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It’s been 158 days since the St. Louis Cardinals defeated the Texas Rangers in Game 7 of the 2011 World Series, but baseball — and yes, fantasy baseball — is finally back. OK, the Oakland A’s and Seattle Mariners played two games in Tokyo last week, but the official Opening Day is Thursday, so play along with me.

Speaking of that two-game series in Japan, can you guess who’s currently leading the majors in batting average? None other than Ichiro Suzuki, who gave his countrymen plenty to cheer about by collecting four hits in the opener. Young stars Dustin Ackely and Yoenis Cespedes each hit a home run and drove in two during their short stay in the Land of the Rising Sun.

Here are some other storylines and players to watch this opening week as the 2012 fantasy baseball season gets underway.

Say Hello to Marlins Park
The Cardinals begin defense of their World Series title by helping the Marlins christen their brand-spanking new downtown stadium on Wednesday night. While eyes will no doubt be focused on the Marlins’ new 37,000-seat home, complete with a retractable roof, aquariums behind home plate and outfield glass panels, fantasy owners should also play close attention to the mound.

Josh Johnson will be toeing the rubber for the first time since last May 16 when shoulder issues limited him to a total of nine starts and 60 1/3 innings in 2011. Johnson has pitched very well during spring training and has experienced no setbacks with the shoulder. It also doesn’t hurt that Johnson will be facing a Cardinals line up without Albert Pujols, who’s now in Anaheim with the Angels.

For the Cardinals, Kyle Lohse gets the opening night assignment, as Chris Carpenter has been sidelined with nerve issues in his neck and shoulder. Lohse will be tasked with facing a Marlins line up that now includes Jose Reyes at the top of the order.

No one knows how Marlins Park is going to play just yet, whether it will favor the hitters or the pitchers, but don’t be surprised if new Miami manager Ozzie Guillen gives the green light early and often to his base stealers at the top of his line up. That’s good news for owners who have Reyes (39 SB in ’11), Emilio Bonifacio (40) and Hanley Ramirez (32 in ’10).

AL MVP Ballot on Display in Detroit
Five of the top 10 vote-getters in last year’s AL MVP balloting will be in action in Detroit as the defending AL Central champion Tigers open up against Boston. In fact, the first at bat will feature a match-up of the top two finishers as Jacoby Ellsbury of the Red Sox will step into the batter’s box against Tigers ace Justin Verlander, who took home both the AL MVP and Cy Young Award last year.

Besides Ellsbury and Verlander, the game will have Boston’s Adrian Gonzalez (7th in AL MVP voting in ’11) and Dustin Pedroia (9th), along with Detroit’s Miguel Cabrera (5th). Batting behind Cabrera will be new Tiger Prince Fielder, who finished third in the NL MVP voting and will make his Detroit debut. Fielder and the rest of the Tigers will be facing Jon Lester, who like the rest of his Red Sox teammates, will be looking to put last season’s September collapse behind him.

New Citi, Same Results?
The New York Mets will open their season on Thursday against NL East rival Atlanta in newly configured Citi Field. The Mets brought some of the outfield fences in during the offseason in hopes of giving the park an offensive boost. Last season the Mets finished 13th in the National League in home runs with 108 and only 50 of those coming at home.

This opening series against the Braves will be an early indicator to see if the Mets’ sluggers like David Wright, Ike Davis and Lucas Duda will be able to take advantage of the new dimensions or not. Tommy Hanson, who yielded 17 home runs in 130 innings pitched last year, will be on the mound for Atlanta in the series opener, followed by Jair Jurrjens (14 HR in 152 IP) on Saturday and Mike Minor (7 HR in 82 2/3 IP) on Sunday.

For the Mets, Johan Santana gets the Opening Day assignment. Santana, the two-time AL Cy Young Award winner (2004, ’06), last pitched in 2010 when he went 11-9 with a 2.98 ERA. He missed all of last season recovering from a torn capsule in his shoulder and it will be interesting to see how he fares in his first start in more than 19 months.

Mauer Out to Prove He’s No Ordinary Joe
It seems a lot longer, but it was just three years ago that Joe Mauer was the AL MVP when be won the batting title with a .365 average, hit 28 home runs and drove in 96. Perhaps it’s because in the past two seasons combined he’s hit just 12 home runs with 105 RBIs, while battling a myriad of injuries.

The good news is that Mauer has fared well at the plate during spring training and appears to be 100 percent healthy headed into the season, something he wasn’t last year. Now it’s just a matter of seeing if he’s the 2009 version or something more along the lines of 2010 (.327-9-75).

Mauer’s not the only Twin looking to stay healthy and rebound from a disappointing 2011. Justin Morneau, Denard Span and Francisco Liriano also dealt with injuries last year and saw their production plummet as a result. Lirianio has arguably had the best spring of them all, posting a 33:5 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 27 innings.

Span appears to finally be free of the concussion-related symptoms that wrecked his 2011 season, and while Morneau may never be the same player he was from 2006-08, he has looked more comfortable at the plate lately.

It also doesn’t hurt the Twins that they open their season in Baltimore against an Orioles staff that’s not expected to be very good. Target Field has not been kind to the Twins’ power hitters as the team hit more home runs (57) on the road than at home (46) last year. More to the point, Mauer has hit a grand total of one home run in 112 career games played at Target Field while Morneau has just seven in 74 games played there.

Quick Hitters

  • Stephen Strasburg will make his first start of the season in the Nationals’ opener in Chicago against a Cubs line up that has more question marks than clear-cut answers. Strasburg should be a productive starter every time he takes the mound, but owners should not overlook his projected innings cap (around 160) in his first full season back from Tommy John surgery. The Nationals took the same approach with Jordan Zimmerman last season and were more than happy with the results.

  • The aforementioned Pujols and C.J. Wilson will make their Angels debuts at home against Kansas City. It will be interesting to see what effect Pujols has on the Angels’ offense as a whole, while Wilson should benefit from no longer having to pitch his home starts in Rangers Ballpark. Last year, Wilson’s home ERA was 3.69 compared to a 2.31 mark on the road. For the Royals’ young hitters like Eric Hosmer, Alex Gordon, Billy Butler, Lorenzo Cain and Mike Moustakas, this opening series against Anaheim will be a good test as they will have to face Jered Weaver, Dan Haren and Wilson. That trio combined for 50 wins and 596 strikeouts in 697 1/3 innings pitched in 2011.

  • Besides being a key NL West series, the Giants vs. Diamondbacks opening three-game set starting on Friday features arguably the strongest collection of fantasy starting pitching. The opener has Tim Lincecum vs. Ian Kennedy, followed by Madison Bumgarner against Daniel Hudson, and ends with Matt Cain vs. Josh Collmenter. With the exception of Collmenter, the other five won at least 12 games and struck out 169 or more batters last season, while all six pitchers posted sub-3.50 ERAs and finished with a WHIP of 1.21 or lower in 2011.

Teaser:
<p> Fantasy baseball is back and here are some players and storylines to watch this week</p>
Post date: Wednesday, April 4, 2012 - 10:48
Path: /college-football/ranking-secs-college-football-coaches
Body:

Ranking the coaches in any college football conference is a difficult task. Many factors play into just how successful a coach is at any school. How well are the assistants paid? Are the facilities up to par with the rest of the conference? Can the coach recruit or is he more of an x's and o's manager? Are there off-the-field or age issues to take into consideration? Has a coach built a program or continued the success from a previous coach? How is the resume outside of their current position? These questions and more were posed to the editors at Athlon Sports, as they were asked to rank the coaches of each of the six BCS conferences. One thing to keep in mind - the record is not always indicative of where a coach should rank in a conference. 

Ranking the Coaches: ACC
Ranking the Coaches: Big East
Ranking the Coaches: Pac-12
Ranking the Coaches: Big 12
Ranking the Coaches: Big Ten
Ranking the Coaches: SEC
Ranking the Coaches: 2012 Top 25 Coaches 

Here is how Athlon Sports ranks the coaches of the SEC:

1. Nick Saban, Alabama (5 years)
Alma Mater:
Kent State (1970-72)
Record: 55-12 (2007-present)
Record: 48-16 (LSU, 2000-04)
Record: 34-24-1 (Michigan State, 1995-99)
Record: 9-2 (Toledo, 1990)
Overall: 146-54-1 (16 years)

There’s not much debate about this: College football’s top coach resides in Tuscaloosa. Saban has led the Crimson Tide to two national titles and four straight seasons of at least 10 victories. Saban’s track record is impressive, going 48-16 in five years at LSU, 34-24-1 in five seasons with Michigan State and a 9-2 mark in 1990 with Toledo. Saban is certainly one of the most demanding coaches in college football, but there’s no question he knows what it takes to succeed. Saban has returned Alabama to national prominence and has brought in some of college football’s best recruiting classes over the last five seasons. As long as Saban sticks around in Tuscaloosa, expect Alabama to be ranked among the top 10 teams every preseason. And after winning two titles in five seasons, expect the Crimson Tide to only add to that total in the near future.

2. Steve Spurrier, South Carolina (7 years)
Alma Mater:
Florida (1963-66)
Record: 55-35 (2005-present)
Record: 122-27-1 (Florida, 1990-2001)
Record: 20-13-1 (Duke, 1987-89)
Overall: 197-75-2 (22 years)

It has taken some time, but Spurrier finally has South Carolina into contention for the SEC title. The Gamecocks won at least six games in each of Spurrier’s first five years, but have combined for 20 over the last two. Spurrier also led South Carolina to its first appearance in the SEC title game and a top 10 finish in most polls last year. Spurrier has had plenty of success outside of South Carolina, finishing with a 122-27-1 record at Florida and leading Duke to a 20-13-1 mark from 1987-89. Building a program into a consistent challenger for an SEC title is no easy task, but Spurrier seems to have South Carolina on the right path, and the Gamecocks are positioned for another run at the East Division title in 2012.  

