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This college basketball season has been one of mixed emotions.
We’ve celebrated the careers of legends Dean Smith and Jerry Tarkanian while mourning their passing. We watched Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski and Philadelphia’s Herb Magee celebrate their 1,000th win. We’ve watched day-in and day-out greatness at Kentucky.
Yet we’ve also watched another Hall of Fame coach see his legacy tainted and the future of the program thrown into doubt due to NCAA violations, and Jim Boeheim wasn’t alone in dealing with off-court issues when programs should be gearing up for postseason.
Amid all of this, March Madness and the unpredictability of tournament season is here. Remember, at this point last season, Connecticut was on no one’s radar as a national championship contender. Neither was Kentucky. A series of upsets, though, led us to UConn winning a national title. Madness, indeed.
For any fan just getting into college basketball in time for championship week and office pools: What took you so long?
You have some catching up to do. By waiting until the final weeks, you’ve missed a historic season. Every season is historic for one reason or another, so maybe this season will be among the most memorable even before the NCAA Tournament.
You may need to catch up a bit, but that’s what you’ll learn here.
Kentucky is going for perfection
College basketball hasn’t had a story like this since — when, exactly? Kevin Durant vs. Greg Oden in the first year of one-and-done in 2007? The Christian Laettner Duke years? This is the No. 1 story in college basketball as Kentucky tries to match Indiana’s undefeated national championship team in 1975-76. Only five teams since have entered their league tournament undefeated, and only 1991 UNLV could claim to be as divisive. No fan base is more invested than Kentucky’s, and John Calipari may be the only coach to match Mike Krzyzewski as a love-him or hate-him figure in the sport. One way or another, Kentucky will make history in this Tournament — either by becoming the first team to go 40–0 or being on the wrong end of a monumental upset.
The Player of the Year race may go down to the wire
Maybe it’s for the best that the race for the Wooden or Naismith awards doesn’t get the same hype as the Heisman Trophy. A year after the Player of the Year award was a season-long coronation for Creighton’s Doug McDermott, the sport has a legitimate two-player race between Duke’s Jahlil Okafor and Wisconsin’s Frank Kaminsky. Both play center for national championship contenders, but they don’t fit the same profile. Okafor, who does his best work around the basket, has been a contender for the No. 1 overall draft pick since he was in high school. Kaminsky, who is more of a threat from the perimeter, was a virtual unknown two years ago. This will be the most heated Player of the Year race since Duke’s J.J. Redick and Gonzaga’s Adam Morrison shared the award in 2005-06.
A Final Four drought could end out West
The two best coaches who have never reached the Final Four both reside out West, and both may have their best chance to reach the final weekend of the NCAA Tournament. Gonzaga’s Mark Few has a 30-win team that may be better than his Bulldogs team that was a No. 1 seed in 2013 or the team with Adam Morrison in 2006. Meanwhile, Sean Miller’s Arizona team recent wrapped up another Pac-12 championship and will enter postseason with one of the best rosters in the nation. Miller has been to the Elite Eight three times in his career, once with Xavier and twice with Arizona.
Mike Krzyzewski reached 1,000 wins and should keep adding more
Earlier this season, Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski became the first Division I coach to reach the 1,000-win mark, and he has a team that should be able to build upon that total in the NCAA Tournament. He has Okafor anchoring the center spot, but his backcourt of freshman Tyus Jones and senior Quinn Cook may be the most clutch duo in the country. Depth and defense remain an issue for the Blue Devils, so there’s hope for the Duke haters who enjoyed the Devils’ recent Round of 64 losses to Mercer (2014) and Lehigh (2012).
Tony Bennett is college basketball’s newest miracle worker
Virginia hasn’t been this good since Ralph Sampson played for the Cavaliers, but what’s most remarkable is that the Cavs aren’t doing it with a ton of stars or flash. Virginia has won back-to-back ACC regular-season titles and enters conference tournament season with just two losses. Coach Tony Bennett has done this without a five-star prospect or a McDonald’s All-American and without his top player, Justin Anderson, for the final eight games of the regular season. The style isn’t for everyone — Virginia ranks 349th of 351 team in terms of tempo — but it is effective.
Villanova is the best team no one is talking about
Villanova has only lost two games yet is flying under the national radar — a bit puzzling for a program that has won a national championship, been to a Final Four in recent years and has a star coach on the bench. The reason? Maybe it’s because the Big East doesn’t get much exposure from ESPN since most its games are on FOX Sports 1. Or possibly because Villanova lost last season as No. 2 seed in the Round of 32. Whatever the reason, don’t hold it against this year’s Villanova team. The Wildcats are in the top 20 in both offensive and defensive efficiency, a trademark of teams that go on to win the national title.
The Hall of Fame announcement will actually be interesting
Speaking of Bo Ryan... the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame probably isn’t something even the most ardent fans spend time pondering, especially during the week of the Final Four. This season, though, the announcement may carry more weight than usual. Active coaches John Calipari and Bo Ryan are on the ballot this year. The announcement of new inductees will be made April 6, the same day as the national championship game. Will one or both be involved?
Off-court issues threaten to mar a great tournament
Speaking of Hall of Famers, this has not been a good year for Hall of Fame coaches. Krzyzewski dismissed a player who was later revealed to be facing sexual assault allegations. Syracuse banned itself from the postseason months before the NCAA hammered the Orange and coach Jim Boeheim for a wide range of violations. North Carolina coach Roy Williams has an athletic department embroiled in an ongoing academic scandal that seems to get worse every passing week. SMU coach Larry Brown hasn’t had his best player eligible all season. Kansas’ most highly touted freshman and pro prospect might not play again this season while the NCAA investigates possible contact between his family and an agent. Why don’t we all get back to basketball for a bit.
You’re going to get annoyed at officials
The NCAA Tournament is the crown jewel of the college basketball season and the only college athletics event that comes close to rivaling football. If that’s the case, then why is the product sometimes so crummy? If you’re just checking in with the sport, be prepared: Officiating is inconsistent, defensive players are allowed too much contact and the end of games take for-ev-er due to too many team and official timeouts. This, unfortunately, is the norm.
Power teams will be at home
Hope you didn’t expect to tune in to watch Syracuse, UConn, Memphis and Florida in this field. They’re home. Sorry. UCLA and Texas are also flirting with the NIT.
Big names will be back
In the place of those powerhouses, you should be able to welcome back Larry Brown, who hasn’t been to the NCAA Tournament since 1988. Brown’s SMU team was snubbed last season, and now the Mustangs are ready to be in the field for the first time since 1993. Other powers due to be back from long absences: Purdue (2012), Maryland (2010), Utah (2009) and Arkansas (2008).
If Kentucky and Duke meet in the Final Four or the national championship game this season, the matchup will be between a pair of coaches who have met only twice in their illustrious careers and never in the postseason.
It will also be between the top two coaches in the game today, according to an Athlon Sports expert poll.
In the last three weeks, Athlon Sports surveyed 26 college basketball experts in the media for a range of topics in the sport. In our first question, we asked simply “who are the top three coaches in the game today.” We did not ask our respondents to rank their coaches (though some did). Each coach named counts as one point in our results. The answers are...
Athlon Sports College Basketball Expert Poll
Question 1: Who are the top three coaches in the game today?
|1||Mark Few (Gonzaga), Fred Hoiberg (Iowa State), Jim Larranaga (Miami), Bob McKillop (Davidson), Sean Miller (Arizona), Shaka Smart (VCU), Roy Williams (North Carolina)|
• The top two in our poll were overwhelming. Krzyzewski appeared on 23 of 26 ballots, and Calipari appeared on 20 of 26. Not that those two would be bad choices in any year, but we wonder if there might be a bit of recency bias in the response. (And since we said “in the game today,” that makes perfect sense). These top two coaches have been at the top of people’s minds this season in particular with Krzyzewski crossing the 1,000-win mark and Calipari leading an undefeated team.
• Wisconsin’s Bo Ryan is a logical coach on anyone’s ballot this season, but consider where he would have been before last year’s Final Four. Ryan has gone from the most underrated coach in the country to royalty in the sport.
• It’s worth nothing both Calipari and Ryan are finalists for the Naismith Hall of Fame this season.
• Florida’s Billy Donovan received only two votes. Hard to believe we’d get the same response this time last year. He was ESPN’s No. 1 coach before the season and Athlon’s No. 4. It’s been a rough year in Gainesville.
• Give our panel credit for mentions of Davidson’s Bob McKillop and Miami’s Jim Larranaga.
• A few notable names that didn’t appear on anyone’s ballot: Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim, Michigan’s John Beilein and Wichita State’s Gregg Marshall. Boeheim and Beilein make sense as neither of their teams are going to play in the NCAA Tournament. Marshall is a curious absence considering McKillop, Larranaga and VCU’s Shaka Smart all received at least one vote.
More than two dozen college basketball experts from throughout college basketball media participated in the Athlon Sports survey conducted in late February and early March this year.
All were notified their individual responses to our six questions would not be revealed on AthlonSports.com, but they were free to post their responses to their own sites, on their broadcasts or to their social media outlets.
The panel was comprised of:
Rick Bozich, WDRB Louisville
Mike DeCourcy, Sporting News
Chris Dortch, Blue Ribbon
Wes Durham, ACC Network/Fox Sports Network
Ryan Fagan, Sporting News
John Feinstein, Washington Post/NBC Sports
Pat Forde, Yahoo! Sports
John Gasaway, ESPN
Scott Gleeson, USA Today
Jeff Goodman, ESPN
Seth Greenberg, ESPN
Steve Greenberg, Chicago Sun-Times
Raphielle Johnson, College Basketball Talk
Blair Kerkhoff, Kansas City Star
Will Leitch, Sports on Earth
Mike Lopresti, NCAA.com
Troy Machir, Sporting News
Matt Norlander, CBSSports.com
Jerry Palm, CBSSports.com
Brendan Prunty, SI.com
Joe Rexrode, Detroit Free Press
Lindsay Schnell, SI.com
David Teel, Virginia Daily Press
Jerry Tipton, Lexington (Ky.) Herald Leader
Dick “Hoops” Weiss, Blue Star Media
Luke Winn, SI.com
New Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh is a Twitter superstar. That much has been established.
Now, we’ll find out if he can judge a guy should try to turn a single into a double.
Harbaugh arrived at Oakland Athletics spring training in Mesa, Ariz., on Saturday — in uniform — to coach first base for a game against the Los Angeles Angels.
Harbaugh and A’s manager Bob Melvin are friends from Harbaugh’s days in San Francisco.
The best part of the whole thing? The tall stirrups.
Jim Harbaugh old style socks (stirrups). YESSS! pic.twitter.com/8JNxUL624a— Steve Vucinich (@stevevuc) March 7, 2015
Jim Harbaugh specifically requested the high socks. And his old No. 4. pic.twitter.com/1fkpTa41EU— Jane Lee (@JaneMLB) March 7, 2015
"It's disbelief, you know?" he told reporters after he learned of the diagnosis. "I'm sitting up there in that tube having an MRI, and I don't hear noise, I don't feel my Achilles, I'm just … I can't believe I'm up there while my team's battling. I just haven't processed all of it yet … I've made that same cut hundreds of thousands of times in my life. I felt the initial pop, and I think you guys could tell on the replay, I looked back, and it feels like someone kicked you. I was praying that someone was back there. No one was back there, and I heard Ron [Garretson], the ref, he actually says, 'Oh no' like he knew.”
The gruesome sight was, indeed, a telling one. It evoked the moment that Kobe Bryant suffered a similar fate, at the end of the 2012-13 season. Bryant has not been the same since, playing in just 41 games over the past two seasons.
Matthews is just 28, so he should be able to recover better than Bryant. But this is a rough hit for the Blazers, who must feel especially fortunate to have traded for Arron Afflalo just before the trade deadline. Afflalo will almost certainly take Matthews’ spot in the starting lineup. But, in all likelihood, he won’t be able to recreate the terrific synergy Wes had with Damian Lillard.
— John Wilmes
Syracuse basketball will never be the same.
The NCAA committee on infractions hammered Syracuse on Friday, suspending coach Jim Boeheim for nine ACC games next season and restricting scholarships for widespread violations regarding academics and extra benefits.
For certain, the tarnish that comes with this sort of penalty will put Boeheim’s legacy into question. The man who built the program won’t join his friend Mike Krzyzewski in the 1,000-win club, at least according to the official record books. He might not get back to 900.
Feel free to disregard the vacated wins on Boeheim’s ledger — the NCAA could take away up to 135 of them. The past is the past no matter how the NCAA requires Syracuse to remember it.
Instead, the future of Syracuse basketball is more cloudy than ever.
More than the vacated wins, the suspension of Boeheim or the financial penalties, Syracuse will feel the most pain from harsh scholarship limitations combined with the inevitable retirement of its Hall of Fame coach.
On Friday, the NCAA announced it will dock the Orange 12 scholarships over the course of four seasons. Syracuse will be on probation until 2020. The Orange will lose a quarter of its roster to the scholarship limit provided Syracuse doesn’t get any back on appeal.
If the Orange begin to serve the penalty in 2016-17 — so it does not need to run off players already committed — the program won’t be back to a full scholarship allotment until 2020-21.
And there lies the second peg in what could be a disastrous sanction for Syracuse basketball. At the start of the 2020-21 basketball season, Boeheim will be 76 years old.
Who will be in charge Syracuse basketball at that point is anyone’s guess. Boeheim is stubborn, but is he stubborn enough to coach Syracuse into his late 70s?
If Boeheim retires before the end of the sanctions, who will be in charge? Longtime assistant Mike Hopkins was named Boeheim’s eventual successor in 2007 with no timetable of when he’d take over for his mentor.
If Hopkins, who was not named in the NCAA report, can start elsewhere without an NCAA sanctions, few could blame the up-and-coming coach for giving his head coaching career a better start.
A scandal of this magnitude — one that also involves the football program — is also not a good harbinger for an athletic director.
Syracuse will face the twilight of Boeheim’s career with only three-quarters of a roster for four seasons. Replacing a legend is tough enough as it is. This will only make the change more clumsy when the time inevitably comes.
When Connecticut faced NCAA sanctions at the end of Jim Calhoun’s tenure, the Huskies lost one postseason and three total scholarships in three seasons. There was still enough left for Calhoun’s handpicked successor Kevin Ollie to lead the Huskies to the 2014 national title.
After the Clem Haskins scandal at Minnesota in the late ‘90s, the Gophers lost 12 scholarships over the course of four seasons and have won only one NCAA Tournament game in four trips since.
Granted, Syracuse basketball and Minnesota basketball can’t be mentioned in the same sentence, but the future is no less cloudy.
For the next four or five years, Syracuse basketball is looking at the possibility of a new coach, a shorthanded roster and a brutal ACC schedule.
When Boeheim arrived at Syracuse as a player in 1962, the Orange went 8-13 when he was a freshman. Syracuse went nearly two decades between 20-win seasons.
Syracuse won’t be in those depths when Boeheim departs. But the national title contender that usually occupies the Carrier Dome? That program’s future is more questionable than ever.
Spring training is underway, and the 2015 Major League Baseball is less than a month way. With the first pitch of 2015 fast approaching, Athlon Sports is taking a look at some of the key storylines for the upcoming season. The AL Central produced last year’s World Series’ runner-up in the Royals, and another playoff team in the Tigers. Kansas City lost starting pitcher James Shields to the Padres and has to recapture the magic from the postseason. Detroit is the favorite to win this division, but manager Brad Ausmus needs healthy years from Victor Martinez and Miguel Cabrera.
New Look White Sox, New Central Favorites?
The Chicago White Sox front office made it crystal clear this past winter that the combined 188 loses of the past two seasons weren’t happening again. President of baseball operations Kenny Williams and general manager Rick Hahn broke out the check book and have completely remolded this Sox team into what should be an instant division contender.
This winter the Sox made numerous big moves to shore up all aspects of the team. Budding ace and former Cub, Jeff Samardzija, was traded from Oakland for prospects to give the White Sox another top of the rotation arm to complement Chris Sale. Samardzija is now 30 and is slated to be a free agent after the season, so there is quite a lot to be gained for the pitcher who grew up in Northwest Indiana not far from the South Side of Chicago. Samardzija’s addition also brings a much-needed right arm to a rotation that features three lefties including 200-inning hurler Jose Quintana and veteran John Danks.
The White Sox traded for lefty reliever Dan Jennings, who posted a sparking 1.34 ERA in 47 appearances for the Marlins last summer, giving up just six earned runs in 40.1 innings of work. The Sox kept adding to their 'pen with the addition of former starter turned reliever Zach Duke. Duke, now on his sixth team in 10 seasons, is looking to continue his resurgence coming out of the ‘pen, as he struck out 74 batters and surrendered just three home runs in 58.2 innings of work for the Brewers in 2014. However, the big bullpen signing was former Yankee closer David Robertson, who inked a four-year, $46 million contract in December. The 2015 Sox bullpen will be a much-improved group compared to the 2014 crowd that ranked 28th in ERA (4.38), 25th in saves (36), third in runs surrendered (251) and first in walks (236).
The South Siders’ offense wasn't much to brag about in 2014 either, outside of Jose Abreu, of course. That issue was addressed with several swoops of the pen this offseason. Williams and Hahn were able to sign lefty first basemen Adam LaRoche and the 26 home runs and 92 RBIs he contributed with Washington last season. LaRoche will likely see most of his time as the full-time DH batting behind incumbent first baseman Abreu. Perhaps the best winter signing was that of left fielder Melky Cabrera. Cabrera isn’t without his warts from the Biogenesis case, but on the field he has the potential to be one of the game’s best switch-hitters with a knack for getting on base. The Sox also signed journeyman Emilio Bonifacio to a one-year deal. Bonafacio will be seen all over the Sox lineup and in the field, as he is capable of playing almost every position except pitcher or catcher.
All of the big moves this offseason have put the Sox in fantastic position to overthrow Detroit as division champs. If outfielders Adam Eaton and Avail Garcia can remain healthy and produce as they were projected to in 2014, the White Sox could once again be the toast of the Windy City.
Motor City Uncertainty
The past four seasons, the Detroit Tigers have owned the AL Central, but are still looking for the elusive World Series title that seems to become more evasive with the passing of time. Last year’s team that won 90 games and a division title was a disappointment after getting swept by the Orioles in the ALDS. For the first time in years, the Tigers have more questions than answers as spring training heats up.
The key to the Tigers' lineup will always be Miguel Cabrera. Miggy’s 2014 was impressive especially for being hampered by throbbing pain in his ankle, noticeably inhibiting his footwork and running ability. Cabrera was still able to hit .313/.371/.524 with 51 doubles, 25 homers, and 109 RBIs in 2014, even with the constant discomfort in his lower leg. Cabrera had offseason surgery to remove bone spurs and fix a fracture in his right ankle. Currently, Miggy is not 100 percent but is recovering quickly as he is taking batting practice and preparing to run on flat ground according to the Detroit Free Press.
The other half of the Tigers' one-two punch also is coming off surgery this winter. Victor Martinez underwent surgery on Feb. 10 to repair a torn meniscus in his left knee. The switch-hitting DH was an MVP candidate in 2014, and certainly had an argument for winning after posting a slash line of .339/.409/.565 with 32 homers, 103 RBIs, 33 doubles, and a league-leading .974 OPS. After his stellar campaign, Martinez inked a four-year deal to stay in Detroit. Questions certainly have to be arising within the Tigers' front office about his long-term health, he is 36 after all, and knees don't heal as quickly for players in their mid-30s like they do for players in the early 20s.
After Torii Hunter signed with the Twins, the Tigers sent Rick Porcello to Boston for Cuban slugger Yoenis Cespedes. Detroit is hoping Cespedes’ raw power can blossom with All-Star bats Cabrera and Martinez to protect him in the lineup.
