with no Tebow, who is Manning’s backup? It’s not Orton, who earlier this month signed a three-year deal with Dallas after finishing last season with Kansas City.

No, Manning’s backup is none other than Caleb Hanie. Hanie signed as a free agent with Denver after three seasons with the Bears. An undrafted free agent out of Colorado State, Hanie went 0-4 filling in for an injured Jay Cutler last season. In those four games, Hanie completed 50 percent of his passes with three touchdowns and nine interceptions.

For all the criticism of Tebow’s passing ability and the doubts raised about him developing into a successful NFL quarterback, his numbers are considerably better than Hanie’s. Especially when it comes to the most important category – wins. Tebow is 9-7 in his career as a starter. Hanie is still looking for his first NFL win.

Granted, opportunity plays a big part into a quarterback’s statistics, and Tebow, a first-round pick in 2009, has a significant advantage over Hanie in that respect. Regardless it doesn’t change the reality of the Broncos’ backup quarterback situation. It could have been Tebow, but instead the front office has decided to go with Hanie. Showing once again, that there is no Plan B.

Just like the Colts did in 1998, the Broncos are pinning all of their hopes on Manning. Back then, Manning was 22 and had just finished his career at the University of Tennessee. Now, Manning is 36 years old, has already played in 228 NFL games, has had three different neck surgeries in less than two years and hasn’t been under center in a game since January 2011.

In Indianapolis, Plan A, whether it ends up being Luck or Griffin, is about the future. In Denver, Plan A is all about the present as Manning himself made clear at his press conference.

"I realize I don't have 14 years left, by any means," Manning said. "This isn't something where I'm just building a foundation to do something in two years or three years. This is a ‘now’ situation. We're going to do whatever we can to win right now. That's all I'm thinking about right now."

It’s clearly Super Bowl or bust for the Broncos with Manning leading the way. Everyone from Bowlen to Elway to Xanders to the players is on board with Plan A, which rests largely on the shoulders of No. 18.

“I believe that he's got a lot of great football left in him,” Elway said of his new QB. Broncos fans sure hope he’s right because, just as he said, “I don’t have a Plan B.”

— by Mark Ross, published on March 30, 2012

<p> Denver Broncos' Super Bowl hopes begin and end with Peyton Manning</p>
Post date: Friday, March 30, 2012 - 11:33
All taxonomy terms: Tiger Woods, Golf
Path: /golf/top-20-golfers-2012-majors-no-1-tiger-woods


They’re the cream of the major championship crop, circa 2012 — the Athlon Major Championship Dream Team. Throughout the month of March, we'll be unveiling Athlon Sports’ 20 players to watch for majors season, with commentary on each from the Golf Channel’s Brandel Chamblee.


No. 1: Tiger Woods

Born: Dec. 30, 1975, Cypress, Calif.  | Career PGA Tour Wins: 72 | 2011 Wins (Worldwide): 1 | 2011 Earnings (PGA Tour): $660,238 World Ranking: 6


Brandel Chamblee's Take:

Watching Tiger Woods play golf when he is even remotely close to his best is like watching LeBron James play a pick-up game with high school kids. Even amid scandal, injuries, massive swing changes and having to sit out two majors in 2011, Tiger has more top-10 finishes in golf’s biggest events over the last three years than anyone in the world. 
His good play late in 2011 and his dominant win at Bay Hill show that his swing changes have taken root and that the magic is back. That magic comes from a poise that is the hallmark of mental strength, and it’s the reason he is the only one on the planet currently playing professional golf who’s won 14 majors, and why he is the best bet to win a major in 2012.

Major Championship Résumé
Starts: 62
Wins: 14

2011 Performance:
Masters - T4
U.S. Open - DNP
British Open - DNP
PGA Championship - Cut

Best Career Finishes: 
Masters - 1st (1997, 2001, 2002, 2005)
U.S. Open - 1st (2000, 2002, 2008)
British Open - 1st (2000, 2005, 2006)
PGA Championship - 1st (1999, 2000, 2006, 2007)
Top-10 Finishes: 35
Top-25 Finishes: 49
Missed Cuts: 4

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

<br />
Post date: Friday, March 30, 2012 - 10:04
Path: /college-basketball/top-teams-2000-not-win-national-championship

The one-and-done format of the NCAA Tournament often leads to the best team going home without a title. Amazing seasons tend to crash and burn in the maelstrom that is March Madness. From the pages of Athlon Sports Monthly, we look at the best teams — since 2000 — to not win it all.

1. 2002 DUKE (31-4)
After beating Arizona for the 2001 national championship, Duke was on a mission to repeat. Led by Jason Williams, Carlos Boozer, Mike Dunleavy and Chris Duhon, Mike Krzyzewski’s team was ranked No. 1 heading into the NCAA Tournament. But eventual national runner-up Indiana, a No. 5 seed, stunned the Blue Devils 74–73 in the Sweet 16.

2. 2005 ILLINOIS (37-2)
There had not been a No. 1 vs. No. 2 national title game since 1975 until top-ranked Illinois played next-in-line North Carolina. Deron Williams and the Fighting Illini took aim at the school’s first national championship. Instead, the UNC won the school’s fourth title all-time, beating Illinois, 75–70.

3. 2006 CONNECTICUT (30-4)
Rudy Gay led a group of five UConn players who were selected in the 2006 NBA Draft. Even with all that talent, the Huskies didn’t reach the Final Four — falling to No. 11 seed George Mason, 86–84, in overtime of the Elite Eight, in one of the biggest upsets in NCAA Tournament history.

4. 2008 MEMPHIS (38-2) 
John Calipari’s club won its first 26 games and set the NCAA record (since vacated) for victories in a single season. The maturation of freshman point guard Derrick Rose elevated the play of the Tigers in the NCAA Tournament, but poor free throw shooting doomed Memphis. Kansas rallied from a nine-point deficit in the last two minutes of regulation and won the national championship 75–68 in overtime.

5. 2008 NORTH CAROLINA (36-3)
The Tar Heels made their 17th Final Four appearance, and coach Roy Williams made his fourth trip to the national semifinals in seven seasons. But Tyler Hansbrough, Ty Lawson and Co. were unable to beat Williams’ old school, losing 84–66 to Kansas.

6. 2008 UCLA (35-4)
Thanks to top talent like Darren Collison, Josh Shipp, Russell Westbrook and freshman Kevin Love, coach Ben Howland’s Bruins made their third consecutive Final Four appearance. UCLA fell short of the title yet again, however, losing to Memphis, 78–63, in the national semifinals.

7. 2003 KANSAS (30-8)
The Jayhawks couldn’t get past freshman sensation Carmelo Anthony and Syracuse in the title game. Kansas missed 18 free throws, Syracuse made 11 3-pointers and the Orange won 81–78, ending the KU careers of Nick Collison and Kirk Hinrich. One week later, coach Roy Williams left Kansas for North Carolina.

8. 2007 OHIO STATE (35-4) 
The Buckeyes helped usher in the one-and-done era of college basketball with a team that included freshmen Greg Oden, Mike Conley Jr. and Daequan Cook. The No. 1-ranked Buckeyes carried a 22-game winning streak all the way to the national title game before losing to Florida, 84–75.

9. 2004 DUKE (31-6) 
Coach K seemed to have found perfect offensive balance with J.J. Redick hitting 102 3-pointers and Shelden Williams doing the heavy lifting inside. The Blue Devils reached the Final Four and led eventual champion Connecticut by seven at halftime before losing, 79–78.

10. 2010 KENTUCKY (35-3)
John Calipari’s first team at Kentucky consisted of a record five NBA first-round picks, including freshmen John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins. Although they were immensely talented, the young Wildcats’ inexperience — and cold shooting — proved to be their downfall in a 73–66 loss to West Virginia in the Elite Eight.

<p> Top Teams since 2000 to Not win a National Championship</p>
Post date: Friday, March 30, 2012 - 10:03
All taxonomy terms: Fantasy Baseball, MLB, Fantasy
Path: /mlb/2012-fantasy-baseball-relief-pitcher-rankings

Opening Day is next week and Athlon Sports has all the fantasy baseball rankings you need to get ready for the upcoming season.

Athlon Sports has combined nine fantasy baseball big boards from around the web to compile an updated consensus Top 200 as well as positional breakdowns.

No position has been impacted by injuries more during spring training than relief pitching, or more specifically, closers.