3. Mark Richt, Georgia (11 years)
Alma Mater:
Miami
Record: 106-38 (2001-present)

The longest tenured coach in the SEC (tied with Gary Pinkel) has had one losing season in his entire head-coaching career. The Bulldogs, under Jim Donnan and Ray Goff, failed to realize an opportunity to grow into the SEC power in the 1990s. While Alabama and LSU toiled, Florida and Tennessee took advantage and won titles. Goff and Donnan claimed seven seasons of six wins or fewer and the program posted only two 10-win seasons from 1984 to 2001. Richt entered the game in 2001 and proceeded to win the programs’ first conference title in 20 years in 2002. Richt posted two conference titles, six 10-wins seasons in his first eight years and won two SEC Coach of the Year Awards. However, Dawgs’ faithful watched its team get worse four straight years from 2007 to 2011 while Alabama, LSU, Auburn and Florida were winning national titles and returning to national prominence in a big way. Richt adapted, though, by finally making sweeping coaching changes that have saved his job. Todd Grantham reinvented the Georgia defense and Richt got to his fourth SEC Championship game in 2011. He has his team poised to be the favorite to win the East once again this fall.

4. Dan Mullen, Mississippi State (3 years)
Alma Mater:
Ursinus
Record: 21-17 (2009-present)

In Athlon’s meeting to rank the SEC coaches, Mullen and LSU’s Les Miles were the most difficult ones to rank. Mullen is only 39 years old, so his best coaching years appear to be ahead of him. However, his overall record is just 21-17 and his only SEC West victories came against rival Ole Miss. While winning the in-state battle is crucial, the Bulldogs need to start beating some of the other teams in the division. Mullen has also led Mississippi State to back-to-back bowl victories and should be in position to reach the postseason once again in 2012. Considering the depth of the SEC, winning big in Starkville is no easy task. Give Mullen the resources of what Alabama or LSU has and he can take Mississippi State even higher. The Bulldogs have ranked higher than ninth in the SEC in recruiting only once in the last six years, yet have a better record over the last three seasons than Tennessee (18-20) — a team that consistently recruits better than Mississippi State. While the record suggests Mullen is only a .500 coach, expect him to continue pushing the Bulldogs to eight or nine win seasons, but it wouldn’t be a surprise if he left for a better job in the next couple of years. An overall record isn't always a good judge of how effective some coaches are and Mullen is the perfect case, as he has helped to turn Mississippi State into a consistent bowl team in a very difficult SEC West.

5. Les Miles, LSU (7 years)
Alma Mater:
Michigan
Record: 75-18 (2005-present)
Record: 28-21 (Oklahoma State, 2001-04)
Overall: 103-39 (11 years)

Inexplicably, LSU, a program with as many built-in advantages as anyone in the nation, laid dormant for three decades. LSU won two conference championships from 1971 to 2000 and only three bowl games from 1971 to 1995. However, the name atop this list of SEC coaches entered the picture in 2000 and reestablished the Bayou Bengal brand. Nick Saban won more games in his first year (8) than LSU had won the two previous (7). He had LSU back in the SEC title game by 2001, giving the Tigers their first outright conference title since 1986. By his fourth season, Saban had returned the Tigers to the promised land by delivering their first national title since 1958. Enter Les Miles. The Hat has maintained an elite level of success with four 10-win seasons in six years, including the 2007 National Championship. He brings energy, intensity and an internal rallying cry to his locker room. The players love him, and he is certainly an entertaining character. He is a fantastic recruiter who has assembled arguably the best roster in America. However, he has also developed another reputation based on bizarre eating habits, poor end-game management, vocal gaffes, and now, the worst BCS performance in the series’ 14-year history. Questions about his teams’ mental focus, discipline and overall ability to adjust were beginning to subside after the 13-0 romp through the regular season last fall. However, those issues resurfaced after the most under-prepared, poorly game-managed title game of the BCS era. Miles and Saban will be eternally linked the annals of SEC football, and relatively speaking, Miles is one of the better coaches in the nation. But in the Southeast, the stakes — and standards — are higher (sometimes unfairly so), and after LSU became the first and only two-loss team to win a BCS title, Saban has been the far superior coach. Miles has lost 12 games to Saban’s six since 2007, and with what could be perceived as the best roster in the nation, three losses per season isn’t getting it done.

6. Gary Pinkel, Missouri (11 years)
Alma Mater:
Kent State
Record: 85-54 (2001-present)
Record: 73-37-3 (Toledo, 1991-2000)
Overall: 158-91-3 (21 years)

Not many people can say they started their football careers rooming with Jack Lambert and playing with Nick Saban while learning from Don James. But that is how Pinkel broke into this business when played tight end at Kent State under James. He spent nearly twenty years, most of it under James at Kent and Washington, before landing his first head coaching job in 1991 at Toledo. He earned one MAC championship, three MAC East Division titles and the 1995 MAC Coach of the Year honor before the Mizzou Tigers came calling. In his 11 years since, Pinkel has led Missouri to unprecedented heights of football success. His 85 wins are third all-time in school history. From 1983 to 2001, the Tigers went to two bowl games. Since Pinkel landed in Columbia, MU has eight bowls in 11 years, winning four of them. Prior to the former MAC guru tenure, Missouri posted two 10-win seasons in 111 years of football. He has won at least 10 games three times in the last five years. Eight of the Tigers nine top scoring teams have been ruled by Pinkel. He now has accomplished arguably his greatest achievement in Tigers football history by ushering his program into the nation’s best conference. There will be a major adjustment period, but for the SEC’s longest tenured head coach (tied with Richt), this has to feel like a juicy opportunity to continue the Tigers rise up the college football food chain.

7. James Franklin, Vanderbilt (1 year)
Alma Mater:
East Stroudsburg
Record: 6-7 (2011-present)

There hasn’t been this much energy on West End in, well, maybe ever. Recruiting is at an all-time high, the roster is dripping with offensive skill talent and one could argue that Franklin, in his first season, should have actually won MORE. And his six wins marked only the second time since 1982 that Vandy reached the plateau. The Dores scored 347 points last fall. It was the first time the Commodores had topped the 300-point mark since 1974 and it is the highest scoring Vanderbilt offense since 1915. The loss to rival Tennessee was crushing but it is clear that Franklin has brought an attitude to Vanderbilt football that has been lacking for decades. And while Bobby Johnson deserves a lot of credit for building up the talent, the Dores showed in the second half of the season that they are only getting better. If only they hadn’t fumbled against Arkansas.

8. Gene Chizik, Auburn (5 years)
Alma Mater:
Florida
Record: 30-10 (2009-present)
Record: 5-19 (2007-08)
Overall: 35-29 (5 years)

What a difference two years can make. Chizik was not the most popular selection when he was chosen as Auburn’s coach at the end of the 2008 season. In two years at Iowa State, Chizik posted a disappointing 5-19 record and won only two Big 12 games. Although it’s not easy to win at Iowa State, the Cyclones didn’t show much progress under Chizik and went 7-6 in the year after his departure. Chizik previously coached at Auburn from 2002-04 as the team’s defensive coordinator, before departing to work at Texas for two seasons in the same capacity. There’s no question that Chizik is a solid defensive mind, but there are some holes in his resume. Takeaway the 14-0 season in 2010 and Chizik’s career record is an underwhelming 21-29. The Tigers had a lot of young players stepping into key roles last season and there could be some transition as two new coordinators take over in 2012. Chizik has made the right moves at Auburn, but it may be another year or two before the Tigers are back into SEC West title contention.

9. Kevin Sumlin, Texas A&M (First Season)
Alma Mater:
Purdue (1983-96)
Record: 35-17 (Houston, 2008-2011)

After four so-so seasons under Mike Sherman, Texas A&M made a tremendous hire bringing Kevin Sumlin back to College Station. Sumlin will be charged with leading the Aggies through a difficult transition, as Texas A&M is moving from the Big 12 into the SEC. Sumlin has built a solid resume as a coach, making stops as an assistant at Washington State, Wyoming, Minnesota, Purdue and Oklahoma. He also coached at Texas A&M from 2001-02 as the team’s offensive coordinator. Sumlin comes to Texas A&M after spending four years as the head coach at Houston. The Cougars went 35-17 under his watch and made three bowl appearances. Sumlin certainly understands what it takes to win at Texas A&M and built a solid coaching staff to guide the Aggies into the SEC. If Sumlin turns the Aggies into a consistent eight or nine-win team in the SEC, expect to see him move higher on this list in 2013 and beyond. 

10. Will Muschamp, Florida (1 year)
Alma Mater:
Georgia
Record: 7-6 (2011-present)

The track record is pretty prestigious for Muschamp. He won a National Championship as the architect of the LSU Tigers 2003 defense that allowed more than 19 points only once all season. He then followed head coach Nick Saban to the NFL for one season before landing as Tommy Tuberville’s DC at Auburn. He landed in his second national title game as Mack Brown’s defensive guru in 2009. He was named Texas’ head coach in waiting, but quickly realized Brown wouldn’t be stepping down any time soon. So after one of the most decorated assistantships in college football, Muschamp was given the keys to a Rolls-Royce of programs. Yet, with one of the most talented rosters in the nation, the Gators once again struggled on offense — try an unheard of 105th in the nation  — and Muschamp was left without an offensive coordinator and without a quarterback. He closed his first recruiting cycle with the No. 3 class in the nation, but anyone should be able to recruit to Florida. The jury is still out on his coaching ability, but Muschamp was out-coached in the Cocktail Party and he can’t afford to lose games like that in 2012 — not with one of the most talented defenses in the nation.

11. Derek Dooley, Tennessee (2 years)
Alma Mater:
Virginia
Record: 11-14 (2010-present)
Record: 17-20 (Louisiana Tech, 2007-09)
Overall: 28-34 (5 years)

Dooley entered his first big-time coaching gig at one of the worst situations in SEC history. Phil Fulmer and Lane Kiffin did little to maintain the storied Big Orange tradition leading into Dooley’s tenure. However, Dooley has done little to distinguish himself in a league loaded with superstars stalking the sideline. At Louisiana Tech, he took a 3-10 team and turned it into an eight-win team in two seasons. Yet, he finished his Bulldogs career with a less than stellar 4-8 campaign at a program that has had plenty of success relatively speaking. In Knoxville, Dooley has proven to be an affable CEO who has finished strong on the recruiting trail in the face of coaching defections. However, he has yet to deliver a signature victory in two seasons. Other than the last two games of the 2011 season, a win over Vanderbilt and an pathetic showing in Lexington, Tennessee has won and lost every game it should have in two seasons. Dooley needs to prove he can be a great leader by reuniting a once-divided locker room, or his last name and end-game gaff in Baton Rouge will be his only claim to fame.