The biggest concern, the starting rotation, is a new issue for the Tigers. Lefty ace David Price was acquired last July and will be the go-to guy for Detroit in 2015. The fall off last season for former Cy Young winner Justin Verlander was scary. The fastball that regularly topped 98 mph was noticeably slower, as his ERA ballooned to 4.54, two full runs higher than his 2011 MVP season, as he gave up a league-leading 104 earned runs.
Verlander isn’t the only uncertainty in the Tigers’ rotation, as veteran Anibal Sanchez looks to rebound from his injury-plagued 2014 after a career year in '13. New to the rotation is righty Shane Greene, who pitched admirably in his rookie campaign for the Yankees with a 3.78 ERA and 81 strikeouts in 78.2 innings. To complicate matters, the 2015 Tigers essentially have the same bullpen from '14 that imploded down the stretch and had a whopping 4.29 ERA.
If the Tigers want to keep a chokehold on the AL Central for a fifth consecutive season, their core group of veterans are going to have to produce like never before in order to keep pace with the more youthful teams in the division.
Do The Royals Have Enough Magic For a Second Straight World Series Run?
The Kansas City Royals were the biggest story of the 2014 baseball calendar, and for all the right reasons. Their unexpected run to the World Series was built on great defense, stealing bases, and lights-out pitching. This season will be much of the same for the Royals, as almost everyone is back from their 2014 run.
James Shields is now in San Diego and Norichika Aoki is now ironically a San Francisco Giant. With the departure of Shields, the Royals turned to free agent signee Edinson Volquez to round out the rotation. Volquez is looking to continue the career renaissance that began last season in Pittsburgh. With the addition of Volquez, the Royals' brass is looking for second-year flamethrower Yordano “Ace” Ventura to morph into the team’s actual ace this summer. Ventura’s fastball regularly reaches triple digits and could be the train that he rides all the way into the Cy Young conversation at season’s end.
For as solid as the Royals' rotation was in 2014, it was their bullpen that took them deep into October. The trio of Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis and Greg Holland was untouchable in 2014 with a record of 65-4 after the 6th inning. With youngster Brandon Finnegan mixed in along with vets Luke Hochevar and Jason Frasor, the Royals' bullpen looks to be the best in the game again in 2015.
Ned Yost’s World Series lineup card remains largely intact. Plug in Alex Rios in right field for the departed Aoki and Kendrys Morales for former DH and current Oakland A, Billy Butler, and that is it.
If the Royals hope to repeat their 2014 success this summer, they are going to need more from their lineup cornerstones Mike Moustakas and Eric Hosmer. Both “Moose” and Hosmer can flash the leather and had fantastic postseasons in 2014, but it is time for both to produce on a more regular and large-scale basis.
This Royals team that was 14th in runs scored (651) and last in home runs (95) in 2014 will need as much offensive firepower it can muster to keep up with the likes of the White Sox and Tigers. Alex Gordon and Lorenzo Cain are two of the best gloves there are in any outfield, but they too will have to step up offensively in 2015. Cain had a coming out party last summer in which he had a slash line of .301/.339/.412 with 29 doubles and 28 stolen bases, and will be counted upon to be the table-setter for much of this Royals offense.
Another player devleoping into a star before our eyes is catcher Salvador Perez. Perez is just 24 but already turning into one of the top catchers in baseball both at the plate and behind it.
With young fire-ballers in the rotation and bullpen, and experienced youth that is still growing in the field and at the plate, the Royals look to be more than just a feel-good story from a year ago. The boys from Kansas City have what it takes to make another run in October by following the same blueprint from a season ago.
- by Jake Rose
The last place the Texas Rangers expected to find themselves in 2014 was last place. But that’s where they finished after injuries conspired to knock them from favorites in the American League West to a 95-loss season and sole occupancy of the AL basement. It wasn’t all injuries, as the Rangers’ lack of depth after a series of past July deadline trades finally bit them. In June, management was convinced to turn the season into a tryout camp. Some players emerged, and they have a chance to make the roster this year after the Rangers did little in the offseason. But their No. 1 offseason goal was to get injured players healthy. The belief is that they are, for the most part, and the Rangers expect to contend in 2015. They gave themselves a better chance after acquiring Yovani Gallardo to bolster the rotation, but offensively they need several hitters to either rebound from down seasons or perform at the next level.
The good news is that each of the five starters expected to be in the rotation went through a normal, healthy offseason, most notably staff ace Yu Darvish. He finished the season on the 60-day disabled list with an elbow strain, but the Rangers’ cautious approach allowed Darvish to start throwing in December. When Darvish is on, he’s a strikeout machine and could be the next pitcher to throw a no-hitter. Lefthander Derek Holland’s strong September (2–0, 1.46 ERA, 37 innings), after missing the first five months following knee surgery, left some talking about him getting the Opening Day start over Darvish. The two new faces are former Brewer Gallardo and former National Ross Detwiler. Milwaukee’s one-time ace, Gallardo was shipped to the Rangers for three players in January. The Brewers also are paying $4 million towards Gallardo’s $14 million salary. Detwiler meanwhile hasn’t started a game since 2013, as he was pushed out of the crowded Washington rotation. Both Gallardo and Detwiler are slated to be free agents after this season. Righty Colby Lewis is probably the front-runner for the final spot, although Nick Tepesch and lefty Matt Harrison, who is on the rebound from another back surgery, could end up factoring into the mix at some point. Another lefty, Martin Perez, should be back on the mound by the All-Star break. He was one of the league’s best pitchers in April but had Tommy John surgery in May.
Neftali Feliz finished 2014 as the closer after a long recovery from Tommy John surgery. He flashed the velocity and effective slider that made him an All-Star in 2010. The biggest questions about Feliz have been his desire and work ethic. Those questions haven’t gone away. If Feliz falters, Tanner Scheppers will be the first option to replace him. Scheppers, derailed by an elbow injury last spring, will open in the eighth-inning role in which he blossomed into a top-flight reliever in 2013. The Rangers added another righty, Kyuji Fujikawa, to give the bullpen a shot of experience. Also coming off Tommy John, the 34-year-old returned last season with the Cubs. The Rangers believe they are getting a pitcher they coveted two years ago at the right time following his surgery. Shawn Tolleson, who had the best 2014 season among Rangers relievers, will bridge the sixth and seventh innings, and hard-throwing Roman Mendez was the best of the rookies who were showcased last season. The Rangers might have room for only one lefty, which could be rookie Alex Claudio. Tepesch or whomever doesn’t make the starting rotation figures to be the long man, with Nick Martinez and Anthony Bass other candidates.
The Rangers believe that shortstop Elvis Andrus is primed for a big year after one of the worst of his career. He started fast but then became a double-play machine and, at times, a liability on the bases. Andrus took it upon himself to train harder in the offseason after doing very little before last season. Andrus’ double-play partner will be Rougned Odor, who is firmly entrenched at second base thanks to Jurickson Profar’s persistent shoulder issues. Odor was one of the best rookies in the American League in 2014, though his aggressiveness worked against him more than it worked in his favor. More patience at the plate will serve him and the Rangers well.
On paper, only a handful of teams should be as stout offensively on the corners as the Rangers’ duo of first baseman Prince Fielder and third baseman Adrian Beltre. But there are questions about how effective Fielder will be after cervical fusion surgery in May. Fielder, one of the game’s top power hitters, swatted only three homers and repeatedly bounced into infield shifts as weakness in his left arm, caused by a herniated disc, slowed his bat and kept him from getting the same lift on balls. Beltre again was the Rangers’ best player and led them in the Triple Crown categories. But he had only 19 homers, in large part because he didn’t have any protection, and teams pitched around him. But when he did get pitches to hit, he did so at a .324 clip. Beltre also had a rebound year defensively.
A vacancy was created when the Rangers bought out a club option on Alex Rios, who played right field and forced Shin-Soo Choo to left field to begin his seven-year, $130 million deal. Choo was lousy defensively but will move to more familiar territory in right with Rios gone. Choo was one of the league’s best players for about six weeks, but an ankle injury and a lingering elbow injury sent him spiraling. He must be productive in the middle of the lineup. Leonys Martin also needs to have a big year and will start in the leadoff spot after batting .295 with a .340 on-base percentage over the final 21 games atop the order. He has never been a consistent hitter, but his speed can be a game-changer. Martin is blessed with perhaps the strongest arm in the game, but he can get in trouble by taking poor routes to balls. Left field is a toss up with veterans Nate Schierholtz and Ryan Ludwick, along with younger guys like Ryan Rua, Michael Choice and Jake Smolinski among the candidates. The winner also could find himself in a platoon with the left-handed-hitting Mitch Moreland, unless it’s Schierholtz. Despite a lousy 2014, Choice has more upside than Rua or Smolinski.
Robinson Chirinos established himself as the No. 1 catcher for 2015. He’s worked to improve his footwork behind the plate and has turned himself into one of the best throwers in the game. Chirinos will also hit the ball out of the park on occasion. The Rangers are weary of his concussion history, which is why they acquired switch-hitter Carlos Corporan from the Astros.
Moreland will be the primary DH but could end up in a platoon with an extra right-handed-hitting outfielder. Moreland is coming off ankle surgery, fixing a problem that has bothered him for years. He has dealt with various injuries and has never realized the potential the Rangers thought he had. Delino DeShields Jr. gives the Rangers an interesting piece. He’s a left-handed hitter who can fly but lacks experience in the majors.
Jeff Banister begins his first season as a big-league manager after four years in Pittsburgh as bench coach under Clint Hurdle, whom Rangers executives love. In Pittsburgh, all voices are welcomed, and scouts and front-office execs are routinely involved. That appeals to Rangers GM Jon Daniels, who is entering his 10th season and occasionally met resistance from Ron Washington when making suggestions. Pitching coach Mike Maddux is one of four holdovers from Washington’s staff, and former Rangers third baseman Steve Buechele joins as bench coach.
The Rangers have a fair share of questions, namely in the back end of their rotation. The bullpen and lineup aren’t perfect, either. Texas needs key contributors to stay healthy and produce either at levels that made them stars or at levels that could make them stars. That’s too many ifs for this team to be considered a serious contender for the postseason.
2015 Prediction: 3rd in AL West
CF Leonys Martin (L) Showed over final 22 games that he could be a capable leadoff man. Will get chance to show it over 162.
SS Elvis Andrus (R) Disappointing year all around for Andrus, whose eight-year, $120 million extension takes effect this season.
RF Shin-Soo Choo (L) A hot start was derailed by ankle and elbow injuries, and he lacked instincts on the bases and in left field.
3B Adrian Beltre (R) The best player on the team and one of the best in the game, Beltre took on more of a leadership role in 2014.
1B Prince Fielder (L) The Rangers hope Fielder still has elite power after neck surgery.
DH Mitch Moreland (L) Texas has been waiting on Moreland to produce since 2011, but injuries keep popping up.
C Robinson Chirinos (R) The Rangers found a catcher amid all their injuries. He has pop and has developed into a good thrower.
2B Rougned Odor (L) Now entrenched at a position thought to belong to Jurickson Profar.
LF Ryan Rua (R) He has hit at every level, and he will work extensively on his defense in spring training to get the starting job.
SS Adam Rosales (R) Another fringe player who took advantage of his opportunity, Rosales brings energy and versatility.
OF Delino DeShields Jr. (R) Former first-rounder needs to show improved work ethic to make the club.
C Carlos Corporan (S) Started 99 games behind the plate for the Astros the past two seasons, but hit just .230 during that span.
OF Nate Schierholtz (L) The eight-year veteran could have leg up on last bench spot because of need for a left-handed bat.
RH Yu Darvish Stuff so good that it seems like a no-hitter is possible each start, except vs. the A’s (1–8 lifetime).
LH Derek Holland 2014 was all but lost to a freakish knee injury, but his strong September should be a springboard into 2015.
RH Yovani Gallardo Had a solid campaign in 2014 statistically, although his record didn’t show it.
LH Ross Detwiler Pushed out of the Nationals’ rotation, he hasn’t started since 2013 but believes he can log 200 innings.
RH Colby Lewis A strong second half, thanks to “hip resurfacing” surgery, helped him earn a one-year contract for 2015.
RH Neftali Feliz (Closer) The closer finished strong, flashing his pre-Tommy John velocity and effectiveness; desire can be fickle.
RH Tanner Scheppers A move to the rotation resulted in a season-ending elbow injury. He’s back where he belongs.
RH Kyuji Fujikawa The Rangers scouted him extensively in Japan and liked him … before two disastrous years with the Cubs.
RH Shawn Tolleson The bullpen’s bright spot in 2014, Tolleson needs to be more efficient when called upon.
RH Roman Mendez He was the best of the young crop of relievers in 2014, and can be better with better mechanics.
LH Alex Claudio The Rangers need a southpaw in the ‘pen and this rookie’s multiple arm angels and quality secondary pitchers make him deceptive against lefty hitters.
RH Nick Martinez Started much of 2014, but showed well early as a multi-inning reliever.
Beyond the Box Score
First-timer Jeff Banister is a manager for the first time in his career, and he’s with a team other than the Pirates for the first time. Banister was drafted by Pittsburgh in 1986, became a player/coach in 1993 and a full-time coach in 1994. But the fact that he had a career in baseball is remarkable after he was diagnosed with two cancerous cysts in his ankle while in high school and after he suffered temporary paralysis and a broken neck following a collision at home-plate while he was in junior college. Banister is active on Twitter (@Bannyrooster28) and ends each tweet with #nevereverquit. He knows what can happen when someone never quits.
Stating his case Adrian Beltre continues to build his résumé for the Hall of Fame. The third baseman, who has two years left on his contract, is tied for 39th all-time in doubles (528), 56th all-time in homers (395) and 79th all-time in hits (2,604). The homer total is fifth all-time among primary third basemen behind Mike Schmidt (548), Eddie Mathews (512), Chipper Jones (468) and Darrell Evans (414). Beltre, George Brett and Jones are the three third basemen in MLB history with 300 homers and 2,500 hits. Beltre also has four career Gold Gloves.
All-Star assistants The Rangers are collecting an impressive stable of special assistants to GM Jon Daniels. The club added another in November with the hiring of Michael Young, a seven-time All-Star and the club’s all-time leader in most offensive categories. Young hopes to work extensively with minor leaguers during spring training and the regular season. He joins Hall of Fame pitcher Greg Maddux, 14-time All-Star catcher Ivan Rodriguez and 20-year veteran reliever Darren Oliver in the Rangers’ front office.
Unhappy reunion The acquisition of outfielder Delino DeShields Jr. in the Rule 5 Draft could make for a few awkward moments in spring training. DeShields is now teammates with right-handed reliever Phil Klein, who plunked DeShields in the cheek during a Double-A game last May, producing gruesome swelling and an infamous selfie that DeShields tweeted. DeShields, then in the Astros’ system, was out only a couple weeks, and Klein would reach the majors in August as injuries riddled the Rangers’ roster.
2014 Top Draft Pick
Luis Ortiz, RHP
The stuff that comes out of Luis Ortiz’s right arm is obvious to any scout. The fastball that can touch 96 mph. A slider that darts down and is an out pitch. The ability to command his two plus pitches. But the Rangers also saw something in Ortiz that told them he was their type of player — a self-made first-round pick who had very little coaching growing up and who lost weight to become more attractive to big-league teams. Ortiz was the 30th overall pick in the June draft, signing for $1.75 million and passing on an opportunity to play collegiately at Fresno State. The Sanger, Calif., native passed his first pro test over a handful of innings at Low-A Hickory. That’s pretty impressive for an 18-year-old, and Ortiz, now 19, could be vying for a Rangers rotation spot after only a few seasons in the minors.
Top 10 Prospects
1. Joey Gallo, 3B (21) Power like this doesn’t come along often. If Gallo can stick to the right approach, he could hit 40 homers a season.
2. Nomar Mazara, OF (20) The son of an officer in the Dominican Republic navy, Mazara has discipline and maturity. He could make a rapid climb to the majors.
3. Jorge Alfaro, C (21) The Rangers are waiting for his mental side to catch up to his physical tools. If that happens, watch out.
4. Alex Gonzalez, RHP (23) The pitcher nicknamed “Chi Chi” could crack the Rangers’ rotation this spring. Some scouts believe he will.
5. Jake Thompson, RHP (21) He’s still young, and it shows occasionally on the mound and in his preparation. He needs more polish, but has talent.
6. Nick Williams, OF (21) Oh, that bat speed. If he tightens up his discipline and plate approach, the Rangers could have a Carlos Gonzalez on their hands.
7. Luis Ortiz, RHP (19) The 2014 first-rounder attacks the strike zone with a plus fastball and plus slider. He could be a quick mover.
8. Ryan Rua, INF/OF (25) He should be in the Rangers’ mix in left field, a position he is still learning. The Rangers like his athletic ability and power.
9. Luke Jackson, RHP (23) A rocky first taste at Triple-A Round Rock kept him from his big-league debut, but he says he knows what needs to be fixed.
10. Josh Morgan, SS (19) A third-round pick in 2014, Morgan is an on-base machine who hits to all fields and defends and runs capably. Power will be the question.
This is your daily links roundup of our favorite sports and entertainment posts on the web for March 6:
• Meet Caitlin Arnett, possibly the world's hottest Rockies fan. Not that there's a huge pool.
• Syracuse just got its hand smacked by the NCAA, to the tune of 200 vacated wins and 12 lost schollies. Jim Boeheim, asleep at the switch when it comes to compliance.
• Today's big NFL news: Brandon Marshall to the Jets. But who will be throwing to him?
• Baby daddies aside, there's a scoring crisis in college basketball.
• You gotta watch this alley-oop video. Trust me.
• For your snow-bound enjoyment: Spring break fail GIFs.
• This blindfolded dunk failed to go as intended.
-- Email us with any compelling sports-related links at [email protected]
This shapes up as a season of hope — and expectation — in Seattle after last year’s 16-game turnaround and the addition of the major leagues’ home run champion. The Mariners fell one game short a year ago of ending a postseason drought that extends to 2001 despite leading the American League in ERA and conjuring up the majors’ best bullpen from a collection of leftover parts that fell into place once free-agent closer Fernando Rodney arrived. The Achilles heel was an attack that finished 14th, 15th and 12th, respectively, among AL clubs in the offensive slash categories. Further, the Mariners sported a lefty-heavy lineup that left them vulnerable to matchup problems in the late innings. Their solution: Sign free-agent outfielder Nelson Cruz, who hit 40 homers last season while playing in Baltimore. They also swung trades for outfielders Seth Smith and Justin Ruggiano, who add a veteran left-right presence in right field.
Felix Hernandez was the best pitcher in the American League in balloting by his peers (the Players’ Choice Awards) and league executives (The Sporting News) even if the BBWAA chose Cleveland’s Corey Kluber as the Cy Young Award recipient. Hernandez, who turns 29 in April, is at the height of his powers and heads what might be the league’s best and deepest rotation. Hisashi Iwakuma is a legitimate No. 2 starter who won 15 games last season despite missing a month because of a finger injury. Now add three (possibly four) talented young arms in James Paxton, Taijuan Walker, Roenis Elias and (possibly) Danny Hultzen. The Mariners also acquired veteran lefty J.A. Happ from Toronto to replace departed free agent Chris Young, who resurrected his career a year ago. Manager Lloyd McClendon says Happ will be the No. 3 or No. 4 starter, which means (barring injuries) that two of those young arms will open the season at Triple-A. Hultzen, the No. 2 pick in the 2011 draft, will almost certainly start in the minors after missing all of last season while recovering from shoulder surgery. Paxton is a near-certainty to make the big-league staff, possibly as the No. 2 guy, to position a lefty between Hernandez and Iwakuma. That sets up Walker and Elias for a spring battle.
