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Athlon Sports has polled 10 experts from around Major League Baseball in an effort to find the best place to watch a game.
Based on criteria like fan support, home-field advantage, amenities, tradition, surrounding area, facilities, gameday atmosphere and more, our 10 experts have ranked all 15 National League parks for 2015.
Remember, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
Tyler Kepner, NY Times
Andy Baggarly, AndrewBaggarly.com
Jeff Wilson, Fort Worth Star-Telegram
John Tomase, WEEI
Juan Rodriguez, South Florida Sun-Sentinel
Gordon Wittenmyer, Chicago Sun Times
Bill Plunkett, Orange County Register
C. Trent Rosencrans, Cincinnati Enquirer
Derrick Goold, St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Jack Magruder, FoxSportsArizona.com
Scoring: A first-place vote is worth one point, a second-place vote is worth two points and a 15th-place vote is worth 15 points. The lowest score is voted the best stadium in the National League.
|1.||AT&T Park||14 (7)|
|2.||PNC Park||32 (1)|
|3.||Dodger Stadium||48 (1)|
|5.||Coors Field||60 (1)|
|7.||Citizens Bank Park||75|
|13.||Great American Ballpark||111|
Much like Fenway in the American League, the clear-cut best place to watch a game in the National League is AT&T Park where the defending World Series champion Giants play ball. A beautiful setting, competitive teams and normally comfortable summers make this West Coast shrine a must-see. San Francisco’s home park got seven of the 10 first-place votes.
Best in the West
The Giants were voted the best park in the NL but Dodger Stadium in Chavez Ravine also got a first-place vote and finished third. Coors Field in Denver got a first-place vote as well, finishing fifth overall. Not to be outdone, Petco Park in San Diego ranked sixth, giving the West Division four of the top six stadiums in the National League. Which brings us to…
Chase for last place
It wasn’t ranked as poorly as The Trop or O.co Coliseum in the American League, but Arizona’s Chase Field was voted the worst place to watch a game on the senior circuit. It finished just behind Atlanta’s Turner Field — which, of course, is getting replaced by a new stadium on the North side of town very soon. Interestingly enough, the worst two stadiums in the National League are two of the biggest in the majors. The Braves park is fourth with a capacity of 49,586 while the Diamondbacks' home field is seventh at 48,633.
It doesn’t boast the same charm as Fenway, which finished as the No. 1 place to see a game in the AL, but it still is well respected at No. 4 in the NL. This is likely due to the age and much-needed renovations that Wrigley is currently undergoing (Fenway has already gone through its facelift). All I know is, as a Mets fan, I went to Wrigley last summer for the first time as a 32-year-old and nearly cried when I first walked under the marquee.
While the West Division appears to be loaded with great places to watch baseball, the East Division seems to be lacking. The Mets, Marlins, Nationals and Braves all saw their home parks ranked in the bottom six. Only Philadelphia was even moderately respected, finishing seventh in the NL. So much for East Coast bias.
Quarterback battles are easily one of the biggest storylines in any college football offseason. And it’s even more under the microscope in 2015, as the position lost several top performers, including Florida State’s Jameis Winston, Oregon’s Marcus Mariota, Baylor’s Bryce Petty and UCLA’s Brett Hundley.
With spring practice already underway for a handful of teams, it’s time to preview the biggest (and most important) quarterback battles for 2015 spring practice. Ohio State’s battle will garner all of the attention, but because of injuries, it’s unlikely the job will be settled until the fall. Alabama needs a big spring from Jake Coker to replace Blake Sims, while Sean Maguire opens practice at Florida State with an edge on J.J. Cosentino.
College Football's Top 15 QB Battles for Spring Practice
1. Ohio State
Cardale Jones (Junior)
Braxton Miller (Senior)
J.T. Barrett (Sophomore)
Urban Meyer has a good problem on his hands. The Buckeyes have three quarterbacks capable of winning the Heisman Trophy. Injuries to J.T. Barrett and Braxton Miller make it unlikely a pecking order is determined this spring.
Who Takes the First Snap of the 2015 Season: Jones
Jake Coker (Senior)
Blake Barnett (Freshman)
David Cornwell (Redshirt Freshman)
Alec Morris (Junior)
Cooper Bateman (Sophomore)
Florida State transfer Jake Coker was the favorite to win the job last season but was unable to beat out Blake Sims. It’s Coker’s job to lose again this spring. Freshmen Blake Barnett and David Cornwell might be his biggest challengers.
Who Takes the First Snap of the 2015 Season: Coker
3. Florida State
J.J. Cosentino (Redshirt Freshman)
Sean Maguire (Junior)
John Franklin III (Sophomore)
De’Andre Johnson (Freshman)
Deondre Francois (Freshman)
Sean Maguire has one start under his belt, throwing for 304 yards and one touchdown in a 23-17 overtime win over Clemson – arguably the best defense in college football – in 2014. Maguire is the safe pick here, but the upside is with J.J. Cosentino and Deondre Francois.
Who Takes the First Snap of the 2015 Season: Maguire
4. Notre Dame
Everett Golson (Senior)
Malik Zaire (Sophomore)
Golson started all 12 of Notre Dame’s regular season matchups, but was passed by Zaire on the depth chart prior to the Music City Bowl. In the upset win over LSU, Zaire passed for 96 yards and added 96 more on the ground. He’s the man to beat in spring practice.
Who Takes the First Snap of the 2015 Season: Zaire
Vernon Adams (Senior)
Jeff Lockie (Junior)
Travis Waller (Freshman)
Morgan Mahalak (Redshirt Freshman)
Ty Griffin (Sophomore)
The Ducks make an appearance here in the quarterback battle column, but it would be a major surprise if anyone unseats Eastern Washington transfer Vernon Adams. The senior has a chance to be one of the Pac-12’s top quarterbacks in 2015.
Who Takes the First Snap of the 2015 Season: Adams
Anthony Jennings (Junior)
Brandon Harris (Sophomore)
Justin McMillan (Freshman)
Upgrading the passing attack should be the top priority for LSU this spring. The Tigers completed only 50 percent of their passes and ranked last in the SEC in passing offense. Jennings posted a 48.9 completion percentage, while Harris didn’t get on the field much in the second half of 2015. LSU should know what it has in Jennings. It’s time to see what this team has in Harris.
Who Takes the First Snap of the 2015 Season: Harris
Brice Ramsey (Sophomore)
Jacob Park (Redshirt Freshman)
Faton Bauta (Junior)
Georgia’s offense should revolve around running back Nick Chubb, but contending for the SEC title could depend on how quickly this battle is settled. There’s a new play-caller in Brian Schottenheimer, so there’s a clean slate among this group. The upside is with Park. Experience edge goes to Ramsey.
Who Takes the First Snap of the 2015 Season: Ramsey
Shane Morris (Junior)
Alex Malzone (Freshman)
Wilton Speight (Sophomore)
Zach Gentry (Freshman)
Michigan’s offense will show improvement under new coach Jim Harbaugh. But how much improvement? That depends on the development of the quarterbacks. Morris has the edge in experience (43 of 87, 389 yards in career), but Zach Gentry and Alex Malzone are both part of Harbaugh’s first signing class in Ann Arbor.
Who Takes the First Snap of the 2015 Season: Morris
Trevor Knight (Junior)
Bake Mayfield (Junior)
Cody Thomas (Sophomore)
Justice Hansen (Redshirt Freshman)
Knight appeared poised for a breakout season in 2014, but he never was able to capitalize off of a strong Sugar Bowl performance against Alabama. Mayfield sat out due to transfer rules from Texas Tech, while Thomas started the final three games of the regular season. New coordinator Lincoln Riley is an Air Raid disciple. That may give Mayfield a slight edge for the job.
Who Takes the First Snap of the 2015 Season: Mayfield
Josh Rosen (Freshman)
Jerry Neuheisel (Junior)
Asiantii Woulard (Sophomore)
Brett Hundley leaves big shoes to fill at UCLA, and there’s an intriguing battle ahead this offseason. Rosen – the No. 12 prospect in the 247Sports Composite – is battling Jerry Neuheisel – the son of former coach Rick Neuheisel. Rosen has the edge in talent and enrolled in time to compete in spring practice.
Who Takes the First Snap of the 2015 Season: Rosen
11. Ole Miss
Chad Kelly (Junior)
Ryan Buchanan (Sophomore)
DeVante Kincade (Sophomore)
This quarterback battle is one of the toughest to project on this list. Kelly – a former Clemson quarterback – has the edge in talent but Kincade and Buchanan have worked in coach Hugh Freeze’s system for the last two years.
Who Takes the First Snap of the 2015 Season: Kelly
Treon Harris (Sophomore)
Will Grier (Redshirt Freshman)
New coach Jim McElwain’s background on offense is going to pay dividends for the Gators. Harris threw for 1,019 yards and nine scores in nine games last season, while Grier – the No. 48 recruit in the 2014 247Sports Composite – spent last year as a redshirt.
Who Takes the First Snap of the 2015 Season: Grier
Reggie Bonnafon (Sophomore)
Will Gardner (Junior)
Pat Thomas (Junior)
Lamar Jackson (Freshman)
Kyle Bolin (Sophomore)
Tyler Ferguson (Junior)
Three quarterbacks – Bonnafon, Bolin and Gardner – all made starts for Louisville in 2014. Bonnafon and Gardner suffered knee injuries, which allowed Bolin to start against Georgia in the Belk Bowl. Ferguson is a transfer from Penn State and completed 10 of 15 passes for 155 yards for one score with the Nittany Lions in 2013.