Ryan Madson (No. 10 RP, No. 122 overall) and Joakim Soria (No. 17 RP, No. 157 overall) are both out for the season after tearing ligaments in their pitching elbows that will require Tommy John surgery to repair. Their loss is a blow for the Reds and Royals, their respective teams, but also presents an opportunity for someone else.

To this point, Reds manager Dusty Baker has said he's leaning towards going with a closer by committee. Sean Marshall figures to get the first shot at the save opportunities for the Reds, but others to watch include Bill Bray, Aroldis Chapman and Nick Masset. To add even more uncertainty to the Reds' bullpen situation, both Bray and Masset are dealing with injuries and the team has already said that Masset will start the season on the DL.

With the Royals, Jonathan Broxton, who saved 36 games for the Dodgers in 2009, could be first in line to replace Soria, but he's not only candidate. Greg Holland and Aaron Crow are two young pitchers who bear watching and could seize the closer's job and not relinquish it.

Drew Storen (No. 5 RP, No. 91 overall), who saved 43 games for the Nationals last season, is another closer dealing with elbow issues. In Storen's case, his does not seem to be serious, but he will start the season on the DL. The Nationals hope to have him back by the middle of April.

While Storen is out, the Nationals appear to be leaning towards handing closing duties to Brad Lidge. Lidge was one of the top closers in the game from 2004-10 when he was with the Astros and Phillies, averaging more than 31 saves a season during that time. Sean Burnett, Tyler Clippard and Henry Rodriguez also could get a chance to close, especially should Lidge struggle finishing games.

Be sure to consult Athlon Sports' MLB Fantasy Closer Grid throughout the season to keep track of every team's bullpen situation.

Fantasy Baseball is coming... and the 25th Anniversary Edition of Athlon Sports' Baseball Preview Magainze is already here. Click here to order yours today!

Rank Position ranking
Overall ranking on The Big Board
LR — Last Ranked, where player was ranked on The Big Board that was published on Feb. 20, 2012
NR — Not Ranked, means player did not appear on The Big Board that was published on Feb. 20, 2012

AS – Athlon Sports (updated 3/19/12)
CBS – (as of 3/16/12)
ESPN – (updated 3/13/12)
FOX – (updated 3/7/12)
MLB – (as of 3/15/12)
RC – (updated 3/18/12)
RS – (updated 2/27/12)
USA — (updated 2/13/12)
Y! – Yahoo! Sports (updated 2/24/12)*

*Yahoo! ranked only 120 players on their list, while Athlon's Big Board contains 200. The aggregated scores of the other eight big boards were used to extrapolate Yahoo!’s rankings to 200 players.

Athlon Sports Fantasy Rankings: Big Board | C | 1B | 2B | 3B | SS | OF | SP | RP

1 49 45 Craig Kimbrel ATL RP 30 39 62 75 52 57 65 63 56
2 76 80 Jonathan Papelbon PHI RP 32 112 87 74 71 82 79 73 77
3 79 78 Mariano Rivera NYY RP 56 110 73 88 57 85 82 84 76
4 85 88 John Axford MIL RP 36 92 93 108 70 127 96 82 78
5 91 89 Drew Storen WAS RP 50 93 89 96 78 141 107 110 82
6 110 112 Matt Moore TB RP 115 104 74 221 140 79 95 130 91
7 114 109 Brian Wilson SF RP 84 133 106 122 92 189 106 118 112
8 120 116 Jose Valverde DET RP 61 154 125 117 90 171 124 120 131
9 121 111 Heath Bell MIA RP 92 94 148 151 83 165 117 139 108
10 122 127 Ryan Madson CIN RP 129 120 99 182 108 132 118 107 113
11 125 144 Joel Hanrahan PIT RP 135 134 119 170 103 155 128 104 136
12 132 128 J.J. Putz ARI RP 149 113 142 145 102 120 130 168 138
13 134 135 Cory Luebke SD SP/RP 144 135 130 174 134 67 136 177 137
14 139 140 Andrew Bailey BOS RP 130 143 158 - 109 119 179 112 143
15 153 182 Rafael Betancourt COL RP 150 159 114 - 172 118 141 - 146
16 155 160 Sergio Santos TOR RP 176 155 - 178 131 123 151 137 159
17 157 151 Joakim Soria KC RP 196 142 152 169 119 187 135 160 162
18 170 188 Jason Motte STL RP 178 172 136 197 136 175 156 194 178
19 171 170 Jordan Walden LAA RP - 171 163 163 125 183 143 - 173
20 175 174 Carlos Marmol CHC RP 198 - 183 - 127 148 146 182 174
21 177 179 Joe Nathan TEX RP - 156 - 195 128 181 164 170 184
22 180 159 Neftali Feliz TEX RP - 187 141 - - 121 181 - 168
23 188 162 Daniel Bard BOS RP 185 - 185 - - 99 - - 165
24 197 NR Huston Street COL RP - - 176 - 157 186 167 - -
25 201 202 Kyle Farnsworth TB RP - - 172 - 147 184 195 - 196
26 202 NR Brandon League SEA RP - - 191 - 149 172 188 - 198
27 219 NR Matt Thornton CHW RP - - - - 189 159 - - -
28 221 192 Kenley Jansen LAD RP - - - - 190 161 - - -
29 226 NR Sergio Romo SF RP - - - - - 158 - - -
30 230 226 Jonny Venters ATL RP 166 - - - - - - - -
31 233 225 Francisco Cordero TOR RP 167 - - - - - - - -
32 235 224 Rafael Soriano NYY RP 168 - - - - - - - -
33 241 NR Frank Francisco NYM RP - - - - 173 - - - -
34 243 NR Tyler Clippard WAS RP - - - - - 174 - - -
35 248 185 Chris Perez CLE RP - - - 183 - - - - -
36 250 NR Javy Guerra LAD RP - - - - 185 - - - -
37 255 NR Mike Adams TEX RP - - - - - 190 - - -
38 261 NR Koji Uehara TEX RP - - - - - 195 - - -

— By Mark Ross, updated on March 30, 2012

Other Fantasy Baseball Content:

2012 Fantasy Baseball: First Base Rankings
2012 Fantasy Baseball: Second Base Rankings
2012 Fantasy Baseball: Shortstop Rankings
2012 Fantasy Baseball: Third Base Rankings
2012 Fantasy Baseball: Outfield Rankings
2012 Fantasy Baseball: Catcher Rankings
2012 Fantasy Baseball: Starting Pitcher Rankings
2012 Fantasy Baseball: Relief Pitcher Rankings
2012 MLB Fantasy Closer Grid
2012 Fantasy Baseball Sleepers and Busts: Infield
2012 Fantasy Baseball Sleepers and Busts: Outfield
2012 Fantasy Baseball Sleepers and Busts: Starting Pitching
2012 Fantasy Baseball Sleepers and Busts: Closers
Fantasy Baseball Studs to Avoid in 2012
2012 Fantasy Baseball Deep Sleepers


For more fantasy baseball help, visit our friends at the Fantasy Baseball Hub.

<p> Athlon Sports has updated its consensus relief pitching rankings to help get your bullpen ready for Opening Day</p>
Post date: Friday, March 30, 2012 - 09:45
All taxonomy terms: Fantasy Baseball, MLB, Fantasy
Path: /mlb/2012-fantasy-baseball-starting-pitcher-rankings

Opening Day is next week and Athlon Sports has all the fantasy baseball rankings you need to get ready for the upcoming season.

Athlon Sports has combined nine fantasy baseball big boards from around the web to compile an updated consensus Top 200 as well as positional breakdowns.

There's a new No. 1 atop the starting pitching depth chart as Roy Halladay edged out Clayton Kershaw in the updated rankings. They are followed by fellow Cy Young winners Justin Verlander, Cliff Lee and Felix Hernandez, who rounds out the award-winning top 5. The rest of the top 10 is the same except for the No. 10 spot as Dan Haren replaces David Price.

Outside of the top 10, most of the movement was related to position in the Top 200 as there wasn't a lot of change in the starting pitching rankings themselves. Some of the biggest risers in the Top 200 included Adam Wainwright (No. 100, up from No. 110), who looks to be progressing well in his comeback from Tommy John surgery, Ubaldo Jimenez (No. 147, up from No. 158), and Jeremy Hellickson (No. 156, up from No. 172), last year's AL Rookie of the Year.