12. Hugh Freeze, Ole Miss (First Season)
Alma Mater:
Southern Miss
Record: 10-2 (Arkansas State, 2011)
Record: 20-5 (Lambuth 2008-09)
Overall: 30-7 (3 years)

Freeze has experienced a quick ascension in the coaching ranks. He was a successful coach at Briarcrest High School from 1995-04, before jumping to work as an assistant under Ed Orgeron at Ole Miss in 2005. After Orgeron was fired at the end of the 2007 season, Freeze became the head coach at Lambuth for two years, compiling an impressive 20-5 record. After his stint at Lambuth, Freeze worked as the offensive coordinator for Arkansas State in 2010 and was promoted to head coach for one season (2011). Freeze brought instant success to Arkansas State, improving the Red Wolves from four victories in 2010 to 10 and a Sun Belt title in 2011. Freeze has a difficult task ahead of him in 2012, as the Rebels were the worst team in the SEC West and have a lot of holes to fill on the roster. Although Freeze has been an instant winner at each of his stops, don’t be surprised if the Rebels show slow progress in 2012, before contending for a bowl in 2013. 

13. Joker Phillips, Kentucky (3 years)
Alma Mater: Kentucky
Record: 11-14 (2010-present)

Fair or not, Phillips enters his third season in Lexington squarely on the hot seat. He deserves most of the credit for engineering one of the most successful offenses in program history while serving as the offensive coordinator for his alma mater from 2004-2009. The architect of the Wildcat offense saw names like Andre Woodson, Jacob Tamme and Steve Johnson carry Kentucky to four straight bowl games (2006-2009) for the first time in school history. However, the Cats have not improved on a win total since the 2005-2006 jump from three wins to eight. In fact, Phillips has watched his win total drop three consecutive years. And his once potent offense has fallen flat on its face. Kentucky scored 190 points in 2011 – or 285 fewer points than the powerful 2007 squad. It was only the second time (2004) that Kentucky has scored fewer than 200 points in a season since Hal Mumme took over in 1997.

14. Taver Johnson, Arkansas (interim)
Alma Mater: Wittenberg
Record: First Season

Johnson has been placed into a very difficult situation, as he was promoted to interim coach after Bobby Petrino's firing in April. Johnson is regarded as a solid defensive mind, but he has no head coaching experience and is just in his first season with the Razorbacks. The big question in Fayetteville is whether or not Johnson will serve as the team's coach for 2012 or an outside hire will be made. Athletic director Jeff Long has indicated Arkansas will conduct a search for a full-time coach, but it's very difficult to find a replacement in spring practice. 

by Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven on twitter) and Braden Gall (@BradenGall)

2012 SEC Spring Previews

Alabama's 2012 Spring Preview
Arkansas' 2012 Spring Preview

Auburn's 2012 Spring Preview

Florida's 2012 Spring Preview

Georgia's 2012 Spring Preview

LSU's 2012 Spring Preview

Missouri's 2012 Spring Preview

South Carolina's 2012 Spring Preview

Tennessee's 2012 Spring Preview

Texas A&M's 2012 Spring Preview

Vanderbilt's 2012 Spring Preview


Other Spring Preview Content:

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

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

@bradengall

@athlonsteven

Teaser:
<p> Athlon continues its spring preview by ranking the coaches in the SEC.&nbsp;</p>
Post date: Wednesday, April 4, 2012 - 07:21
Path: /mlb/chicago-cubs-2012-preview-0
Body:

Chicago Cubs

The headline writers in Chicago had a field day about the Cubs' new “Theo-logy” when Theo Epstein was named the team's new president in October. As general manager of the Boston Red Sox, Epstein helped craft a team that broke an 86-year World Series drought in 2004. Now he's the boss of a team that hasn't won the big prize in 103 years. The team he inherited was a mess. The Cubs stumbled through a 71-91 season, with far too many dollars going to Carlos Zambrano, who was suspended by the team after quitting in August, and Alfonso Soriano, an aging outfielder who never became the 40-40 man the team hoped for when they signed him to an eight-year deal before the 2007 campaign. The new regime began cleaning up some of the mess in early January by dealing Zambrano to the Marlins, but turning the club into a consistent winner will likely take more than one year, so 2012 appears to be a season of adjustment. With new general manager Jed Hoyer, senior VP of scouting and player development Jason McLeod and new skipper Dale Sveum in place, Epstein believes he has a management team to lead the Cubs to a bright future. But the present “Theo-logy” is a little hazy.

Rotation
The Cubs had no choice but to part ways with Zambrano. The former staff ace, who had compiled a laundry list of controversial actions over the years, quit on his team after a game in Atlanta in August, prompting then-general manager Jim Hendry to suspend him the rest of the season and effectively end his tenure in Chicago. The Marlins agreed to take Zambrano in a deal for Chris Volstad, but the Cubs will be picking up a reported $15 million of the $18 million he is owed for the 2012 season. Matt Garza finished the 2011 season strong, but he is considered one of the best trading chips, so he probably won't finish the season in a Cubs uniform. Ryan Dempster returns as the likely No. 1 starter despite a 10-14 campaign in 2011. Randy Wells' lights-out August (4-0, 3.32 ERA) helped vault him to a 7-6 mark, which was a nice recovery after struggling in 2010 with an 8-14 mark. But he will start 2012 at Triple-A Iowa. The Cubs traded dependable setup man Sean Marshall to Cincinnati to bring the promising Travis Wood into the rotation. The young lefty will get a few starts at Triple-A before taking his place in the rotation full-time. Volstad, a first-round pick in 2005, struggled last season (5-13) after going 12-9 in 2010. Paul Maholm, who pitched well despite going just 6-14 last year in Pittsburgh, signed a one-year deal with a club option for 2013 in January. They will back Dempster and Garza for now. When Jeff Samardzija was drafted in 2006, the Cubs eyed him as being an effective starter, but he developed a niche as a late-inning reliever and finished with a career-high eight wins and career-best 2.97 ERA. But he's back in a starter's role.

Bullpen
With 10 blown saves and a career-worst 4.01 ERA, closer Carlos Marmol is coming off a rough 2011 season. He was demoted back to setup man for a little while. But he has 72 saves in the past two seasons and goes into spring training as the most experienced closer on the squad. Lefthander James Russell was 0-5 with a 9.33 ERA in five starts and 1-1 with a 2.19 ERA in 59 relief appearances, so he could work his way in as a top setup man. Scott Maine was effective at Iowa but up-and-down in seven major league appearances, posting a 10.29 ERA. Since the Cubs are in need of another southpaw in the pen, he may fill that need. Rafael Dolis showed promise in Double-A Tennessee, got a brief taste of the majors in September and appears to have earned a spot in the bullpen.

Middle Infield
Shortstop Starlin Castro led the National League with 207 hits and 29 errors. His defense can be both spectacular and maddening to Cubs fans - sometimes both in the same game. With experience and maturity will come stardom for Castro. At second base, Darwin Barney became a solid major league player, hitting .276, mostly batting second, in 143 games. He was the National League Rookie of the Month in April but tailed off after the All-Star Game.

Corners
Aramis Ramirez was the Opening Day third baseman for the Cubs for the past eight years, but he became a free agent and signed with Milwaukee, so the Cubs traded for Colorado's Ian Stewart, who had 25 homers in 2009 and 18 in 2010. But in 2011 he hit just .156 with no home runs in 48 games and was demoted to Triple-A Colorado Springs. The Cubs are hoping a change of scenery will help. At first base, the Cubs will turn to 29-year old Bryan LeHair - for the short term. They acquired power-hitting prospect Anthony Rizzo from San Diego, but the plan - for now - is to let Rizzo start in Triple-A. LaHair led all of minor league baseball last season with 38 home runs at Triple-A Iowa. He hit .288 in 20 games last year with the Cubs.

Outfield
The Cubs' outfield is solid, but unspectacular. Soriano is back in left field, and while his power numbers are decent (70 homers and 92 doubles the past three seasons), his batting average has dipped into the .240-.250 range. His defense in left field continues to be problematic. Marlon Byrd has 101 RBIs and 176 strikeouts in 271 games over two seasons with the Cubs. David DeJesus became the first free agent signing in the Epstein era and figures to patrol right field. He has a lifetime .284 batting average but hit just .240 with Oakland in 2011.

Catching
Which Geovany Soto will show up? Soto has never been able to match his 2008 NL Rookie of the Year season (.285 with 23 homers and 86 RBIs). He followed that season with an awful 2009 campaign (.218 with 11 homers and 47 RBIs), and has averaged only 17 home runs and 54 RBIs in the past two seasons. He committed a career-high 13 errors last year but threw out a National League-high 36 baserunners.

Bench
The Cubs parted ways with backup catcher Koyie Hill, who was with the organization for five years and was on the major league roster full-time the past three seasons. Steve Clevenger has taken that spot. Outfielder Reed Johnson hit .361 or better in three different months of the 2011 season and made some spectacular plays in the field. Outfielder Tony Campana provides speed in both the field and on the basepaths. Jeff Baker can play in both the infield and outfield and hit safely in 30 of his 45 starts. Infielder Blake DeWitt is a solid fielder and turned into a valuable pinch-hitter, batting .265 in 121 games. Journeyman Joe Mather provides another bat off the bench and can play the corner outfield positions.

Management
Third-year owner Tom Ricketts showed Cubs fans that he was serious about winning with his hires of Epstein and Co., and while the Wrigley faithful are sick of hearing about patience, the fans might be willing to endure a tough year or two if it means building a winner. With so many new executives in place, along with Sveum and a host of new coaches, this is clearly a transition year, and it would be a surprise if the newcomers could turn this team from a 71-game winner to a contender in one season. Sveum was blunt on his first day on the job and put the players on notice. “When you lose that many games, there are obviously problems,” he said. “Losing isn't OK. Not running a ball out isn't OK. It's unacceptable, and that has to be communicated.”