Who Takes the First Snap of the 2015 Season: Ferguson
Seth Russell (Junior)
Chris Johnson (Sophomore)
Jarrett Stidham (Freshman)
Technically, there’s a quarterback battle with Bryce Petty departing. However, all signs point to Seth Russell as the favorite. True freshman Jarrett Stidham is a name to watch for the future.
Who Takes the First Snap of the 2015 Season: Russell
Jerrod Heard (Redshirt Freshman)
Tyrone Swoopes (Junior)
Kai Locksley (Freshman)
This position is under the spotlight after Texas averaged only 21.4 points per game in 2014. Swoopes had some promising efforts but threw for only 257 yards and five interceptions over the last two games. Heard – the No. 72 recruit in the 2014 247Sports Composite – is off a redshirt season and ready to push for the starting job.
Who Takes the First Snap of the 2015 Season: Heard
Other Key QB Battles to Watch in Spring Practice
Coming off of back-to-back Pro Bowl seasons, Julius Thomas is looking to cash in as the top tight end in this year’s free agent class. Unheralded when Denver drafted him in the fourth round in 2011, the former Portland State football and basketball player has developed into one of the most productive tight ends in the NFL.
Thomas played in just nine games in his first two seasons with the Broncos before breaking through in a big way in 2013. The season Peyton Manning also came to town, Thomas exploded for 65 catches for 788 yards and 12 touchdowns. He followed that up this past season with another 12 scores, although an ankle injury limited him to just 13 games and his other numbers went down (43, 489).
An athletic target with outstanding hands making him one of the most dangerous red-zone threats in the league, Thomas could be a difference-maker for a team looking to upgrade at tight end. A return to Denver looks unlikely, so the question must be asked – how will Thomas fare without Manning throwing passes to him?
Here are five potential landing spots (in alphabetical order) for Thomas, whether it’s based on need or available cap space or both, as well as a few other teams to keep an eye on with free agency set to officially begin on Tuesday at 4 p.m. ET.
Everyone knows how good the Falcons’ offense was with Tony Gonzalez a part of it. I’m not saying Thomas is a future Hall of Famer like Gonzalez, but he would have to be considered an upgrade over Levine Toilolo. Atlanta has plenty of cap space to give Matt Ryan another weapon in the passing game.
Jordan Cameron is a free agent, but I think both he and the Browns are ready to move on. Tight end isn’t Cleveland’s biggest need, but the Browns have plenty of cap space and an uncertain situation at quarterback. Whomever ends up under center, he will need targets to throw to and Thomas would fit the bill, especially in the red zone.
Green Bay Packers
As good as the Packers’ offense is, can you imagine what it would be like if it added Thomas to the mix? Green Bay has other positions to address (including trying to re-sign Randall Cobb), so tight end may be more of a luxury than need right now. But oh what a potential luxury it could be for Aaron Rodgers if Thomas were to sign with the Packers.
The Jaguars can pretty much be considered an option for any big free agent because of two things – 1) they have plenty of holes to fill and 2) they have plenty of cap space. That said, Thomas also makes a lot of sense because of what his presence could mean to the development of second-year quarterback Blake Bortles. Call it a win-win for both the team and player.
With Marshawn Lynch back in the fold, the Seahawks’ focus this offseason will shift to signing Russell Wilson and other key players to long-term contracts. However, that doesn’t mean the team won’t look at adding some new pieces too. Thomas would definitely give Seattle’s passing game a different element.
Other Teams to Watch
Rex Ryan has his running back in LeSean McCoy, but Thomas could be the next Pro Bowler to join the new-look Buffalo Bills. Adding Thomas to the offense would make things easier on both the quarterback and the likes of McCoy and wide receiver Sammy Waktins … With Andre Johnson seemingly on his way out, the Houston Texans probably need a wide receiver more than a tight end. However, that doesn’t mean that Thomas wouldn’t fit nicely in head coach Bill O’Brien’s offense… The Oakland Raiders already have a young tight end in Mychal Rivera and much bigger holes to fill elsewhere. But since they have so much cap space and apparently are itching to spend it, they at least need to be mentioned here.
The Packers are certainly intriguing, given the quarterback similarities, but I don’t think they can offer Thomas enough money to make it worth his while. And if it’s all about the money, then it’s a two-horse race between the Jaguars and Raiders. However, I also like the Falcons’ and Seahawks’ chances. Seattle would give Thomas a chance to play for a legitimate Super Bowl contender not far from where he played his college ball, while Atlanta has been a good place for tight ends to thrive. In the end, I think the Jaguars will simply present Thomas with an offer he can’t refuse.
DeMarco Murray led the NFL with 1,845 yards rushing last year, but will the free agent running back re-sign with the Dallas Cowboys? The team used its franchise tag on wide receiver Dez Bryant, which put Murray on the open market with free agency set to kick off on Tuesday at 4 p.m. ET.
The perceived value of running backs appears to be changing, as evidenced by the recent trade of another former rushing champion, LeSean McCoy. However, Murray is just 27 years old and has rushed for 1,100 yards in back-to-back seasons, so he appears to be the best option in a market that doesn’t lack for options. There are about 30 running backs (and eight fullbacks) that are unrestricted free agents.
Murray does come with some durability questions, as last season was the first in his four-year career that he played in all 16 games, and there are some observers who credit much of his success to Dallas’ outstanding offensive line.
With all of this in mind, here are five possible destinations (in alphabetical order) for Murray and a few other teams that may be interested in adding him to their backfield.
The Cardinals went 11-5 and made the playoffs last season despite dealing with a rash of injuries and getting next-to-nothing from its running game. Arizona was second to last in the NFL with 1,308 yards rushing. Murray led the league with 1,845 by himself. Emmitt Smith went from Big D to the desert, why not Murray?
Even though the Cowboys used the franchise tag on Bryant rather than Murray, I don’t think it’s any secret they want to keep their No. 1 running back too. We’ve already seen what Murray can do behind one of the best offensive lines in the league. It’s just a matter of making the financials work.
The Colts made it to the AFC title game thanks in large part to Andrew Luck’s right arm. As talented as Luck is, he can’t do it alone (Exhibit A: AFC Championship Game vs. New England), and beefing up the running game would certainly help. Not only would it make Luck that much more dangerous in the pocket, it also would likely mean less punishment from opposing pass rushers. Luck already has been sacked 100 times in just three seasons.
The Jaguars haven’t had a 1,000-yard rusher since 2011. The offensive line is a work in progress, but the Jaguars are in position to do something that other teams are becoming less and less willing to do – pay big money for a running back. If it’s all about the money for Murray, than Jacksonville could be his destination.
The Raiders have a new head coach in Jack Del Rio, who has a ton of cap space to use to overhaul his roster. Derek Carr is a young quarterback who may be the long-term answer under center and what better way to help him develop than to give him plenty of ground support? Oh there’s also the intrigue of Oakland going with a Murray & Murray running back tandem in DeMarco and Latavius.
Other Teams to Watch
The Atlanta Falcons have plenty of cap space to add Murray to the mix, but I think other areas on the roster are more of a priority. The Falcons seem content to see how Devonta Freeman, last year’s fourth-round pick out of Florida State, fares with a larger workload… Adrian Peterson is still a member of the Minnesota Vikings, but for how long? Going from Peterson to Murray doesn’t seem like that much of a drop off, if that’s the direction the team chooses to go… The San Diego Chargers also appear to have a need with Ryan Mathews a free agent, Danny Woodhead coming back from a broken leg and second-year back Branden Oliver unproven. The Chargers were 30th in rushing last season.
Although plenty of teams need a running back the caliber of Murray, I’m just not sure how many are willing to pay him accordingly. Unless the Colts or Jaguars or Raiders decide to break the bank, I think the offers will be close enough that Murray will decide to stay put. The benefits of being a Cowboy, such as running behind one of the best offensive lines in the league, outweigh the potential financial windfall he can make elsewhere. It will take some work as it relates to the salary cap, but in the end, Dallas gets to keep its No. 1 wide receiver and running back, which makes Jerry Jones, Jason Garrett and especially Tony Romo happy.
Recent talk has suggested that even more rest could soon be in line for the league, but without losing any games. With the year’s spate of injuries to superstars and role players alike, it’s hard to argue that stretching the schedule out and giving some more relief to basketball bodies is a bad idea.
San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich, though, doesn’t like the concept. "If there is a game in July, count me out," Popovich said last week. "Count me out. Count me out. Life is too short… I think the season is long enough," Popovich said. "I will not come to work in July.”
The Spurs, quite famously, have gotten their rest through alternative means over the years: by simply taking it. Popovich and Co. were once fined $250,000 for sitting Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker and Danny Green for a nationally televised game in December of 2012, but they’ve continued to employ such strategies anyway.
For teams without as strong of a culture, though — the kind that kind win regular season games even with the back of their bench in the starting lineup — no such luxury exists. The New Orleans Pelicans can’t beat too many teams without Anthony Davis; the Los Angeles Clippers face similarly poor odds without Chris Paul… the list goes on and on. Rest is not an option for most of the NBA playoff-starved NBA, and exhausting back-to-back arrangements are a fact of life.