Some of the fallers included Ian Kennedy (No. 78, down from No. 63), Tommy Hanson (No. 92, down from No. 82), Michael Pineda (No. 95, down from No. 85), and Tim Hudson (No. 168, down from No. 133).

Hudson's decline is health-related, as he is recovering from offseason back surgery and another pitcher to watch along those lines is Chris Carpenter (No. 124 overall). Carpenter has been dealing with nerve issues in his neck and shoulder during spring training. He will certainly not be ready by Opening Day, and he could be out until late May or early June, if not longer.

Further down the rankings, the pitchers who made large jumps to break into the Top 200 were Ted Lilly, Brandon Morrow, Brandon McCarthy and Chris Sale.

Fantasy Baseball is coming... and the 25th Anniversary Edition of Athlon Sports' Baseball Preview Magainze is already here. Click here to order yours today!

Rank Position ranking
Overall ranking on The Big Board
LR — Last Ranked, where player was ranked on The Big Board that was published on Feb. 20, 2012
NR — Not Ranked, means player did not appear on The Big Board that was published on Feb. 20, 2012

AS – Athlon Sports (updated 3/19/12)
CBS – (as of 3/16/12)
ESPN – (updated 3/13/12)
FOX – (updated 3/7/12)
MLB – (as of 3/15/12)
RC – (updated 3/18/12)
RS – (updated 2/27/12)
USA — (updated 2/13/12)
Y! – Yahoo! Sports (updated 2/24/12)*

*Yahoo! ranked only 120 players on their list, while Athlon's Big Board contains 200. The aggregated scores of the other eight big boards were used to extrapolate Yahoo!’s rankings to 200 players.

Athlon Sports Fantasy Rankings: Big Board | C | 1B | 2B | 3B | SS | OF | SP | RP

1 13 12 Roy Halladay PHI SP 10 6 12 19 23 10 12 22 18
2 14 11 Clayton Kershaw LAD SP 9 7 20 13 19 8 22 21 15
3 16 13 Justin Verlander DET SP 8 10 17 17 22 17 21 17 16
4 20 19 Cliff Lee PHI SP 20 11 22 21 27 14 24 26 24
5 25 23 Felix Hernandez SEA SP 24 21 28 28 28 31 32 35 30
6 27 26 Jered Weaver LAA SP 15 25 31 38 33 25 39 45 35
7 29 28 Tim Lincecum SF SP 25 27 32 32 30 51 42 32 28
8 31 31 CC Sabathia NYY SP 67 22 43 25 38 28 31 33 31
9 33 27 Cole Hamels PHI SP 23 24 39 40 31 46 36 66 32
10 41 37 Dan Haren LAA SP 47 31 41 61 41 65 34 46 49
11 42 35 David Price TB SP 21 34 53 48 47 56 54 53 50
12 43 41 Zack Greinke MIL SP 66 28 48 57 46 55 50 44 40
13 51 46 Matt Cain SF SP 37 70 61 73 48 36 59 77 54
14 56 50 Jon Lester BOS SP 49 50 56 55 61 98 78 62 58
15 58 55 Stephen Strasburg WAS SP 35 58 75 84 81 20 68 108 57
16 60 60 Yovani Gallardo MIL SP 54 40 65 85 58 90 92 48 59
17 68 62 James Sheilds TB SP 76 36 64 78 72 103 62 72 81
18 72 75 Madison Bumgarner SF SP 46 49 79 94 67 72 88 87 80
19 73 70 C.J. Wilson LAA SP 101 61 68 70 51 69 75 80 88
20 78 63 Ian Kennedy ARI SP 90 35 72 86 76 70 69 122 79
21 88 91 Mat Latos CIN SP 111 47 94 103 62 104 84 119 100
22 92 82 Tommy Hanson ATL SP 77 62 116 131 80 68 86 142 97
23 93 95 Josh Johnson MIA SP 53 59 128 124 91 66 108 132 101
24 94 96 Daniel Hudson ARI SP 109 63 85 109 89 116 99 94 102
25 95 85 Michael Pineda NYY SP 91 60 96 116 105 74 101 116 116
26 97 103 Matt Garza CHI SP 114 71 101 119 93 107 109 86 104
27 100 110 Adam Wainwright STL SP 78 64 97 143 126 89 100 134 99
28 101 99 Ricky Romero TOR SP 65 82 81 90 118 134 113 127 124
29 107 100 Josh Beckett BOS SP 75 51 108 121 107 145 119 128 126
30 111 105 Yu Darvish TEX SP 108 80 124 186 148 76 105 129 87
31 119 117 Brandon Beachy ATL SP 123 81 123 137 132 80 137 165 110
32 124 122 Chris Carpenter STL SP 132 136 103 114 100 - 97 159 133
33 126 124 Gio Gonzalez WAS SP 118 73 132 115 160 - 125 161 109
34 134 135 Cory Luebke SD SP/RP 144 135 130 174 134 67 136 177 137
35 136 131 Jordan Zimmerman WAS SP 131 115 110 184 138 - 122 125 139
36 137 134 Anibal Sanchez MIA SP 134 96 137 173 137 125 133 191 141
37 144 138 Johnny Cueto CIN SP 87 162 151 134 180 163 152 149 152
38 147 158 Ubaldo Jimanez CLE SP 151 121 105 141 158 - 140 174 144
39 150 145 Shaun Marcum MIL SP 147 186 122 - 114 142 129 179 148
40 156 172 Jeremy Hellickson TB SP 160 164 91 165 164 - 161 156 158
41 164 166 Doug Fister DET SP 174 175 144 196 163 108 148 - 163
42 168 133 Tim Hudson ATL SP 133 189 139 132 - 179 174 - 166
43 169 181 Jaime Garcia STL SP 199 163 154 139 179 144 180 183 180
44 173 173 Max Scherzer DET SP 190 188 134 185 130 - 178 171 169
45 181 206 Ted Lilly LAD SP 191 - 164 - 159 151 147 - 192
46 183 191 Hiroki Kuroda NYY SP 193 174 147 - - 170 150 196 193
47 184 152 Ervin Santana LAA SP 148 - 161 156 - - 176 187 197
48 187 NR Brandon Morrow TOR SP - 176 170 154 161 - 198 175 -
49 189 184 Wandy Rodriguez HOU SP - 137 166 199 194 185 184 189 186
50 193 197 Justin Masterson CLE SP - 158 159 153 - - 200 - -
51 194 214 Brandon McCarthy OAK SP 170 200 179 188 - 147 - - 189
52 198 204 Chris Sale CHW SP 183 - 177 - - 143 199 - 187
53 205 199 Jhoulys Chacin COL SP - 178 - - 146 - 185 - 194
54 206 NR Colby Lewis TEX SP - 173 173 - 184 - 173 - -
55 208 195 Scott Baker MIN SP - - 157 - 165 - 187 - -
56 211 215 Vance Worley PHI SP 184 177 - - - 157 - - -
57 212 209 Clay Buchholz BOS SP 195 165 187 193 - - - 181 -
58 224 NR Derek Holland TEX SP - 190 - 191 - - 193 185 -
59 228 208 Jair Jurrjens ATL SP 197 - - 166 - - - - -
60 234 NR Bud Norris HOU SP - - 198 - 170 - - - -
61 239 NR Chad Billingsley LAD SP - - - 175 197 - - - -
62 242 NR Tim Stauffer SD SP - - 181 - - 194 - - -
63 244 218 Roy Oswalt SP 179 - - - - - - - -
64 245 217 Alexi Ogando TEX SP 180 - - - - - - - -
65 246 210 Trevor Cahill ARI SP - 180 - - - - - - -
66 252 NR John Danks CHW SP - 199 - - 195 - 196 - -
67 257 NR Gavin Floyd CHW SP - - 193 - - - - - -
68 260 NR Mike Minor ATL SP - - 195 - - - - - -
69 262 NR Henderson Alvarez TOR SP - - - - - 196 - - -

— By Mark Ross, updated on March 30, 2012

Other Fantasy Baseball Content:

2012 Fantasy Baseball: First Base Rankings
2012 Fantasy Baseball: Second Base Rankings
2012 Fantasy Baseball: Shortstop Rankings
2012 Fantasy Baseball: Third Base Rankings
2012 Fantasy Baseball: Outfield Rankings
2012 Fantasy Baseball: Catcher Rankings
2012 Fantasy Baseball: Starting Pitcher Rankings
2012 Fantasy Baseball: Relief Pitcher Rankings
2012 MLB Fantasy Closer Grid
2012 Fantasy Baseball Sleepers and Busts: Infield
2012 Fantasy Baseball Sleepers and Busts: Outfield
2012 Fantasy Baseball Sleepers and Busts: Starting Pitching
2012 Fantasy Baseball Sleepers and Busts: Closers
Fantasy Baseball Studs to Avoid in 2012
2012 Fantasy Baseball Deep Sleepers

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<p> Athlon Sports' updated consensus fantasy rankings reveal plenty of starting pitching to go around</p>
Post date: Friday, March 30, 2012 - 09:30
Path: /college-football/penn-state-nittany-lions-2012-spring-preview

The journey to claim the 2012 national title begins in February, March and April, as 124 college football teams open up spring practice over the next three months. Athlon will preview some of the top teams and storylines across the nation, as the countdown to 2012 inches closer.