Kansas City’s bullpen grabbed the headlines last season, but the Mariners had the majors’ best overall unit by a wide margin in terms of ERA (2.59). Rodney led the majors with a franchise-record 48 saves (in 51 opportunities), and his presence allowed the rest of the pen to fall into place. Yoervis Medina and former closer Danny Farquhar generally shared the eighth inning; Charlie Furbush and Joe Beimel handled lefties; rookie Dominic Leone won eight games by pitching well in middle relief. Former closer Tom Wilhelmsen was invaluable, compiling a 2.27 ERA as a long reliever. The offseason saw Brandon Maurer dispatched to San Diego in the trade for Smith, and Beimel depart as a free agent. No problem. The Mariners have Carson Smith, who sparkled in September, ready to step in for Maurer, while Beimel’s replacement should come from a pool of three candidates: Lucas Luetge, Edgar Olmos and Rule 5-selection David Rollins. There’s no reason this shouldn’t again be a dominant unit.
Robinson Cano remains one of the game’s premier players, but the general sense is that his numbers slipped a bit from what he produced over the previous nine years with the Yankees. You judge: He had a .314/.382/.454 slash last season after averaging .309/.355/.504 in New York. His power took an expected dip in the move to pitcher-friendly Safeco Field, but the bigger factor was likely a lack of lineup protection. Opposing pitchers simply had no reason to challenge him, particularly with the game on the line. It will be interesting to see if that changes this season with Cruz hitting behind him. Shortstop shapes up as a spring battle between Brad Miller and Chris Taylor, who offer a contrast. Miller is generally viewed as a hitter with legit power whose defense is somewhat suspect. He got off to dreadful start last year, but his slash numbers after the break closely mirrored Kyle Seager’s year-long production. Miller’s early slump prompted a July 24 promotion for Taylor, who is seen as a steadier defensive player but lacks Miller’s pop. The Mariners signed free agent Rickie Weeks before the start of spring training. If he makes the team, Weeks can back up Cano as well as fill in at several other spots, including the outfield.
Seager blossomed last season into an All-Star third baseman and a Gold Glove winner, which led to a seven-year deal in the offseason for $100 million. McClendon contends that Seager’s bat still has at least another 20 points in it (after batting .268) along with a corresponding jump in production (he had 27 doubles, 25 homers and 96 RBIs). First base appears to belong to Logan Morrison, who batted .321 over his final 51 games after missing two months earlier in the season because of a severe hamstring injury. That injury is part of a troublesome history, however. Morrison has played fewer than 100 games in each of the last three seasons, and as the new year began, the Mariners didn’t have an obvious backup.
The Mariners want Cruz to serve primarily as a designated hitter, which meant the trade that sent Michael Saunders to Toronto for Happ created a hole in right field. Enter Smith and Ruggiano who, if nothing else, provide a veteran platoon tandem. Either or both could win full-time jobs, particularly if left fielder Dustin Ackley plays to his pre-break struggles (.225/.282/.335) more than his post-break surge (.269/.307/.467). Much depends on center fielder Austin Jackson, who was a huge disappointment after arriving in a July 31 trade from Detroit. That Jackson is in his walk year to free agency should only goose his motivation for a bounce-back season.
Mike Zunino displayed skill in handling a diversified staff in his first full season and showed pop in collecting 44 extra-base hits. But he also batted .199 with a .254 on-base percentage while striking out 158 times in 438 at-bats. Even a marginal improvement in strike-zone recognition would pay dividends in overall production. Backup Jesus Sucre is a solid catch-and-throw receiver, which is how scouts view John Hicks, who figures to open the season at Tacoma.
Cruz, fresh off 40 home runs with Baltimore, will be expected to get most of his at-bats as the DH. Veteran Willie Bloomquist, assuming he is fully recovered from knee surgery, is the ideal utilityman who permits the Mariners, if they choose, to get by with a three-man bench. The others project as Sucre and the non-playing portion of the right field platoon, along with Weeks if the team decides to go with four reserves. Former top prospect Jesus Montero will get a long look.
General manager Jack Zduriencik’s top offseason priority was to acquire an impact right-handed bat (preferably two) for the middle of the lineup. He signed Cruz to a four-year deal for $57 million before acquiring Ruggiano. Both should help balance a lefty-heavy lineup. Priority No. 2 was to find a veteran starting pitcher to replace Young, and Zduriencik came up with Happ from Toronto for Saunders. Zduriencik then replaced Saunders’ lefty bat by getting Smith from San Diego. All boxes checked.
The big-picture hope a year ago was that signing Cano to a 10-year deal for $240 million would serve to reset the franchise. One year later, it’s possible to view the Mariners as a viable division favorite and a strong postseason contender. That’s a pretty effective reset.
2015 Prediction: 2nd in AL West (Wild Card)
CF Austin Jackson (R) Looking to rebound in free-agent walk year from his 2014 struggles.
SS Brad Miller (L) Will battle Chris Taylor during spring training for the starting job.
2B Robinson Cano (L) Just stay healthy; that’s all Mariners want for last season’s big addition.
DH Nelson Cruz (R) He’s unlikely to hit 40 homers again, but 25-plus will be fine with the Mariners.
3B Kyle Seager (L) Can the new $100 million man keep improving at the plate?
RF Seth Smith (L) Disciplined hitter acquired from the Padres; likely will platoon with Justin Ruggiano.
1B Logan Morrison (L) He was productive last season once he got healthy, but can he stay healthy?
C Mike Zunino (R) Lots to like with this young catcher, but the Mariners can’t live with a .199 average again.
LF Dustin Ackley (L) Can he finally put a full year together after a solid second half of 2014?
C Jesus Sucre (R) Doesn’t hit much, but the club is content with him as Zunino’s backup.
UT Willie Bloomquist (R) Veteran is invaluable for his ability to play everywhere on the diamond.
OF Justin Ruggiano (R) Should draw duty against left-handed pitchers; hit .305 vs. lefties in 2014.
2B Rickie Weeks (R) Went from averaging 23 home runs from 2010-12 for the Brewers to just 18 in the last two seasons combined.
RH Felix Hernandez Had a career-high 248 strikeouts and career-lows in ERA (2.14) and WHIP (0.915) but didn’t win Cy Young.
LH James Paxton Former Kentucky Wildcat could slot second in the Mariners rotation to provide right-left mix.
RH Hisashi Iwakuma Check out his numbers (1.086 career WHIP) and then tell us who is more underrated.
LH J.A. Happ Veteran acquisition from Toronto should be a good fit in spacious Safeco Field.
RH Taijuan Walker Possesses high-end stuff but must beat out Roenis Elias for spot in the rotation.
RH Fernando Rodney (Closer) Often a thrill ride but was 48-for-51 in saves in his first season with the Mariners.
RH Carson Smith Funky delivery makes him especially tough on right-handed hitters (.133 average).
RH Yoervis Medina Big Venezuelan righty was a dominant setup man for much of last season.
RH Danny Farquhar Fearless reliever struck out 81 and only allowed 58 hits in 71.0 innings.
LH Charlie Furbush Gets the call in late-inning clutch situations vs. lefthanders.
RH Tom Wilhelmsen Ability to go multiple innings makes him a key piece in Mariners’ pen.
LH Lucas Luetge Pitched 77.2 innings for Mariners in 2012-13 but spent most of ’14 in Class AAA.
Beyond the Box Score
King’s streak Felix Hernandez set an MLB record by making 16 consecutive starts (May 18 to Aug. 11) in which he pitched at least seven innings while allowing two or fewer earned runs. The previous record of 13 such starts belonged to Tom Seaver of the 1971 New York Mets. The previous American League record of 12 belonged to Chief Bender of the 1907 Philadelphia Athletics.
Nine and counting Hernandez has recorded at least 150 strikeouts in each of his first nine full big-league seasons. The only other pitchers to achieve that feat are in the Hall of Fame: Walter Johnson, who had an 11-year streak; and Bert Blyleven, who did it in his first 10 full seasons.
For openers The Mariners carry an eight-game winning streak on Opening Day into their 2015 opener on April 6 against the Los Angeles Angels at Safeco Field. The Angels were the last team to beat the Mariners in a season opener. That was back on April 3, 2006, when Orlando Cabrera’s two-run single in the ninth inning against J.J. Putz produced a 5–4 victory at Safeco.
Double trouble Robinson Cano finished with a club-leading 37 doubles and became only the second player in big-league history to hit at least 30 doubles in each of his first 10 seasons. The other player is Albert Pujols, whose streak ended at 10 years when he finished with 29 in 2011. Cano has 412 doubles in his first 10 seasons. Only three players in history had more: Pujols (426), Joe Medwick (416) and Todd Helton (413).
Beating the best The Mariners posted a winning record against postseason teams (34–27) and against teams that finished with a winning record (45–35). They also had a winning record against each of the American League’s three divisions — 41–35 vs. the West; 19–14 vs. the Central; and 18–15 vs. the East.
Elite company All-Star closer Fernando Rodney became only the sixth player in history to record at least 48 saves in two different seasons. No pitcher has ever done it three times. The 48-times-two club: Dennis Eckersley (1990, 1992), Rod Beck (1993, 1998), Mariano Rivera (2001, 2004), Eric Gagne (2002, 2003), Jim Johnson (2012, 2013) and Rodney (2012, 2014).
2014 Top Draft Pick
Alex Jackson, OF
Generally viewed as the best prep player in last year’s draft, Jackson, 19, landed a $4.2 million signing bonus as the No. 6 overall pick and immediately shifted positions — from catcher to right fielder — in order to accelerate his rise through the farm system. The Southern California native missed a month after he was hit in the face after losing a fly ball in the lights but showed no lingering effects when he returned for a few late games in the Arizona Rookie League. When he played, Jackson (6'2", 215) didn’t disappoint. Baseball America tagged him as the best prospect in the AZL and also at No. 1 in the Mariners’ system. Club officials hesitate to identify a probable launching point this season for Jackson. He figures to open the season at Low-A Clinton in the Midwest League.
Top 10 Prospects
1. Alex Jackson, OF (19) Team’s No. 1 pick in 2014 is already considered the best prospect in the organization.
2. D.J. Peterson, 3B/1B (23) A right-handed power hitter who should get a look in spring training before opening in the minors. Figures to shift this season to first base.
3. Danny Hultzen, LHP (25) The second overall pick in the 2011 draft appears fully healthy after missing last season while recovering from major shoulder surgery.
4. Carson Smith, RHP (25) Wowed club officials in nine scoreless September appearances and seems likely to win a spot in the big-league bullpen.
5. Ketel Marte, SS (21) Currently slotted behind Brad Miller and Chris Taylor in the organization’s shortstop depth chart. But it wouldn’t be a shock if he were starting in the big leagues in 2016.
6. Patrick Kivlehan, INF (25) A versatile player with an unconventional batting style that somehow works. Scouts love the way he peppers line drives.
7. Austin Wilson, OF (23) Still longer on potential than proven performance in part because of injuries. He missed time last year because of Achilles and elbow problems.
8. Gabby Guerrero, OF (21) His always-attack approach at the plate is, no surprise, reminiscent of his uncle, former MVP Vladimir Guerrero.
9. Edwin Diaz, RHP (21) Oozes potential because of an ability to command three pitches. If he adds some weight, he could easily pitch in the mid-90s.
10. Jordy Lara, OF/1B (23) Scouts are mixed on Lara, who put up big numbers last season (primarily) at the High-A High Desert launching pad.
You can no longer tell the A’s without a scorecard. Quite a change from the team that won the American League West in 2012 and ‘13. A three-peat was expected last season, but the A’s crawled through the wild card door after owning the majors’ best record much of the summer. Their postseason lasted one game, a crushing loss to Kansas City despite holding a four-run lead in the eighth inning, so general manager Billy Beane changed the team’s complexion. Josh Donaldson, gone. Brandon Moss, gone. Jon Lester, gone. Jeff Samardzija, gone. Jed Lowrie, gone. Derek Norris, gone. Welcome Ben Zobrist and Tyler Clippard. That stunning Yoenis Cespedes trade on July 31 was a mere prelude to Beane’s laundry list of offseason moves, and some of the 2015 rotation and lineup will be occupied by a group of newcomers. As a result, the A’s are getting little love among prognosticators. Not that it matters to Beane, who relishes the underdog angle.
Lester and Samardzija made 27 combined starts with the A’s and produced a 2.82 ERA in 188.1 innings, and Jason Hammel, acquired in the Samardzija deal, made another 12 starts. They’ve dispersed, but not before making an impact on Sonny Gray, a 25-year-old from Vanderbilt who’s alone atop the rotation and entering his second full season after going 14–10 with a 3.08 ERA. Gray’s sidekick is lefty Scott Kazmir, who signed a two-year, $22 million contract and won 15 games in his first A’s season. From there, it’s the great unknown. Jesse Chavez had a sub-3.00 ERA through June but fell out of favor in July and was removed from the rotation in August. Lefty Drew Pomeranz, who forfeited his rotation spot in mid-June when he broke his hand punching a chair, is a candidate. Either way, the A’s need production from a newcomer or two from a list that includes Jesse Hahn (from the Padres in the Norris trade), Chris Bassitt (from the White Sox in the Samardzija trade), and Kendall Graveman and Sean Nolin (from the Blue Jays in the Donaldson trade). Help is on the way: Jarrod Parker and A.J. Griffin, who combined for 397 innings in 2013 but didn’t throw a pitch in 2014, are due to return from Tommy John surgery at midseason.
Unlike the rotation and lineup, the bullpen has several familiar faces. Sean Doolittle snatched the closer’s role in May (thanks for the memories, Jim Johnson), converted his first 10 save chances and hardly missed a beat — well, at least until his blown save in the Kansas City playoff game. Doolittle set an A’s record for saves by a lefty (22) after entering the season with three in his career. His 11.13 strikeout-to-walk ratio, tops among big-league relievers, was third best in A’s history. Setup man Luke Gregerson, who was last seen struggling in the KC playoff game after replacing Lester, is gone. To replace Gregerson, Beane acquired Tyler Clippard from the Nationals. Clippard joins fellow righties Ryan Cook and Dan Otero as well as lefties Eric O’Flaherty and Fernando Abad to make up the bulk of the relief corps. O’Flaherty was signed to a two-year deal coming off Tommy John surgery and made his A’s debut on Independence Day.
Zobrist brings versatility and steady production and figures to get the majority of his playing time at second. It’s uncertain who’ll play shortstop, though Marcus Semien (Samardzija deal) is a good bet. Beane says Semien, who can play multiple positions, is capable of 20-plus homers and will get a chance to play every day. Defensive-minded Eric Sogard, who prompts fans to rally around “nerd power,” hit .267 with a .346 on-base percentage in the second half after struggling at .186 in the first half. He will serve as the primary backup, as the other choices (Andy Parrino, Tyler Ladendorf) have minimal big-league experience.
The absences of Donaldson and Moss left big holes at the corners. For now, they’ll be filled by third baseman Brett Lawrie and first baseman Ike Davis, both of whom have issues. Lawrie hasn’t been able to stay healthy and peaked at 125 games in 2012. He hopes the grass surface at O.co Coliseum will do wonders for his body after he got banged up on Toronto’s artificial turf. Davis hasn’t been the same since hitting 32 homers for the 2012 Mets. The past two years, he homered a combined 20 times. As always, the A’s will mix and match across the diamond, so another newcomer, Billy Butler, will get time at first base. Rule 5 draftee Mark Canha played a lot of first and a little third in the minors.
When the A’s dealt Cespedes in July, they planned for a left-field platoon of Stephen Vogt and Jonny Gomes. That hardly lasted. Now the A’s need a solution. They’ve got Sam Fuld, but he hit just .209 in two stints with Oakland. They’ve got Craig Gentry, a plus defender and baserunner who batted .254, his lowest average in four years. Fuld and Gentry could platoon — Canha could be in the mix, too — and take turns filling in for valuable but oft-injured center fielder Coco Crisp. Right fielder Josh Reddick missed a lot of time again, thanks to a knee ailment, and hit 12 homers for the second straight year after pumping 32 in 2012. On the flip side, he was one of Oakland’s few productive hitters in the second half, batting .302 after July 22. Speedy Billy Burns, who stole 54 bases in 60 attempts before his September call-up, is a possible backup.
The A’s went from having the majors’ best catching depth late last season to lacking catchers, thanks to John Jaso’s latest concussion and nagging injuries to Norris and Vogt. On Aug. 24, the A’s obtained Geovany Soto, who started the playoff game but got hurt himself and left after two innings. Josh Phegley has replaced Norris as the right-handed-hitting complement in any platoon. The left-handed Vogt, whose foot injury turned him into a first baseman and corner outfielder, had offseason surgery and is expected to be ready for the season.
Manager Bob Melvin mixes and matches. He goes deep into his roster. So bench players get used a lot. That might be especially true with so many newcomers playing their way in and out of the lineup. Few players are locks for everyday jobs: Crisp, Reddick, Zobrist, Lawrie and Butler, whose three-year, $30 million contract was consummated before several core players were traded. That leaves a lot of folks vying for playing time, including Gentry, Fuld and Burns in the outfield, Davis, Sogard, Semien and Canha on the infield and Phegley and Vogt behind the plate. Butler should handle DH duties.
With a limited budget and decrepit ballpark, Beane conducts business differently from other GMs and often sells high. That was the case with the Donaldson trade, moving someone at his peak value for younger players who come on the cheap. The system creates financial flexibility, and A’s fans can only hope the latest trades pay off as well as Beane’s moves have historically. Meantime, they’ll continue second-guessing.
It’s a redesign. The A’s went for it in 2014, trading Cespedes for Lester and trading two elite prospects (including Addison Russell, their former shortstop of the future) for Samardzija and Hammel. But once the Royals eliminated the A’s, Beane quickly went to work. Instead of putting all the focus on 2015, it’s about succeeding the next three years or so. The A’s might take some lumps in the short term, but Beane believes long-term health is achievable with periodic makeovers, and this certainly was that.
2015 Prediction: 5th in AL West
CF Coco Crisp (S) Batting average and SLG were lowest in his five A’s seasons, but had 66 walks to boost OBP to .336.
2B Ben Zobrist (S) One of three players (Andrew McCutchen, Hanley Ramirez) with double-digit HRs, SBs every year since ’09.
DH Billy Butler (R) Helps fill the right-handed power void left by Yoenis Cespedes and Josh Donaldson.
RF Josh Reddick (L) Struggles against lefties but hit .280 with all 12 of his homers and 46 of his 54 RBIs against righties.
3B Brett Lawrie (R) Replacing Donaldson at third base is a lot to ask. A’s hope he can finally enjoy an injury-free season.
1B Ike Davis (L) His stock has plummeted, but A’s still believe he has upside.
SS Marcus Semien (R) Could be answer as Jed Lowrie’s replacement though he has started just four big-league games at short.
LF Sam Fuld (L) Valuable on defense and on basepaths but batted .209 in two stints with the A’s.
C/1B Stephen Vogt (L) Started at four positions in the field but limited to eight starts at catcher because of foot injury.
OF Craig Gentry (R) No power but plenty of speed: Stole 20 of 22 bags, and 14 of the steals came with a lefty on the mound.
INF Andy Parrino (S) Fine defender who can play three infield positions but batted just .152 in three Oakland stints.
C Josh Phegley (R) Replaces Derek Norris as right-handed-hitting platoon catcher.
2B Eric Sogard (L) Management tried to replace him before trade deadline; one of few offensive bright spots in second half.
RH Sonny Gray Undisputed ace won 14 games with a 3.08 ERA in first full season; led staff in starts, innings and strikeouts.
LH Scott Kazmir Tale of two halves: 9–2 with a 2.08 ERA his first 15 starts but 6–7 with a 5.00 ERA his final 17.
RH Jesse Chavez Moved to rotation after six seasons in the bullpen, enjoyed career year even though he returned to relieving.
RH Jesse Hahn Went 7–4 with a 3.07 ERA as a Padres rookie, a big enough sample size to pique Oakland’s interest.
RH Chris Bassitt Made five starts for White Sox in 2014, one against the A’s in which he surrendered one run in six innings.
LH Sean Doolittle (Closer) Solidified closer’s role after Jim Johnson lost the gig, and batters posted a .197 OBP against him.