Final Analysis
On paper the roster appears to be filled with underachievers, players on the decline and question marks. Castro is a bona-fide star with a huge future ahead of him, but the surrounding cast isn't anything to get excited about. But with the World Series champion St. Louis Cardinals losing Albert Pujols and the Milwaukee Brewers losing Prince Fielder, the Central Division doesn't seem to have a powerhouse team. If some of the veterans recover from tough 2011 campaigns and keep the team afloat for four months, management could become bold and aggressive in making trade-deadline deals to help the Cubs contend. However, if the team struggles early, Epstein and Co. will begin to take a look at the younger players in the system and part ways with the veterans.

 

 

 

 

Batting Order
RF David DeJesus (L)
Has never played in Wrigley Field but should shore up the top of the lineup.
2B Darwin Barney (R)
Had 90 hits before the All-Star Game in 2011 but struggled after that.
SS Starlin Castro (R)
The sky is the limit for someone who has accomplished so much before turning 22.
1B Bryan LaHair (R)
Career minor leaguer is keeping the seat warm for newly acquired prospect Anthony Rizzo.
LF Alfonso Soriano (R)
His speed is gone; his contract is immovable; will he ever hit 30-plus homers again?
CF Marlon Byrd (R)
Suffered horrific face injury when he was hit with a pitch May 21 and had mixed results after return in July.
3B Ian Stewart (L)
Cubs are crossing their fingers 26-year-old can return to 25-homer form of 2009.
C Geovany Soto (R)
Roller coaster career needs an upswing this year in a lineup full of question marks.

Bench
OF Tony Campana (L)
Stole a team-high 24 bases in 26 attempts in only 95 games in 2011.
OF Reed Johnson (R)
Hit .309, slugged .467 in his second go-round with the Cubs last year.
C Steve Clevenger (L)
Provides a left-handed complement to Soto.
INF Jeff Baker (R)
Started at five different positions last year and was a DH in three games against American League teams.
INF Blake Dewitt (L)
Valuable member of the bench; drove in 10 runs as a pinch-hitter for the Cubs last year.
OF Joe Mather
Former Cardinal and Brave can provide pop off the bench.

Rotation
RH Ryan Dempster
Has thrown 200-plus innings four years in a row since moving from closer back to starter.
RH Matt Garza
Has averaged 11 wins and 198 innings over the last four seasons.
RH Chris Volstad
Batters hit .289 against the 6'8" former first-round pick en route to a 13-loss season with the Marlins.
LH Paul Maholm
Lost 14 games in Pittsburgh in '11 but had a career-best 3.66 ERA and only allowed 160 hits in 162.1 IP.
RH Jeff Samardzija
Former Notre Dame receiver had best season as a Cub, winning eight games and posting a 2.97 ERA out of the bullpen.
RH Randy Wells
After an April 4 win, didn't get second victory until July 23; was 4-0 in August. Is expected to re-join the rotation by midseason.
LH Travis Wood
Cubs traded reliable reliever Sean Marshall for him and hope he will be around for a long time. His stay in Triple-A should be brief.

Bullpen
RH Carlos Marmol (Closer)
Blew 10 save opportunities last year; will he get his spot as closer back?
RH Kerry Wood
Veteran re-signed with the Cubs in mid-January; struck out 57 batters in 51 innings last season.
LH James Russell
Struggled as a starter but was brilliant as a middle reliever in 2011.
RH Rafael Dolis
Another minor league starter who has found success as a reliever.
LH Scott Maine
Showed promise at Triple-A but was inconsistent in seven major league appearances. Currently the best candidate in the system to be the extra lefty.

Teaser:
<p> With so many new executives in place, along with manager Dale Sveum and a host of new coaches, this is clearly a transition year, and it would be a surprise if the newcomers could turn this team from a 71-game winner to a contender in one season.</p>
Post date: Tuesday, April 3, 2012 - 18:17
Path: /nascar/have-jimmie-johnson-and-chad-knaus-lost-their-edge
Body:

THE LONG AND SHORT OF IT

by Dustin Long

Tony Stewart ended Jimmie Johnson’s championship reign last year but are NASCAR fans witnessing an end of an era? For a driver who, on average, once won about one out of every six starts, Johnson has two victories in his last 50 races.

While many drivers would gladly take two victories in such a span, Johnson’s stretch raises questions. This is the driver who won so many races in the final 10 laps, either taking the lead or holding off those trying to take it from him. This is the driver whose team put him in position to win. This is the driver whose car often was so much better than anybody else.

Now, this driver and team are no longer as dominant.

Yet, before one laments Johnson’s woes, consider Johnson’s record in the last 50 races:

• Johnson has finished in the top five 44 percent of the time (Stewart finished in the top five in 26 percent of those races).
• Johnson has finished in the top 10 66 percent of the time (Stewart finished in the top 10 in 50 percent of those races).

Johnson’s feat is impressive but expectations are so high that when he doesn’t win, it gains attention.

“I look back and I think of five or six races that got away,” Johnson said before Sunday’s race at Martinsville — another one that got away after he was collected in a late-race incident.

“Making those mistakes, I didn’t make those in years past or the team didn’t make them. There are some things that boiled down to strategy and others down to restarts that have been on me.

“I heard Jeff (Gordon) say something a long time ago, when he won 13 races or something like that in a year. He said he won every race he should have and then some that he shouldn’t have. We need to win the races we should be able to win and that we have a shot to win.”

There’s no doubt that Johnson’s team has lost a bit of its edge. Yet for all his struggles, he left Martinsville 10th in the points, hindered by his 42nd-place finish in the Daytona 500 when he was wrecked on the second lap. Since then, he’s finished no worse than 12th and that came Sunday at Martinsville after he was spun while battling for the lead in the final laps.

“Nothing is eating at me,” Johnson said before Sunday’s race. “Right now I’m very optimistic about our season. I have not paid attention to a stat or a number since our last win. I feel that we’re knocking on the door and we’re running on the race track where we should, and up front, and that’s going to give us chance to win.”

BACK IN THE SADDLE  John Wes Townley drove in this past weekend’s Camping World Truck Series race after his team sat him out of the Daytona race because he was arrested and charged with DUI after crashing his 2012 BWM on Feb. 7 near Athens, Ga.

RAB Racing reinstated him for Martinsville. NASCAR placed Townley on probation for the rest of the year and he will be subject to random drug and alcohol testing. Townley said his team also has placed “internal sanctions” on him that he would not discuss. 

Townley, who was cited in Feb. 2010 for underage possession of alcohol in Las Vegas, says he’s abstained from drinking since the February crash.

“That night I was having a few drinks with some friends and that morning I had to get up really early to go to Charlotte to go get some seats done and I left really early in the morning,” Townley said of what happened Feb. 7. “It was really foggy. It was really rainy outside, and I ran off the road and I hit my head pretty bad. I was disoriented. I went up to somebody's door because I left my cell phone back at the house and when that all happened — that's where I was.

“But I don't want of those conditions to undermine the decision that I made, because it's on me. It was up to me. I’m the one who got in the car. It was just a perfect storm that everything happened that night. I want to send my deepest apologies to anybody.”

The crash is just part of his curious past. Townley suddenly left his ride and the sport in Sept. 2010 before the Richmond Nationwide race.

“I needed to step back and re-evaluate how I felt about continuing on with the sport,” he said. “I didn’t really know where I was at the time and I just needed that time to step back and re-think what I wanted out of life and coming back into it I really just wanted to give it another shot and certainly didn’t want to leave it the way I left it. So to answer your question, I really want to get back into it to show some people that I can really perform out there and give it another shot.”

Townley finished 23rd at Martinsville.
 

Teaser:
<p> Following an exciting short-track weekend in Martinsville, Athlon Sports contributor Dustin Long takes a spin around the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.</p>
Post date: Tuesday, April 3, 2012 - 13:14
All taxonomy terms: Seattle Seahawks, NFL, News
Path: /nfl/seattle-seahawks-new-uniforms-revealed
Body:

Nike, the NFL's official new apparel provider, didn't take long to shake things up. The most notable change so far being the Seattle Seahawks' new uniforms, which were revealed today, along with the rest of the league. Seattle's uniforms got the most significant revamp with new colors and styling from top to bottom. Check out more photos at the team's website.

To see all 32 new team uniforms, click here.

Teaser:
<p> Nike updates the NFL's Look.</p>
Post date: Tuesday, April 3, 2012 - 13:08
All taxonomy terms: Anthony Davis, Overtime
Path: /overtime/cbs-sports-wants-davis-take-brow
Body:

CBS Sports flashed a headline this morning mocking Kentucky sensation Anthony Davis' now famous uni-brow by proclaiming: "Take A Brow." We had to share it. The screenshot is below.

Teaser:
<p> CBS Sports flashed a headline this morning mocking Kentucky sensation Anthony Davis' now famous uni-brow by proclaiming: "Take A Brow."&nbsp;</p>
Post date: Tuesday, April 3, 2012 - 11:58
Path: /college-basketball/new-play-magic-and-bird
Body:

From the pages of Athlon Sports Monthly, Michael Bradley details an exciting new Broadway production based on the careers of basketball legends Magic Johnson and Larry Bird.

After five NBA world titles, three MVP awards, 12 All-Star Game appearances, three Finals MVP awards, nine first-team all-league selections and an NCAA national championship, you’d think that Magic Johnson would be hard to impress.

But when you’re talking Broadway, even the most accomplished person has to take notice.

On April 11, Johnson and long-time rival and friend Larry Bird will see their basketball lives presented dramatically in “Magic/Bird,” a 90-minute production from Fran Kirmser and Tony Ponturo, the same people who staged the extremely successful “Lombardi” last year in New York. The show intertwines actual game footage and actor portrayals to present the relationship forged by two of the greatest players ever and the emblematic performers of the 1980s.

“It’s amazing,” Johnson says. “Never in my wildest dreams would I have thought that a black guy from Lansing, Michigan, and a white guy from (French Lick) Indiana, two small towns, two Midwest guys, would have a play about them.”

A couple years ago, most people would have felt the same way. A documentary? Yes. But a Broadway production? Forget about it. But the success of “Lombardi” gave Kirmser and Ponturo the confidence that audiences are interested in seeing their sporting heroes staged on the boards. Their goal is to present the players’ intense competition on the court and the friendship and respect that eventually blossomed off of it. And if you think the play will have trouble attracting an audience, then you forget just how popular Bird and Johnson were when they played.