Penn State Nittany Lions 2012 Spring Preview

2011 Record: 9-4, 6-2 Big Ten

Spring practice: March 26-April 21

Returning Starters: Offense – 3, Defense – 4

Returning Leaders:

Passing: Matt McGloin, 1,571 yards, 8 TD, 5 INT
Rushing: Silas Redd, 1,241 yards, 7 TD
Receiving: Justin Brown, 35 rec., 517 yards, 2 TD
Tackles: Gerald Hodges, 106
Sacks: Sean Stanley and Gerald Hodges, 4.5
Interceptions: Five tied with one

Redshirts to watch: OL Angelo Mangiro, DT Anthony Zettel, OL Donovan Smith, DE Deion Barnes, LB Ben Kline, OL Ryan Nowicki

2012 Schedule

Big Ten 2012 Schedule Analysis

Sept. 1 Ohio
Sept. 8 at Virginia
Sept. 15 Navy
Sept. 22 Temple
Sept. 29 at Illinois
Oct. 6 Northwestern
Oct. 13 Bye Week
Oct. 20 at Iowa
Oct. 27 Ohio State
Nov. 3 at Purdue
Nov. 10 at Nebraska
Nov. 17 Indiana
Nov. 24 Wisconsin

Offensive Strength: Silas Redd. The second-team all-Big Ten tailback proved as an underclassmen in his first season as the starter that his recruiting hype was warranted. He hit a wall down the stretch but Redd is a great piece for new head coach Bill O'Brien to build his offense around.

Offensive Weakness: Where to begin? The quarterback position has been the issue in Happy Valley for years and it appears, barring massive development from an incumbent, that 2012 won't be any different.

Defensive Strength: State College has been referred to as Linebacker-U for years and this Penn State squad will do nothing to dispel that. A deep and talented group returns seven of the top eight tacklers and could be one of the best in the Big Ten — if it can stay healthy.

Defensive Weakness: The defensive line has to be rebuilt this spring without Big Ten Defensive Lineman of the Year Devon Still and top sack artist Jack Crawford. However, the secondary must replace all four starters and could see a scheme change (what will happen to the Hero position), so the back end of this unit is the likely weak spot.

Spring Storylines Facing the Nittany Lions:

1. The healing process in State College has to continue and getting back onto the field is a step in the right direction. O'Brien has to insulate his team and create an internal rallying cry in order to build unity in the face of what will most assuredly be a very public and lurid trial of Jerry Sandusky. All while dealing with a fanbase that is seeing a new coaching staff on the practice field for the first time in nearly 50 years. Athletic competition can possess overwhelming rejuvenating powers and Nittany Lions fans have to be happy to see their team practicing for the first time since the end of the darkest season in Penn State history. For a coach who has yet to see most of his players practice, anything — and anyone — goes this spring in Happy Valley.

2. The former Patriots offensive coordinator's first order of business is finding a quarterback to run his offense. While installing his offense, he has made it clear that the position is up for grabs and he has two experienced options in Matt McGloin and Robert Bolden. Uber-recruit and upside athlete Paul Jones, who has yet to play a snap due to academic issues, will also figure heavily into the mix. The 6-foot-3, 245-pounder might have the most raw ability but lacks time under center. Both Bolden and McGloin have had opportunities to seize the starting job over the last two seasons and both have failed to make a statement. Which is probably why O'Brien hosted former Maryland passer Danny O'Brien on the first day of spring camp. However, O'Brien chose to sign with division rival Wisconsin shortly after his visit to Happy Valley. There are options on this roster — how good they are remains to be seen.

3. Three All-Big Ten honorable mention offensive linemen have departed the roster and filling these holes will play a huge role in getting better quarterback play. There is no lack of talent but center Matt Stankiewitch is the only returning blocker with extensive starting experience. This could be a totally reworked group and finding the right pieces to protect his quarterback and star tailback will be priority No. 2 for O'Brien this spring. Mike Farrell, Donovan Smith, Adam Gress and John Urschel need to step into bigger, more prominent roles for a unit that, frankly, is a large unknown as this stage of the season.

4. There will be four new starters in the defensive secondary so settling on a defensive back rotation is at the top of the defensive wish list. The cornerback position appears to be in better (or more stable) shape than safety. Senior Stephon Morris will slide into one starting spot while super-sophomore Adrian Amos, who exhibited tremendous upside in 12 games as a true freshman, will snag the other job. Receiver Curtis Drake was moved to cornerback this spring, which figures to help with the depth and competition. But at safety, defensive back coach John Butler knows little after junior Malcolm Lewis. This is clearly the biggest unknown on the defensive side of the ball for Penn Staters.

5. Replacing Still and Crawford up front on the defense will be tough. However, Sean Stanley (30 tackles, 4.5 sacks) and Jordan Hill (59 tackles, 3.5 sacks) form a solid 1-2 inside-outside punch. Talented names like C.J. Olaniyan, Evan Hailes, DaQuan Jones and James Terry need to grow into the highly-touted recruits scouts projected. The Nittany Lions will also get some help in the form of end Pete Massaro, who missed all of last season due to an injury. 

By Braden Gall (@BradenGall on Twitter)

Related Content Links:

Big Ten 2012 Schedule Analysis

Top Transfers to Watch in 2012
Early Top 25 for 2012
College Football's Top Spring Storylines for 2012

College Football's Coaches on the Hot Seat

2012 Very Early Big Ten Predictions

<p> Penn State Nittany Lions 2012 Spring Preview</p>
Post date: Friday, March 30, 2012 - 07:00
Path: /college-football/texas-am-aggies-2012-spring-preview

The journey to claim the 2012 national title begins in February, March and April, as 124 college football teams open up spring practice over the next three months. Athlon will preview some of the top teams and storylines across the nation, as the countdown to 2012 inches closer.

Texas A&M Aggies 2012 Spring Preview

2011 Record: 7-6, 4-5 Big 12

Spring practice: March 31-April 28

Returning Starters: Offense – 6, Defense – 4

Returning Leaders:

Passing: Jameill Showers, 4 of 5, 40 yds., 0 TD, 0 INTs
Rushing: Christine Michael, 149 car., 899 yds., 8 TDs
Receiving: Ryan Swope, 89 rec., 1,207 yds., 11 TDs
Tackles: Jonathan Stewart, 98
Sacks: Sean Porter, 9.5
Interceptions: Steven Terrell, 2

Redshirts to watch: QB Johnny Manziel, WR Mike Evans, S Devonta Burns

Early Enrollees: QB Matt Davis, DB Tremaine Jacobs, DB Kenneth Marshall, WR Derel Walker

JUCO Transfers to Watch: DB Tremaine Jacobs, WR Derel Walker

2012 Schedule

Aug. 30 at Louisiana Tech
Sept. 8 Florida
Sept. 15 at SMU
Sept. 22 South Carolina State
Sept. 29 Arkansas
Oct. 6 at Ole Miss
Oct. 20 LSU
Oct. 27 at Auburn
Nov. 3 at Mississippi State
Nov. 10 at Alabama
Nov. 17 Sam Houston State
Nov. 24 Missouri

Offensive Strength: Moving from the Big 12 to the SEC won’t be easy, but Texas A&M has some pieces to build around in 2012. The offensive line should be one of the best in the conference, as tackles Luke Joeckel and Jake Matthews will both contend for All-SEC honors. In addition to the strength up front, there’s plenty of depth at receiver and three talented running backs on the roster.