Reducing the total number of games, while being a smart idea, is probably the least probable solution of all, because less television time less means less revenue for everyone involved. So either we’ll see Popovich’s least favorite notion come to life, or we’ll likely keep seeing ragged bodies fall to the injured reserve at unfortunate rates.
— John Wilmes
They’re the cream of the major championship crop, circa 2015 — the Athlon Major Championship Dream Team. Leading up to The Masters, we'll be unveiling Athlon Sports’ 30 players to watch for majors season, with commentary on each from the Golf Channel’s Brandel Chamblee.
No. 23: Hunter Mahan
Born: May 17, 1982, Orange, Calif. | Career PGA Tour Wins: 6 | 2014 Wins (Worldwide): 1 | 2014 Earnings (PGA Tour): $3,097,983 (22nd) | World Ranking: 30
Brandel Chamblee's Take
Mahan has not finished worse than 30th on the money list in the last nine years and is the only player in the world who has made it to the season-ending 30-man Tour Championship every year since the FedExCup’s inception in 2007. That being said, neither has he ever finished higher than 9th on the money list nor higher than 6th in the FEC. His highs are restricted by an inability to save shots around the green, and his lows are minimized by an almost unmatched repetitive game from tee to green. With top 10s in all four majors, he is a threat on any course and under any circumstances, but he needs one great week around the greens to become a major winner, something that was predicted of him over a decade ago as the country’s best amateur.
Major Championship Résumé
Masters - T26
U.S. Open - Cut
British Open - T32
PGA Championship - T7
Best Career Finishes:
Masters - T8 (2010)
U.S. Open - T4 (2013)
British Open - T6 (2007)
PGA Championship - T7 (2014)
Top-10 Finishes: 7
Top-25 Finishes: 14
Missed Cuts: 13
Athlon's 2015 Golf annual provides in-depth previews of this year's four majors, including the top 30 players to watch this season. One of these elite players, Billy Horschel, also takes you tee to green with full-swing instruction and short game essentials. BUY IT NOW.
The ACC is losing some significant star power with the departure of Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston, Clemson defensive end Vic Beasley, Louisville safety Gerod Holliman and Miami running back Duke Johnson (just to name a few).
All 14 teams in the ACC will be busy this spring filling key personnel question marks for 2015, and the loss of several star players shows why most preseason rankings have Florida State, Clemson and Georgia Tech all outside of the playoff picture.
As spring practice begins around the ACC, it’s never too early to take a peek at what’s ahead in 2015. Here’s a quick primer on the top 15 players in the ACC for next season, as well as a few names to watch.
ACC's Pre-Spring Top 15 Players for 2015
1. James Conner, RB, Pittsburgh
2015 Year of Eligibility: Junior
2014 Stats: 1,765 yards, 26 TDs
Conner was the ACC’s Player of the Year in 2014 and will remain the centerpiece of Pittsburgh’s offense in 2015.
2. Jalen Ramsey, S, Florida State
2015 Year of Eligibility: Junior
2014 Stats: 79 tackles, 9.5 TFL, 3 sacks, 2 INT, 12 PBU
Ramsey’s all-around ability is a huge asset for Florida State’s defense. He led the team with 12 pass breakups last season and could slide to cornerback to help replace the production lost by P.J. Williams and Ronald Darby.
3. Kendall Fuller, CB, Virginia Tech
2015 Year of Eligibility: Junior
2014 Stats: 54 tackles, 2 INT, 15 PBU
Fuller has a variety of accolades in just two seasons with the Hokies. The Baltimore native was the ACC Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2013 and earned All-America honors last year. He should lead a tough Virginia Tech defense in 2015.
4. Tyler Boyd, WR, Pittsburgh
2015 Year of Eligibility: Junior
2014 Stats: 78 receptions, 1,261 yards, 8 TDs
Boyd has started his career with back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons and has grabbed 15 touchdown receptions in two years. The Pennsylvania native will be the ACC’s No. 1 receiver in 2015.
5. Dalvin Cook, RB, Florida State
2015 Year of Eligibility: Sophomore
2014 Stats: 1,008 yards, 8 TDs, 22 rec., 203 yards
Cook is primed for a monster season as Florida State’s go-to back. As a true freshman in 2014, Cook led the team with 1,008 yards. All-America honors in 2015 would not be a surprise.
6. Deshaun Watson, QB, Clemson
2015 Year of Eligibility: Sophomore
2014 Stats: 93 of 137, 1,466 yards, 14 TDs, 2 INTs
Watson could be the No. 1 player on this list by the end of the 2015 season. He’s recovering from ACL surgery, but the sophomore lived up to his recruiting hype by throwing for 1,466 yards and 14 touchdowns in limited action last year.
7. Justin Thomas, QB, Georgia Tech
2015 Year of Eligibility: Junior
2014 Stats: 1,719 passing yards, 18 TDs, 6 INTs, 1,086 rush yards, 8 TDs
Thomas is the perfect fit as the catalyst in Georgia Tech’s option offense. The Alabama native led the team with 1,086 rushing yards last season and connected on 14 pass plays of 30 yards or more.
8. Dadi Nicolas, DE, Virginia Tech
2015 Year of Eligibility: Senior
2014 Stats: 72 tackles, 18.5 TFL, 9 sacks
Nicolas had a breakout season in his first full year as a starter. After recording four sacks in 2013, Nicolas upped that total to nine and ranked second among ACC defenders with 18.5 tackles for a loss.
9. Marquise Williams, QB, North Carolina
2015 Year of Eligibility: Senior
2014 Stats: 270 of 428, 3,068 yards, 21 TDs, 9 INTs, 788 rush yards, 13 TDs
Williams will miss spring practice due to a hip injury, but the senior isn’t expected to miss any snaps in the fall. He ranked second among ACC quarterbacks (conference-only games) by completing 62.9 passes last year. Williams ranked second in the ACC by averaging 296.6 total yards per game.
10. Brad Kaaya, QB, Miami
2015 Year of Eligibility: Sophomore
2014 Stats: 221 of 378, 3,198 yards, 26 TDs, 12 INTs
Kaaya started all 13 games as a true freshman and guided Miami's offense to an average of 29.2 points per game. The California native is only going to get better as a sophomore, which is critical for a team dealing with key losses on defense (Denzel Perryman), at running back (Duke Johnson) and on the offensive line.
11. Jeremy Cash, S, Duke
2015 Year of Eligibility: Senior
2014 Stats: 111 tackles, 10.5 TFL, 5.5 sacks, 2 INT, 7 PBU, 4 FF
Cash sat out spring ball due to knee injury, but the senior is expected to be at full strength by the fall. He’s one of the top defensive playmakers in the ACC after recording four forced fumbles and two picks last season.
12. Jacoby Brissett, QB, NC State
2015 Year of Eligibility: Senior
2014 Stats: 2,606 yards, 23 TD, 5 INTs, 529 rush yards, 3 TDs
Brissett turned in a solid all-around in his debut at NC State, and bigger and better things should be coming for the senior in 2015. The Florida transfer did not throw an interception over the last three games of 2014.
13. Quin Blanding, S, Virginia
2015 Year of Eligibility: Sophomore
2014 Stats: 123 tackles, 2.5 TFL, 1 sack, 3 INT, 6 PBU
Blanding certainly lived up to his five-star recruiting hype coming out of high school. On his way to earning second-team All-ACC honors, Blanding led the team with 123 tackles and tied for first on the defense with three interceptions.
14. Luther Maddy, DT, Virginia Tech
2015 Year of Eligibility: Senior
2014 Stats: 9 tackles
Maddy missed nearly all of 2014 due to a knee injury. In 2013, he recorded 55 tackles (13.5 for a loss) and 6.5 sacks. If Maddy is healthy, he will rank higher on this list in the fall.
15. Mackensie Alexander, CB, Clemson
2015 Year of Eligibility: Sophomore
2014 Stats: 21 tackles, 2 TFL, 6 PBU
It’s a little bit of a projection to put Alexander here, but he’s poised for a breakout year after starting all 13 games last season. According to Clemson’s game notes, Alexander ranks first in school history in snaps by a freshman.
Six Names to Watch in Spring Practice
KeShun Freeman, DE, Georgia Tech
As a true freshman, Freeman’s emerged as one of Georgia Tech’s top defensive linemen in 2014. He should make an even bigger impact in 2015.
Rod Johnson, OT, Florida State
Rising star anchored the left side of Florida State’s line for the final five games of 2014 - as a true freshman.
Artavis Scott/Mike Williams, WR, Clemson
This duo combined for 133 catches for 1,995 yards and 14 scores last season. It’s a good bet one of these receivers rank on the top 15 players for the ACC at the end of 2015.
Cam Serigne, TE, Wake Forest
Serigne was a bright spot for a struggling Wake Forest offense last season. He caught 54 passes for 531 yards and five scores.
Wyatt Teller, OL, Virginia Tech
Teller moved from the defensive line to the offensive line in 2013 and started the last six games in his redshirt freshman season. Virginia Tech’s offensive line is a huge question mark entering 2015. Teller is one of the few certainties heading into this season.
Joseph Yearby, RB, Miami
Duke Johnson leaves big shoes to fill, but Yearby is capable of handling the starting role in 2015.