The 1979 NCAA national title game that featured Bird’s Indiana State Sycamores against Johnson’s Michigan State Spartans remains the highest-rated college game of all time. When the two entered the NBA, the league was floundering due to lack of star power, a lousy TV contract (tape-delayed Finals games?) and a general perception that the league had lost control of its players. Within five years, the two had led the NBA into the new world of tremendous popularity, prime-time broadcasts and must-see matchups that prevails today. It is almost impossible to underestimate their impact on the sport. “Magic/Bird” attempts to chronicle their influence while still emphasizing how they went from merely basketball rivals to friends.

“The way we describe it is that it takes them from the (NBA) Draft to the Dream Team,” Kirmser says, referring to the 1992 Olympic team that roared to the gold medal. “At the play’s end, you get a sense of how they affected the world around them.”

The play, directed by Thomas Kail, is comprised of a series of 20 rapid-fire scenes depicting various portions of the players’ careers and their interactions. The scenes are supplemented by actual game footage that will play on a screen behind the actors and is designed to provide a realism that makes this more than just a dramatic rendering. One scene, described as “pivotal” by Kirmser, centers on the moment when Bird and Johnson move from merely basketball rivals to friends. It takes place at Bird’s house, when the two are filming a TV commercial and begin to learn that they aren’t so different.

A key component to the play’s success is the casting of two actors who also have athletic ability. “If we had two people who weren’t able to pick up a ball, it would be all over,” Kirmser says. Kevin Daniels (Johnson) and Tug Coker (Bird) may not be ready for the NBA, but they can play some ball — and have the requisite height to bring further credibility to the production.

Without the success of “Lombardi,” there could be no “Magic/Bird.” The production about the legendary Packer coach allowed Broadway audiences to become comfortable with the idea of a play that was so sports-centric. “Lombardi” spent eight months on Broadway, the longest run of any play that opened last fall, and proved that people would be receptive to a different type of athletic portrayal in the theater.

“Fran had the inspiration of telling biographical stories,” Ponturo says. “There aren’t a lot of those in the theater at all. So many stories told are negative and not inspiring. We like to do stories that are inspirational.”

No matter how accomplished Ponturo and Kirmser are at telling sports heroes’ stories — and “Lombardi” proved their talents — “Magic/Bird” wouldn’t have the same impact without the participation of the basketball legends themselves. Each is an underlying rights holder to the production and had input into the script. Still, it remains somewhat surprising to them that this is actually happening.

“Both of us said, ‘What? Really?’” Johnson says. “We were over the moon about this and can’t wait. People are excited about this play. We’re going to get the theater fan and the sports fan coming to this.”

And two former basketball legends who can’t wait to see themselves on the stage.
 

Teaser:
<p> Magic Johnson and Larry Bird&nbsp;will have their story presented on Broadway.</p>
Post date: Tuesday, April 3, 2012 - 09:04
Path: /college-football/oregon-ducks-2012-spring-preview
Body:

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.

Oregon Ducks 2012 Spring Preview

2011 Record: 12-2, 8-1 Pac-12  

Spring practice: April 3-April 28 

Returning Starters: Offense – 4, Defense – 6

Returning Leaders:

Passing: Bryan Bennett, 25-of-46, 369 yards, 6 TD, 0 INT
Rushing: Kenjon Barner, 939 yards, 11 TD
Receiving: Josh Huff, 31 rec., 430 yards, 2 TD
Tackles: John Boyett, 108
Sacks: Dion Jordan, 7.5
Interceptions: Four tied with 2

Redshirts to watch: WR B.J. Kelley, WR Tacoi Sumler, QB Marcus Mariota, WR Devon Blackmon, DT Jared Ebert (JC), OL Andre Yruetagoyena, LB Tyson Coleman, TE Christian French, OL Tyler Johnstone

2012 Schedule

Sept. 1 Arkansas State
Sept. 8 Fresno State
Sept. 15 Tennessee Tech
Sept. 22 Arizona
Sept. 29 at Washington State
Oct. 6 Washington
Oct. 13 Bye Week
Oct. 18 at Arizana State
Oct. 27 Colorado
Nov. 3 at USC
Nov. 10 at Cal
Nov. 17 Stanford
Nov. 24 at Oregon State

Offensive Strength: Those with ball in hand. Josh Huff, Justin Hoffman and Colt Lyerla will offer talented options with the ball on the edge and down the seam, but the real fireworks will come from Kenjon Barner and De'Anthony Thomas. Both have game changing ability and will be on the field at the same time. Needless to say, Chip Kelly has plenty of toys to play with on offense.

Offensive Weakness: The pass-catchers are relatively unproven and will need to be developed. The running backs lost a Doak Walker winner in LaMichael James. Quarterback Darron Thomas left school early. And two studs departed the offensive line. Yet, every position on this offensive two-deep has elite level skill and talent. This offense has no weaknesses, but if one area was a biggest "unknown" it would have to be the quarterback position.

Defensive Strength: All three layers of this defense are in similar shape: losing a couple of starters but return talented stars and loads of depth. The constant rotation of fresh bodies has given this unit loads of depth and talent. The defensive line, led by all-everything end Dion Jordan and all-league tackle Taylor Hart might be the strongest unit on the team. But Kelly's ability to build depth through playing time has worked incredibly well at this position (and others).

Defensive Weakness: There is really isn't a glaring area of weakness as there is depth and talent on every level. Linebacker loses two all-conference performers, the secondary lost first-teamer Eddie Pleaseant and the D-Line replaces a pair of productive ends. Yet, each level returns experience and upside to every position. Pinpointing any specific weakness on this unit is virtually impossible. 

Spring Storylines Facing the Ducks:

1. Darron Thomas' announcement to go to the NFL might have been a shock to the masses — and possibly some NFL scouts — but wasn't to those inside the Ducks' program. As shocking as it sounds, the school's all-time leader in touchdowns was going to face pressure from a trio of talented passers: Sophomore Bryan Bennett, redshirt freshman Marcus Mariota and early enrollee Jake Rodrigues. Despite the rumors that Bennett and Mariota might actually be better than Thomas (gasp!), very few teams can simply replace someone who accounted for 6,334 yards of total offense and 71 touchdowns over the last two seasons. Bennett (6-3, 205) should have the early lead after showing well in a win over Arizona State and a start against Colorado (156 yards, 2 TD, 6 att., 69 yards rushing) as a freshman last season. Mariota was the star of the scout team a year ago and is extremely similar to Bennett in skillset, size (6-4, 205) and personality but has yet to play in a college game. Even true freshman Jake Rodrigues (6-3, 210) is already enrolled and working to learn Kelly's offense. All three are unquestioned athletic fits for the Ducks' spread attack, but all three also need development as passers and efficiency could be the determining factor in picking a starter.

2. Finding some big-play pass-catchers will be a focus of the spring workouts. Josh Huff and Justin Hoffman will likely be the starters most of the time — aka whenever De'Anthony Thomas is in the backfield. Rahsaan Vaughn also figures heavily into the mix as well.  Certainly, losing Lavasier Tuinei and tight end David Paulson, who combined for 79 receptions and 16 touchowns a year ago, and any suspension doled out to Huff, will hurt the offense. However, Lyerla, Thomas and even Barner combined for 17 of their own touchdown receptions last year and should only get better this fall. And the list of potential big-play talents champing at the bit to get the ball is long and is the envy of most teams in the nation: Eric Dungy, Devon Blackmon, Keanon Lowe, Daryle Hawkins, Tacoi Sumler, Will Murphy, Curtis White and Brian Teague.

3. Replacing two starters along the offensive line will also be an area of focus this spring, especially considering left guard and veteran Carson York won't be practicing (knee). Departing all-league talent Mark Asper and Darrion Weems leave holes at key positions up front. That said, the Ducks have recruited well along the line and always seem to plug holes with relative ease. Jake Fisher saw plenty of action as a freshman last season and redshirts Andre Yruretagoyena and Tyler Johnstone have loads of raw talent. These three will push veterans Everett Benyard, Ryan Clanton and junior college transfer Kyle Long for the empty starting positions. The good news is Hroniss Grasu should only get better and become more of a leader at center while right tackle Nick Cody returns for his senior season. Like most spots on this roster, Oregon will miss some key pieces but has a glut of riches waiting in the wings.

4. Losing honorable mention All-Pac-12 end Terrell Turner and fellow starter Brandon Hanna, like the O-Line, shouldn't be too painful but needs to be addressed. Taylor Hart returns to the interior and Dion Jordan return to the outside, but Kelly rotates so many bodies that most of the "back-ups" have seen extensive playing time. Tony Washington, Isaac Remington, Rickey Heimuli and Wade Keliikipi will all continue to grow into bigger roles while early enrollee and super-stud recruit Arik Armstead gets his first taste of big-time college football this spring.

5. As the knit-picking continues with the Oregon defense, filling starting spots in the back seven left by first-team all-conference linebacker Josh Kaddu, honorable-mention performer DeWitt Stuckey and first-teamer Eddie Pleasant at the Rover position should be surprisingly easy. Michael Clay is a tackling machine while Kiko Alonso is finally beginning to take advantage of his obvious physical gifts. Alonso got better as 2011 went along, culminating in a Rose Bowl MVP performance against Wisconsin. Boseko Lokombo enters the starting lineup with tons of stat-stuffing playing time as well (33 tackles, 2 sacks, 2 INT). John Boyett, the only starter from the 2010 BCS title game still on the roster, is the unquestioned leader of the secondary from his free safety position. With Anthony Gildon (and Cliff Harris) gone for good from the corner spot, youngsters Terrance Mitchell, Troy Hill and Ifo Ikpre-Olomu should grow into potential play-makers after receiving a baptism by fire a season ago. Erick Dargan, Brian Jackson and Avery Patterson also got hefty playing time a year ago. Expect Patterson and Jackson to compete for the starting safety spot. The positive effect of over-using the depth chart (and recruiting really well) will never be more obvious than in Eugene this fall as replacing outstanding starters on all three levels appears to be no big deal whatsosever.

6. Possibly the only thing that could derail the Ducks fourth consectutive trip a BCS bowl — besides the USC Trojans — will be the potential off-the-field questions. This is a team that has dealt with multiple knucklehead blunders by players, a coaching flirtation with the NFL and one man named Willie Lyles. Transgressors Thomas, LaMichael James and Harris have moved on the program and Kelly seems to be committed to the Ducks longterm success (at least for 2012), however, the NCAA's investigation into the Lyles scandal could be hanging over the program for the forseeable future.