Offensive Weakness: Quarterback play. Ryan Tannehill was solid during his tenure as Texas A&M’s starter and will likely be one of the first 10-15 picks off the board in the 2012 NFL Draft. Four candidates are in the mix to replace Tannehill this spring and the battle may go up until the final week of fall practices. Although the Aggies have three quality running backs, they have to be worried about the health of Christine Michael coming off a torn ACL in early November.  

Defensive Strength: Even with Damontre Moore expected to move to defensive end, the Aggies should feel good about the group of returning linebackers. Sean Porter recorded 79 tackles and 9.5 sacks last year, while Steven Jenkins pitched in 61 stops. Jonathan Stewart earned honorable mention All-Big 12 honors last season and chipped in 98 tackles and three sacks.

Defensive Weakness: The play of the secondary was a constant concern last year, and the coaching staff still has plenty of issues with this group heading into spring practice. The Aggies allowed 276.3 passing yards per game last season in the Big 12 and lose a couple of key contributors. Although the passing attacks in the SEC aren’t nearly as dynamic as the ones in the Big 12, the Aggies need to shore up this area in preseason workouts.

Spring Storylines Facing the Aggies

1. Goodbye Big 12. Hello SEC. That’s the theme in College Station this spring, as the Aggies are on the move to the toughest conference in college football. Texas A&M has all of the resources necessary to eventually compete in the SEC, but the transition period will certainly have a few bumps in the road. As if changing conferences wasn’t enough, the Aggies will have a new head coach and schemes in 2012. Kevin Sumlin takes over Texas A&M after a successful tenure at Houston and should be a great fit in College Station. Sumlin is certainly aware of the expectations at Texas A&M, as he coached under R.C. Slocum from 2001-02.

2. The biggest on-field question mark facing the Aggies in 2012 rests under center with the quarterback battle. Ryan Tannehill departs after throwing for 3,744 yards and 29 scores last season, leaving four inexperienced candidates to compete for time this spring. Jameill Showers tossed five passes in a backup role last year and has the most experience of any quarterback on the Texas A&M roster. He will face competition from Matt Joeckel, redshirt freshman Johnny Manziel and true freshman Matt Davis. With a deep receiving corps, Sumlin and offensive coordinator Kliff Kingsbury won’t be afraid to throw it around this year. However, the Aggies have to find and settle on a starting quarterback for the offense to take off. Although Showers has the most experience, this is really a wide-open battle that could be decided late in fall camp.

3. Outside of the quarterback battle, the running backs will probably get the most attention in spring practice. Christine Michael was off to a terrific start last year (899 yards and eight touchdowns), but suffered a torn ACL in the early November loss to Oklahoma. Although Michael is expected to return to full strength for the opener, this is his second major leg injury in three seasons with the Aggies. Kingsbury will slowly work Michael back into the rotation in the fall, which makes spring practice even more important for Ben Malena. The sophomore fared well in limited work, adding 83 yards against Texas and 77 yards and two touchdowns against Northwestern. Incoming freshman Trey Williams ranked as the No. 19 prospect in the 2012 Athlon Consensus 100 and should work his way into the mix as the No. 3 back this year. Even if Michael is slow to return to 100 percent, Malena and Williams is a solid one-two punch to begin the year. However, it’s important for all of the running backs get into the mix this preseason and get comfortable with the new schemes.

4. New defensive coordinator Mark Snyder should be a good fit in College Station, but he will have his work cut out for him from the opening snap of spring practice. The Aggies previously ran the 3-4, but plan to switch back to the 4-3. The defensive line must replace end Tony Jerod-Eddie and tackle Eddie Brown, but return honorable mention All-Big 12 selection Spencer Nealy and linebacker Damontre Moore (8.5 sacks) is moving back to end. The linebacking corps is solid, but needs to be better in pass defense. The secondary is a glaring concern for Snyder, as cornerbacks Terrence Frederick, Lionel Smith and Coryell Judie and safety Trent Hunter have expired their eligibility. The coaching staff dipped into the JUCO ranks to help solve the question marks in this area, bringing in Tremaine Jacobs to help add to the depth and competition. The Aggies finished 2011 ranked 109th in pass defense, but won’t have to face as many pass-happy offenses in the SEC. However, shoring up the secondary and keeping the pass rush among the best in college football has to be the top priority for Snyder this spring. 

By Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven on Twitter)

Related SEC Content

2012 Athlon Recruiting Rankings: No. 14 Texas A&M Aggies
College Football's Top Transfers to Watch for 2012
College Football's Top Spring QB Battles to Watch

Top Transfers to Watch in 2012
Early Top 25 for 2012
College Football's Top Spring Storylines for 2012
College Football's Coaches on the Hot Seat

<p> Athlon previews spring practice for the Texas A&amp;M Aggies.</p>
Post date: Friday, March 30, 2012 - 06:59
All taxonomy terms: News
Path: /news/kansas-ohio-state-forgotten-final-four-matchup

While all the Final Four hype seems wrapped around the David-Goliath plotline behind SEC’s powerhouse, Kentucky Wildcats, and their in-state rival, Louisville; the overshadowed match-up between Ohio State and Kansas will be quite the game as well. Though there is little rivalry between these two, the talent and tenacity of both teams—and readiness to avenge a loss for Ohio State— will make it nearly impossible for any fan painted head-to-toe in blue and white, or sporting black and red; or any fan for that matter, peel away from their seats following the first game. Both two seeds have surpassed impressive teams to make it to this point and neither is ready to go home anytime soon.

Ohio State defeated 1 seed Syracuse 77-70 last Saturday to earn their first trip to Final Four since 2007 where they lost in the Championship game to Joakim Noah and the gang at Florida.  The Buckeyes overcame adversity when Jared Sullinger was called for two early fouls in the first game and sat for the remainder of the half. Upon his return, he scored 19 points and pulled down seven rebounds in the win over Syracuse. Sullinger’s performance was supplemented with Deshaun Thomas’s 14 points and nine boards; as well as, the team’s impeccable free-throw percentage down the stretch. The Buckeyes went 13 for 14 from the line within the final 68 seconds.

While it seems that Ohio State’s offense that helped them make the Final Four, it was Kansas’ hellacious defense that stunned UNC and booked them a trip to New Orleans.  Elijah Johnson’s back court presence overwhelmed the Tar Heels’ back-up point guard, Stilman White as the Jayhawks claimed the 80-67 victory.

While Sullinger’s performance seems to the key to the Buckeyes taking the game, he will have his hands full against Jayhawks’ inside presence.  Forward Thomas Robinson and Center Jeff Withey have both caused havoc in the paint on both ends of the floor all season long. If those two come to play, they will definitely give Sullinger a run for his money.

These teams met in December at Kansas, and while the Jayhawks defeated Ohio State; the absence of the Buckeye’s Sullinger was definitely not overlooked. If Sullinger can stay out of foul trouble, this game will surely to be a fight to the finish. 

by Jordan Coleman

<p> Kansas-Ohio State is the forgotten Final 4 game in New Orleans.</p>
Post date: Friday, March 30, 2012 - 06:52
Path: /nascar/its-long-way-top-michael-waltrip-racing

by Vito Pugliese

“I’m sorry guys, I just … can’t drive my racecar …”

Those words, tinged with embarrassment, pain and reservation, served as both the low point and springboard for Michael Waltrip Racing. Sitting in his crumpled Camry on the backstretch at Charlotte after wrecking on his second lap of qualifying for the Coca-Cola 600 in 2007, Michael Waltrip’s transition from racecar driver to team owner was going anything but smooth. From crashing out during time trials and having to head home on Fridays, shoddy performance and reliability, to a divorce and a much-publicized incident that saw him barefoot and beating a hasty retreat from the scene of a tipped over truck, the upstart organization that Waltrip started to coincide with Toyota’s arrival in the Cup Series has long since been referred to as a “second-tier” team.

But, while once said with a bit of condescension and hesitation, it appears safe to finally say it with assurance: Michael Waltrip Racing is for real.

Last year, Robby Gordon deemed his fledgling racing operation “a marketing company that races.” Despite two wins with former driver David Reutimann, that same observation so wryly stated could have been attributed to MWR not that long ago — but no longer. Don’t believe me? Watch any NASCAR race (or NASCAR-related programming), and tell me how many commercial breaks are absent a 5-Hour Energy commercial with Clint Bowyer, a NAPA spot without Waltrip or Martin Truex Jr., or an Aaron’s commercial without Mark Martin and Waltrip.