RH Tyler Clippard Two-time All-Star with wipe-out stuff would be hands-down closer on most other teams.
RH Ryan Cook Hopes for bounce-back year after an inconsistent season (too many walks) caused in part by arm injuries.
RH Dan Otero His 86.2 innings were most by an A’s reliever since Justin Duchscherer’s 96.1 in 2004.
LH Eric O’Flaherty Returned from Tommy John surgery July 4 and produced a 2.25 ERA in 21 games.
LH Fernando Abad Emerged as lefty setup man after Doolittle became the closer.
LH Drew Pomeranz Succeeded in both roles: 1.62 ERA in 10 relief appearances, 2.58 ERA in 10 starts.
Beyond the Box Score
Diminished returns Of Oakland’s six All-Stars — eight if you count Jeff Samardzija, who arrived shortly before the All-Star break, and Jon Lester, who arrived from Boston after the break — only two were still with the A’s as of Jan. 1: Sean Doolittle and Scott Kazmir.
Statistical oddity In 38 plate appearances with the White Sox, Josh Phegley had a higher batting average (.216) than on-base percentage (.211). How so? He drew zero walks and got hit by zero pitches. But he hit one sacrifice fly, which counts against OBP but not average. Billy Beane, of all people, had a higher average than OBP in his final season as a player.
College rivals The A’s lost Jed Lowrie and are down to one Stanford product, Sam Fuld. He’ll be outnumbered in spring training by two former Cal players, Marcus Semien and Mark Canha. Three if you count manager Bob Melvin.
Switch pitcher The whole world loves an ambidextrous pitcher, and that’s righty/lefty Pat Venditte, 29, who was signed to a minor league contract with an invite to big-league camp. His ERA is 2.46 ERA in seven seasons, most recently in the Yankees system, and he’ll throw with whichever arm he thinks will benefit him. Hey, it’s the new Moneyball.
The collapse On Aug. 9, the A’s were a majors-best 28 games above .500 and had a four-game lead in the AL West and 11-game lead over the third-place team in the wild card race. They went 16–30 the rest of the way, finishing 10 games behind the first-place Angels and one game ahead of Seattle for the final wild card.
Adoring child Perhaps no one took Brett Lawrie’s departure from Toronto harder than a 6-year-old named Amelia, whose crying outburst over his trade to the A’s was captured on video and went viral. Lawrie saw it, visited the girl, took her out for pizza and posed for pictures that he posted on his Twitter account.
Still here When the A’s signed Yoenis Cespedes, they promoted Ariel Prieto to be an extra coach and interpreter for the Cuban outfielder. With Cespedes gone, the A’s assigned Prieto to their rookie league team to work with pitchers. He’ll also help coordinate the team’s operations in the Dominican Republic.
2014 Top Draft Pick
Matt Chapman, 3B
When Chapman worked out with the A’s shortly after receiving a $1.75 million bonus as the 25th overall pick, his arm stood out. “He’s got a cannon. I don’t want to take groundballs with him and have him show me up,” quipped All-Star third baseman Josh Donaldson. Chapman’s arm is so strong that the former Cal State Fullerton star actually pitched out of the bullpen for Team USA, but he’s strictly a position player with the A’s, whose director of scouting, Eric Kubota, says he sees a little Donaldson in Chapman: “When I sit back and dream, that’s kind of what we envision three, four, five years down the road.”
Top 10 Prospects
1. Matt Olson, 1B (21) Bat is easily his best tool. He collected 37 homers and 97 RBIs at Stockton, and the A’s love his OBP: .404, thanks to 117 walks.
2. Kendall Graveman ,RHP (24) Made a quick rise through the Blue Jays’ system last season, going from A-ball all the way to the majors.
3. Raul Alcantara, RHP (22) He was the A’s top pitching prospect before undergoing Tommy John surgery. In 2013, he had a 3.11 ERA and 1.158 WHIP.
4. Renato Nunez, 3B (20) Part of Stockton’s all-prospect infield, Nunez collected 29 homers and 96 RBIs. It would help if he improved his plate discipline. He struck out 113 times, walked 34 times.
5. Matt Chapman, 3B (21) In three minor league stops in his first pro season, including one game at Double-A, Chapman hit .246 with a .291 on-base percentage, five homers and 20 RBIs.
6. Chris Bassitt, RHP (26) Has a 2.97 ERA in the minors, got his first taste of the bigs last season (with the White Sox) and has a chance to slip into the back end of the A’s season-opening rotation.
7. Franklin Barreto, SS (19) Venezuelan is showing maturity on both defense and offense, thanks to quick hands and a powerful, yet short, build.
8. Mark Canha, 1B/3B/LF (26) Acquired from the Rockies, who took him from the Marlins in the Rule 5 draft. If he doesn’t stick in the majors all season, he must be offered back to Miami.
9. Joe Wendle, 2B (24) Acquired from Cleveland in the Brandon Moss trade, Wendle is expected to open the season in Triple-A and projects as an everyday player in the majors.
10. Sean Nolin, LHP (25) Part of the Josh Donaldson trade with Toronto, has a 27.00 ERA in 2.1 innings in the majors.
Michigan enters spring practice with question marks on both sides of the ball, but that’s not the main storyline in Ann Arbor. The return of Jim Harbaugh to the Maize and Blue has the Wolverines back on the rise in the Big Ten. Harbaugh has been a successful coach at each of his three stops, including a 29-21 mark at Stanford. Needless to say, it won’t be long before Harbaugh has Michigan back into Big Ten title contention.
What’s ahead for the Wolverines in Harbaugh’s first spring practices? I asked Joshua Henschke (@JoshuaHenschke) of MaizenBrew.com to help us preview Michigan and answer some of the key questions and storylines to watch.
1. What’s a realistic goal for Michigan in Jim Harbaugh’s first season? There’s no doubt Harbaugh is one of the best coaches in the Big Ten, but does he have the talent to produce a three or four-game improvement in the win column in 2015?
I think the best, and most realistic, goal for Jim Harbaugh this season is to show that this team has a pulse. The talent is certainly there, but there were obvious developmental issues that plagued the team under former head coach Brady Hoke. I think it's a bit unrealistic for Michigan to compete amongst the cream of the Big Ten crop right away, but an eight- or nine-win season is certainly not out of the picture. The home schedule is favorable, which includes both Michigan State and Ohio State at home, and Notre Dame is no longer on the schedule. The opportunity to make some noise is there, but the true question is whether it can all come together in such a short amount of time.
2. Shane Morris is the team’s most experienced quarterback heading into spring practice, but how secure is his lead for the No. 1 job? Out of the inexperienced options – Alex Malzone, Zach Gentry and Wilton Speight – which one is the biggest threat to Morris?
Logic says that Speight would be the biggest threat to Morris due to him being a returning player ready to play after a redshirt year. Granted that every quarterback will get a fresh start by having to learn a new offensive scheme, at face value it seems like its Morris' job to lose. However, and this is my own darkhorse pick, don't count out Malzone the true freshman, either. From all accounts, he has been impressing coaches so far and will have the winter and spring under his belt due to him being an early enrollee. These spring practices will be very valuable to the young quarterback. No matter which way it goes, it'll be an interesting decision to keep an eye on.
3. With the loss of receiver Devin Funchess, and the uncertainty at running back, the skill positions will be two areas of intrigue this spring. Are there any players primed for a breakout year to replace Funchess at receiver? What type of impact can USC transfer Ty Isaac have at running back?
Michigan returns a couple familiar faces to their wide receiver group this season. Funchess didn't do much last season statistically, so there's certainly a chance for someone to step in and see some passes thrown his way. Someone that comes to mind immediately is redshirt freshman Moe Ways. A local guy out of Detroit Country Day high school, I was always a fan of his highlight tape coming out of high school. With the path in front of him a bit packed last season, Funchess' loss means that Ways could certainly get an opportunity to see major playing time in 2015.
As far as the running backs go, it would not be a surprise if Isaac is named the starter. With his redshirt year due to NCAA transfer rules, he has put on weight and weighs about 240 pounds, which is great for a running back his size. He is a former five-star recruit in high school so he definitely has a high ceiling. Of course, you have the original crew of Derrick Green who is returning from a broken clavicle, De'Veon Smith and Drake Johnson who is recovering from a second torn ACL. The returning players haven't exactly lived up to the hype, but Green was performing much better in the games leading up to his injury. I think there will be a healthy mix of running backs that will be used this season. However, Michigan is certainly looking for "the guy" to carry the load, something it hasn't seen since the days of Mike Hart.
4. Lost in the offensive troubles was a defense that allowed just 4.8 yards per play in 2014. Can this unit be as effective (or better) in 2015?
There's plenty of reasons to be hopeful about the defense, mainly due to the fact that it returns most of its starters from a year ago. The obvious big loss is linebacker Jake Ryan, but a guy like Joe Bolden or Ben Gedeon should fill that role and do well there. If new defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin is all that he is hyped up to be, there's certainly a chance for Michigan's defense to be much better than what it was a year ago. The younger players have experience, it returns a healthy Jabrill Peppers and I believe the moves Harbaugh has made on the defensive side of the ball will have an excellent impact.
5. What type of impact will a healthy Jabrill Peppers have in Michigan’s secondary? Does he fit in at cornerback or safety in coordinator D.J. Durkin’s scheme?
I kind of touched on it a little bit in my previous answer, but having a healthy player like Peppers back is huge for Michigan. Durkin has told reporters that he plans on using Peppers at both cornerback and safety. I still believe we will see him mainly at safety because the needs for him at that spot far outweigh the needs at corner. Having him back adds another element to the Michigan defense. I can recall last spring and the little he played last season just how much of a better player he was compared to the rest of the Michigan defense. That's not an insult to the rest of the players, but he's just that talented. Now, it's time to see that unfold on the field.
- Follow @MaizenBrew for the latest news and analysis on Michigan for the 2015 season.
Athlon Sports Pre-Spring Outlook on Michigan:
There’s no doubt Michigan is going show improvement in 2015. Harbaugh is one of the nation’s top-10 coaches, and the Wolverines will get back to the postseason. How high this team can climb in the standings depends on the development of the quarterback position, as well the continued improvement from the offensive line and skill players. The defense has a few holes, but this unit should be among the best in the Big Ten. Ohio State and Michigan State should be picked higher in the West Division, but after the Buckeyes and Spartans, there’s an opportunity for Michigan to claim the No. 3 spot and build to an even better 2016.
They’re the cream of the major championship crop, circa 2015 — the Athlon Major Championship Dream Team. Leading up to The Masters, we'll be unveiling Athlon Sports’ 30 players to watch for majors season, with commentary on each from the Golf Channel’s Brandel Chamblee.
No. 24: Brooks Koepka
Born: May 3, 1990, West Palm Beach, Fla. | Career PGA Tour Wins: 1 (1 on European Tour) | 2014 Wins (Worldwide): 1 | 2014 Earnings (PGA Tour): $1,043.115 (98th) | World Ranking: 19
Brandel Chamblee's Take
Koepka earned his first Masters invitation with his play in 2014, finishing fourth in the U.S. Open and climbing the world rankings. Of all the new faces at Augusta, none will have a better chance of becoming just the fourth first-time competitor to win in Masters history. He has the power of Bubba Watson, the bravado of youth, a great wedge game and the experience of having played the European Tour, where he won in Turkey late last year. Participation on the European Tour is rare for a player from the U.S., and the experience of the unpredictable conditions and courses on that tour could serve him well in his career. The uniformity of courses and conditions on the PGA Tour leads to a certain illiteracy among young professionals that keeps them from connecting the dots to their dreams.
Major Championship Résumé
Masters - DNP
U.S. Open - T4
British Open - T67
PGA Championship - T15
Best Career Finishes:
Masters - n/a
U.S. Open - T4 (2014)
British Open - T67 (2014)
PGA Championship - T15 (2014)
Top-10 Finishes: 1
Top-25 Finishes: 2
Missed Cuts: 2
Athlon's 2015 Golf annual provides in-depth previews of this year's four majors, including the top 30 players to watch this season. One of these elite players, Billy Horschel, also takes you tee to green with full-swing instruction and short game essentials. BUY IT NOW.
The Chicago Blackhawks' What’s Your Goal? campaign made one little girl’s dreams come true. The girl named Cammy, who was born unable to walk or speak, has a love for hockey. Her “goal” was to score a goal with the help of her favorite player, star defenseman Duncan Keith.
Get ready to break out the tissues.
The investments took a bit longer to pay off than expected, but the Angels finally justified the free-agent expenditures of recent winters and returned to the playoffs in 2014. They announced their return to championship contention with unexpected authority, riding Mike Trout’s first MVP season to the best record in baseball (98–64) despite the devastating late-season loss of emerging star Garrett Richards to a knee injury.
A disappointing first-round playoff flop against Kansas City took the shine off the Angels’ season. The concern now is whether those big-money investments in declining stars Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton and one of the most fallow farm systems in baseball threaten to slam the window shut in the next few years. Trout offers a franchise cornerstone, and GM Jerry Dipoto has tried to keep the window open by retooling the pitching staff with younger, affordable arms.
Nothing is more valuable in baseball than young, cost-controlled pitching. Dipoto has collected enough of it behind veterans Jered Weaver and C.J. Wilson that a rotation that was once a problem area could grow into a strength in the next few years. Much of that hinges on the two young righthanders who emerged in 2014 — Richards and Matt Shoemaker. The hard-throwing Richards looks like a future ace. He went 13–4 with a 2.61 ERA and 1.04 WHIP in 26 starts before a torn patellar tendon in his left knee ended his season in late August. Richards, 26, might not be ready to go at the start of the 2015 season but is expected to make a full recovery. Shoemaker, meanwhile, was one of the most pleasant surprises in recent memory for the Angels. He rose through the Angels’ system with barely a ripple on the prospect watch lists then stepped into the Angels’ depleted rotation last year, going 16–4 with a 3.04 ERA. With little else coming from within, Dipoto has managed to pluck young starters off the trade market each of the past two offseasons. He added lefthanders Tyler Skaggs and Hector Santiago to the rotation mix a year ago. Skaggs is likely to miss all of 2015 while recovering from Tommy John surgery. This past winter, Dipoto made two more trades for another pair of young pitchers with upsides — righthander Nick Tropeano from the Astros (in a deal for catcher Hank Conger) and lefthander Andrew Heaney (in a deal for second baseman Howie Kendrick). Tropeano and Heaney will compete for a spot in the back of the rotation with the potential to move up.
Dipoto did a remarkable job last year rebuilding the Angels’ bullpen on the fly. Gone from the 2014 pen are Ernesto Frieri, Kevin Jepsen, Michael Kohn and Scott Downs, not to mention failed free-agent pickups Sean Burnett and Ryan Madson. In their place is a more reliable group led by closer Huston Street (acquired from the Padres last July) and setup man Joe Smith (signed as a free agent) with options like Fernando Salas (acquired in a trade with the Cardinals), veteran Vinnie Pestano (another trade pickup), Mike Morin, lefthander Cesar Ramos and former first-round draft picks Cam Bedrosian and Cory Rasmus.
For the first time since 2007, Kendrick and Erick Aybar will not be the Angels’ men in the middle infield. Aybar remains a defensive anchor at shortstop and complementary piece of the Angels’ offense. The 31-year-old has never turned into the top-of-the-order performer his speed would imply, due to a lagging on-base percentage. But manager Mike Scioscia has used him all around the lineup, and Aybar knocked in a respectable 68 runs in 2014. But the deal for Heaney cost the Angels Kendrick and leaves them looking for Josh Rutledge (acquired from the Rockies), Johnny Giavotella (acquired in a trade with the Royals) and/or Grant Green (a former first-round pick whose luster dimmed in the A’s organization) to fill what could be a significant void.
It’s a measure of how far the three-time NL MVP has sunk that last year was considered a bounce-back year for Pujols. The Angels knew they would be getting the worst years of his Hall of Fame career when they signed him as a free agent three winters ago. But they probably didn’t realize they would be getting them at the front end of his massive, 10-year contract. Pujols turned 35 in January, and the Angels are faced with paying him another $189 million as he continues to age — and most likely not age well — over the next seven seasons. His legs were healthier in 2014 and his numbers improved over the previous season. Still, his .272 average and .790 OPS were far cries from the numbers that made him the best hitter in baseball during the 11 years he spent in St. Louis. Across the diamond, the Angels will cross their fingers and hope for better from third baseman David Freese, who continues to decline from his 2011 World Series MVP and 2012 All-Star peak.
After two years as runner-up, Trout won the AL MVP award for the first time in 2014 — with a season that was the worst of his first three. His average dropped nearly 40 points (to .287), his OPS nearly 50 (.939), and he led the American League with a troubling 184 strikeouts. Nonetheless, his status as the best player in the game at age 23 is almost universally accepted. When he disappeared in the ALDS against the Royals (1-for-12), so did the Angels. On one side of Trout, left fielder Kole Calhoun emerged as a catalyst in 2014, batting .272 and scoring 90 runs in just 127 games. On the other, the mystery of Hamilton’s disappearance remains unsolved. In two years with the Angels, Hamilton has looked lost, batting .255 with only 31 home runs and 123 RBIs. And Hamilton’s woes don’t stop there. Not only is he recovering from shoulder surgery in February, he could be facing discipline from MLB due to a reported relapse involving substance abuse.
It is not easy satisfying Scioscia’s defensive demands of his catchers and still contributing offensively. Chris Iannetta has done it as well as anyone since Bengie Molina left town. His .252 average and seven home runs in 2014 don’t sound like much. But his .373 on-base percentage is critical to turning over a lineup. Backing him up this year will be veteran Drew Butera, who offers little offensively or defensively. But the Angels gave up on Conger, shipping him to Houston in the deal for Tropeano that also brought Carlos Perez (the Angels’ new catcher of the future).
When Dipoto acquired Matt Joyce from the Rays in December, he proclaimed him the Angels’ primary DH for 2015 — a label that should be slapped on Pujols soon. C.J. Cron figures to be a right-handed complement at DH and first-base relief for Pujols. He offers more offensive upside than Joyce and provides hope for an infusion of youth to the every-day lineup in the near future. Joyce and Collin Cowgill will see more time in left field, depending on Hamilton’s timetable for his return.
Following a disappointing 2013 season, both Dipoto and Scioscia had little job security with impatient owner Arte Moreno, and there was talk of a lack of shared vision between the two. However, Dipoto and Scioscia have developed a better working relationship, the coaching staff was rebuilt, and Moreno seems to have stepped back, allowing Dipoto more of a free hand to make over the roster. A successful 2014 has reinforced the wisdom of that structure.
Their first-round playoff sweep at the hands of the Royals was disturbing. But the Angels returned to prominence in 2014 with their sixth division title in the past 11 years. They are once again the best in the AL West and should stay that way for some time if the young pitchers acquired over the past two years can be supplemented by a reborn farm system.
2015 Prediction: 1st in AL West
LF Kole Calhoun (L) Had a .281 average and .336 on-base percentage after settling in to the leadoff spot at the start of June.
SS Erick Aybar (S) Did his best work lower in the lineup last year, but Angels might try this again in order to bat Trout third.
CF Mike Trout (R) Trout, Mickey Mantle only two to have finished MVP runner-up in consecutive seasons, won it in the third.
1B Albert Pujols (R) Managed to drive in 105 runs last year despite a career-low .256 average with runners in scoring position.
RF Josh Hamilton (L) Angels led baseball with 773 runs in 2014. Imagine what the offense could do with 2012 vintage Hamilton.
3B David Freese (R) With Howie Kendrick gone, the Angels will look to Freese to turn around a three-year slide.
DH Matt Joyce (L) The DH spot figures to be a revolving door with Joyce getting most of the at-bats.
C Chris Iannetta (R) His batting average (.252) and OPS (.765) last season were the best of his three years with the Angels.
2B Josh Rutledge (R) Lost the starting 2B job in Colorado in 2013 but should get another chance to be an every-day player.