By Braden Gall (@BradenGall on Twitter)

Related Content Links:

Ranking the Pac-12's Head Coaches for 2012
Top Transfers to Watch in 2012

Early Top 25 for 2012
College Football's Top Spring Storylines for 2012

College Football's Coaches on the Hot Seat

2012 Very Early Pac-12 Predictions

Teaser:
<p> Oregon Ducks 2012 Spring Preview</p>
Post date: Tuesday, April 3, 2012 - 07:01
Path: /college-football/kansas-state-wildcats-2012-spring-preview
Body:

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 Kansas State Wildcats Spring Preview

2011 Record: 10-3, 7-2 Big 12

Spring practice: April 4-April 30

Returning Starters: Offense – 5, Defense – 6

Returning Leaders:

Passing: Collin Klein, 161 of 281, 1,918 yds., 13 TD, 6 INTs
Rushing: Collin Klein, 317 car., 1,141 yds., 27 TDs
Receiving: Chris Harper, 40 rec., 547 yds., 5 TDs
Tackles: Arthur Brown, 101
Sacks: Meshak Williams, 7
Interceptions: Nigel Malone, 7

Early Enrollees: ATH Dante Barnett, QB Tavarius Bender, DB Morgan Burns, DE Hunter Davis, FB Glenn Gronkowski, DL Samuel Harvill, LB Mike Moore, WR Steven West, DL Wesley Hollingshed (JC)

JUCO Transfers to Watch: WR Marquez Clark, OL Ellwood Clement, DB Kent Gainous, DL Wesley Hollingshed, DL Chaquil Reed, OL Tavon Rooks

2012 Schedule

Sept. 1 Missouri State
Sept. 8 Miami
Sept. 15 North Texas
Sept. 22 at Oklahoma
Oct. 6 Kansas
Oct. 13 at Iowa State
Oct. 20 at West Virginia
Oct. 27 Texas Tech
Nov. 3 Oklahoma State
Nov. 10 at TCU
Nov. 17 at Baylor
Dec. 1 Texas 

Offensive Strength: Collin Klein. The senior quarterback carried the Kansas State offense last season, accounting for 3,059 total yards and 40 overall scores. Although Klein dealt with injuries for various parts of the season, he managed to start every game and led the Wildcats to their first Cotton Bowl appearance since 2001. Kansas State may not have an all-conference performer at receiver, but there’s a nice collection of weapons, includuing Chris Harper and Tyler Lockett. 

Offensive Weakness: Running back John Hubert had a nice season last year, rushing for 970 yards and three touchdowns. However, the Wildcats need a little more punch from their ground attack and will likely look to get more from senior Angelo Pease and sophomore DeMarcus Robinson. The line isn’t a huge concern, but three starters depart, including two all-conference performers.

Defensive Strength: Outside of Klein, the biggest surprise in Kansas State’s season might have been the play of linebacker Arthur Brown. Although he was a highly-touted prospect coming out of high school, Brown never lived up to the hype at Miami. Brown finished 2011 with first-team All-Big 12 honors and recorded 101 stops and two sacks. Tre Walker joins Brown in the linebacking corps, which should be among the best in the Big 12.

Defensive Weakness: Each level of the defense seems to be in good shape, but the Wildcats have to be a little concerned about the interior of the line. Tackle Ray Kibble was a key cog in the rush defense, and JUCO transfer Wesley Hollingshed will be counted upon to have a major role early on. The defense will also miss cornerback David Garrett, but there may not be much of a drop off with Nigel Malone and Allen Chapman manning the corner positions in 2012.  

Spring Storylines Facing the Wildcats

1. The Wildcats were one of the Big 12’s biggest surprises last season, as they were picked to finish near the bottom of the conference, but posted a 10-3 record and made an appearance in the Cotton Bowl against Arkansas. The overriding theme when examining Kansas State’s 2012 prospects certainly has to be: Can the Wildcats do it again? There’s no question coach Bill Snyder is one of the best in college football and this team always seems to exceed most preseason expectations. In order for Kansas State to repeat last season’s 10 wins, there are some question marks that must be addressed. Defensive coordinator Chris Cosh departed for South Florida, and Snyder promoted assistant Tom Hayes to fill that spot. Also, both sides of the ball lost a couple of key contributors. The Wildcats were outgained by an average of 106.8 yards per game in league play, but were second in the conference in turnover margin. It’s not a perfect recipe for success, but if the defense continues to force turnovers, Kansas State certainly won’t beat itself in 2012.

2. If Kansas State wants to win the Big 12, it has to find a way to take some of the offensive pressure off of quarterback Collin Klein. The junior was one of the top quarterbacks in the Big 12 last year, rushing for 1,141 yards and 27 scores, while adding 1,918 yards and 13 touchdowns through the air. However, Klein dealt with various bumps and bruises throughout last season and asking him to shoulder the entire offensive workload once again is a lot to ask. The Wildcats need more from running back John Hubert, along with a receiving corps that quietly features some deadly weapons. Although Klein is a capable runner, it’s important for Hubert to take some of the wear and tear off his quarterback. If Klein is injured, the Kansas State offense could sputter.

3. The biggest concern on offense for Kansas State has to be an offensive line that loses three starters, including first-team All-Big 12 tackle Clyde Aufner. Left tackle Zach Hanson and guard Colten Freeze have also expired their eligibility in Manhattan, leaving guard Nick Puetz and center B.J. Finney as the group’s only returning starters. The line was an underrated part of Kansas State’s success last year, as this group led the way for the Wildcats to post 34 rushing scores and average nearly four yards a carry. JUCO transfer Tavon Rooks is expected to challenge for playing time right away, while the coaching staff has some solid options – Cornelius Lucas, Ethan Douglas and Keenan Taylor – to contend for the rest of the spots. A wildcard to watch is tackle Manase Foketi. The senior is expected to be granted a medical redshirt for the 2011 season, which will allow him to play in 2012. If Foketi is healthy, he would be a key addition to the line and would likely start at one of the tackle positions.

4. New defensive coordinator Tom Hayes inherited a good situation for the 2012 season. Although the Wildcats have to replace a key player at each level of the defense, there’s still plenty to be encouraged about for 2012. The defensive line returns end Meshak Williams (seven sacks in 2011) and tackle Vai Lutui. The linebacking corps will be among the best in the Big 12, as first-team all-conference selection Arthur Brown and Tre Walker are back. The secondary finished 103rd nationally in pass defense, but returns cornerback Nigel Malone and safety Ty Zimmerman. Considering what Kansas State has returning, Hayes doesn’t need to overhaul the defense. However, the Wildcats need to get more pressure on opposing quarterbacks and find a replacement for tackle Ray Kibble. The interior line could be an issue against opposing rushing attacks, but JUCO recruit Wesley Hollingshed has the size (300 pounds) to take Kibble’s place in the middle.

By Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven on Twitter)

Related Big 12 Content

Ranking the Big 12 Head Coaches for 2012

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

Teaser:
<p> Athlon previews spring practice for the Kansas State Wildcats.</p>
Post date: Tuesday, April 3, 2012 - 07:00
Path: /mlb/washington-nationals-2012-preview-0
Body:

Washington Nationals


The Nationals ended the 2011 season with their best record since their first year in Washington, a healthy Stephen Strasburg and plenty of reasons to be optimistic about their chances to compete in the NL East in 2012. That feeling might have been dampened somewhat by the aggressive moves the Marlins made during the offseason, but for the first time since their surprise pennant chase in 2005, the Nationals aren't an afterthought in the division. They'll have a healthy Strasburg with Jordan Zimmermann and Gio Gonzalez, whom the Nationals acquired in a five-player trade with Oakland last December. A rotation like that makes them a wild card dark horse.

Rotation
It's been a long time since the Nationals have gone into a season hoping for anything other than mediocrity from their rotation. With Strasburg, Zimmermann and Gonzalez at the front of the group, the Nationals could have one of the best young pitching staffs in the game. The team has been waiting for a healthy Strasburg since his sensational 2010 rookie season ended with a torn elbow ligament. He pitched very well in five starts last September and will likely be the Opening Day starter. Zimmermann, who also had Tommy John surgery in August 2009, came back strong last year, posting a 3.18 ERA in 161.1 innings. The Nationals traded four players to get Gonzalez from Oakland, but the 26-year-old lefthander could turn out to be worth it; he's had a sub-3.25 ERA each of the last two years. Edwin Jackson should prove to be one of the best No. 4 starters in the game. He has a string of five seasons of 31-plus starts with five different organizations. Over the past three seasons, he's averaged 208 innings and 12 wins. Not bad numbers from the fourth spot in the rotation. John Lannan will man the fifth spot, at least until Chien-Ming Wang recovers from a balky hamstring.

Bullpen
The Nationals' relief corps has been the strongest part of the team for the past two seasons, and there's no reason to think that it won't be solid again in 2012, although it may get off to a slow start. Drew Storen, who had 43 saves in his first season as closer, has experienced some elbow soreness and will begin the season on the disabled list. He shouldn't miss more than a few weeks. The righthander developed better control of his fastball as the year went on, which made his slider even more effective. He'll be helped by roommate Tyler Clippard, whose outstanding performance as the setup man helped him earn his first All-Star nod in 2011. Clippard became Washington's option in all kinds of tense situations, and his rising fastball and odd arm action helped him strike out 104 batters in 88.1 innings. Washington signed Brad Lidge to fill the seventh-inning role, but he may be called on to close a few games until Storen returns. The Nationals also have hard-throwing Henry Rodriguez, who was effective at the end of the season when he developed better control, and Sean Burnett, who was the team's best reliever in 2010 and pitched well late last season after struggling early. With those relievers, as well as Ryan Mattheus and recent acquisition Ryan Perry, the Nationals have plenty of power arms to back up their improving rotation. Lefthanders Ross Detwiler and Tom Gorzelanny will complete the pen.