You’d be hard pressed to find a team owner that is as big a piece of marketing his racing operation as the two-time Daytona 500 champion. Waltrip is now also a commentator alongside Chris Myers during FOX race broadcasts, and last year was one of the hosts of Showtime’s “This Week in NASCAR.” It is that popularity and familiarity with die-hards and casual fans alike that has helped Waltrip’s race team bridge the gap from pretender to contender in the span of a few short years.

MWR suddenly boasts, along with Roush Fenway Racing, perhaps the best-balanced driver line-up in the sport. After Carl Edwards declined overtures from Joe Gibbs Racing in 2011, Bowyer became the next most-eligible driver at the end of his contractual rope. Sponsor 5-Hour Energy came a-calling — which in today’s world of finding a ride is as essential as having a helmet. When Richard Childress Racing could not honor Bowyer’s salary demands, it was MWR that offered him a home, much to the bewilderment of many in the media.

Was one of the hottest properties in NASCAR taking a step backward? After all, it was Bowyer who, after being involved with a wreck with Waltrip at Bristol in 2008, deemed him, “The worst driver in the history of NASCAR. Period.”

Bowyer is a driver who has made the Chase for the Championship three times in his six-year Cup career, as well as a Nationwide Series championship in ’08.

As it turns out, his defection to MWR has been anything but a step backward. His No. 15 has been fast weekly, albeit with a couple of stumbles with some blown tires and wall contact at Phoenix, but has since rebounded with a sixth at Las Vegas, fourth at Bristol, and a 13th in California. Sitting eighth in points, just 38 markers out of first, Bowyer’s Chase chances — and opportunities to win — are materializing quicker than most had suspected.

Think of his team as the No. 5 of Kasey Kahne without the hype or horrendous luck.

Truex has been in a similar situation as Bowyer. Since winning what was the Busch Series championship in 2004 and ’05, his Cup pursuits have been left wanting. He joined what had been Dale Earnhardt, Inc. as driver of the No. 1 Chevrolet as it was devolving from Earnhardt’s business built for his children into a diluted conglomeration of other teams that were both failing and floundering.

Truex has one NASCAR Cup win — a Monday running of a rained-out Dover event on the day that Bill France Jr. passed away — and Chase appearance to his credit, both of which were in 2007. Since joining MWR, Truex has little to show beyond having the most appearances in a commercial break.

However, in the last five races of 2011, Truex and crew chief Chad Johnston strung together four top-10 finishes and built upon that with runs of seventh, third and eighth in 2012. And this from a team that, prior to its hot streak, taped together only three top 5s and 15 top 10s in nearly two seasons. 

<p>  </p> <p class="p1"> Michael Waltrip Racing’s renaissance of 2012 has been one of the biggest stories of this NASCAR season. Just how far has this team come from the depths of despair? Vito Pugliese takes a look.</p>
Post date: Thursday, March 29, 2012 - 17:42
Path: /college-basketball/final-four-preview-clark-kellogg

Athlon Sports’ Mitch Light caught up with CBS college basketball analyst Clark Kellogg earlier this week to chat about the Final Four.

Athlon Sports: You’ve been involved in the sport for a long time, both as a player and broadcaster. Can you remember a Final Four matchup as juicy as what we have with Kentucky and Louisville?

Clark Kellogg: No, I can’t. When you consider what that rivalry means to the folks in Kentucky and also to people that follow college basketball closely, it’s way up there in the regular season — highly intense and extremely passion-driven. Now you factor in the stage that it is being played on and what is at stake, then it goes to a level that we haven’t seen in a Final Four matchup, quite honestly. This will be my fourth year calling the national championship game, and I spent 12 years as a studio analyst before that and watched it for a number of years before that, and I don’t know if we’ve ever had this kind of a matchup — a rivalry that has teams of this type of tradition, like Louisville and Kentucky.

Kentucky is the favorite. If you are looking at it from a Louisville standpoint, other than the obvious of making shots, what do the Cardinals need to do well to win this game? What’s a matchup that Louisville might need to win?

It is really too hard to lock into a particular matchup. The point you made, and it’s very simplistic and an obvious one, but shot-making is huge. It has such a big impact on everything, being able to set up your defense, being able to keep pressure on Kentucky. I think Louisville will be able to get good shots. They’ve got to be able to knock a high percentage of them down. Kentucky is without weaknesses, so being able to score the ball is one of the elements you have to bring to the table. I just don’t think you can out-defense Kentucky or slow them down enough to beat them just in a defensive battle. Scoring the ball and making shots is a huge, huge part of the equation for any team to beat them.

Looking at Kansas, I think a popular storyline this year has been Kansas’ relative lack of elite talent. They have good players, but they might not have a bunch of future pros on the team. Is that accurate?

It’s not elite compared to some of the recent teams that Kansas has had, particularly the 2008 national championship team, and even last year’s team when you had the Morris twins. So I can understand why people would say that. The jury is out what is going to happen in the post-college careers of players like Tyshawn Taylor and Elijah Johnson, even a guy like Jeff Withey. That being said, I think it is being overstated a tad, but compared to recent Kansas teams, yes, this is not a team that jumps out at you with a bunch of players with obvious pro potential. That being said, you don’t have to be in the pros to get to the Final Four. You just have to be able to handle the landscape in front of you, and Kansas has done that with really good defense and the play of Thomas Robinson and the improved play of Jeff Withey and the brilliance of Tyshawn Taylor for the last third of the season.

Looking at your alma mater, Ohio State, what is the key to defending Jared Sullinger? You have to kind of push him off the block and out of his comfort zone, right?

I think that is one of them. You want to be able to defend Jared Sullinger effectively one-on-one, but Kansas likes to double-team the post, and they do it aggressively and hard. If they determine that is the strategy that they want to go with, they will have to rotate well on defense. The key is you have to make it tough for a guy like Jared Sullinger. Don’t allow him to get a steady diet of a certain defense. Don’t allow him to get a rhythm. You want to minimize his deep post touches and you want to attack him at the other end of the court as well. The key matchup for me for Kansas will be Deshaun Thomas. They really don’t have a natural defender for him among their starters. I am interested to see how they deal with him. He is a scorer in the truest sense of the word. He can make threes. He can post you up. He can hit a mid-range shot. He is an elite scorer at the college level. How Kansas deals with him may be more important than what they do with Jared Sullinger.

Got to you ask about a team that is not in the Final Four, but how much fun was it for you to have your son, Nick, and his team, the Ohio Bobcats, enjoy so much success in the NCAA Tournament?

It is a thrill and a sense of pride and gratitude that I can’t adequately describe in words because of how full it makes you as a dad, as a mom, and as a sibling, to see your son or your brother out there. Just a tremendous run and an exciting run of fun for our family, and I was full beyond a measure of pride because of how Nick handled himself off the floor. He’s been grounded. He’s worked hard, and he’s been a good teammate.

I know you are involved with the Capital One Cup. Can you tell us a little bit about that and how you got involved?

Certainly can. I am an advisory board member for the Capital One Cup and have been for two years. Capital One is committed to the achievement of student-athletes, both on and off the court or field, and that dedication and drive to be the best is really the reason why the Capital One Cup was created. It rewards Division I athletic programs for their cumulative on-field performance across men’s and women’s sports with over $400,000 combined student-athlete scholarships. I couldn’t be happier to be associated with the Capital One Cup. And fans have an opportunity to follow their university of choice in the Capital One Cup simply by going to You can find the standings at and And all four of the Final Four teams have an opportunity to win as many as 60 points by winning the National Championship.

<p> CBS Analyst Clark Kellog discusses the upcoming Final Four.</p>
Post date: Thursday, March 29, 2012 - 16:29
Path: /nascar/backseat-drivers-fan-council

by Dustin Long

Five races into the season and a few drivers expected to make the Chase are struggling. Hendrick Motorsports teammates Jeff Gordon and Kasey Kahne both are outside the top 20 in points. Last year’s runner-up, Carl Edwards, has not shown the strength he did last season just yet. Kyle Busch, a regular in the Chase, is 14th in points.

While there’s plenty of time to reverse course for those drivers — the Chase field won’t be set for more than five months — members of the Backstreet Drivers Fan Council are not confident all those drivers will be among the top 12 when the Chase field is set after Richmond in September.