John Hart has tried his best to convince Braves fans that the team wasn’t simply rebuilding for the opening of the new stadium in 2017. The newly named president of baseball operations tried to argue that the Braves would be “very competitive” in 2015, but after trading Justin Upton and Evan Gattis in separate deals that netted the team seven prospects, his actions seem to speak otherwise. While adding a much-needed infusion of talent into an otherwise depleted farm system, Hart shipped off a combined 51 home runs and 154 RBIs from an offense that ranked second to last in the National League last season.
The Braves’ rotation figures to be solid again — losing only Ervin Santana and gaining Shelby Miller and several other young arms — but the offense is not exactly on solid ground. Especially not with Upton, Gattis as well as leadoff man Jason Heyward all wearing other uniforms.
The Braves couldn’t hang with the big spenders in the Jon Lester sweepstakes, leaving Miller as the biggest infusion of new blood into their rotation. The status quo centers on Julio Teheran, who is in his third full season and poised to lead a Braves rotation that finished fifth in the majors last year with a 3.42 ERA. Even pitching alongside Santana a year ago, the 23-year-old Teheran proved to be the Braves’ ace in his first All-Star season. He posted a career-best 2.89 ERA while pitching two shutouts and putting up career highs in starts (33) and innings pitched (221). His command of both a slider and curveball with the addition of a two-seam fastball has made him more than the power pitcher that earned him top prospect accolades in the organization for three years running. Teheran and lefthander Alex Wood give the Braves a formidable young righty-lefty combination at the top of their rotation. The Braves tried to limit Wood’s innings by bringing him out of the bullpen for stretches each of the past two seasons, but the team now needs him in the rotation. Miller and Mike Minor round out a rotation that figures to be solid Nos. 1 through 4. Veteran southpaw Eric Stults should get a chance to win the final spot in spring training, but Manny Banuelos and Mike Foltynewicz, a pair of prospects acquired this offseason, are waiting in the wings and could force their way into the discussion.
The Braves reshaped their bullpen around closer Craig Kimbrel after trading away Jordan Walden and David Carpenter and signing a pair of former closers looking to bounce back after subpar seasons. Jim Johnson and Jason Grilli are veteran candidates to serve as setup men for Kimbrel. Shae Simmons would have been included in this group, but he underwent Tommy John surgery in February and will miss the season. The Braves are hoping pitching coach Roger McDowell can work some magic with Johnson and his sinker. The former Orioles closer tanked last season after his trade to Oakland but posted 101 saves the previous two years. Grilli went 1–5 with 12 saves for the Pirates and Angels last year coming off his first All-Star season in 2013. Kimbrel became the first closer in MLB history to open his career with 40 or more saves in each of his first four seasons and only the third to do it in four consecutive seasons over any stretch. James Russell and Luis Avilan give the Braves some depth from the left side with the losers of the rotation competition likely to fill out the remaining spots.
It’s only a matter of time before Jose Peraza is starting at second base and batting leadoff for the Braves. The 20-year-old Venezuelan is the pure leadoff hitter the Braves haven’t had since Rafael Furcal. The trick will be to figure out when Peraza is ready for the call-up from Triple-A to the majors. Meanwhile, Alberto Callaspo and Phil Gosselin, and possibly even Jace Peterson, will battle for the second base job and could wind up in a platoon. Shortstop is in good hands, literally. Andrelton Simmons has won two Gold Gloves and one Platinum in his first two full seasons in the big leagues. He regressed offensively last year from a slash line of .248/.296/.396 to .244/.286/.331 as he got caught up swinging for the fences. He’ll be high on the priority list for new hitting coach Kevin Seitzer, who made inroads with Alcides Escobar — another young shortstop — during his time as the hitting coach of the Royals.
Even with Upton and Heyward in the lineup, Freddie Freeman was still the Braves’ best hitter. Now even more falls on the shoulders of the 25-year-old two-time All-Star first baseman. When the rest of the lineup was defined by big swings and high-strikeout totals, Freeman was one of the few Braves to use the opposite field with any consistency. His homers (23 to 18) and RBIs (109 to 78) were down last year, but his doubles were up (27 to 43). He’s going to have even less protection in the lineup without Upton behind him, so nothing will come easy this season. Chris Johnson’s name was bandied about in trade scenarios in the offseason. If he opens the season at third base for the Braves, he’s got to prove that his 2013 season, when he made a run at the National League batting title, wasn’t the fluke — that his 2014 season was. His defense at third was much improved, though.
For those puzzled by the four-year, $44 million commitment to former Oriole Nick Markakis during what otherwise appeared to be a rebuilding effort, consider that his approach is more in line with the philosophy the Braves are aiming for offensively. He’s a left-handed contact hitter who handles lefties (career .288). Markakis will take over for Heyward in right field and bat near the top of the lineup. Markakis doesn’t bring the power or speed of a Heyward or Upton, but he should be more consistently productive. The Braves are trying to move past the home run-or-bust mentality, but they still will have the other Upton brother in the lineup. B.J. changed his name to Melvin Upton Jr. during spring training, but he says it wasn’t because of his struggles (.198 with 324 Ks) since signing a five-year, $72.5 million free-agent contract with Atlanta in 2013. Adding to his woes, Upton could miss the first month of the season, if not more, after inflammation of a bone in his left foot was discovered during spring training. His injury opens up competition for the starting center field job, which could go to non-roster invitee Eric Young Jr., a switch-hitting speed threat who also is capable of playing second. Veteran Jonny Gomes was signed to a one-year deal and will try to supply some of the power that was lost in the departures of Justin Upton and Gattis.
Even if Gattis remained with the Braves, he wasn’t going to be able to stay behind the plate. Instead, the team will turn to Christian Bethancourt, an athletic young prospect. Bethancourt is agile and has a dynamic arm, but he’s still refining his pitch-calling and needs to increase his stamina. He wore down in September, and it showed with six passed balls. The Braves signed veteran A.J. Pierzynski to a one-year deal to serve as Bethancourt’s backup.
The bench will likely include both Young and Gomes, at least when each isn’t starting, as well as whomever loses the battle for the starting job at second. The remaining holdovers have very little experience — Gosselin, who’s had a total of 50 major league games, and the likes of outfielder Todd Cunningham (eight games) and outfielder/first baseman Joey Terdoslavich (64 games). However, Upton’s injury opens the door for one of these to potentially receive more playing time.
The Braves fired general manager Frank Wren and assistant Bruce Manno and restructured their front office with Hart taking over as president of baseball operations and John Coppolella, his heir apparent, getting increased responsibility as an assistant general manager. The subplot, though, is the return to greater influence of John Schuerholz and Bobby Cox, who had eschewed much of the baseball decision-making when Wren was at the helm. The other significant change was at hitting coach, with Seitzer taking over for Greg Walker. Seitzer is charged with getting the Braves’ lineup back to a more fundamentally sound, contact-oriented approach at the plate.
The Braves have won a total of two playoff games in the past nine seasons since their run of 11 straight division titles ended in 2005. Now they’re determined to get back to the formula that generated their run of success, which centers on scouting and developing their own players. That might take a while — the Braves hope no longer than 2017, when they open their new ballpark in the Atlanta suburbs of Cobb County. The success or failures of 2015? It’s going to depend once again on if the Braves can produce much offense to complement a solid young pitching staff.
2015 Prediction: 4th in NL East
LF Eric Young Jr. (S) If he wins a starting job and gets on base, his speed (30 SB in 100 G in 2014) will be an asset atop the lineup.
RF Nick Markakis (L) Career .294 hitter with .353 OBP in leadoff spot, which is where he’ll likely stay until Jose Peraza is ready.
1B Freddie Freeman (L) Second in majors with .443 average with runners in scoring position in 2013; dropped to 64th (.294) in 2014.
3B Chris Johnson (R) Second in the majors with a .395 average against lefties last year but hit only .231 against righties.
C Christian Bethancourt (R) Threw out five of 15 base-stealers but also charged with six passed balls in 31 games.
2B Alberto Callaspo (S) Braves sought this contact hitter, who has one strikeout every 11.16 career plate appearances.
SS Andrelton Simmons (R) Numbers were down a bit in second full season in the bigs, but his real value is with his glove.
CF Melvin Upton Jr. (R) Set Braves’ single-season franchise record for strikeouts with 173 in 2014, likely to miss at least the first month because of injury.
OF Jonny Gomes (R) Could beat out Young for starting job, but more suited for spot and pinch-hitting duty.
INF Phil Gosselin (R) Hit safely in 24 of his 30 starts for the Braves last season, batting .284 (33-for-116) as a starter.
C A.J. Pierzynski (L) Veteran is coming off the worst offensive season of his career, hitting a combined .251 in Boston, St. Louis.
OF Todd Cunningham (S) The Braves need a fill-in center fielder with Upton’s injury, which gives him an edge over Joey Terdoslavich or Jose Constanza.
INF Jace Peterson (L) Hit .113 in first MLB action with Padres last year but is coming off back-to-back .300 seasons in the minors.
RH Julio Teheran Sixth Braves starter since 2000 to make at least 30 starts (33) and post an ERA under 3.00 (2.89).
LH Alex Wood Led Braves with 2.78 ERA in 2014 but went 11–11 thanks to a staff-low 2.75 runs of support.