C Drew Butera (R) Made strong case as worst hitter in NL last year — .188 average, more strikeouts (41) than base hits (32).
1B C.J. Cron (R) 8 HRs in first 40 games last year were followed by .216 average from July on.
INF Grant Green (R) Opportunity for 13th player taken in 2009 draft to show why he was so highly regarded coming out of USC.
OF Collin Cowgill (R) Fractured his right thumb and nose on the same play in mid-July when he was hit in the face by a pitch.
1B/OF Marc Krauss (L) Waiver pickup was Jerry Dipoto’s second-round draft pick as GM in Arizona five years ago.
RH Jered Weaver Has been a constant at the front of the Angels’ rotation for almost a decade.
RH Garrett Richards Torn patellar tendon in late August ended his breakout season, but power stuff points to bright future.
RH Matt Shoemaker Strikeout-to-walk ratio of 5.17 was seventh-best in the American League
LH C.J. Wilson Down year ended with a dismal showing in the ALDS against the Royals when he lasted only six batters.
LH Andrew Heaney Ninth overall pick in 2012 was the 18th-ranked prospect in baseball last year, according to MLB.com.
RH Huston Street (Closer) Converted 17 of 19 save situations after trade from Padres.
RH Joe Smith Set or tied career-bests in ERA (1.81), wins (seven), innings (74.2) and strikeouts (68).
RH Fernando Salas Held lefties to .188 average, .510 OPS in 2014 — very valuable in a bullpen that leaned to the right.
RH Vinnie Pestano Nearly unhittable after the Angels acquired him in August — five hits and 13 strikeouts in 12 appearances.
LH Cesar Ramos Was a college teammate of Jered Weaver and former Angels pitcher Jason Vargas at Long Beach State.
RH Mike Morin Is there such a thing as a righty specialist? Held right-handers to a .181 average last season, lefties hit .283.
Beyond the Box Score
The babysitter Josh Hamilton’s well-chronicled troubles with drug addiction led the Texas Rangers to hire an “accountability coach” to help Hamilton stay clean during his days with the Rangers. Johnny Narron served in that role for Hamilton’s first four years in Texas before moving on to become hitting coach with the Milwaukee Brewers. Shayne Kelley was Hamilton’s “accountability coach” during his last season in Texas (2012) and first season in Anaheim. Hamilton lacked that support in 2014, but Narron is now back in the same organization with him. The Angels hired Narron as the hitting coach at Triple-A Salt Lake for 2015.
Tough break Of all the injuries suffered on major league fields in 2014, none was more bizarre than the fractured right femur suffered by Angels hitting coach Don Baylor before the home opener at Angel Stadium on March 31. Baylor went into a crouch to receive a ceremonial first pitch from Vladimir Guerrero. Baylor’s leg snapped as he tried to handle Guerrero’s pitch and rise from his crouch. In 2003, Baylor was diagnosed with Multiple Myeloma, a cancer that weakens the bones. He returned to the Angels in midseason.
The right Carlos When the Angels traded catcher Hank Conger to the Houston Astros, they got right-handed pitcher Nick Tropeano and a catching prospect named Carlos Perez in return. But they had better make sure they got the Carlos Perez they really wanted. Perez, 24, played at Triple-A Oklahoma City last year. But he has a younger brother, also named Carlos Perez, who is a catcher in the Chicago White Sox system — and an older brother, also named Carlos Perez, who was a catcher in the Chicago Cubs system.
Stadium talk On the eve of the Angels’ Division Series against the Kansas City Royals, owner Arte Moreno broke off talks with the city of Anaheim over a new stadium lease. An Angels spokesman says the team has not eliminated Anaheim as its long-term home but is exploring “all of our options.” That apparently includes the nearby city of Tustin. Tustin officials have had numerous meetings with team officials. The Angels can opt out of their current lease as soon as 2016 with a three-year window to make that decision.
2014 Top Draft Pick
Sean Newcomb, LHP
The Angels had a first-round pick for the first time since 2011 and grabbed Newcomb out of the University of Hartford with the 15th pick. Newcomb, 21, immediately shot to the top of the Angels’ prospect list in a system ranked last by most evaluators. The sturdy lefthander (6’5”, 240) is expected to justify that ranking with a fastball that touches 98 mph and a pitch mix scouts have compared to Jon Lester’s. Newcomb’s pro debut consisted of a combined six starts at the Arizona Rookie League and Low-A. He went 0–1 with a combined 6.14 ERA but struck out 18 and walked only six in 14.2 innings. He is expected to move quickly through a depleted farm system.
Top 10 Prospects
1. Andrew Heaney, LHP (23) Cost the Angels their second baseman (Howie Kendrick) in a trade, so look for him to spend the summer in the Angels’ starting rotation.
2. Sean Newcomb, LHP (21) Was the highest draft pick out of the University of Hartford since Jeff Bagwell was taken by the Red Sox in the fourth round of the 1989 draft.
3. Nick Tropeano, RHP (24) Had a 4.57 ERA in four big-league starts for the Astros last season and could open 2015 in the Angels’ rotation with Garrett Richards and Tyler Skaggs injured.
4. Ricardo Sanchez, LHP (17) Top international talent out of Venezuela signed for $580,000 and made his pro debut in the Arizona Summer League just two months after his 17th birthday.
5. Cam Bedrosian, RHP (23) The only one of the Angels’ three first-round picks in 2010 to be heard from since, Bedrosian touched the big leagues last year and could be back at some point in 2015.
6. Alex Yarbrough, 2B (23) A natural hitter, Yarbrough was the Texas League MVP in 2014 and led the Double-A league in hits (155) and doubles (38) while finishing second in RBIs (77).
7. Carlos Perez, C (24) With his third organization after trades from Toronto to Houston to the Angels, but future could be bright with Chris Iannetta headed to free agency next winter.
8. Victor Alcantara, RHP (21) Tamed control issues in Low-A enough last summer to earn a trip to the All-Star Futures Game in Minnesota.
9. Chris Ellis, RHP (22) Helped pitch Ole Miss to the College World Series last year, then taken in third round by the Angels.
10. Joe Gatto, RHP (19) It took a $1.2 million signing bonus to convince him to pass up on his commitment to the University of North Carolina.
The Houston Rockets’ general manager is more outspoken — and more well-known — than most men of his profession. A contrarian innovator with a mouth to make you know about it, he’s already inspired the ire of Charles Barkley this season.
Now, Golden State Warriors head coach Steve Kerr has some choice words for Morey. In reference to the Rockets’ somewhat relentless organizational campaign for James Harden’s MVP consideration, Kerr recently said "I don't think it's our job to promote it,” to reporters after a Golden State practice.
“We're trying to win games,” Kerr went on. “We've got a lot of work to do. So, if Daryl Morey wants to run his own one-man campaign for James Harden, he can do that. That's fine. But we're focused on other stuff.”
Kerr was responding to questions of whether he or the Warriors would embark on a similar sort of platform, in the name of Steph Curry’s MVP viability. Obviously, Curry’s coach believes such campaigning is for the birds.
What really brings the anvil down, though, is what’s happened on the court between these teams. It’s tempting to call the bad blood between Houston and Golden State a rivalry, but it’s a been a one-sided one so far, to say the least. Kerr’s Warriors have won all four contests against the Rockets this season, with a cushy double-digit margin in each of them.
On January 17, the Warriors trounced Houston, 131-106, in Texas. Curry dropped the cherry atop the blowout sundae with this outrageously skillful pass toward the end of the contest:
The Rockets, in their defense, were without Dwight Howard for two of those games, and have been for about half of the season. But there’s no denying that Golden State holds their kryptonite.
— John Wilmes
What does the trophy case look like for one of the most accomplished college football players of the last few years?
Digital journalists Matt Walks and Carli Krueger visualized such a trophy case for former Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota, who won a Heisman trophy, two Pac-12 titles and more in his three seasons as a starter.
“He’s bound for the NFL now, but Carli and I wanted to pay him a farewell tribute by imagining what his theoretical trophy case might look like,” Walks writes. “One of us graduated from Oregon and the other lives there, so even though he’s gone, we’re not about to forget Mariota’s legacy or accomplishments.”
The trophy case is pretty impressive. Walks breaks down each award in the case here.
College football’s 2015 season doesn’t officially start until September, but the national championship race is already underway with the start of spring practice. Offseason workouts aren’t necessarily going to provide the best answers to any preseason concerns, especially as most freshmen won’t arrive on campus until the summer.
However, spring practice is the first glimpse of how teams are handling personnel or scheme changes and which players are ready to emerge in 2015. Every team in the FBS ranks has an intriguing storyline to watch in spring ball. Let’s take a look at the top 10 across the landscape, as well as a few others to keep on the radar over the next several weeks.
College Football's 10 Biggest Storylines to Watch in Spring Practice
1. Alabama’s Rebuilding Effort on Offense
Talent certainly isn’t an issue at Alabama. The Crimson Tide has claimed each of the last five recruiting championships, but there’s a lot of work ahead for coach Nick Saban this spring if Alabama wants to win the 2015 national title on the field. The defense has holes in the secondary and needs to limit the big plays allowed by opposing passing offenses. However, the biggest concern in Tuscaloosa this spring has to be what transpires on offense. Is Florida State transfer Jake Coker ready to claim the starting quarterback job? Or will a freshman – Blake Barnett or David Cornwell – earn the nod under center? Additionally, Alabama needs Kenyan Drake to return at full strength at running back, replace its top three receivers - including standout Amari Cooper - and rebuild an offensive line that returns just two starters.
2. Ohio State’s Small Offseason To-Do List
Repeating as a national champion in college football is hard. Only one team (Alabama) since the start of the BCS era has been able to go back-to-back. Ohio State enters 2015 as a clear favorite for the No. 1 ranking. Fourteen starters are back for coach Urban Meyer, and this team has only a few glaring concerns. The quarterback battle will garner most of the preseason attention, but Braxton Miller and J.T. Barrett are on the mend from injuries. Cardale Jones has a chance to increase his hold on the No. 1 spot – at least until fall practice starts. Outside of the quarterback battle, Ohio State needs to bolster its options at receiver and find replacements for defensive standouts Michael Bennett (DT) and Doran Grant (CB).
3. TCU and Baylor Battle for Control of the Big 12
The debate over TCU and Baylor will continue into the 2015 season. The Horned Frogs and Bears are the front-runners for the top spot in the Big 12 next year, and both teams should be in the mix for a playoff berth. But which team is the favorite to win the Big 12? Perhaps this spring will provide some clarity to the personnel issues surrounding both teams. TCU has to rebuild its back seven after the departures of linebacker Paul Dawson and Marcus Mallet, along with defensive backs Kevin White (CB), Sam Carter (S) and Chris Hackett (S). The Bears must replace quarterback Bryce Petty and linebacker Bryce Hager. Which team can fill its personnel concerns this offseason?
4. Auburn’s Defense
Even though Auburn played for the national championship at the end of the 2013 season, defense has been a weak point for this team over the last two years. The Tigers gave up 6.4 yards per play in SEC action last season, but the addition of Will Muschamp as the new defensive signal-caller provides plenty of optimism for this unit. In addition to Muschamp’s arrival, getting defensive end Carl Lawson back in the mix is a boost to the pass rush. How much improvement can Muschamp coax out of Auburn’s defense this spring?
5. Texas A&M’s Defense Under John Chavis
Defense has been Texas A&M’s biggest weakness since joining the SEC in 2012. The Aggies have allowed over six yards per play in conference games in two out of the last three seasons. However, coach Kevin Sumlin is taking steps to fix this unit. Former LSU coordinator (and arguably one of the top defensive minds in college football) John Chavis was hired this offseason to lead the Aggies’ defense. Chavis inherits a unit that needs a lot of work, but there’s also a lot of promising talent.
6. Jim Harbaugh’s Return to Michigan
After a 20-18 record over the last three years under Brady Hoke, Michigan needed to hit a home run with its coaching hire. The Wolverines did exactly that, luring former Wolverine quarterback Jim Harbaugh from the NFL to hopefully lead the program back to national promience. Harbaugh is a proven winner on the collegiate and NFL level, and his arrival in Ann Arbor should at least help Michigan return to a bowl in 2015. Harbaugh’s first spring leading the Wolverines has plenty of intrigue and personnel concerns. Michigan needs to find a quarterback and develop its skill talent, while a young offensive line is looking to take the next step in its progression. Harbaugh won’t answer all of his personnel concerns in 2015. However, there’s no doubt this team will be better next season.
7. Question Marks at Oregon
Oregon coach Mark Helfrich has won 24 games over the last two seasons, but this spring might be the toughest period of his tenure. With quarterback Marcus Mariota, left tackle Jake Fisher, center Hroniss Grasu, cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, end Arik Armstead and a couple of other key contributors from the Ducks’ national championship runner-up team, Helfrich and this coaching staff have more holes to fill on the roster than the last two offseasons. Expected starting quarterback (and Eastern Washington transfer) Vernon Adams won’t arrive until the summer, which means the battle for the No. 1 job will continue into fall practice. Only five starters return from a defense ranked last in the Pac-12 on third-down stops and 10th in the league against the run. The Ducks should be the favorite in the Pac-12 North, but this team needs a productive spring to be considered a preseason national title contender.
8. Quarterback Battles
In Athlon’s pre-spring top 25 for 2015, seven of the top 10 teams enter offseason workouts with some uncertainty at quarterback. Ohio State has three Heisman candidates vying for snaps, while Baylor should be able to plug Seth Russell into Bryce Petty’s spot and keep the offense performing at a high level. Auburn’s offense is in good hands with Jeremy Johnson, but this is his first spring as the starter. Jobs at Georgia, Florida State, Oregon, Alabama, Notre Dame, LSU, UCLA and Ole Miss are up for grabs. Will a front-runner emerge in spring practice?
9. Oklahoma and Texas Searching for Answers
It’s rare to see Oklahoma and Texas both picked outside of the top three in a Big 12 preseason poll, but it could happen in 2015. The Longhorns finished 6-7 in coach Charlie Strong’s first season, and this team may need another recruiting class (or two) before it can challenge for the league title. The quarterback position will be under the spotlight this spring, as starter Tyrone Swoopes needs to develop or redshirt freshman Jerrod Heard will get an extended look under center. At Oklahoma, Bob Stoops revamped his coaching staff after a disappointing 8-5 season. New play-caller Lincoln Riley is an Air Raid disciple, but running back Samaje Perine is still the catalyst for the offense. While Perine should push for All-American honors in 2015, big questions remain about the supporting cast. Will Texas Tech transfer Baker Mayfield win the quarterback job? Who steps up on the offensive line? And on defense, the Sooners allowed nearly 30 points per game in conference action. Will this unit show improvement this spring? It’s a big offseason for both Oklahoma and Texas in the quest to get back to the top of the Big 12.
10. Florida State and Clemson…Simply Reloading?
Most pre-spring rankings have the projected ACC champion outside of the four projected playoff teams in 2015. But could that change by the fall? Florida State and Clemson have combined for just six losses over the last two seasons and could factor into the playoff mix if key replacements are found for departed personnel. This spring is the first opportunity for the Seminoles to replace quarterback Jameis Winston, four starters on the offensive line and address a defense that finished ninth in the ACC in points allowed. There are some similiarities between Florida State and Clemson this spring, as the Tigers need to restock a front seven that was decimated by departures, as well as rebuild the offensive line to protect sophomore quarterback Deshaun Watson. The first opportunity for Florida State and Clemson to reload – and get back into contention for the playoffs – starts this spring.
Other Storylines to Watch:
Boise State: Who steps up to replace running back Jay Ajayi?
BYU: How quick can quarterback Taysom Hill get back to 100 percent?
LSU: Will the offense develop any consistency in the passing game?
Miami: The question that seems to pop up every year (at least recently in Coral Gables): Is Miami ready to win the ACC Coastal? Defensive improvement would be a good place to start.
Notre Dame: Will Malik Zaire unseat Everett Golson for the No. 1 quarterback spot? Will the defense improve in coordinator Brian VanGorder’s second season?
Penn State: How far will the offensive line progress after allowing 44 sacks in 2014?
Stanford: The Cardinal defense is in need of major repair with only four returning starters. And is this the offseason that quarterback Kevin Hogan takes the next step in his development?
Tennessee: Are the Volunteers ready to challenge Georgia and Missouri in the SEC East next year? Let’s see how far the offensive line progresses in spring ball.
UCLA: Will true freshman Josh Rosen win the starting quarterback spot?
USC: Can the Trojans find a couple of receivers to replace standout Nelson Agholor?
Virginia Tech: Can the Hokies develop their offensive line and passing attack?
Wisconsin: Can new coach Paul Chryst help quarterback Joel Stave and an unsettled receiving corps develop after struggling last season?
You could argue that the Astros had nowhere to go but up in 2014. After all, they won just 51 games the year before and couldn’t afford another 100-loss season. But the Astros wound up making one of the biggest turnarounds in baseball last year, improving by 19 games and injecting some enthusiasm and promise into a franchise that sorely needed it.
The challenge now for the Astros under first-year manager A.J. Hinch is to take another giant leap forward and perhaps even flirt with a winning record. They addressed their biggest need by signing veteran relievers Pat Neshek and Luke Gregerson to bolster the back end of the bullpen, and they re-signed shortstop Jed Lowrie, who had spent the previous two seasons in Oakland after coming to the Astros in a trade prior to the 2012 season. The team also addressed their lineup by trading with the Braves for slugging catcher/outfielder Evan Gattis, signing free-agent outfielder Colby Rasmus, and acquiring third baseman Luis Valbuena along with pitcher Dan Straily from the Cubs for center fielder Dexter Fowler. Houston’s lineup still has a few holes, and the starting rotation could use another veteran arm to go along with Dallas Keuchel, Collin McHugh and Scott Feldman, but this team should be more competitive than it has been in years — especially if some of the highly touted youngsters, led by high-flying outfielder George Springer and slugging first baseman Jon Singleton, live up to their potential.
The pieces are slowly falling into place in Houston, where 100-loss seasons are in the rearview mirror and playoff contention could soon be on the horizon.
The Astros’ rotation lacks a true ace, though it has some depth. Keuchel emerged as one of the better lefthanders in the league last year, and righthander McHugh came out of nowhere and had a terrific rookie season. Then there’s Feldman, who pitched well when healthy and has stabilized the rotation. Keuchel and McHugh both had career years and will be asked to do it again. Keuchel went 12–9 with a 2.93 ERA in 29 starts, leading the team in wins, innings (200), complete games (five) and quality starts. McHugh, meanwhile, went 11–9 with a 2.73 ERA in 25 starts and finished fourth in AL Rookie of the Year voting. Lefty Brett Oberholtzer likely has the fourth spot in the rotation locked up, though he’ll have to pitch more consistently. The final spot in the rotation figures to be a free-for-all, but could end up going to Straily.
GM Jeff Luhnow set out in the winter to upgrade a bullpen that has blown 74 saves the past three seasons. He made a run at high-priced closers Andrew Miller and David Robertson and wound up with a pair of quality arms in veterans Gregerson and Neshek, who will combine with Chad Qualls in a formidable late-inning combo. Luhnow hinted that Gregerson would get his first chance to close games, but Qualls has quite a bit of closing experience, too. There is depth in the bullpen, with Josh Fields, who had periods last year when he was nearly unhittable, and lefthander Tony Sipp, who was a great pickup early in the season. Young lefty Kevin Chapman also returns, and the Astros picked up righthander Will Harris off waivers.
The Astros feel great about their middle infield with All-Star and 2014 MLB batting champion Jose Altuve at second base and newcomer Lowrie at shortstop. Altuve and Lowrie are familiar with each other, having played the entire 2012 season together in Houston, so there will be very little learning curve. Altuve isn’t headed for any Gold Gloves, but he’s an above-average fielder who isn’t fazed by his lack of size. And his incredible ability to put the bat on the ball — he hit .341 last year with a club-record 225 hits — puts him in the upper echelon of second basemen. Lowrie lacks range and arm strength, but he’s a steady hand when healthy and brings some veteran leadership the clubhouse was lacking.