This week, the Fan Council looks at who will make the Chase and who won’t, along with grading last weekend’s NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Auto Club Speedway.

After five races last year, nine of the top 12 (if you factor in the wildcard spots) went on the make the Chase. Backseat Drivers Fan Council members were given a list of the 12 drivers who would make the Chase (if it started today with the top 10 and two wildcard drivers) and asked which ones would make the Chase. Here’s how they voted:

98.3 percent picked Tony Stewart (4th in points but has 2 wins)
97.0 percent picked Kevin Harvick (2nd in points)
95.0 percent picked Jimmie Johnson (9th in points)
90.0 percent picked Matt Kenseth (6th in points with 1 win)
89.0 percent picked Brad Keselowski (would be 11th via wildcard with 1 win)
85.7 percent picked Greg Biffle (points leader)
83.4 percent picked Denny Hamlin (7th in points with 1 win)
76.4 percent picked Dale Earnhardt Jr. (3rd in points)
45.2 percent picked Ryan Newman (10th in points)
25.6 percent picked Clint Bowyer (8th in points)
18.3 percent picked Martin Truex Jr. (5th in points)
4.7 percent picked Paul Menard (11th in points)

What Fan Council members said:
• Hamlin and Newman are simply not showing the consistency and I don't think they will recover. If they make it, it will be by wildcard only. Truex, Bowyer and Menard are simply not strong enough in their current situations to make the Chase this year, though I do believe all three will (be a) threat and all will possibly get wins this season.

• Think the switch to Ford from Dodge is going to impact (Brad Keselowski) toward the end of the season. Not sure (Martin Truex Jr.) and (Paul Menard) still have the consistency needed.

• MWR cars (Truex and Bowyer) will not make it into the Chase. Their luck will run out.

• Junior still has his summer swoon coming. I think ultimately that and the fact that he doesn't win will keep him out. Truex will not be able to sustain nor will Menard or Bowyer.

• It's really too early to tell.

• Sorry, I just don't see Jr. having the consistency needed to make the Chase

• Believe it or not, I think it's Jimmie's year to miss it

• Not convinced on either Jr. or Menard, and I have Newman falling out too.

• The Biff will fade in time. The 39 has never really showed any strength. Martin Truex has a good team this year and will make it in.

<p> The Backseat Drivers Fan Council gives its input on the rain-shortened Auto Club 400 and which drivers they believe have a shot at making the Chase five races into the 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup season.</p>
Post date: Thursday, March 29, 2012 - 13:05
Path: /college-basketball/march-madness-needs-gus-johnson

March Madness has lacked some excitement this year, and one reason seems obvious. Besides badly-officiated contests, a lack of shooters and no buzzer-beaters, the missing ingredient has to be the absence of Gus Johnson announcing games. We have compiled some of his past tournament gems, along with some other great calls from the man who gets buckets.

2006 – UCLA 73, Gonzaga 71

We start with a dramatic comeback that ended an amazing season for Gonzaga. UCLA trailed by 17 points but scored the game’s final 11 points to win a Sweet 16 thriller. Seeing Adam Morrison face down on the floor and crying at the end of the game is one of the more lasting images of past tournaments. It was truly “Heartbreak City!”



2007 – Ohio State 78, Xavier 71 (OT) 

The drama in this classic contest was at the end of regulation, when Ohio State’s Ron Lewis hit a three to force overtime against Xavier. You can truly feel the excitement of March with “We’re going to overtime…in Lexington. Ha Ha!” The Buckeyes survived the second round and went on to a title game loss to Florida.


1999 – Gonzaga 73, Florida 72

Gonzaga was not always a fixture in March Madness. The Bulldogs had only been in the tournament one time prior to 1999, and they had beaten Minnesota and Stanford to get to the Sweet 16. The Zags kept the momentum going against Florida, as a Casey Calvary make and subsequent Eddie Shannon miss led to one of Gus’ more famous calls, “Gonzaga! The slipper still fits.”


2005 – Vermont 60, Syracuse 57 (OT)

Who can forget the stunning upset of No. 4 seed Syracuse by Vermont in 2005? The underdog Catamounts held down Orange stars Gerry McNamara and Hakim Warrick, and they provided the dagger with a minute to go in overtime when “Sorrentine hit that one from the parking lot!”


2005 – Gonzaga 64, Oklahoma State 62

This was not a March Madness matchup, but it is definitely one of my favorite buzzer-beater calls and reactions from Gus and Bill Raftery. Oklahoma State had traveled to Seattle to play Gonzaga in Key Arena for this thriller. The nation’s leading scorer, Adam Morrison, banked in the game-winning three ball in the final seconds as the Bulldogs pulled it out. The classic aftermath went from “What a game!” to “Larry Bird….maybe?” to “Major Onions!” from the entertaining Raftery.


1996 – Princeton 43, UCLA 41

Gus got a classic assignment in his first season doing the tournament, as Pete Carril’s Tigers upset the defending national champions from Westwood. The video is rough, but the audio is great. This is a long version, so fast forward to the 6:45 mark unless you’re a complete old-school hoops fan like me. This upset was simply “Unbelievable!” and it led the famous headline in the Daily Princetonian, “David 43 Goliath 41.”


2009 – Denver Broncos 12, Cincinnati Bengals 7

It’s not college basketball, but I had to add in this game-winning catch by Denver’s Brandon Stokley in '09. The Broncos trailed the Bengals, 7-6, with 28 seconds to go in an otherwise boring game. However, Stokley caught a tipped pass from Kyle Orton and raced 87 yards for the improbable game-winning score, “Oh my goodnees, what a play!”


2009 – Tennessee Titans 30, Jacksonville Jaguars 13

One more NFL clip. Chris Johnson went for over 2,000 yards in ’09, and this run produced a hysterical call. As the Titans’ burner breaks off a 52-yard touchdown run against the Jags, Gus describes a new level of fast - “Gettin’ away from the cops” speed.


2010 – Kansas State 101, Xavier 96 (2OT)

It’s back to the NCAA Tournament, and this was an all-time March Madness thriller. K-State was leading near the end of regulation and the first overtime, but Xavier’s Terrell Holloway and Jordan Crawford each made huge plays to keep this war of attrition going. In the end, Wildcats star Jacob Pullen shows “He’s in shape!”

<p> Athlon adds some 'Rise and Fire' to a lackluster tournament.</p>
Post date: Thursday, March 29, 2012 - 13:03
Path: /nascar/pennell%E2%80%99s-picks-fantasy-nascar-trends-martinsville

by Jay Pennell

Few sports crisscross the United States quite like NASCAR, and with that, the Sprint Cup Series returns to the East Coast this weekend for the Goody’s Fast Relief 500 at Martinsville Speedway.

Rain got the best of the series last weekend in Fontana, Calif., with defending champion Tony Stewart scoring his second win of the season in an event shortened by weather. Just five races into the year, Stewart and his Steve Addington-led crew have hit their stride early as others are simply struggling to get their season started.

With momentum and confidence on his side, Stewart returns to the site of one of his most dramatic runs of the 2011 Chase.

After struggling for the majority of the event last fall, Stewart was able to fight to hold on to a lead lap position and eventually worked his way through the field and to the front of the pack. Besting Jimmie Johnson on the final restart of the day, Stewart went to Victory Lane and kept his title hopes alive. That race would have as much to do with his eventual championship as the season-finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

On a roll already this season and coming off one of the most impressive performances in recent memory, Stewart is among this week’s stronger plays, but is not the overall favorite.

That honor belongs to none other than Dale Earnhardt Jr.

While Stewart was methodically working his way to victory at Martinsville last October, Earnhardt Jr. was beating and banging his way to a seventh-place finish. His aggressive style was an enjoyable sight to the fans, but also evidence of his ability to score a solid finish on the paper-clip short track.

Last spring, Earnhardt nearly broke a winless streak that dates back to 2008. However, Kevin Harvick was able to capitalize on a late-race charge to make the pass for the lead with four laps to go and score the win, relegating Junior to a second-place finish.

Entering this weekend, Earnhardt is enjoying a strong start to the season with two top 5s, three top 10s, and sitting third in the championship standings. Winless in his last 134 starts, Earnhardt is on the verge of snapping that streak and giving team owner Rick Hendrick his 200th career NASCAR Sprint Cup Series victory.