RH Shelby Miller After striking out 169 in 173.0 IP in breakout 2013 season, he K’d only 127 in 183.0 IP in ’14.
LH Mike Minor Shoulder soreness forced late start and early exit to 2014 season.
LH Eric Stults Veteran went 8-17 with 4.30 ERA in 32 starts for Padres last season.
RH Craig Kimbrel (Closer) Converted 47 of 51 saves and finished second in the majors behind Fernando Rodney (48).
RH Jim Johnson Once-dominant closer saw his ERA balloon to 7.09 last season in stints with the A’s and Tigers.
LH James Russell Veteran lefty was actually better against righties in 2014 (.284 vs. lefties, .165 vs. righties).
LH Luis Avilan Posted a 1.69 ERA in first two seasons, but it jumped to 4.57 in 2014 as he struggled with breaking pitches.
RH Jason Grilli Posted 2.74 ERA over three seasons with Pirates and converted 30 of 31 saves as closer in 2013.
LH Manny Banuelos Former Yankee pitched 76.2 innings in the minors last season in first year back from Tommy John surgery.
RH Mike Foltynewicz Former Astros first-round pick will get a shot to earn a spot in the rotation after working out of the bullpen last year.
Beyond the Box Score
Come together Shortly after signing a four-year, $44 million contract with the Braves, right fielder Nick Markakis underwent spinal fusion surgery for a herniated disc in his neck Dec. 17. His pre-spring routine will be altered, but the Braves are fairly confident Markakis will be able to make up ground during spring training and be a full go by Opening Day.
Roy returns Former Braves scouting director Roy Clark, who spent a handful of seasons helping stock the Nationals’ farm system, returned to the Braves front office, where he spent 22 years making a name for himself signing the likes of Brian McCann, Jeff Francoeur, Jason Heyward and Craig Kimbrel, among others. As special assistant to the general manager, Clark aims to build the Braves farm system back to the “Baby Braves” days of 2005, when 18 rookies made the major league roster during the last year of the team’s run of 11 straight division titles.
Masterful advice Shelby Miller honed his sinker during the second half of last season in St. Louis with the help of Justin Masterson, who came to the Cardinals at the trade deadline from Cleveland. Miller used the two-seamer to pitch deeper into games and keep hitters from sitting on his four-seam fastball. He posted a 2.08 ERA over his final seven starts after recording a 4.25 ERA in his first 25 games (24 starts).
Otro outfielder The Braves missed out on Cuban outfielder Yasmany Tomas, who signed with the Diamondbacks for $68.5 million. But while evaluating Tomas in the Dominican Republic, they also got a good look at a lower-profile Cuban outfielder named Dion Toscano. The Braves signed the left-handed hitter to a four-year, $6 million contract and will send him to the minor leagues to get a better idea of how soon he might be able to help at the big-league level.
Mending fences Former third baseman Chipper Jones didn’t take too kindly when the Braves sent the mascot out to catch his ceremonial first pitch before a 2013 division series playoff game against the Dodgers, a series in which Jones had predicted on a local radio broadcast the Braves would lose in four games. Jones did not return to spring training as a guest instructor last spring like he had the year prior. Jones is expected back in the fold as a regular around the batting cages this year after manager Fredi Gonzalez asked him to serve as an occasional hitting consultant.
2014 Top Draft Pick
Braxton Davidson, OF
The Braves are hoping some of the T.C. Roberson High School magic will rub off with their top pick in June. Davidson, a protégé and friend of Cameron Maybin from the Asheville, N.C., area, is a left-handed, power-hitting corner outfielder hoping to follow in the footsteps of his mentor. Davidson, who attended Maybin’s draft party 10 years earlier, was taken 32nd overall, in the supplemental round. He was considered the best power hitter in the draft, and the Braves also like Davidson’s feel for the strike zone — though he took his lumps in rookie ball (batted .224 in 50 games with 42 strikeouts in 147 at-bats). He drew comparisons to Freddie Freeman and Brandon Belt as a high school first baseman, though the Braves moved him to the outfield. He had shed 35 pounds during his senior year of high school in anticipation of that move.
Top 10 Prospects
1. Jose Peraza, 2B (20) Triple-A seasoning is all that stands between Peraza and a job as the Braves’ everyday second baseman and leadoff hitter.
2. Mike Foltynewicz, RHP (23) Biggest piece in the Evan Gattis trade with Houston will get shot in spring training to earn spot in starting rotation.
3. Lucas Sims, RHP (20) Jump from Low- to High-A proved to be a big one for Sims — 12–4 with a 2.62 ERA in Rome to 8–11 with a 4.19 ERA in Lynchburg. The Braves still covet his power arm.
4. Christian Bethancourt, C (23) Braves’ Opening Day catcher, barring injury or meltdown in spring training, given Evan Gattis’ move to left field.
5. Jason Hursh, RHP (23) Braves’ 2013 first-round pick from Oklahoma State coming off solid Double-A season (11–7, 3.58 ERA).
6. Rio Ruiz, 3B (20) Acquired in the Gattis deal, likely ticketed for Double-A Mississippi after batting .293-11-77 in High-A last season.
7. Max Fried, LHP (21) The No. 7 overall pick by the Padres in 2012 who arrived in the Justin Upton trade, Fried is coming off Tommy John surgery and likely to miss all of 2015 season.
8. Ozhaino Albies, SS (18) Another talent from Curacao trying to live up to the legacy of Andruw Jones and Andrelton Simmons. He led Appalachian League in hitting (.356) and OBP (.429) as a 17-year-old.
9. Braxton Davidson, RF (18) Braves aren’t sure if 2014 first-rounder has the arm strength to play right field, but he’s slated to continue there as he opens his first full season in High-A Rome.
10. Tyrell Jenkins, RHP (22) Shoulder injuries stalled minor league progression, but fastball back in mid-90s for former Baylor football signee who had standout Arizona Fall League.
This college basketball season has been one of mixed emotions.
We’ve celebrated the careers of legends Dean Smith and Jerry Tarkanian while mourning their passing. We watched Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski and Philadelphia’s Herb Magee celebrate their 1,000th win. We’ve watched day-in and day-out greatness at Kentucky.
Yet we’ve also watched another Hall of Fame coach see his legacy tainted and the future of the program thrown into doubt due to NCAA violations, and Jim Boeheim wasn’t alone in dealing with off-court issues when programs should be gearing up for postseason.
Amid all of this, March Madness and the unpredictability of tournament season is here. Remember, at this point last season, Connecticut was on no one’s radar as a national championship contender. Neither was Kentucky. A series of upsets, though, led us to UConn winning a national title. Madness, indeed.
For any fan just getting into college basketball in time for championship week and office pools: What took you so long?
You have some catching up to do. By waiting until the final weeks, you’ve missed a historic season. Every season is historic for one reason or another, so maybe this season will be among the most memorable even before the NCAA Tournament.
You may need to catch up a bit, but that’s what you’ll learn here.
Kentucky is going for perfection
College basketball hasn’t had a story like this since — when, exactly? Kevin Durant vs. Greg Oden in the first year of one-and-done in 2007? The Christian Laettner Duke years? This is the No. 1 story in college basketball as Kentucky tries to match Indiana’s undefeated national championship team in 1975-76. Only five teams since have entered their league tournament undefeated, and only 1991 UNLV could claim to be as divisive. No fan base is more invested than Kentucky’s, and John Calipari may be the only coach to match Mike Krzyzewski as a love-him or hate-him figure in the sport. One way or another, Kentucky will make history in this Tournament — either by becoming the first team to go 40–0 or being on the wrong end of a monumental upset.
The Player of the Year race may go down to the wire
Maybe it’s for the best that the race for the Wooden or Naismith awards doesn’t get the same hype as the Heisman Trophy. A year after the Player of the Year award was a season-long coronation for Creighton’s Doug McDermott, the sport has a legitimate two-player race between Duke’s Jahlil Okafor and Wisconsin’s Frank Kaminsky. Both play center for national championship contenders, but they don’t fit the same profile. Okafor, who does his best work around the basket, has been a contender for the No. 1 overall draft pick since he was in high school. Kaminsky, who is more of a threat from the perimeter, was a virtual unknown two years ago. This will be the most heated Player of the Year race since Duke’s J.J. Redick and Gonzaga’s Adam Morrison shared the award in 2005-06.
A Final Four drought could end out West
The two best coaches who have never reached the Final Four both reside out West, and both may have their best chance to reach the final weekend of the NCAA Tournament. Gonzaga’s Mark Few has a 30-win team that may be better than his Bulldogs team that was a No. 1 seed in 2013 or the team with Adam Morrison in 2006. Meanwhile, Sean Miller’s Arizona team recent wrapped up another Pac-12 championship and will enter postseason with one of the best rosters in the nation. Miller has been to the Elite Eight three times in his career, once with Xavier and twice with Arizona.
Mike Krzyzewski reached 1,000 wins and should keep adding more
Earlier this season, Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski became the first Division I coach to reach the 1,000-win mark, and he has a team that should be able to build upon that total in the NCAA Tournament. He has Okafor anchoring the center spot, but his backcourt of freshman Tyus Jones and senior Quinn Cook may be the most clutch duo in the country. Depth and defense remain an issue for the Blue Devils, so there’s hope for the Duke haters who enjoyed the Devils’ recent Round of 64 losses to Mercer (2014) and Lehigh (2012).