The Astros had the majors’ worst output from the corner infield spots last year as third baseman Matt Dominguez regressed at the plate and rookie first baseman Singleton scuffled in his big-league debut. The Astros added Valbuena, who hit 16 home runs and posted an OBP of .341 with the Cubs last season. Valbuena figures to platoon with Dominguez if not replace him in the starting lineup. There’s plenty to like with the slugging Singleton, who hit 13 homers and had 44 RBIs in 95 games last year despite hitting just .168. He struck out a whopping 134 times in 310 at-bats, though, and was lost at the plate by season’s end. A contract extension was offered to Dominguez after he hit .241 with 21 homers and 77 RBIs in his first full season in the majors in 2013, but he slumped last year across the board.
Springer could blossom into a superstar in his first full season — assuming he remains healthy. He made his long-awaited debut last year and hit 20 homers and drove in 51 runs in just 78 games (he missed the final two-and-a-half months with a quad injury). Springer is capable of playing in center, but he will likely remain in right field with the addition of Rasmus. A career .246 hitter, Rasmus is capable of hitting 25 home runs if he stays healthy. The Astros are kicking themselves for releasing J.D. Martinez last spring after what he did for the Tigers. However, Houston is hoping it has solved this problem by acquiring Gattis. While he’s still a work in progress with the glove in the outfield, the Astros are hoping he will take dead aim at the Crawford Boxes with a swing that has produced 43 home runs the past two seasons. Alex Presley, Jake Marisnick, Robbie Grossman, Domingo Santana and L.J. Hoes are in the mix for one or two bench spots.
Despite a couple of years of trade rumors, Jason Castro remains the starter. He didn’t have a good season at the plate, and considering he’s approaching free agency, it remains to be seen whether the Astros make a long-term commitment to the former first-round pick. The Astros acquired Hank Conger to serve as the backup, a role that switch-hitting Carlos Corporan (traded to Texas in January) served in last year. Conger is a master at framing pitches. Gattis also is capable of getting behind the plate if need be.
Chris Carter blossomed into one of the most feared sluggers in the AL last year, finishing second in the league with 37 homers. Most of his damage came in a two-month span when he put up MVP-type numbers, hitting .296 with 23 homers and 55 RBIs from July 3-Sept. 5. The rest of the season, however, he was a strikeout machine. Marwin Gonzalez can play all over the infield, but he’s more suited to play shortstop and second. Valbuena can handle third, second and even shortstop in a pinch. Presley can play all over the outfield and has surprising pop for his size.
The Astros have restocked their farm system, which is now one of the best in the game. Much of that was done, however, at the expense of the major league club, but things are starting to turn around on that end, too. And after butting heads last year with former manager Bo Porter, GM Jeff Luhnow tabbed A.J. Hinch to take the club to the next level. Hinch has done practically everything in the game and works very much in lockstep with Luhnow, which was Porter’s undoing.
If the Astros get solid contributions from young players like Springer and Singleton, some added thump from additions Gattis and Rasmus, and bounce-back seasons from Castro and Dominguez, the lineup isn’t bad. There are still a few holes and question marks, but having players like Altuve and Springer at the top isn’t a bad place to start. And Carter and Lowrie have shown that they can be productive everyday players as well. The rotation is one starter away from being pretty good, but that’s assuming Keuchel and McHugh weren’t one-hit wonders. If nothing else, there is finally some hope in Houston.
2015 Prediction: 4th in AL West
2B Jose Altuve (R) Coming off a season in which he led MLB in hitting, Altuve has emerged as one of the game’s top bats.
SS Jed Lowrie (S) Lowrie, who started at shortstop for the Astros in 2012, signed a three-year deal to return to Houston.
RF George Springer (R) Springer could be a superstar in waiting after hitting 20 homers and driving in 51 runs in 78 games last year.
LF Evan Gattis (R) His glove may be suspect, but there’s no doubt about the power he could bring, especially at home.
DH Chris Carter (R) For two months last year, Carter was the most feared slugger in baseball. Can he do it for an entire season?
CF Colby Rasmus (L) Has hit 20-plus home runs three different times, but also has trouble staying healthy.
1B Jon Singleton (L) The Astros are committed to Singleton, who showed power flashes last year but struck out too much.
C Jason Castro (L) The veteran catcher slumped at the plate last year and will be aiming at a bounce-back season offensively.
3B Matt Dominguez (R) Dominguez fell off offensively last year, but the Astros still see some promise in a bat that’s shown some pop.
C Hank Conger (S) The Astros traded for Conger and raved about his ability to frame pitches and handle pitchers.
OF Alex Presley (L) Presley is a versatile bat with some power, which is why the Astros signed him to a $1 million deal.
3B Luis Valbuena (L) Acquired from Cubs as part of Dexter Fowler trade, could platoon with Dominguez or seize starting job outright.
INF Marwin Gonzalez (S) Gonzalez did a nice job filling in at shortstop last year, but he’s better suited as a versatile backup.
OF Jake Marisnick (R) Marisnick is one of the most athletic players on the team, but where will he play in a crowded outfield?
LH Dallas Keuchel After barely making the rotation out of spring camp, Keuchel emerged as one of game’s top lefties.
RH Scott Feldman The veteran provided leadership off the field and pitched well on the mound when he was healthy.
RH Collin McHugh The waiver pickup came out of nowhere last year and emerged as one of the top rookie arms in the AL.
LH Brett Oberholtzer Oberholtzer’s career has been up and down, but he’s shown enough potential to earn a rotation spot.
RH Dan Straily Went 1-3 in 14 games (8 starts) with A’s and Cubs last season.
LH Luke Gregerson (Closer) Should get his first chance to be the closer after being behind Heath Bell, Huston Street and Sean Doolittle.
RH Chad Qualls Qualls did a pretty nice job as the Astros’ closer last year, but he’s probably a better fit in the eighth inning.
RH Pat Neshek Signed a multi-year deal with the Astros after begging for a job a year ago, eventually landing with Cardinals.
RH Josh Fields Hard thrower had some very impressive stretches last year, but he still has to put it all together.
LH Kevin Chapman Had three stints in Houston last year and was scoreless in 12 of his final 13 outings.
LH Tony Sipp Veteran finished third among Astros relievers in ERA and had a .138 batting average vs. left-handed bats.
RH Will Harris Struck out 35 batters in 29.0 innings working out of Arizona’s bullpen in 2014.
Beyond the Box Score
Most valuable Jose Altuve had one of the most prolific seasons at the plate in club history in 2014. The 5'6" second baseman became the first Astros player to win a batting title by leading the majors with a .341 batting average. He led baseball and smashed Craig Biggio’s club record with 225 hits, and he also led the American League with 56 stolen bases en route to being named the team’s Most Valuable Player for the second time in three years.
Lone Star supremacy The Astros took the season series from their in-state rival Texas Rangers last year for the first time since 2006, and that enabled them to finally finish somewhere other than last place. Houston finished in fourth place in the AL West, three games ahead of the Rangers. The Astros, who went 2–17 against Texas in 2013, were 11–8 against the Rangers last year and took home the Silver Boot Trophy.
At home at the top For the third consecutive year, the Astros had the No. 1 pick in the MLB Draft, but they failed to sign their 2014 top selection. Houston took lefthander Brady Aiken with the first pick but couldn’t sign him after concerns cropped up about his elbow in a physical after he had agreed to terms. As a result, the Astros will receive an extra pick (No. 2 overall) in the 2015 draft, giving them two of the first five picks.
Flashing leather Lefthander Dallas Keuchel became the first Astros pitcher to win a Gold Glove in 2014. Keuchel led all pitchers in total chances (66) and assists (47), while ranking fourth among AL pitchers in putouts (18). He made just one error all season for a .985 fielding percentage, which ranked sixth among AL pitchers. Keuchel was one of only 12 qualifying AL pitchers to make one error or fewer, and one of four to do so in at least 200 innings, joining Corey Kluber, Mark Buehrle and Felix Hernandez.
Hack attack The Astros were the victim of an embarrassing hacking episode last year when confidential internal correspondence between team officials regarding trade talks with other clubs was made public on the website Deadspin.com in May. The Astros worked with MLB and the FBI to investigate the leaks. The information was released through a website in which users can anonymously share hacked information, and it was then picked up by Deadspin.
2014 Top Draft Pick
Derek Fisher, OF
The Astros took California high school lefthander Brady Aiken with the No. 1 overall pick in the draft but failed to sign him after elbow concerns emerged in his physical with the club. With the 37th overall pick (competitive balance round A), a pick the Astros acquired in the 2013 Bud Norris trade with the Orioles, they took Fisher. After hitting .281 with 17 homers and 127 RBIs in his three-year college career — and helping Virginia to the College World Series as the everyday left fielder — Fisher spent most of his first professional season at short-season Tri-City and hit .303 with a .378 on-base percentage with two homers, 18 RBIs and 17 stolen bases in 41 games. The Astros believe his speed-power combo could mean a quick move through the minor leagues.
Top 10 Prospects
1. Carlos Correa, SS (20) The former No. 1 overall pick was probably days away from being promoted to Double-A when he broke his leg after a great season at High-A Lancaster.
2. Mark Appel, RHP (23) Appel’s first full professional season was nothing short of a roller coaster, but he finished with strong showings at Double-A and the Arizona Fall League.
3. Josh Hader, LHP (20) The Astros stole Hader from the Orioles in the 2013 Bud Norris trade, and he dominated last year in a hitter-friendly environment at High-A Lancaster.
4. Colin Moran, 3B (22) Moran was taken five spots behind No. 1 pick Appel in the 2013 draft and was traded to Houston last year as part of the Jarred Cosart deal with the Marlins.
5. Vincent Velasquez, RHP (22) A favorite in the organization, the hard-throwing Velasquez has the tools and the makeup to be a successful pitcher if he figures out a way to stay healthy.
6. Michael Feliz, RHP (21) Fared well in his first full season in the U.S. last year, going 8–6 with a 4.03 ERA at Class A Quad Cities.
7. Brett Phillips, OF (20) A left-handed bat, he hit .310 in 130 games between Class A Quad Cities and Lancaster with 29 doubles, 14 triples, 17 home runs, 68 RBIs and 23 stolen bases.
8. Lance McCullers Jr., RHP (21) Secondary stuff still trying to catch up with his power fastball.
9. Teoscar Hernandez, OF (22) Hernandez, who stands 6'2", is bursting with athleticism and has 20-homer power potential in the big leagues.
10. Domingo Santana, OF (22) Hit .296 with 16 home runs at Class AAA Oklahoma City and went hitless in brief stint (17 AB) with big-league club.
So much for the “Year of Readiness.”
As major conference commissioners float the idea of ending freshman eligibility — an idea deemed obsolete in the 1970s — freshmen are continuing to dominate the college basketball scene.
Kentucky, the national championship favorite, is filled with impact freshmen, as usual. And one of the two players in serious contention for National Player of the Year, Duke’s Jahlil Okafor, is also a freshman.
Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany spoke of this new push for freshman ineligibility as a “year of readiness.”
As far as we’re concerned, these freshmen — whether they were one-and-done or completed their four years of eligibility — were plenty ready from the moment they stepped on campus.
1. Anthony Davis, Kentucky 2011-12
Stats: 14.1 points, 9.8 rebounds
His case for top freshman: John Calipari is known for his work with great freshman point guards, but the best player he coached in college may be a forward. Carmelo Anthony was an NCAA Tournament Most Outstanding Player, Durant was the consensus Player of the Year, Derrick Rose was the No. 1 overall draft pick, and Greg Oden was the National Defensive Player of the Year. Davis did all of that. Before Davis, the last player of the year, Tournament MVP and No. 1 draft pick was Kansas’ Danny Manning in 1988 — when he was senior.
2. Kevin Durant, Texas 2006-07
Stats: 25.8 points, 11.1 rebounds
His case for top freshman: In the first season impacted by the NBA’s rule to require draftees to be a year removed from high school, Durant showed what a new breed of precocious freshmen could do in college. In his only college season, Durant was the only player in the country to finish in the top 10 in scoring and rebounding — he finished fourth in both. Despite Durant’s prolific season, his play didn’t translate to postseason success. Texas lost in the second round of the NCAA Tournament to USC, led by another freshman, O.J. Mayo.
3. Carmelo Anthony, Syracuse 2002-03
Stats: 22.2 points, 10 rebounds
His case for top freshman: Some freshman-led teams have come close, but Anthony became the first rookie since Pervis Ellison in 1986 (Louisville) to lead his team to a national title. Anthony was a second-team All-American in his only college season, but none were better in the NCAA Tournament. Anthony was the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player, helping Jim Boeheim to his first national championship. In the final against Kansas, Anthony scored 20 points with 10 rebounds and seven assists. A game earlier in the national semifinal against Texas, Anthony had 33 points and 14 rebounds.
4. Chris Jackson, LSU 1988-89
Stats: 30.2 points, 2.5 rebounds
His case for top freshman: Jackson, who later changed his name to Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, turned in one of the all-time best freshman seasons nearly two decades before it became commonplace for first-year players to rewrite record books. Jackson averaged 30.2 points per game, which remains a Division I freshman record.
5. Jahlil Okafor, Duke 2014-15
Stats: 18.2 points, 9.6 rebounds
His case for top freshman: Okafor, another Chicago native, has a chance to pull off a similar season as Davis, and he’s in a two-man race for National Player of the Year with Wisconsin’s Frank Kaminsky. He’s a contender to be the top player taken in the NBA Draft. As for the national championship, Okafor may have to go through Kentucky to win it. Even if none of that happens, Okafor remains the best post player in the college game in years.
6. Wayman Tisdale, Oklahoma 1982-83
Stats: 24.5 points, 10.3 rebounds
His case for top freshman: Tisdale was the forefather to the great freshmen of the 2000s. It’s fitting, then, that his name is on the National Freshman of the Year award. In 1983, Tisdale was the first freshman to be a first-team All-American while also earning Big Eight Player of the Year honors. He accomplished both feats again as a sophomore and a junior.
7. Kevin Love, UCLA 2007-08
Stats: 17.5 points, 10.6 rebounds
His case for top freshman: During better times for Ben Howland at UCLA, the coach relied primarily on veterans. Love was the exception during the Bruins’ run of Final Fours. Love led UCLA in scoring and rebounding in the Bruins’ last of three consecutive appearances in the national semifinal. He also finished the season with 23 double-doubles; Michael Beasley is the only other freshman to amass more. Love was a consensus All-American and the Pac-10 Player of the Year, one of only two freshmen to earn the honor.
8. Michael Beasley, Kansas State 2007-08
Stats: 26.2 points, 12.4 rebounds
His case for top freshman: A year after Durant lit up the Big 12, Beasley did the same a year later. Beasley set a Big 12 single-season record by averaging 26.2 points per game, breaking Durant’s record of 25.8. Beasley finished with 13 30-point games, the most for any Big 12 player in a season (Durant had 11). Beasley’s 28 double-doubles also set a national freshman record. Like Durant and Texas, Beasley and Kansas State failed to get out of the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament, losing to Wisconsin in the second round.
9. Patrick Ewing, Georgetown 1981-82
Stats: 12.7 points, 7.5 rebounds, 3.2 blocks
His case for top freshman: Ewing’s arrival turned Georgetown into a power program and the Big East into a power league. Ewing blocked 119 shots as a freshman, leading the Hoyas to 30 wins and the first Final Four of the John Thompson era.
10. Magic Johnson, Michigan State 1977-78
Stats: 17 points, 7.9 rebounds, 7.4 assists
His case for top freshman: The statline, of course, is ridiculous as Magic averaged 17-8-7 for a team that reached the Sweet 16. It was only the beginning.
11. Kenny Anderson, Georgia Tech 1989-90
Stats: 20.7 points, 8.1 assists, 5.4 rebounds
His case for top freshman: Anderson was one of three 20-point scorers on a team that reached the Final Four. Oh, and he threw in 277 assists, too.
12. Jared Sullinger, Ohio State 2010-11
Stats: 17.2 points, 10.2 rebounds
His case for top freshman: Ohio State has had more success with star freshmen in recent years than any other Big Ten team. Sullinger may have been the best of a group that includes Greg Oden and Mike Conley Jr. Unlike Oden, Conley and big men B.J. Mullens and Kosta Koufos, Sullinger elected to stay for his sophomore season. As a freshman, Sullinger was a consensus All-American and the Big Ten’s first National Freshman of the Year since Michigan’s Chris Webber in 1992.
13. Derrick Rose, Memphis 2007-08
Stats: 14.9 points, 4.7 assists, 4.5 rebounds
His case for top freshman: Hard to believe as it is, Rose wasn’t the most decorated player on his own team as a freshman. That distinction went to All-American and Conference USA Player of the Year Chris Douglas-Roberts. Rose belongs on this list, though, as the point guard of a team that played for a national title before falling 75-68 in overtime to Kansas. Rose averaged 20.8 points, 6.5 rebounds and 6.0 assists per game in the NCAA Tournament.
14. Jabari Parker, Duke 2013-14
Stats: 19.1 points, 8.7 rebounds
His case for top freshman: An all-time team of freshmen from Chicago would be mighty scary between Davis, Rose, Okafor and Parker. Unfortunately for Parker, the big takeaway from his lone season in Durham may be Duke’s loss to No. 14 seed Mercer in the round of 64. Parker, though, was the freshman of the year and runner-up to Creighton's Doug McDermott for National Player of the Year.
15. John Wall, Kentucky 2009-10
Stats: 16.6 points, 6.5 assists, 4.3 rebounds
His case for top freshman: John Calipari started at Kentucky the same way he finished his time at Memphis – with an elite one-and-done point guard. Wall followed in the footsteps of Rose and Tyreke Evans at Memphis and preceded Brandon Knight and Marquis Teague at Kentucky. In leading Kentucky to a 35-3 season, Wall was the National Freshman of the Year and the Associated Press and coaches’ pick for SEC Player of the Year (Oddly enough, teammate DeMarcus Cousins was the coaches’ pick for SEC Freshman of the Year).
16. Greg Oden, Ohio State 2006-07
Stats: 15.7 points, 9.6 rebounds
His case for top freshman: For at least a year, Oden vs. Durant was a heated debate. Durant was the consensus Player of the Year, but Oden and fellow freshman Mike Conley Jr. helped Ohio State reach the national championship game. Oden ended up going first in the NBA Draft, but it was the last time he’d have the edge over Durant, who became an NBA superstar while Oden’s pro career has been derailed by injuries. As a college player, Oden holds the distinction of being the only freshman to win National Defensive Player of the Year honors by averaging 9.6 rebounds and 3.3 blocks per game.
17. Pervis Ellison, Louisville 1985-86
Stats: 12.6 points, 7.8 rebounds
His case for top freshman: Never Nervous Pervis was Louisville’s third leading scorer as a freshman, but he made his impact in the NCAA Tournament. Ellison was the NCAA Tournament Most Outstanding Player in 1986, the first time a rookie earned the award since freshman eligibility was re-established.
18. Shaquille O’Neal, LSU 1989-90
Stats: 13.9 points, 12 rebounds, 3.6 blocks
His case for top freshman: Naturally, Shaq knew how to make an entrance. O’Neal was the first player in SEC history to record 100 blocks in a season at 115 as a freshman. That total remains 10th in SEC history, behind two of his own totals as a sophomore and junior. O’Neal also finished in the top 10 nationally in rebounding as a rookie.
19. Tyler Hansbrough, North Carolina 2005-06
Stats: 18.9 points, 7.8 rebounds
His case for top freshman: It’s easy to forget that Hansbrough’s first season brought no guarantees. Credit his overshadowed freshman season to the way his career finished with a national title and National Player of the Year honors. When Hansbrough was a freshman, he led a team that lost most of its top players from the 2005 national champions. An unranked team in the preseason finished No. 10 in the rankings.