Middle Infield
If there's one area where the Nationals have some unknowns, it's here. They have two talented young players in shortstop Ian Desmond and second baseman Danny Espinosa, but each one has some questions to answer after the 2011 season. It's likely Desmond will begin the season in the leadoff spot, where he hit well at the end of last season, but he got off to a slow start and wound up hitting eighth early in the year. The Nationals also want to see him continue to cut down on his errors; he committed 23 in 2011 after 34 in 2010. Espinosa set a major league record for homers by a rookie second baseman in the first half of the season, blasting 16 before the All-Star break. But he wore down, hitting only five homers in the second half. Still, Espinosa (who finished sixth in the NL Rookie of the Year race) has the chance to be a special player in his second season. The Nationals have plenty of talent and athleticism up the middle. They'd just like to see more consistency and plate discipline.

Corners
One of the reasons for the Nationals' optimism in 2012 is the presence of a healthy Ryan Zimmerman. The third baseman missed nearly two months in 2011 after tearing an abdominal muscle, and he posted career lows in home runs (12) and RBIs (49). Zimmerman also tinkered with his throwing motion to prevent further injury and had developed a more consistent delivery by the end of the year. The Nationals will also welcome the return of Adam LaRoche, who was gone for the season by May. LaRoche developed a tear in his shoulder in spring training and had surgery to repair a torn labrum. He hit just .172 in 43 games, unable to turn on pitches he would normally be able to drive. He played impressive defense, though, and can probably be counted on for 20-25 home runs if he's healthy. Chris Marrero, who played well in a call-up last September, tore his hamstring playing in the Dominican winter league and could miss a good chunk of the season.

Outfield
At the beginning of last season, the Nationals were counting on Jayson Werth to carry their lineup and were simply hoping Michael Morse could continue making progress after a surprising 2010 season. By the end of it, Morse was finishing a breakout campaign, getting himself on a pair of MVP ballots, while Werth was slogging through a disappointing first year of his $126 million contract. The Nationals will have to hope he rebounds in 2012, both to justify his enormous contract and to fortify a lineup that was too often unable to come up with big hits in 2011. Morse, who was the Nationals' best offensive player in 2011, could see himself shuttled around to a number of different positions in 2012. Morse could start in left or right field, and could also see time at first base if LaRoche isn't fully recovered from shoulder surgery. That is, after Morse himself recovers from a torn lat. Roger Bernadina will get the first crack at the center field job, though it's possible Rick Ankiel will play quite a bit. At some point - and likely this season - the Nationals must make room in center field for the 19-year-old Bryce Harper. He is starting the season at Triple-A Syracuse to hone his skills in center, but it wouldn't be a surprise to see him in the nation's capital by mid-May.

Catching
The Nationals had accumulated a stable of young catchers in recent years but had never really trusted the position to one of them. That will likely change in 2012, when Wilson Ramos gets most of the playing time. Ramos, who finished fourth in the NL Rookie of the Year race, gives the Nationals a potent bat and solid arm behind the plate. He'll be backed up by Jesus Flores, the one-time catcher of the future who has been relegated to reserve duty because of injuries. Flores, though, is a good hitter with men on base and could start if Ramos got hurt. He could also be a trade chip.

Bench
Manager Davey Johnson wanted the Nationals to add more offense to their bench at the end of 2011. But other than Mark DeRosa or Xavier Nady, it's questionable whether the team has that. Steve Lombardozzi could be a solid utility infielder. But the Nationals still lack a difference-making bat for the late innings. When Morse is healthy, Ankiel provides an athletic fourth outfielder.

Management
Johnson, who took over last June when Jim Riggleman abruptly resigned, got the Nationals playing well at the end of the season and decided to return for 2012 at age 69. His handling of the bullpen can be odd at times - his practice of keeping two long relievers seems a bit dated and occasionally left him with poor matchups last year - but he has the respect of his players and the cachet that comes with a World Series ring. In bench coach Randy Knorr and third base coach Bo Porter, Johnson could be grooming a pair of potential successors for when he eventually decides to step down. But at the end of last season, he seemed like a man who wanted to enjoy the ride a little longer.

Final Analysis
As tough as the Marlins have made the NL East, and as many questions as the Nationals could still have about the middle of their lineup, it's possible the team is still a year and a couple moves away from really making noise. But there's enough here, particularly in the rotation and the bullpen, that it's not hard to see the team making a push if Werth rebounds and Desmond helps the team solve its long-standing problem at the top of the lineup. Consider the Nationals a candidate to win 80-85 games, keep themselves on the periphery of the playoff race - especially considering two wild cards - and create a legitimate buzz about baseball in the nation's capital for the first time since the team's inaugural 2005 season in Washington.

 

 


 

Batting Order
SS Ian Desmond (R)
Improved toward the end of the season to raise average to .253; will get first shot to lead off.
2B Danny Espinosa (S)
Nationals will look for more consistency in his second year; has power, great range and arm.
3B Ryan Zimmerman (R)
Team's best player missed 61 games in 2011; looking for big year after abdominal surgery.
LF Michael Morse (R)
Hit .303 with 31 homers in breakout season; might be Nationals' best power hitter. Will start the season on the shelf.
RF Jayson Werth (R)
Needs to rebound after disappointing 2011 and show he's worth his $126 million deal; hit .232 with 20 homers.
1B Adam LaRoche (L)
Back from shoulder surgery, he's looking to get back to typical production; .265, 20-25 homers, 85 RBIs.
C Wilson Ramos (R)
Finished fourth in NL Rookie of the Year vote; could hit 16-18 homers with solid defense behind the plate.
CF Roger Bernadina (L)
Tons of talent, but can he ever put it together? Probably his last chance with Washington to play consistently.

Bench
OF Rick Ankiel (L)
The athletic defensive outfielder had just one home run in 88 plate appearances against lefties last season.
1B/OF Xavier Nady (R)
Went homerless in 110 plate appearances vs. righthanders last year.
INF Mark DeRosa (R)
He can play anywhere, but hasn't played much recently; only 73 games in the past two years, and one homer.
C Jesus Flores (R)
Might still be able to play every day after two years of injuries, but won't get the chance with Ramos on board.
INF Steve Lombardozzi (S)
Struggled in September call-up, but son of former major leaguer can draw walks and play middle infield.

Rotation
RH Stephen Strasburg
The phenom returns; he'll pitch around 150 innings, but could strike out 150 batters in that time.
LH Gio Gonzalez
After winning 31 games the last two years in Oakland, he comes to the NL.
RH Jordan Zimmermann
Ranked 10th in NL with 3.18 ERA last year; won't have an innings limit after coming back from Tommy John.
RH Edwin Jackson
Cardinals won seven of his last 10 starts down the stretch last season as he went 4-1 with a 3.14 ERA.
LH John Lannan
Won 10 games for first time in 2011, had career-low 3.70 ERA. Not great stuff, but a solid No. 5 starter.

Bullpen
RH Drew Storen (Closer)
Saved 43 games in first full year as closer; has great stuff, and showed he could handle a big workload. A sore elbow will keep him out for a few weeks.
RH Tyler Clippard
Rode funky mechanics and rising fastball to stellar season and first All-Star Game.
RH Brad Lidge
Healthy for only 19.1 innings last season, he still averaged more than a strikeout per inning.
RH Henry Rodriguez
If he can control his fastball, he can be a good late-inning reliever.
LH Sean Burnett
Nationals' best reliever in 2010; came back strong at end of 2011 after struggling early.
RH Ryan Mattheus
In deep bullpen, could pitch in middle relief, but has potential for more.
RH Ryan Perry
Big fastball and questionable control. Came over in trade from Tigers; probably a mop-up man to start.
LH Tom Gorzelanny
Pitched well in long relief (2-0, 2.42 ERA in relief) after being bounced from rotation.
LH Ross Detwiler
The 2007 first-round draft pick is still a candidate for 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

Teaser:
<p> The Nationals ended the 2011 season with their best record since their first year in Washington, a healthy Stephen Strasburg and plenty of reasons to be optimistic about their chances to compete in the NL East in 2012.</p>
Post date: Monday, April 2, 2012 - 23:32
Path: /mlb/philadelphia-phillies-2012-preview-0
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Philadelphia Phillies

An anguished Roy Halladay sat for what seemed like an eternity and stared blankly into his locker after the Phillies’ remarkable 2011 season ended in a painful 1–0 loss to St. Louis in Game 5 of the National League Division Series in early October. Less than two months later, Halladay’s fire began to burn again. “I’m ready to go try again,” he told manager Charlie Manuel in a Thanksgiving text message. “If we keep doing this, we’re going to win it one of these days.” The Phils won a franchise-best 102 games and a fifth straight NL East title in 2011, but they fell far short of the World Series title that was their goal. They’re not as young, physically sound or offensively explosive as they once were, but with a star-studded pitching staff they’re still plenty good enough to turn Halladay’s text message into gospel and go all the way in 2012.

Rotation 
It’s the best in baseball with Halladay, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels in the top three spots. The trio helped the Phils record the best starters’ ERA — 2.86 — in the majors last season. That was the best mark by any starting staff since 1985. The group’s 932 strikeouts were the most by a starting cast since 2003. Halladay, Lee and Hamels finished second, third and fifth, respectively, in NL Cy Young voting. Even on the cusp of his 35th birthday, Halladay remains one the game’s elites. He has recorded six straight seasons of 220-plus innings. In 2011, he held opposing clubs to three or fewer earned runs in 27 of 32 starts and never had a month with an ERA above 3.00. While consistency is Halladay’s calling card, Lee became a cult hero in Philly with some amazing highs. He made 10 combined starts in June and August and gave up a total of three runs. Three. His six shutouts were the most in the majors in a season since 1989. Halladay and Lee both fit the description of an ace. What sets the Phillies apart is that they have three aces. At 28, Hamels has already made 13 postseason starts. He had a career-best 2.79 ERA last season, and his best might still be to come. Between the ears, the lefthander has matured and sharpened his focus. On the mound, his arsenal of pitches now goes four deep with the addition of a cutter. Over the last three seasons, Hamels’ opponents’ batting average has shrunk from .273 to .237 to .214. A year away from a big free agent payday — the Phils would like to lock him up before then — Hamels seems primed for a big year. The balance of the rotation has youth and experience. Righthander Vance Worley is locked in after a strong rookie season in 2011. The club went 16–5 in his 21 starts. Joe Blanton spent most of 2011 rehabbing an elbow injury. If healthy, he’s a strong No. 5. If not, Kyle Kendrick will make the necessary spot starts.