Tony Bennett is college basketball’s newest miracle worker
Virginia hasn’t been this good since Ralph Sampson played for the Cavaliers, but what’s most remarkable is that the Cavs aren’t doing it with a ton of stars or flash. Virginia has won back-to-back ACC regular-season titles and enters conference tournament season with just two losses. Coach Tony Bennett has done this without a five-star prospect or a McDonald’s All-American and without his top player, Justin Anderson, for the final eight games of the regular season. The style isn’t for everyone — Virginia ranks 349th of 351 team in terms of tempo — but it is effective.
Villanova is the best team no one is talking about
Villanova has only lost two games yet is flying under the national radar — a bit puzzling for a program that has won a national championship, been to a Final Four in recent years and has a star coach on the bench. The reason? Maybe it’s because the Big East doesn’t get much exposure from ESPN since most its games are on FOX Sports 1. Or possibly because Villanova lost last season as No. 2 seed in the Round of 32. Whatever the reason, don’t hold it against this year’s Villanova team. The Wildcats are in the top 20 in both offensive and defensive efficiency, a trademark of teams that go on to win the national title.
The Hall of Fame announcement will actually be interesting
Speaking of Bo Ryan... the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame probably isn’t something even the most ardent fans spend time pondering, especially during the week of the Final Four. This season, though, the announcement may carry more weight than usual. Active coaches John Calipari and Bo Ryan are on the ballot this year. The announcement of new inductees will be made April 6, the same day as the national championship game. Will one or both be involved?
Off-court issues threaten to mar a great tournament
Speaking of Hall of Famers, this has not been a good year for Hall of Fame coaches. Krzyzewski dismissed a player who was later revealed to be facing sexual assault allegations. Syracuse banned itself from the postseason months before the NCAA hammered the Orange and coach Jim Boeheim for a wide range of violations. North Carolina coach Roy Williams has an athletic department embroiled in an ongoing academic scandal that seems to get worse every passing week. SMU coach Larry Brown hasn’t had his best player eligible all season. Kansas’ most highly touted freshman and pro prospect might not play again this season while the NCAA investigates possible contact between his family and an agent. Why don’t we all get back to basketball for a bit.
You’re going to get annoyed at officials
The NCAA Tournament is the crown jewel of the college basketball season and the only college athletics event that comes close to rivaling football. If that’s the case, then why is the product sometimes so crummy? If you’re just checking in with the sport, be prepared: Officiating is inconsistent, defensive players are allowed too much contact and the end of games take for-ev-er due to too many team and official timeouts. This, unfortunately, is the norm.
Power teams will be at home
Hope you didn’t expect to tune in to watch Syracuse, UConn, Memphis and Florida in this field. They’re home. Sorry. UCLA and Texas are also flirting with the NIT.
Big names will be back
In the place of those powerhouses, you should be able to welcome back Larry Brown, who hasn’t been to the NCAA Tournament since 1988. Brown’s SMU team was snubbed last season, and now the Mustangs are ready to be in the field for the first time since 1993. Other powers due to be back from long absences: Purdue (2012), Maryland (2010), Utah (2009) and Arkansas (2008).
If Kentucky and Duke meet in the Final Four or the national championship game this season, the matchup will be between a pair of coaches who have met only twice in their illustrious careers and never in the postseason.
It will also be between the top two coaches in the game today, according to an Athlon Sports expert poll.
In the last three weeks, Athlon Sports surveyed 26 college basketball experts in the media for a range of topics in the sport. In our first question, we asked simply “who are the top three coaches in the game today.” We did not ask our respondents to rank their coaches (though some did). Each coach named counts as one point in our results. The answers are...
Athlon Sports College Basketball Expert Poll
Question 1: Who are the top three coaches in the game today?
|1||Mark Few (Gonzaga), Fred Hoiberg (Iowa State), Jim Larranaga (Miami), Bob McKillop (Davidson), Sean Miller (Arizona), Shaka Smart (VCU), Roy Williams (North Carolina)|
• The top two in our poll were overwhelming. Krzyzewski appeared on 23 of 26 ballots, and Calipari appeared on 20 of 26. Not that those two would be bad choices in any year, but we wonder if there might be a bit of recency bias in the response. (And since we said “in the game today,” that makes perfect sense). These top two coaches have been at the top of people’s minds this season in particular with Krzyzewski crossing the 1,000-win mark and Calipari leading an undefeated team.
• Wisconsin’s Bo Ryan is a logical coach on anyone’s ballot this season, but consider where he would have been before last year’s Final Four. Ryan has gone from the most underrated coach in the country to royalty in the sport.
• It’s worth nothing both Calipari and Ryan are finalists for the Naismith Hall of Fame this season.
• Florida’s Billy Donovan received only two votes. Hard to believe we’d get the same response this time last year. He was ESPN’s No. 1 coach before the season and Athlon’s No. 4. It’s been a rough year in Gainesville.
• Give our panel credit for mentions of Davidson’s Bob McKillop and Miami’s Jim Larranaga.
• A few notable names that didn’t appear on anyone’s ballot: Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim, Michigan’s John Beilein and Wichita State’s Gregg Marshall. Boeheim and Beilein make sense as neither of their teams are going to play in the NCAA Tournament. Marshall is a curious absence considering McKillop, Larranaga and VCU’s Shaka Smart all received at least one vote.
More than two dozen college basketball experts from throughout college basketball media participated in the Athlon Sports survey conducted in late February and early March this year.
All were notified their individual responses to our six questions would not be revealed on AthlonSports.com, but they were free to post their responses to their own sites, on their broadcasts or to their social media outlets.
The panel was comprised of:
Rick Bozich, WDRB Louisville
Mike DeCourcy, Sporting News
Chris Dortch, Blue Ribbon
Wes Durham, ACC Network/Fox Sports Network
Ryan Fagan, Sporting News
John Feinstein, Washington Post/NBC Sports
Pat Forde, Yahoo! Sports
John Gasaway, ESPN
Scott Gleeson, USA Today
Jeff Goodman, ESPN
Seth Greenberg, ESPN
Steve Greenberg, Chicago Sun-Times
Raphielle Johnson, College Basketball Talk
Blair Kerkhoff, Kansas City Star
Will Leitch, Sports on Earth
Mike Lopresti, NCAA.com
Troy Machir, Sporting News
Matt Norlander, CBSSports.com
Jerry Palm, CBSSports.com
Brendan Prunty, SI.com
Joe Rexrode, Detroit Free Press
Lindsay Schnell, SI.com
David Teel, Virginia Daily Press
Jerry Tipton, Lexington (Ky.) Herald Leader
Dick “Hoops” Weiss, Blue Star Media
Luke Winn, SI.com
New Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh is a Twitter superstar. That much has been established.
Now, we’ll find out if he can judge a guy should try to turn a single into a double.
Harbaugh arrived at Oakland Athletics spring training in Mesa, Ariz., on Saturday — in uniform — to coach first base for a game against the Los Angeles Angels.
Harbaugh and A’s manager Bob Melvin are friends from Harbaugh’s days in San Francisco.
The best part of the whole thing? The tall stirrups.
Jim Harbaugh old style socks (stirrups). YESSS! pic.twitter.com/8JNxUL624a— Steve Vucinich (@stevevuc) March 7, 2015
Jim Harbaugh specifically requested the high socks. And his old No. 4. pic.twitter.com/1fkpTa41EU— Jane Lee (@JaneMLB) March 7, 2015
"It's disbelief, you know?" he told reporters after he learned of the diagnosis. "I'm sitting up there in that tube having an MRI, and I don't hear noise, I don't feel my Achilles, I'm just … I can't believe I'm up there while my team's battling. I just haven't processed all of it yet … I've made that same cut hundreds of thousands of times in my life. I felt the initial pop, and I think you guys could tell on the replay, I looked back, and it feels like someone kicked you. I was praying that someone was back there. No one was back there, and I heard Ron [Garretson], the ref, he actually says, 'Oh no' like he knew.”
The gruesome sight was, indeed, a telling one. It evoked the moment that Kobe Bryant suffered a similar fate, at the end of the 2012-13 season. Bryant has not been the same since, playing in just 41 games over the past two seasons.
Matthews is just 28, so he should be able to recover better than Bryant. But this is a rough hit for the Blazers, who must feel especially fortunate to have traded for Arron Afflalo just before the trade deadline. Afflalo will almost certainly take Matthews’ spot in the starting lineup. But, in all likelihood, he won’t be able to recreate the terrific synergy Wes had with Damian Lillard.
— John Wilmes
Syracuse basketball will never be the same.
The NCAA committee on infractions hammered Syracuse on Friday, suspending coach Jim Boeheim for nine ACC games next season and restricting scholarships for widespread violations regarding academics and extra benefits.
For certain, the tarnish that comes with this sort of penalty will put Boeheim’s legacy into question. The man who built the program won’t join his friend Mike Krzyzewski in the 1,000-win club, at least according to the official record books. He might not get back to 900.
Feel free to disregard the vacated wins on Boeheim’s ledger — the NCAA could take away up to 135 of them. The past is the past no matter how the NCAA requires Syracuse to remember it.
Instead, the future of Syracuse basketball is more cloudy than ever.