20. Brandon Knight, Kentucky 2010-11
Stats: 17.3 points, 4.1 assists
His case for top freshman: Knight wasn’t Calipari’s best point guard, and the 2010-11 team wasn’t one of his best at Kentucky. Yet the 2011 Cats were his first in Lexington to reach the Final Four before losing to the Kemba Walker-led UConn buzz saw.
The Atlanta Hawks are having a terrific season—everyone’s noticed that by now.
What we sometimes forget is that they’re for sale. That development was announced before the season, following a flurry of terrible press and a latent admission from the organization that they had failed to properly market the team to their city.
The latest news, from ESPN’s Marc Stein, reveals a number of potential buyers for the team. This list includes Mark Rachesky (chairman of Lionsgate Entertainment), a group including legendary Braves slugger Hank Aaron, another featuring Grant Hill and Bryan and Jerry Colangelo, and with yet another expected bid coming from Hawks icon — and current television announcer — Dominique Wilkins.
Stein also reports that the price range for the Hawks has entered some pretty high-up air: at least one of the parties is said to be prepared to drop $900 million for the franchise.
This, of course, follows the trend of NBA team sales — the Los Angeles Clippers and Milwaukee Bucks both sold for figures that were surprising and eye-popping at the time. The last Forbes valuation of the Hawks had them at $425 million (in 2014), but that was before any NBA franchises had been sold in a while. The Bucks sale, and especially the Clippers sale, have set a new, soaring precedent for the worth of teams.
Stein’s report also suggests that the team might find a new arena, potentially one in the Atlanta suburbs. This would be in line with the Braves also eyeing a move out of the city proper, in 2017.
The elephant in the room when all these monstrous numbers emerge is what the players, and their union leader Michele Roberts, must think. Owners are clearly raking it in, and you can expect the players to remind them of that when the current collective bargaining agreement is up for renegotiation in 2017.
— John Wilmes
College football season has been over for 52 days. A long, cold 52 days.
Thankfully, Ohio State is giving us the warm fuzzies as we all try to climb out of winter and into spring.
The national champion Buckeyes released their national championship hype video Thursday, and hit the spot.
Give it a look. It’s awesome.
(at least until Coldplay starts playing.)
When New England unexpectedly used their franchise tag on kicker Stephen Gostkowski, many Patriots fans were sent into a tailspin. It was widely expected that the Pats instead would use the tag on safety Devin McCourty, the back-end leader of a secondary that was one of the best in the NFL this past season.
Now, barring a deal before the start of free agency on March 10*, McCourty will hit the open market with many teams ready to make a run at him. It's widely known the Patriots don't overspend, so the chances that another team will offer a more lucrative offer to lure McCourty away from New England seem high.
(*Editor's note: McCourty agreed late Sunday to re-sign with the Patriots for a reported five years and $47.5 million, with $28.5 million guaranteed)
The thought of losing a leader and homegrown star like McCourty was enough to erase the sweet memory of winning Super Bowl XLIX just a month ago for many of Patriots Nation.
However, the Patriots’ defense won't collapse if McCourty were to depart — it's losing cornerback Darrelle Revis that would be a far more significant blow.
After years of struggling to rebuild the defense from the dynasty run of 2000s, the Patriots finally found the right mix in ‘14. Part of it was certainly McCourty at free safety, a spot he moved to in 2012 full time after spending his first two years at cornerback. But a bigger part of it was the addition of Revis, who could effectively erase any receiver from the game by himself.
Still, the last season’s remade pass defense was far from perfect, and some of the struggles point more toward McCourty than the rest of the secondary.
Since 2012, the Patriots are dead last in the NFL in passes allowed that cover more than 20 yards. Even in 2014 they were fourth worst. As the free safety on the back end of the defense, some of that responsibility has to fall on McCourty. Not all, as the Patriots would often use Duron Harmon on the back end in subpackages while placing McCourty closer to the line in man coverage. However, nearly half of all the 20-plus yard passes the Pats gave up this season came on first down, a situation in which McCourty was likely the free safety.
McCourty was often used in man coverage against tight ends, a sign of what a complete safety he is, but this is another area where the Patriots struggled statistically, ranking 30th overall by Football Outsiders' DVOA. Granted, the coverage of tight ends was done by committee, with Patrick Chung and Jamie Collins also sharing in the responsibilities, but again, the defense was at the bottom of the league and McCourty was part of that.
None of this is to minimize the player McCourty is. He's a phenomenal leader, model citizen and well-versed in the Patriots' system, and there's no question losing him would be a big blow for the Patriots. But it wasn't until Revis arrived that the Patriots' pass defense finally turned around.
Revis' dominant impact is clear in the stats, where the Patriots ranked seventh overall in covering No. 1 wide receivers by Football Outsiders (see chart at right). That's pretty much all Revis. And his impact by taking away the opponent's top receiving threat minimizes the need for a great free safety because it cuts the field in half for them.
Simply put, the Patriots would be far better off with Revis and Harmon at free safety, than forcing McCourty to cover the entire field in back working with some combination of Brandon Browner and Alfonzo Dennard, Logan Ryan or Malcolm Butler. Those are some solid players, but none of them are Revis.
There's still hope that the Patriots can retain both Revis and McCourty, and that makes sense even if it comes at the expense of free agent running back Shane Vereen, who had 11 catches in the Super Bowl. But if they can only keep one, it should be Revis.
Spring practice is already underway for a handful of college football teams, and the offseason workouts and scrimmages provide the first glimpse of how all 128 teams will look in 2015.
After claiming a Heisman Trophy and reaching the national championship game, the Oregon Ducks likely enter the season as the Pac-12 North Division favorites. But it's not nearly as clear-cut as years' past, as Cal, Stanford and Washington could all be improved from a year ago. Oregon State and Washington State don't appear to be particularly scary with new quarterbacks but both coaches are among the most respected in the country.
Pac-12 North Spring Preview and Storylines to Watch
(Teams listed by pre-spring power rank)
2014 Record: 13-2 (8-1 Pac-12)
Returning Starters: Offense – 7, Defense – 5
Ducks' Spring Priorities
1. How good is Vernon Adams?
Some may not like the transfer trend but no one can deny it won’t be fascinating to watch a player who dominated his level try to run the most exciting offense in the sport. Vernon Adams posted huge numbers for Eastern Washington but replacing Marcus Mariota is a different task altogether. Adams won't practice with Oregon this spring, which means Jeff Lockie and Morgan Mahalak will get the majority of the snaps with the No. 1 offense. Although the job is considered to be open, Lockie and Mahalak are keeping the No. 1 spot warm until Adams arrives.
2. Find some defensive backs
Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, Troy Hill and Erick Dargan were all selected to either the first- or second-team All-Pac-12 team a year ago. All three are gone and Mark Helfrich needs to find capable replacements. Reggie Daniels and Tyree Robinson are extremely talented but the depth chart needs to be developed around the two safeties.
3. Support DeForest Buckner
The defensive line and front seven also is replacing plenty of star power. DeForest Buckner returns as the most experienced player on the line but he needs a supporting cast. The good news is Oregon’s style of substitutions lends itself to replacing bodies easily. Can Tui Talia, Alex Balducci, Joe Walker and Rodney Hardrick step into starring roles this spring?
2014 Record: 8-5 (5-4)
Returning Starters: Offense - 8, Defense - 4
Cardinal's Spring Priorities
1. Reorder the defensive line
Last year, Stanford lost its defensive guru in Derek Mason. This year, it loses all three defensive line starters, including two All-Pac-12 picks in Henry Anderson and David Parry. The Cardinal always have bodies and are always coaching them up, but Luke Kaumatule, Harrison Phillips, Aziz Shittu (out this spring due to injury), Solomon Thomas and Nate Lohn need to settle into a rotation.
2. Find some defensive backs
Much like the defensive line, the secondary was hit hard by departures. Two All-Pac-12 picks in Jordan Richards and Alex Carter are gone as well as Wayne Lyons and Kyle Olugbode. That means Stanford is replacing four of the top five tacklers in the secondary. Zach Hoffpauir is an excellent player to build around but could depart in favor of baseball. David Shaw needs to find capable bodies for the back end of his defense.
3. Get Kevin Hogan to the next level
Losing wide receiver Ty Montgomery and left tackle Andrus Peat is going to hurt, but this offense is in great shape. The O-line could be one of the nation’s best, the backfield and tight end position are stacked (sound familiar?) and Hogan is entering his 112th season as the starter. Hogan has sneaky good athletic ability and generally protects the football. However, he has never taken the final step in his development. If he can do that this spring and become a star under center, Stanford could return to the Rose Bowl.
2014 Record: 8-6 (4-5)
Returning Starters: Offense – 6, Defense – 4
Huskies' Spring Priorities
1. Find playmakers in the front seven
This unit was hit as hard as any in the league with the departure of All-Pac-12 picks Danny Shelton, Hau’oli Kikaha, Shaq Thompson and John Timu. Few teams in the nation could sustain losses like those and maintain the same level of production but that is what Chris Petersen needs to do this spring up front on defense. Good luck.
2. Replace the pivot and tackles
The offensive line will lose starters at both right and left tackle as well as two guys who combined for 18 starts at center and guard (Colin Tanigawa, Mike Criste). Needless to say, this group needs some work this spring. Dexter Charles, Siosifa Tufunga and Coleman Shelton combined for 20 starts last season (mostly at guard) and are quality pieces to build around. However, the two tackles and center are more important positions and all three must be replaced.
3. Continue to develop Cyler Miles
Miles entered the starting lineup with lofty expectations last fall. While he didn’t turn the ball over (four INTs) and was fairly efficient (66.6 percent), Miles never seemed to take control of the game. He showed promise with his legs too but for Washington to survive the personnel losses this offseason, Miles must become a bigger star in the offense. If not, keep an eye on K.J. Carta-Samuels or true freshman Jake Browning.
2014 Record: 5-7 (3-6)
Returning Starters: Offense – 8, Defense – 7
Key Coaching Changes:
Brandon Jones (OL), Jacob Peeler (WR)
Golden Bears' Spring Priorities
1. Continue to build defensive depth chart
This sounds overly simple, especially for a team returning the majority of its defensive two-deep, but this unit was so bad — 121st in total defense — that no one area is an overriding concern. It's the whole thing. The entire unit needs an extreme makeover with the capable Art Kaufman overseeing the process.
2. Restock the secondary
Three safeties departed in Michael Lowe, Bryce McGovern and Avery Sebastian. Stefan McClure and Griffin Piatt both return, but in a league known for throwing the football, developing depth at the back end should be a primary area of focus for the Bears.
3. Plug holes up the middle
This offense returns a near-4,000-yard passer, a 1,000-yard rusher and half-a-dozen talented pass-catchers. It also returns three-fifths of the offensive line too. The only real holes that need plugging are at center and right guard. This offense should only continue to improve once the O-line settles into position.
5. Oregon State
2014 Record: 5-7 (2-7)
Returning Starters: Offense – 7, Defense – 2
Key Coaching Changes:
Gary Andersen (HC), Kalani Sitake (DC), Dave Baldwin (OC)
Beavers' Spring Priorities
1. Replace Sean Mannion
The only quarterback on the roster who attempted a pass for the Beavers last year was rising sophomore Luke Del Rio. He will get the first chance to replace the ultra-productive, but sometimes maddening, Sean Mannion. Seven different players are likely to take snaps this spring but the former Alabama walk-on and son of Oakland Raiders head coach Jack Del Rio is the odds on front-runner.
2. Organize the defensive front
Three starters and four of the top six defensive linemen have departed, so the first line of defense clearly needs to be rebuilt. Lavonte Barnett and Jaswha James return but totaled just 34 tackles combined in 2014. At linebacker, the three leading tacklers are gone as well. Look for Gary Andersen and company to focus on the front seven on defense this spring. Losing six out of seven starters is extremely difficult to overcome.
3. Get to know your depth chart
This may sound like a cop out but Andersen’s primary order of business this spring is to learn what he has on his roster. Learn the players' strengths and weaknesses and determine how they fit into his system. It’s a simple concept but one that cannot be overlooked for a new head coach.
6. Washington State
2014 Record: 3-9 (2-7)
Returning Starters: Offense – 7, Defense – 2
Key Coaching Changes:
Alex Grinch (Defensive Coordinator)
Cougars’ Spring Priorities
1. Decide if Luke Falk is the answer
Connor Halliday had his weaknesses but he also posted huge numbers and fit the Air Raid attack extremely well. Luke Falk got plenty of reps a year ago when Halliday got hurt (243 att.) and should be the obvious front-runner to take over. However, don’t expect Mike Leach to show his cards until he has to.
2. Find a No. 1
The team’s top two receivers, Vince Mayle and Isiah Myers, are gone. There are plenty of names returning who got plenty of snaps and Leach churns out productive pass-catchers like he does history books. Still, this offense needs to find a No. 1 go-to target on the outside. It could be River Cracraft, Dom Williams, Robert Lewis, Gabe Marks, Tyler Baker or Calvin Green. You get the point.
3. Find playmakers on defense
There is a lot returning on the defensive side of the ball for Wazzu, as Leach played a lot of bodies on this side of the ball last year. That said, the unit wasn’t overly productive — ranking 97th nationally in total defense. Worse is the inability to get the ball back, as WSU forced an NCAA-worst eight total takeaways. Leach needs to find defenders who can make big plays on defense.
Spring practice is already underway for a handful of college football teams, and the offseason workouts and scrimmages provide the first glimpse of how all 128 teams will look in 2015.
The Pac-12 South Division was viewed by some as the best in college football a year ago. At this stage of the year, it's not unreasonable to predict five of the six teams to be ranked in the preseason. A legit case could be made for any of the top four — USC, Arizona State, UCLA, Arizona — to win the division. Buckle up, it's going to be a fun year out West.
Pac-12 South Spring Preview and Storylines to Watch
(Teams listed by pre-spring power rank)
1. Arizona State
2014 Record: 10-3 (6-3)
Returning Starters: Offense – 6, Defense – 7
Sun Devils' Spring Priorities
1. Replace both tackles
Jamil Douglas and Tyler Sulka started all 13 games at both left and right tackle respectively last year. Both have moved on and will need to be replaced this spring. The rest of the offensive line is in excellent shape but filling voids on the edge will be critical for Todd Graham and company. There are no concerns about Mike Bercovici under center so keeping him upright is imperative.
2. Find a true No. 1 receiver
Jaelen Strong was a beast for the Sun Devils on the outside and his size and production will need to be replaced somehow. Expect D.J. Foster to play more of hybrid role again with names like Cameron Smith, Eric Lauderdale, Frederick Gammage, Ellis Jefferson and Gary Chambers looking to step into more prominent roles on the offense. The emergence of Demario Richard and Kalen Ballage should help push Foster into open space.
3. Fill specific gaps on defense
A year removed from replacing nine All-Pac-12 defensive players in one offseason, Graham now has the luxury of returning most of his defense. With the exception of first-team, all-league safety Damarious Randall and honorable mention, all-league end Marcus Hardison, this unit is intact. If Graham is able to fill those two gaps this could be one of the best defenses in the league.
2014 Record: 9-4 (6-3)
Returning Starters: Offense - 7, Defense - 7
Bob Connelly (OL)
Trojans' Spring Priorities
1. Rebuild the front seven
The Trojans lose three All-Pac-12 players from their front seven in Leonard Williams, Hayes Pullard and J.R. Tavai. Like always with USC, the returning depth chart is impressively talented but is lacking in developed star power. Can Anthony Sarao or Delvon Simmons develop into All-Americans? Steve Sarkisian should consider this part of his roster a top priority — especially, for a team still lacking in overall depth.
2. Develop the playmakers on offense
The talent in the receiving corps is painfully obvious but will still be young. And the backfield is now missing Buck Allen. Coach Sark needs to continue to develop Adoree Jackson and JuJu Smith on the outside while Justin Davis, Tre Madden and James Toland IV battle for carries. USC also is replacing All-Pac-12 tight end Randall Telfer. This offense needs to identify a go-to playmaker.
3. Keep Cody Kessler healthy
Keeping your star quarterback upright is always important but in this case it cannot be overstated. In fact, Kessler, possibly the most underrated player in the nation, represents a bigger issue for the Trojans. This unit is still not operating with full scholarship capacity, so keeping Kessler (and every other possible contributing member) healthy is critical for the Men of Troy. Maybe, take it easy this spring, Coach Sark?
2014 Record: 10-3 (6-3)
Returning Starters: Offense – 5, Defense – 6
Tom Bradley (DC)
Bruins' Spring Priorities
1. Settle on a quarterback
Brett Hundley is gone leaving a gaping void under center on an offense severely lacking in star power. Jerry Neuheisel is the incumbent who played well against Texas and has been around campus for years. He will have to hold off the No. 1 quarterback prospect in the nation in true freshman Josh Rosen. Rosen is already enrolled and will battle Neuheisel for the starting gig all spring.
2. Reconstruct the front seven
Eric Kendricks is gone from the linebacking corps but Myles Jack is back. Owa Odighizuwa and Ellis McCarthy are gone from the D-line but Eddie Vanderdoes is back. Those two are potential superstars but the rest of the front seven is lacking in experience. Jim Mora needs guys like Kenny Clark and Deon Hollins to take the next step forward up front on defense.
3. Continue to cultivate offensive playmakers
One of UCLA’s biggest issues during Hundley’s tenure under center was the lack of supporting star power on offense. Paul Perkins and Jordan Payton took a big step last year, showing signs of becoming stars on offense. With either a freshman or career backup taking the reins at QB this year, Mora really needs someone else to step up and emerge. Is Perkins and/or Payton up to the task?
2014 Record: 10-4 (7-2)
Returning Starters: Offense – 6, Defense – 5
Wildcats' Spring Priorities
1. Find two tackles and a pivot
Center Steven Gurrola started 13 games last year. Mickey Baucus and Fabbians Ebbele both started all 14 games at left and right tackle respectively. All three are gone and Rich Rodriguez is charged with rebuilding his offensive line. Not one player returns to the line that started all 14 games last year up front. Cayman Bundrage started 12 games at left guard and Jacob Alsadek started 11 times on the right side.
2. Plug holes in the secondary
Arizona uses a lot of defensive backs in its 3-3-5 alignment. But this group must replace a trio of safeties who totaled 284 tackles last year as well as the top cornerback. There are plenty of bodies coming back to Tucson but someone needs to step into a leadership role. William Parks could be that guy, as he is the most experienced returning defensive back.
3. Keep the young stars on offense focused
It was almost too easy for Arizona’s offense last year. Anu Solomon, Nick Wilson and Cayleb Jones formed an incredible trio of young offensive stars. But this group struggled to reach the finish line and was handled easily in the Pac-12 title game. Repeating as division champs won’t be nearly as easy, especially behind a rebuilt O-line. This group must stay focused and hungry or it could fall three or four spots in the standings.
2014 Record: 9-4 (5-4)
Returning Starters: Offense – 6, Defense – 5
Aaron Roderick/Jim Harding (OC), John Pease (DC), Justin Ena (LB)
Utes' Spring Priorities
1. Find out what you have under center
Quarterback Travis Wilson is the incumbent but he’s dealt with major injuries for much of his career. Kendal Thompson battled Wilson throughout much of the ’14 campaign, only relinquishing control of the starting job after a season-ending injury. They have similar skill sets but are totally different players and Kyle Whittingham needs to know what he has in each this spring.
2. Plug holes at safety and end
This one is pretty straightforward, as both Brian Blechen and Eric Rowe are gone after honorable mention All-Pac-12 seasons last year. Marcus Williams returns after posting 59 tackles last year along with Tevin Carter, Andre Godfrey and others. Nate Orchard is the bigger loss at end but a deep and talented collection of D-linemen return to Salt Lake City. Hunter Dimick and Lowell Lotulelei are poised for breakout seasons.