That opportunity could not come at a better facility. The Hendrick cars have been among the strongest at Martinsville since they began showing up. Geoffrey Bodine scored the team’s first victory here in 1984, while Hendrick cars have a total of 18 wins — second only to Petty Enterprises — as drivers Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson lead the active duty drivers in wins at Martinsville with seven and six, respectively.

Yet this weekend, it won't be “Five-Time”' or “Four-Time” that will be earning another Grandfather clock trophy. With the numbers adding up, momentum on his side and a string of strong performances at Martinsville backing him up, Dale Earnhardt Jr. is this week’s fantasy favorite.

Five Favorites: Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kevin Harvick, Denny Hamlin, Jimmie Johnson, Tony Stewart

While Gordon has been one of the most successful drivers at Martinsville over the years — he leads all active drivers in wins (seven), top 5s (25), top 10s (31), laps led (3,094) and lead-lap finishes (30) there — his 2012 season has gotten off to a rocky start.

Despite high hopes and great expectations leading into his 20th season in the Cup Series, the four-time champion is 25th in points and has only one top-10 finish on the year (eighth, Phoenix).

An ill-timed miscue on pit road last weekend in Fontana cost the No. 24 team a strong finish and the ability to move up the standings and back into contention. So has the season has gone for Gordon, crew chief Alan Gustafson and the entire No. 24 team.

Yet through it all, Gordon is encouraged by the fast racecars he has each week and knows all the team needs to get back on track is one “complete” race. And what better place for that to happen than at Martinsville?

Gordon is the type of driver that can hit a streak of solid runs and race for wins. After a slow start to the season, this is the weekend it turns it around for the No. 24 team.

Five Undervalued Picks: Jeff Gordon, Jeff Burton, Kyle Busch, Matt Kenseth, Greg Biffle

Martinsville is a track in which veterans such as Gordon are supposed to excel, not the young guys. But this week’s underdog pick goes to 21-year-old Joey Logano.

In six starts at Martinsville, Logano has completed all but five laps, has one top 5, two top 10s, zero DNFs and an average finish of 13.8 in six starts. While he has yet to set the world on fire or take home the trophy at Martinsville, the Joe Gibbs Racing driver did finish second to the ever-present favorite at Martinsville, teammate Denny Hamlin, in 2010.

Already in 2012, Logano has shown he has Chase potential. Through the first five races of the season, Logano has two top 10s and his worst finish was 24th last weekend in Fontana.

If he can keep the fenders on the car and avoid trouble throughout the day, Logano should score solid fantasy points for your team. He might not be the one celebrating the win, but he could give you those extra points needed.

Three Underdog Picks: Joey Logano, Brad Keselowski, AJ Allmendinger

Best Average Finish at Martinsville (Wins):
1. Jimmie Johnson — 5.4 (6)
2. Denny Hamlin — 6.5 (4)
3. Jeff Gordon — 6.9 (7)
4. Dale Earnhardt Jr. — 13.0 (0)
5. Tony Stewart — 13.4 (3)
6. Joey Logano — 13.8 (0)
7. Ryan Newman — 14.4 (0)
8. Brad Keselowski — 14.5 (0)
9. Jeff Burton — 14.6 (1)
10. Juan Pablo Montoya — 14.7 (0)

Follow Jay on Twitter: @JayWPennell

<p> Athlon Sports contributor Jay Pennell looks at favorites and darkhorses for Sunday's NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Martinsville Speedway.</p>
Post date: Thursday, March 29, 2012 - 12:07
All taxonomy terms: Fantasy Baseball, MLB, Fantasy
Path: /mlb/2012-fantasy-baseball-catcher-rankings

Opening Day is next week and Athlon Sports has all the fantasy baseball rankings you need to get ready for the upcoming season.

Athlon Sports has combined nine fantasy baseball big boards from around the web to compile an updated consensus Top 200 as well as positional breakdowns.

There's no change among the top eight catchers with Carlos Santana leading the way followed by Mike Napoli and Brian McCann. Buster Posey and Joe Mauer, both of whom are trying to rebound from disappointing 2011 seasons impacted by significant injuries, round out the top five.

Alex Avila is the biggest riser among the catchers, as he went up 11 spots on the Big Board from No. 119 to No. 108. After Avila, the next five catchers on the list all experienced drops of at least 10 positions on the Top 200.

Two of the biggest fallers, were J.P Arencibia and Russell Martin. The two AL East catchers each dropped at least 25 spots, which resulted in them barely maintaining their Top 200 status.

Fantasy Baseball is coming... and the 25th Anniversary Edition of Athlon Sports' Baseball Preview Magainze is already here. Click here to order yours today!

Rank Position ranking
Overall ranking on The Big Board
LR — Last Ranked, where player was ranked on The Big Board that was published on Feb. 20, 2012
NR — Not Ranked, means player did not appear on The Big Board that was published on Feb. 20, 2012

AS – Athlon Sports (updated 3/19/12)
CBS – (as of 3/16/12)
ESPN – (updated 3/13/12)
FOX – (updated 3/7/12)
MLB – (as of 3/15/12)
RC – (updated 3/18/12)
RS – (updated 2/27/12)
USA — (updated 2/13/12)
Y! – Yahoo! Sports (updated 2/24/12)*

*Yahoo! ranked only 120 players on their list, while Athlon's Big Board contains 200. The aggregated scores of the other eight big boards were used to extrapolate Yahoo!’s rankings to 200 players.

Athlon Sports Fantasy Rankings**: Big Board | C | 1B | 2B | 3B | SS | OF | SP | RP

**Positional rankings will be updated throughout the week

1 36 33 Carlos Santana CLE C/1B 52 17 52 30 35 32 46 40 41
2 38 38 Mike Napoli TEX C/1B 57 43 47 27 39 30 41 36 53
3 44 44 Brian McCann ATL C 48 41 69 46 43 47 44 39 83
4 67 73 Buster Posey SF C 62 52 127 51 75 44 87 61 75
5 77 76 Joe Mauer MIN C/1B 43 48 131 58 66 77 85 93 95
6 82 86 Matt Wieters BAL C 60 65 84 69 88 106 93 74 90
7 96 97 Miguel Montero ARI C 69 53 117 125 113 86 103 89 122
8 108 119 Alex Avila DET C 122 44 121 99 120 130 126 91 127
9 179 169 Yadier Molina STL C - 132 186 140 - 193 191 164 179
10 196 171 J.P. Arencibia TOR C - 125 - - 178 - - 199 181
11 200 161 Russell Martin NYY C - 116 - - - - - - 171
12 213 201 Wilson Ramos WAS C - 160 - 158 - - - - -
13 225 203 Geovany Soto CHC C - 166 - - - - - 192 -
14 258 NR Kurt Suzuki OAK C - 193 - - - - - - -
15 268 205 Devin Mesoraco CIN C 200 - - - - - - - -

Other names to consider (in alphabetical order): John Buck (MIA, C), Ryan Doumit (MIN, C), Ramon Hernandez (COL, C), Nick Hundley (SD, C), Chris Ianetta (LAA, C), Jonathan Lucroy (MIL, C), Salvador Perez (KC, C), A.J. Pierzynski (CHW, C), Carlos Ruiz (PHI, C), Jarod Saltalamacchia (BOS, C)

— By Mark Ross, updated on March 29, 2012

Other Fantasy Baseball Content:

2012 Fantasy Baseball: First Base Rankings
2012 Fantasy Baseball: Second Base Rankings
2012 Fantasy Baseball: Shortstop Rankings
2012 Fantasy Baseball: Third Base Rankings
2012 Fantasy Baseball: Outfield Rankings
2012 Fantasy Baseball: Catcher Rankings
2012 Fantasy Baseball: Starting Pitcher Rankings
2012 Fantasy Baseball: Relief Pitcher Rankings
2012 MLB Fantasy Closer Grid
2012 Fantasy Baseball Sleepers and Busts: Infield
2012 Fantasy Baseball Sleepers and Busts: Outfield
2012 Fantasy Baseball Sleepers and Busts: Starting Pitching
2012 Fantasy Baseball Sleepers and Busts: Closers
Fantasy Baseball Studs to Avoid in 2012
2012 Fantasy Baseball Deep Sleepers


For more fantasy baseball help, visit our friends at the Fantasy Baseball Hub.

<p> Athlon Sports has updated its consensus fantasy rankings for catcher</p>
Post date: Thursday, March 29, 2012 - 11:50