Bullpen 
No team closed games better than the Phillies in 2011. Their 85.5 save percentage (47-for-55) was tops in the majors. In signing Jonathan Papelbon to a four-year $50 million contract — the richest ever for a reliever — the Phils took a strength and made it better. Papelbon averaged 36 saves for Boston over the last six seasons. He was 31-for-34 last year while striking out 87 and allowing just 50 hits and 10 walks in 64.1 innings. The setup role is a question mark. Hard-throwing lefty Antonio Bastardo was spectacular in the role for five months in 2011 but struggled with control and confidence in September. If Bastardo is over his growing pains, the eighth inning will be in good hands. Veteran righthander Chad Qualls has accumulated 20 or more saves or holds in six of the last seven seasons. But his best days are behind him. The Phils would love for the aging Jose Contreras to come back strong from elbow surgery. Kendrick, Mike Stutes, David Herndon and Justin De Fratus will all have a chance to earn innings. This could be an area of flux during the season, but the ninth inning shouldn’t be a problem with Papelbon responsible for the final three outs.

Middle Infield
With their bats and gloves, shortstop Jimmy Rollins and second baseman Chase Utley, both 33, have been pillars on which the best era of Phillies baseball has been built. But as they begin their ninth season together, they are on the downside. Don’t misunderstand: Both players still have good tread on their tires, but they must stay on the field, and that’s been a challenge the last two seasons. Rollins, a player who relies on his legs, has been on the disabled list three times with nagging leg injuries, while Utley has missed significant time with a pair of more serious injuries. Chronic right knee tendinitis forced Utley to miss the first 46 games in 2011, and he did not drive the ball with his usual force when he returned. His batting average (.259) and OPS (.769) were both career lows for a full season. Utley’s knees are not healthy enough for him to start the season. He’s adamant that he does not need surgery, but it appears he will be on the DL for a prolonged period. Rookie Freddy Galvis appears capable of keeping the position warm until Utley can return, but unlike Utley, Galvis will not be a major factor offensively.

Corners 
This is another area that illustrates the fragile health of this team. First baseman Ryan Howard and third baseman Placido Polanco are both rebounding from offseason surgery. Howard, one of the game’s premier power bats, will begin a five-year, $125 million contract extension on the disabled list after blowing out his left Achilles tendon on his last swing of 2011, which was also the final out of the NLDS. He should be back around midseason, but not in time to make a run at a seventh straight 30-homer, 100-RBI season. Ty Wigginton is the beneficiary of Howard’s injury. The veteran is with his seventh franchise and has averaged 444 at-bats with 18 homers and 56 RBIs over the past four seasons with Houston, Baltimore and Colorado. The Phils’ offense is in need of a contact hitter. Polanco is that kind of guy, but age (36) and health risks — he was plagued by a bad back and a sports hernia in 2011 — are definite concerns.

Outfield 
With Shane Victorino in center and Hunter Pence and John Mayberry Jr. on the corners, this is where the team’s best young athleticism resides. Victorino had a career-best .847 OPS in 2011. Defensively, he can run down any ball and throws with the best of them. Two-time All-Star Pence brings an energetic spark and much-needed, potent right-handed bat to the lineup. Mayberry Jr. has the look of a late-bloomer. The 28-year-old former first-round pick opened eyes by hitting .309 with 10 homers and 34 RBIs over his last 55 games in 2011. He gets first dibs on left field, and his ability to play first base will come in handy as Howard mends. With Howard and Utley out, the three outfielders will carry a much heavier load this season.

Catching 
Every good pitching staff needs a rock behind the plate, and the Phils have one in Carlos Ruiz. His 3.06 catcher’s ERA was the majors’ best in 2011. The staff swears by him and seldom shakes him off. When Halladay won the NL Cy Young in 2010, he bought Ruiz a replica of the trophy. Veteran backup Brian Schneider, impressive in breaking in Worley in 2011, is back.

Bench 
This unit received a makeover as general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. looked for health insurance and power. He signed left-handed-hitting Laynce Nix who could play himself into a left field platoon. Fan favorite Jim Thome is back to finish his Cooperstown-destined career as a pinch-hitter and occasional first baseman. Pete Orr has become the team’s supersub, capable of playing anywhere with a smile.

Management 
Manuel, the most successful manager in team history, begins his eighth season. You have to go back to Gene Mauch (1961-68) to find a longer-tenured Phillies skipper. Manuel has been backed by some of the best talent in franchise history, big payrolls and an aggressive front office that traded 17 prospects the last four years to acquire Halladay, Lee, Pence, Blanton and Roy Oswalt. Amaro likes to strike big at the trade deadline. Keep an eye on July 29. He landed Lee, Oswalt and Pence on that day over the last three seasons, respectively.

Final Analysis
Age continues to creep up on this club. The offense isn’t as scary as it used to be, and the division has gotten better. Still, there are a lot of teams that would like to have the Phils’ problems. Barring injury, they should ride this pitching staff into the postseason once again.

 

 


 

Batting Order
SS Jimmy Rollins (S)
Philly’s longest-tenured pro athlete ranks fifth in franchise history with 1,636 games.
3B Placido Polanco (R)
Led NL third basemen in fielding pct. (.977) for second straight year in 2011.
CF Shane Victorino (S)
Had an errorless season (296 total chances) while making second All-Star team in 2011.
RF Hunter Pence (R)
Tied for the NL lead with 57 multi-hit games and batted .339 with RISP in 2011.
1B Ty Wigginton (R)
Hit just .163 (20 for 123) with runners in scoring position for Colorado in 2011. Takes over first base while Ryan Howard recuperates.
LF John Mayberry Jr. (R)
Slugged .597 in his final 55 games in 2011; 15 homers in 104 games.
C Carlos Ruiz (R)
Not known for offense, but has hit .292 with 93 RBIs last two seasons.
2B Freddy Galvis (S)
A career .246 hitter in the minor leagues batted .298 in 33 games at Triple-A last season.

Bench
1B Jim Thome (L)
Ranks eighth all-time in homers (604) and 26th in RBIs (1,674). Will get a few spot starts at first base against righthanders.
OF Laynce Nix (L)
Newcomer had a career-high 16 homers for Washington in 2011, all against righthanders.
C Brian Schneider (L)
Steady veteran is back for his third season with the club.
INF Pete Orr (L)
Veteran can play both infield and outfield until Chase Utley can return.
UT Michael Martinez (S)
Rule 5 pick made 48 starts at five different positions as a rookie in 2011. A broken foot will keep him on the DL for most of the year.
1B Ryan Howard (L)
Has eight homers, 33 RBIs and one torn Achilles in 46 career postseason games. His return by the All-Star break is a bit optimistic.
2B Chase Utley (L)
Has played 1,038 games at second base, most in franchise history, but knee trouble has put that count on hold.

Rotation
RH Roy Halladay
Had career-high 220 strikeouts in 2011 while leading NL with eight complete games.
LH Cliff Lee
Reached career highs in strikeouts (238) and innings (232.2) in 2011.
LH Cole Hamels
His 2.62 ERA since 2010 All-Star Break is fifth-best among MLB pitchers with 300-plus innings.
RH Vance Worley
Was first in ERA (3.01) and second in wins (11) among NL rookies with at least 15 starts in 2011.
RH Joe Blanton
Elbow problems limited him to a career-low 11 games in 2011.

Bullpen
RH Jonathan Papelbon (Closer)
His 88.3 save percentage (219-for-248) the last six years is sixth-best in baseball.
LH Antonio Bastardo
Held opponents to a .144 batting average in 2011, lowest by a Phils’ reliever since 1920.
RH Chad Qualls
Veteran will be primary right-handed setup man.
RH Mike Stutes
Had 2.08 ERA in first 23 games in 2011, 4.46 in next 34.
RH Jose Contreras
Opened 2011 with 12 scoreless appearances before elbow injury. Will open 2012 on the DL.
RH Kyle Kendrick
Unheralded swingman had a 3.14 ERA in 15 starts in 2011.

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

Teaser:
<p> The Phillies are not as young, physically sound or offensively explosive as they once were, but with a star-studded pitching staff they’re still plenty good enough to turn Halladay’s text message into gospel and go all the way in 2012.</p>
Post date: Monday, April 2, 2012 - 17:44
Path: /mlb/new-york-mets-2012-preview-0
Body:

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.

Rotation 
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.

Bullpen 
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.”

Corners 
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.

Outfield
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.

Catching 
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.

Bench 
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.

Management 
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.

Bench
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.

Rotation
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.

Bullpen
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

Teaser:
<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
Body:

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.

Rotation
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.

Bullpen
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.

Corners
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.

Outfield
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.

Catching
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.

Bench
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.

Management
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.

Bench
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.

Rotation
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.

Bullpen
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
Teaser:
<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
Body:

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.

Rotation
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.

Bullpen
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.

Corners
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.

Outfield
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.

Catching
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.

Bench
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.

Management
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.

Bench
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.

Rotation
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.

Bullpen
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

Teaser:
<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
Body:

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.

Rotation 
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.

Bullpen 
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.

Corners 
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.

Outfield 
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.

Catching 
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.

DH/Bench
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.

Management
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.

Bench
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.

Rotation
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.

Bullpen
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

Teaser:
<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
Body:

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.

Rotation
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.

Bullpen
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.

Corners
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.

Outfield
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.

Catching
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.

DH/Bench
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.

Management
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.

Bench
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.

Rotation
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.

Bullpen
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

Teaser:
<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
Body:

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.

Rotation
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.

Bullpen
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.

Corners
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.

Outfield
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.

Catching
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.

DH/Bench
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.

Management
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.

Bench
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.

Rotation
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.

Bullpen
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
Teaser:
<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
Body:

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.

 

THE CLOSEST CALLS 

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)

Teaser:
<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
Body:

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

 

 

Teaser:
<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
Body:

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
2
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

Teaser:
<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
Body:

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

Teaser:
<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
Body:

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.

RECORD

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.

CENTER

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.

FORWARDS

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.

GUARDS

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.

COACH

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.

VERDICT

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.
 

Teaser:
<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
Body:

"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

Teaser:
<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
Body:

 

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. 

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

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.
 

Teaser:
<p> Top Teams since 2000 to Not win a National Championship</p>
Post date: Friday, March 30, 2012 - 10:03

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