3. Replace the best to pass-catchers
Devontae Booker and a loaded offensive line return to Utah so the running game should be one of the best in the league. However, with the two biggest playmakers gone in Dres Anderson and Kaelin Clay, the staff needs to find some receivers to help out the QB situation. Kenneth Scott will get every shot to make plays but this group as a whole needs to step up this spring.
2014 Record: 2-10 (0-9)
Returning Starters: Offense – 6, Defense – 9
Jim Leavitt (Defensive Coordinator)
Buffaloes’ Spring Priorities
1. Continue to build depth on defense
For bad teams, it’s hard to pinpoint one specific area of concern on defense. With most of the two-deep returning for Colorado, improving overall is the key. This team was terrible at pressuring the quarterback, didn’t force turnovers (125th nationally) and was mediocre on third downs. Star power needs to develop on every level because linebacker Addison Gillam can’t do everything.
2. Replace both guards
Left guard Kaiwi Crabb started 11 times last year and right guard Daniel Munyer started all 12 games. Both have moved on and need to be replaced on the interior of the offensive line. The good news is both tackles and the center are back for Mike MacIntyre.
3. Make an effort to run the ball
The Buffs finished last in the division in rushing offense, ninth in the Pac-12 and 77th nationally. With a developing star at QB and Nelson Spruce back to catch passes, the passing game isn’t a concern in Boulder. But either Christian Powell or Michael Adkins II need to step into a more prominent role in the backfield to help the quarterback. Some balance in this unit would help quarterback Sefo Liufau continue to progress.
Spring practice is already underway for a handful of college football teams, and the offseason workouts and scrimmages provide the first glimpse of how all 128 teams will look in 2015.
The Big Ten is home to college football’s defending national champs (Ohio State), as well as a cast of intriguing teams in 2015. Michigan State should be among the top-10 teams in the nation, while Michigan and Nebraska hope to take a step forward under new coaches. Penn State should be better in the second season under coach James Franklin, but the Nittany Lions have some key personnel issues to address this offseason.
What are the key questions and storylines shaping all 14 teams in the Big Ten and outlook for 2015? Let’s take a quick look at the 14 teams and the priority list for each coach.
Big Ten Spring Preview and Storylines to Watch
(Teams listed by pre-spring power rank)
1. Ohio State
2014 Record: 14-1 (8-0 Big Ten)
Returning Starters: Offense – 7, Defense – 7
Key Coaching Changes:
Tim Beck (Co-Offensive Coordinator)
Tony Alford (RBs)
Ohio State’s Spring Priorities
1. Quarterbacks, Wide Receivers
There’s little doubt quarterback play is going to garner most of the preseason attention. But it’s unlikely there will be much clarity here, as J.T. Barrett (leg) and Braxton Miller (shoulder) continue to recover from 2014 injuries. Cardale Jones has a chance to secure his lead in the quarterback derby while both are out, but all three will have a chance to push for the job in the fall. Much like the quarterback position, the receiving corps isn’t hurting for options. However, replacements must emerge for Devin Smith and Evan Spencer.
2. Reinforcements on the Defensive Line
Ohio State’s defensive line should be one of the best in the nation in 2015, but coach Larry Johnson has to restock this unit after the departures of ends Steve Miller and Rashad Frazier, along with standout defensive tackle Michael Bennett. Finding help for end Joey Bosa and tackle Adolphus Washington will be a key for the Buckeyes’ hopes of repeating in 2015.
3. Replacing CB Doran Grant
The Buckeyes aren’t losing a ton from last year’s team, but cornerback Doran Grant won’t be easy to replace. He earned first-team All-Big Ten honors after recording 63 tackles and nine pass breakups in 2014. Young talent is available here, but the defense is looking for players to emerge outside of Eli Apple at the position.
2. Michigan State
2014 Record: 11-2 (7-1 Big Ten)
Returning Starters: Offense – 6, Defense – 7
Key Coaching Changes:
Harlon Barnett (Co-Defensive Coordinator)
Mike Tressel (Co-Defensive Coordinator)
Mark Snyder (LB/Special Teams)
Michigan State’s Spring Priorities
1. Playmakers at Receiver
Quarterback Connor Cook must find a new go-to target after standout receiver Tony Lippett expired his eligibility after the Cotton Bowl. Keith Mumphery also departs after catching 26 passes last year. Who steps up at receiver this spring for Cook? Will it be Aaron Burbridge or A.J. Troup? Or will tight end Josiah Price become an even bigger part of the offense in 2015?
2. Settling the Order at Running Back
Jeremy Langford finished his career at East Lansing with an effective senior year (1,522 yards and 22 scores). The Spartans need to find a new go-to back this spring, but this offense isn’t hurting for options. Delton Williams, Gerald Holmes, Madre London and incoming freshman L.J. Scott (will arrive in East Lansing this summer) are plenty capable of keeping the ground attack performing at a high level. How will the pecking order develop this spring?
3. Keep the Momentum on Defense
Michigan State’s defense was one of the best in the nation under former coordinator Pat Narduzzi. With Narduzzi taking the head coach job at Pittsburgh, coach Mark Dantonio promoted Harlon Barnett and Mike Tressel into the co-defensive coordinator role. Barnett and Tressel’s job was made easier with the return of end Shilique Calhoun, but the secondary loses cornerback Trae Waynes and safety Kurtis Drummond, and the linebacking corps loses Taiwan Jones. This spring will be the first opportunity for the new co-coordinators to find replacements for the key departures.
3. Penn State
2014 Record: 7-6 (2-6 Big Ten)
Returning Starters: Offense – 8, Defense – 6
Key Coaching Changes:
Penn State’s Spring Priorities
1. Offensive Line
Keeping quarterback Christian Hackenberg upright in the pocket is Penn State’s top priority in 2015. The offensive line was hit hard by youth and injuries last year and surrendered 44 sacks in 13 contests. Line coach Herb Hand is one of the best in the nation, and this unit should show improvement in 2015. Junior college recruit Paris Palmer should help alleviate some of the concerns at tackle.
2. Reload the DE Spots
Both lines of scrimmage will be under the microscope for Penn State this spring. The Nittany Lions must replace ends Deion Barnes and C.J. Olaniyan after the duo combined for nine sacks last season. Garrett Sickels and redshirt freshman Torrence Brown are two names to watch as line coach Sean Spencer looks to restock at defensive end.
3. New Kicker
Don’t overlook the loss of kicker Sam Ficken this spring. Penn State had eight kickers on last year’s roster (not all scholarship players), with Chris Gulla listed as Ficken’s backup. The Nittany Lions played in seven games decided by one score or less last year. A reliable kicker can make a big difference in close games.
2014 Record: 5-7 (3-5 Big Ten)
Returning Starters: Offense – 6, Defense – 6
Key Coaching Changes:
Jim Harbaugh (Head Coach)
Tim Drevno (Offensive Coordinator)
D.J. Durkin (Defensive Coordinator)
Michigan’s Spring Priorities
1. Quarterback Battle
New coach Jim Harbaugh is going to make a difference with Michigan’s offense in 2015. But in order for the Wolverines to make a big jump on the stat sheet, quarterback play has to improve. Who will get the call under center for Harbaugh? Will it be Shane Morris? Or will freshmen Alex Malzone and Zach Gentry or Wilton Speight push for starting time?
2. Find a Few Playmakers
Top receiver Devin Funchess left for the NFL, and Michigan finished 2014 ranked ninth in the Big Ten in rush offense. Quarterback play has to improve for the offense to take off, but the Wolverines also need more from their skill players. USC transfer Ty Isaac could help the rushing attack, and this is a big spring for receivers Amara Darboh, Jehu Chesson and Freddy Canteen.
3. More Progress on Defense
Lost in Michigan’s offensive woes was a defense that limited opponents to 4.8 yards per play in 2014. New coordinator D.J. Durkin comes to Ann Arbor after a solid stint at Florida and is regarded as a rising star in the coaching ranks. His biggest spring goals will be to find a replacement for standout linebacker Jake Ryan, restock the defensive end position and settle the options in the secondary. Is talented redshirt freshman Jabrill Peppers a cornerback or safety?
2014 Record: 8-5 (3-5 Big Ten)
Returning Starters: Offense – 3, Defense – 6
Key Coaching Changes:
Ben McDaniels (Offensive Coordinator)
Phil Galiano (Special Teams/Tight Ends)
Anthony Campanile (WRs)
Rutgers’ Spring Priorities
1. New Play-Caller on Offense
Ralph Friedgen’s one season with the Scarlet Knights was a successful one, and Ben McDaniels will inherit an offense with just three returning starters in 2015. McDaniels was the team’s receivers coach in 2014 and has never called plays on the FBS level. What changes will McDaniels implement in 2015?
2. QB Battle
The first priority for McDaniels this spring is to settle the quarterback battle between Chris Laviano and Hayden Rettig. Laviano completed 11 of 28 passes for 107 yards last season, while Rettig sat out 2014 as a result of transfer rules from LSU.
3. Defensive Improvement
Rutgers ranked last in the Big Ten by allowing 6.4 yards per play (all games) last season. Coordinator Joe Rossi has work to do at each level, as the defense must replace contributors like end David Milewski, linebacker Kevin Snyder and defensive backs Gareef Glashen and safety Lorenzo Waters.
2014 Record: 7-6 (4-4 Big Ten)
Returning Starters: Offense – 6, Defense – 4
Key Coaching Changes:
Keith Dudzinski (Defensive Coordinator)
Terry Richardson (RBs)
Maryland’s Spring Priorities
1. Replacing C.J. Brown at QB
The Terrapins’ quarterback battle probably won’t be settled until the fall, as Caleb Rowe won’t participate this spring due to his recovery from a torn ACL. However, while Rowe is sidelined, Perry Hills and Shane Cockerille will battle to claim an early lead in the quarterback race.
2. Settle the OL
While quarterback play is a concern, a bigger priority for Maryland this spring has to be an offensive line that allowed 36 sacks in 2014. Center Sal Conaboy and guard Silvano Altamirano depart after each started 13 games last season. Expect to see redshirt freshmen Damian Prince and Derwin Gray push for snaps this spring.
3. Rebuild the Front 7 on Defense
New defensive play-caller Keith Dudzinski is going to be a busy man this spring. The Terrapins lost several key players from last year’s front seven, including ends Andre Monroe and Keith Bowers, tackle Darius Kilgo and linebackers Cole Farrand and L.A. Goree. How quickly can Maryland reload here this offseason?
2014 Record: 4-8 (1-7 Big Ten)
Returning Starters: Offense – 5, Defense – 6
Key Coaching Changes:
Indiana’s Spring Priorities
1. Getting the Passing Game Back on Track
An injury to starting quarterback Nate Sudfeld hampered Indiana’s offense last season. Sudfeld is expected to return at full strength from a shoulder injury suffered in 2014, and this spring is the first chance to work with the revamped receiving corps. The Hoosiers brought in plenty of help for Sudfeld, as junior college recruit Camion Patrick and UAB transfer Marqui Hawkins should help bolster a young receiving corps.
2. Defensive Improvement
If Indiana wants to contend for a bowl in 2015, the defense has to improve – significantly. The Hoosiers allowed 6.4 yards per play in Big Ten action last year and gave up 16 passing touchdowns in conference games. The front seven has reasons to be optimistic for improvement, but the secondary must replace both starting cornerbacks from last season.
3. Jordan Howard Replacing Tevin Coleman
Tevin Coleman will be missed in Bloomington, but Indiana found an excellent replacement in UAB transfer Jordan Howard. The former Blazer will get his first chance to work with the Hoosiers’ solid offensive line this spring. How quickly will he mesh with the returning personnel?
2014 Record: 11-3 (7-1 Big Ten)
Returning Starters: Offense – 5, Defense – 7
Key Coaching Changes:
Paul Chryst (Head Coach)
Joe Rudolph (Offensive Coordinator)
Wisconsin’s Spring Priorities
1. Develop the Passing Game
Melvin Gordon has departed at running back, but there’s a capable replacement in Corey Clement. The passing game is a bigger concern for coach Paul Chryst, as the Badgers managed only 150 yards per game through the air in conference action in 2014 and completed 53.9 percent of their passes. Quarterback Joel Stave has to take a step forward in his development, while the coaching staff also has to find another receiver or two to take the pressure off of Alex Erickson.
2. Restock the OL
Wisconsin had one of the nation’s top offensive lines last season, but there’s work ahead for Chryst this spring. Three starters – Dallas Lewallen, Kyle Costigan and Rob Havenstein – have departed after a successful career in Madison. Two starters – Tyler Marz and Dan Voltz – will be solid players to build around, but who steps up to replace the three departures?
3. New Faces in the Front Seven
The Badgers owned one of the best defenses in the Big Ten last season, limiting conference opponents to just 4.8 yards per play. Seven starters are back for 2015, but there are a few key holes to address. Linemen Warren Herring and Konrad Zagzebski and linebackers Michael Trotter and Marcus Trotter are gone. There’s plenty of talent to keep this defense performing at a high level, but the depth must be restocked after player departures.
2014 Record: 9-4 (5-3 Big Ten)
Returning Starters: Offense – 6, Defense – 6
Key Coaching Changes:
Mike Riley (Head Coach)
Danny Langsdorf (Offensive Coordinator)
Mark Banker (Defensive Coordinator)
Nebraska’s Spring Priorities
1. New Coaching Staff, New Schemes
New coach Mike Riley inherits a good roster, and there’s enough talent to push for the West Division title in 2015. But as with any coaching change, there will be tweaks to the schemes on both sides of the ball. This spring is the first opportunity to get a look at how different the Cornhuskers will look in 2015.
2. Tommy Armstrong’s Development
Riley and coordinator Danny Langsdorf had plenty of success on offense at Oregon State. Quarterback Sean Mannion just finished his career as the Pac-12’s all-time passing leader. This spring will be a big one for quarterback Tommy Armstrong under the new staff. In his first full season as Nebraska’s starter, he completed 53.3 percent of his throws, 2,695 yards and 22 scores. How much will Armstrong improve over the spring?
3. Replacing Randy Gregory at DE
Even though Gregory had a knee injury in 2014, he was still one of the Big Ten’s most disruptive defenders. In 11 games, Gregory registered seven sacks, 8.5 tackles for a loss and one forced fumble. The Cornhuskers aren’t stocked with a ton of options this spring at defensive end, so it’s a critical time for players like Jack Gangwish, Joe Keels and A.J. Natter (if healthy) to join Greg McMullen as key contributors at the position.
2014 Record: 8-5 (5-3 Big Ten)
Returning Starters: Offense – 4, Defense – 7
Key Coaching Changes:
Minnesota’s Spring Priorities
1. David Cobb’s Replacement
Running back David Cobb was the driving force behind a Minnesota rushing attack that generated 215.5 yards per game last season. Cobb has expired his eligibility, and the battle to replace him will start this spring. Berkley Edwards, Rodrick Williams and talented redshirt freshman Jeff Jones will compete to determine the pecking order in the backfield.
2. More Consistency from QB Mitch Leidner
In his first full season as Minnesota’s starting quarterback, Leidner completed 122 of 237 passes for 1,798 yards and 11 scores. He also rushed for 452 yards and 10 touchdowns. The Golden Gophers need more from Leidner in 2015, but his job would be made easier if…
3. Finding Receivers
…Minnesota can find a few receivers this spring. This unit is the biggest concern for coach Jerry Kill, as tight end Maxx Williams and receivers Isaac Fruechte and Donovahn Jones have departed Minneapolis. This is a big spring for Drew Wolitarsky, KJ Maye, Eric Carter and Melvin Holland.
2014 Record: 7-6 (4-4 Big Ten)
Returning Starters: Offense – 5, Defense – 6
Key Coaching Changes:
Brian Ferentz (Run Game Coordinator)
Seth Wallace (CBs/Nickel Backs)
LeVar Woods (Tight Ends)
Iowa’s Spring Priorities
1. Settle the QB Position
Will it be Jake Rudock or C.J. Beathard starting for Iowa in 2015? The first shot at answering that question could come this spring. Rudock threw for 2,436 yards and 16 touchdowns, but Beathard has a stronger arm, which would allow Iowa to stretch the field more – if he’s the starter.
2. Replacing the Offensive Tackles
The Hawkeyes have a good core of starting linemen returning in 2015, but tackles Brandon Scherff and Andrew Donnal are huge losses. Scherff was among the nation’s best at his position, while Donnal started 13 games in 2014. Who steps up at the offensive tackle spots this spring?
3. Reloading at Defensive Tackle
The trenches will be an area of focus this spring in Iowa City. Not only must the Hawkeyes rebuilt the offensive tackle position, but the defensive tackle spot is a major concern. Gone are standouts Carl Davis and Louis Trinca-Pasat, and backups Jaleel Johnson and Nathan Bazata combined for just 15 tackles in 2015.
2014 Record: 6-7 (3-5 Big Ten)
Returning Starters: Offense – 8, Defense – 7
Key Coaching Changes:
Mike Phair (Co-Defensive Coordinator)
Illinois’ Spring Priorities
1. Solidify the OL
If the Fighting Illini can keep quarterback Wes Lunt healthy, the offense should easily surpass last year’s 25.9 points per game mark. The offensive line gave up 37 sacks last season, and the left side must be revamped with the departure of tackle Simon Cvijanovic and guard Michael Heitz.
2. Getting Defensive
In coach Tim Beckman’s three seasons at Illinois, the Fighting Illini has allowed at least 5.8 yards per play each year. Beckman is turning to former NFL assistant Mike Phair to help Tim Banks coordinate the defense. Seven starters are back on defense, but this unit needs to generate a better pass rush and show improvement against the run.
3. Consistency on the Ground
Running back Josh Ferguson is a solid all-around back for the Fighting Illini, recording 735 yards and eight scores on the ground last season. He also caught 50 passes for 427 yards and two touchdowns. However, Illinois needs a little more from its ground attack. In Big Ten games, the Fighting Illini averaged 3.6 yards per carry.
2014 Record: 5-7 (3-5 Big Ten)
Returning Starters: Offense – 5, Defense – 10
Key Coaching Changes:
Northwestern’s Spring Priorities
1. Quarterback Battle
The Wildcats open spring practice with three quarterbacks vying for the starting job. Zack Oliver has the most experience of the signal-callers, but Matt Alviti and talented redshirt freshman Clayton Thorson will push for time.
2. Rebuilding the OL
In eight Big Ten games last season, Northwestern allowed 24 sacks. The Wildcats have some work to do up front this spring, as two key starters depart in center Brandon Vitabile and tackle Paul Jorgensen. The development of this group will be critical for Northwestern’s bowl hopes in 2015.
3. Finding a Pass Rush
The Wildcats tied for last in the Big Ten with just nine sacks generated in eight conference games. The defense held opponents to a respectable 5.3 yards per play in Big Ten action, and with 10 starters back, improvement should be expected. Boosting the pass rush is critical for Northwestern to help elevate the defense even higher in the rankings for 2015.
2014 Record: 3-9 (1-7 Big Ten)
Returning Starters: Offense – 9, Defense – 7
Key Coaching Changes:
Terry Malone (TEs)
Purdue’s Spring Priorities
1. Settling the QB Position
Austin Appleby and Danny Etling shared the quarterback job last season and combined to throw 16 touchdowns to 16 interceptions. Both players will have a chance to win the starting spot this spring, but redshirt freshman David Blough also joins the competition.
2. Find Playmakers
While the quarterback job remains uncertain, Purdue also has to develop more options at running back and receiver to help out the offense. Top running backs Akeem Hunt and Raheem Mostert are gone, leaving Keyante Green (199 yards) as the team’s top returning rusher. Hunt was also the team’s leading option in terms of catches (48), and top receiver Danny Anthrop (616 receiving yards last season) is coming off a torn ACL.
3. Step Forward on Defense
In coach Darrell Hazell’s two seasons with the Boilermakers, Purdue has ranked near the bottom of the Big Ten in yards per play allowed in back-to-back years. There’s reason for optimism with seven starters returning, but key players like end Ryan Russell and safety Landon Feichter must be replaced. Can this unit take a step forward in the spring?