More than the vacated wins, the suspension of Boeheim or the financial penalties, Syracuse will feel the most pain from harsh scholarship limitations combined with the inevitable retirement of its Hall of Fame coach.
On Friday, the NCAA announced it will dock the Orange 12 scholarships over the course of four seasons. Syracuse will be on probation until 2020. The Orange will lose a quarter of its roster to the scholarship limit provided Syracuse doesn’t get any back on appeal.
If the Orange begin to serve the penalty in 2016-17 — so it does not need to run off players already committed — the program won’t be back to a full scholarship allotment until 2020-21.
And there lies the second peg in what could be a disastrous sanction for Syracuse basketball. At the start of the 2020-21 basketball season, Boeheim will be 76 years old.
Who will be in charge Syracuse basketball at that point is anyone’s guess. Boeheim is stubborn, but is he stubborn enough to coach Syracuse into his late 70s?
If Boeheim retires before the end of the sanctions, who will be in charge? Longtime assistant Mike Hopkins was named Boeheim’s eventual successor in 2007 with no timetable of when he’d take over for his mentor.
If Hopkins, who was not named in the NCAA report, can start elsewhere without an NCAA sanctions, few could blame the up-and-coming coach for giving his head coaching career a better start.
A scandal of this magnitude — one that also involves the football program — is also not a good harbinger for an athletic director.
Syracuse will face the twilight of Boeheim’s career with only three-quarters of a roster for four seasons. Replacing a legend is tough enough as it is. This will only make the change more clumsy when the time inevitably comes.
When Connecticut faced NCAA sanctions at the end of Jim Calhoun’s tenure, the Huskies lost one postseason and three total scholarships in three seasons. There was still enough left for Calhoun’s handpicked successor Kevin Ollie to lead the Huskies to the 2014 national title.
After the Clem Haskins scandal at Minnesota in the late ‘90s, the Gophers lost 12 scholarships over the course of four seasons and have won only one NCAA Tournament game in four trips since.
Granted, Syracuse basketball and Minnesota basketball can’t be mentioned in the same sentence, but the future is no less cloudy.
For the next four or five years, Syracuse basketball is looking at the possibility of a new coach, a shorthanded roster and a brutal ACC schedule.
When Boeheim arrived at Syracuse as a player in 1962, the Orange went 8-13 when he was a freshman. Syracuse went nearly two decades between 20-win seasons.
Syracuse won’t be in those depths when Boeheim departs. But the national title contender that usually occupies the Carrier Dome? That program’s future is more questionable than ever.
Spring training is underway, and the 2015 Major League Baseball is less than a month way. With the first pitch of 2015 fast approaching, Athlon Sports is taking a look at some of the key storylines for the upcoming season. The AL Central produced last year’s World Series’ runner-up in the Royals, and another playoff team in the Tigers. Kansas City lost starting pitcher James Shields to the Padres and has to recapture the magic from the postseason. Detroit is the favorite to win this division, but manager Brad Ausmus needs healthy years from Victor Martinez and Miguel Cabrera.
New Look White Sox, New Central Favorites?
The Chicago White Sox front office made it crystal clear this past winter that the combined 188 loses of the past two seasons weren’t happening again. President of baseball operations Kenny Williams and general manager Rick Hahn broke out the check book and have completely remolded this Sox team into what should be an instant division contender.
This winter the Sox made numerous big moves to shore up all aspects of the team. Budding ace and former Cub, Jeff Samardzija, was traded from Oakland for prospects to give the White Sox another top of the rotation arm to complement Chris Sale. Samardzija is now 30 and is slated to be a free agent after the season, so there is quite a lot to be gained for the pitcher who grew up in Northwest Indiana not far from the South Side of Chicago. Samardzija’s addition also brings a much-needed right arm to a rotation that features three lefties including 200-inning hurler Jose Quintana and veteran John Danks.
The White Sox traded for lefty reliever Dan Jennings, who posted a sparking 1.34 ERA in 47 appearances for the Marlins last summer, giving up just six earned runs in 40.1 innings of work. The Sox kept adding to their 'pen with the addition of former starter turned reliever Zach Duke. Duke, now on his sixth team in 10 seasons, is looking to continue his resurgence coming out of the ‘pen, as he struck out 74 batters and surrendered just three home runs in 58.2 innings of work for the Brewers in 2014. However, the big bullpen signing was former Yankee closer David Robertson, who inked a four-year, $46 million contract in December. The 2015 Sox bullpen will be a much-improved group compared to the 2014 crowd that ranked 28th in ERA (4.38), 25th in saves (36), third in runs surrendered (251) and first in walks (236).
The South Siders’ offense wasn't much to brag about in 2014 either, outside of Jose Abreu, of course. That issue was addressed with several swoops of the pen this offseason. Williams and Hahn were able to sign lefty first basemen Adam LaRoche and the 26 home runs and 92 RBIs he contributed with Washington last season. LaRoche will likely see most of his time as the full-time DH batting behind incumbent first baseman Abreu. Perhaps the best winter signing was that of left fielder Melky Cabrera. Cabrera isn’t without his warts from the Biogenesis case, but on the field he has the potential to be one of the game’s best switch-hitters with a knack for getting on base. The Sox also signed journeyman Emilio Bonifacio to a one-year deal. Bonafacio will be seen all over the Sox lineup and in the field, as he is capable of playing almost every position except pitcher or catcher.
All of the big moves this offseason have put the Sox in fantastic position to overthrow Detroit as division champs. If outfielders Adam Eaton and Avail Garcia can remain healthy and produce as they were projected to in 2014, the White Sox could once again be the toast of the Windy City.
Motor City Uncertainty
The past four seasons, the Detroit Tigers have owned the AL Central, but are still looking for the elusive World Series title that seems to become more evasive with the passing of time. Last year’s team that won 90 games and a division title was a disappointment after getting swept by the Orioles in the ALDS. For the first time in years, the Tigers have more questions than answers as spring training heats up.
The key to the Tigers' lineup will always be Miguel Cabrera. Miggy’s 2014 was impressive especially for being hampered by throbbing pain in his ankle, noticeably inhibiting his footwork and running ability. Cabrera was still able to hit .313/.371/.524 with 51 doubles, 25 homers, and 109 RBIs in 2014, even with the constant discomfort in his lower leg. Cabrera had offseason surgery to remove bone spurs and fix a fracture in his right ankle. Currently, Miggy is not 100 percent but is recovering quickly as he is taking batting practice and preparing to run on flat ground according to the Detroit Free Press.
The other half of the Tigers' one-two punch also is coming off surgery this winter. Victor Martinez underwent surgery on Feb. 10 to repair a torn meniscus in his left knee. The switch-hitting DH was an MVP candidate in 2014, and certainly had an argument for winning after posting a slash line of .339/.409/.565 with 32 homers, 103 RBIs, 33 doubles, and a league-leading .974 OPS. After his stellar campaign, Martinez inked a four-year deal to stay in Detroit. Questions certainly have to be arising within the Tigers' front office about his long-term health, he is 36 after all, and knees don't heal as quickly for players in their mid-30s like they do for players in the early 20s.
After Torii Hunter signed with the Twins, the Tigers sent Rick Porcello to Boston for Cuban slugger Yoenis Cespedes. Detroit is hoping Cespedes’ raw power can blossom with All-Star bats Cabrera and Martinez to protect him in the lineup.
The biggest concern, the starting rotation, is a new issue for the Tigers. Lefty ace David Price was acquired last July and will be the go-to guy for Detroit in 2015. The fall off last season for former Cy Young winner Justin Verlander was scary. The fastball that regularly topped 98 mph was noticeably slower, as his ERA ballooned to 4.54, two full runs higher than his 2011 MVP season, as he gave up a league-leading 104 earned runs.
Verlander isn’t the only uncertainty in the Tigers’ rotation, as veteran Anibal Sanchez looks to rebound from his injury-plagued 2014 after a career year in '13. New to the rotation is righty Shane Greene, who pitched admirably in his rookie campaign for the Yankees with a 3.78 ERA and 81 strikeouts in 78.2 innings. To complicate matters, the 2015 Tigers essentially have the same bullpen from '14 that imploded down the stretch and had a whopping 4.29 ERA.
If the Tigers want to keep a chokehold on the AL Central for a fifth consecutive season, their core group of veterans are going to have to produce like never before in order to keep pace with the more youthful teams in the division.
Do The Royals Have Enough Magic For a Second Straight World Series Run?
The Kansas City Royals were the biggest story of the 2014 baseball calendar, and for all the right reasons. Their unexpected run to the World Series was built on great defense, stealing bases, and lights-out pitching. This season will be much of the same for the Royals, as almost everyone is back from their 2014 run.
James Shields is now in San Diego and Norichika Aoki is now ironically a San Francisco Giant. With the departure of Shields, the Royals turned to free agent signee Edinson Volquez to round out the rotation. Volquez is looking to continue the career renaissance that began last season in Pittsburgh. With the addition of Volquez, the Royals' brass is looking for second-year flamethrower Yordano “Ace” Ventura to morph into the team’s actual ace this summer. Ventura’s fastball regularly reaches triple digits and could be the train that he rides all the way into the Cy Young conversation at season’s end.
For as solid as the Royals' rotation was in 2014, it was their bullpen that took them deep into October. The trio of Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis and Greg Holland was untouchable in 2014 with a record of 65-4 after the 6th inning. With youngster Brandon Finnegan mixed in along with vets Luke Hochevar and Jason Frasor, the Royals' bullpen looks to be the best in the game again in 2015.
Ned Yost’s World Series lineup card remains largely intact. Plug in Alex Rios in right field for the departed Aoki and Kendrys Morales for former DH and current Oakland A, Billy Butler, and that is it.
If the Royals hope to repeat their 2014 success this summer, they are going to need more from their lineup cornerstones Mike Moustakas and Eric Hosmer. Both “Moose” and Hosmer can flash the leather and had fantastic postseasons in 2014, but it is time for both to produce on a more regular and large-scale basis.
This Royals team that was 14th in runs scored (651) and last in home runs (95) in 2014 will need as much offensive firepower it can muster to keep up with the likes of the White Sox and Tigers. Alex Gordon and Lorenzo Cain are two of the best gloves there are in any outfield, but they too will have to step up offensively in 2015. Cain had a coming out party last summer in which he had a slash line of .301/.339/.412 with 29 doubles and 28 stolen bases, and will be counted upon to be the table-setter for much of this Royals offense.
Another player devleoping into a star before our eyes is catcher Salvador Perez. Perez is just 24 but already turning into one of the top catchers in baseball both at the plate and behind it.
With young fire-ballers in the rotation and bullpen, and experienced youth that is still growing in the field and at the plate, the Royals look to be more than just a feel-good story from a year ago. The boys from Kansas City have what it takes to make another run in October by following the same blueprint from a season ago.
- by Jake Rose
The last place the Texas Rangers expected to find themselves in 2014 was last place. But that’s where they finished after injuries conspired to knock them from favorites in the American League West to a 95-loss season and sole occupancy of the AL basement. It wasn’t all injuries, as the Rangers’ lack of depth after a series of past July deadline trades finally bit them. In June, management was convinced to turn the season into a tryout camp. Some players emerged, and they have a chance to make the roster this year after the Rangers did little in the offseason. But their No. 1 offseason goal was to get injured players healthy. The belief is that they are, for the most part, and the Rangers expect to contend in 2015. They gave themselves a better chance after acquiring Yovani Gallardo to bolster the rotation, but offensively they need several hitters to either rebound from down seasons or perform at the next level.
The good news is that each of the five starters expected to be in the rotation went through a normal, healthy offseason, most notably staff ace Yu Darvish. He finished the season on the 60-day disabled list with an elbow strain, but the Rangers’ cautious approach allowed Darvish to start throwing in December. When Darvish is on, he’s a strikeout machine and could be the next pitcher to throw a no-hitter. Lefthander Derek Holland’s strong September (2–0, 1.46 ERA, 37 innings), after missing the first five months following knee surgery, left some talking about him getting the Opening Day start over Darvish. The two new faces are former Brewer Gallardo and former National Ross Detwiler. Milwaukee’s one-time ace, Gallardo was shipped to the Rangers for three players in January. The Brewers also are paying $4 million towards Gallardo’s $14 million salary. Detwiler meanwhile hasn’t started a game since 2013, as he was pushed out of the crowded Washington rotation. Both Gallardo and Detwiler are slated to be free agents after this season. Righty Colby Lewis is probably the front-runner for the final spot, although Nick Tepesch and lefty Matt Harrison, who is on the rebound from another back surgery, could end up factoring into the mix at some point. Another lefty, Martin Perez, should be back on the mound by the All-Star break. He was one of the league’s best pitchers in April but had Tommy John surgery in May.
Neftali Feliz finished 2014 as the closer after a long recovery from Tommy John surgery. He flashed the velocity and effective slider that made him an All-Star in 2010. The biggest questions about Feliz have been his desire and work ethic. Those questions haven’t gone away. If Feliz falters, Tanner Scheppers will be the first option to replace him. Scheppers, derailed by an elbow injury last spring, will open in the eighth-inning role in which he blossomed into a top-flight reliever in 2013. The Rangers added another righty, Kyuji Fujikawa, to give the bullpen a shot of experience. Also coming off Tommy John, the 34-year-old returned last season with the Cubs. The Rangers believe they are getting a pitcher they coveted two years ago at the right time following his surgery. Shawn Tolleson, who had the best 2014 season among Rangers relievers, will bridge the sixth and seventh innings, and hard-throwing Roman Mendez was the best of the rookies who were showcased last season. The Rangers might have room for only one lefty, which could be rookie Alex Claudio. Tepesch or whomever doesn’t make the starting rotation figures to be the long man, with Nick Martinez and Anthony Bass other candidates.
The Rangers believe that shortstop Elvis Andrus is primed for a big year after one of the worst of his career. He started fast but then became a double-play machine and, at times, a liability on the bases. Andrus took it upon himself to train harder in the offseason after doing very little before last season. Andrus’ double-play partner will be Rougned Odor, who is firmly entrenched at second base thanks to Jurickson Profar’s persistent shoulder issues. Odor was one of the best rookies in the American League in 2014, though his aggressiveness worked against him more than it worked in his favor. More patience at the plate will serve him and the Rangers well.
On paper, only a handful of teams should be as stout offensively on the corners as the Rangers’ duo of first baseman Prince Fielder and third baseman Adrian Beltre. But there are questions about how effective Fielder will be after cervical fusion surgery in May. Fielder, one of the game’s top power hitters, swatted only three homers and repeatedly bounced into infield shifts as weakness in his left arm, caused by a herniated disc, slowed his bat and kept him from getting the same lift on balls. Beltre again was the Rangers’ best player and led them in the Triple Crown categories. But he had only 19 homers, in large part because he didn’t have any protection, and teams pitched around him. But when he did get pitches to hit, he did so at a .324 clip. Beltre also had a rebound year defensively.
A vacancy was created when the Rangers bought out a club option on Alex Rios, who played right field and forced Shin-Soo Choo to left field to begin his seven-year, $130 million deal. Choo was lousy defensively but will move to more familiar territory in right with Rios gone. Choo was one of the league’s best players for about six weeks, but an ankle injury and a lingering elbow injury sent him spiraling. He must be productive in the middle of the lineup. Leonys Martin also needs to have a big year and will start in the leadoff spot after batting .295 with a .340 on-base percentage over the final 21 games atop the order. He has never been a consistent hitter, but his speed can be a game-changer. Martin is blessed with perhaps the strongest arm in the game, but he can get in trouble by taking poor routes to balls. Left field is a toss up with veterans Nate Schierholtz and Ryan Ludwick, along with younger guys like Ryan Rua, Michael Choice and Jake Smolinski among the candidates. The winner also could find himself in a platoon with the left-handed-hitting Mitch Moreland, unless it’s Schierholtz. Despite a lousy 2014, Choice has more upside than Rua or Smolinski.
Robinson Chirinos established himself as the No. 1 catcher for 2015. He’s worked to improve his footwork behind the plate and has turned himself into one of the best throwers in the game. Chirinos will also hit the ball out of the park on occasion. The Rangers are weary of his concussion history, which is why they acquired switch-hitter Carlos Corporan from the Astros.
Moreland will be the primary DH but could end up in a platoon with an extra right-handed-hitting outfielder. Moreland is coming off ankle surgery, fixing a problem that has bothered him for years. He has dealt with various injuries and has never realized the potential the Rangers thought he had. Delino DeShields Jr. gives the Rangers an interesting piece. He’s a left-handed hitter who can fly but lacks experience in the majors.
Jeff Banister begins his first season as a big-league manager after four years in Pittsburgh as bench coach under Clint Hurdle, whom Rangers executives love. In Pittsburgh, all voices are welcomed, and scouts and front-office execs are routinely involved. That appeals to Rangers GM Jon Daniels, who is entering his 10th season and occasionally met resistance from Ron Washington when making suggestions. Pitching coach Mike Maddux is one of four holdovers from Washington’s staff, and former Rangers third baseman Steve Buechele joins as bench coach.
The Rangers have a fair share of questions, namely in the back end of their rotation. The bullpen and lineup aren’t perfect, either. Texas needs key contributors to stay healthy and produce either at levels that made them stars or at levels that could make them stars. That’s too many ifs for this team to be considered a serious contender for the postseason.
2015 Prediction: 3rd in AL West
CF Leonys Martin (L) Showed over final 22 games that he could be a capable leadoff man. Will get chance to show it over 162.
SS Elvis Andrus (R) Disappointing year all around for Andrus, whose eight-year, $120 million extension takes effect this season.
RF Shin-Soo Choo (L) A hot start was derailed by ankle and elbow injuries, and he lacked instincts on the bases and in left field.
3B Adrian Beltre (R) The best player on the team and one of the best in the game, Beltre took on more of a leadership role in 2014.
1B Prince Fielder (L) The Rangers hope Fielder still has elite power after neck surgery.
DH Mitch Moreland (L) Texas has been waiting on Moreland to produce since 2011, but injuries keep popping up.
C Robinson Chirinos (R) The Rangers found a catcher amid all their injuries. He has pop and has developed into a good thrower.
2B Rougned Odor (L) Now entrenched at a position thought to belong to Jurickson Profar.
LF Ryan Rua (R) He has hit at every level, and he will work extensively on his defense in spring training to get the starting job.
SS Adam Rosales (R) Another fringe player who took advantage of his opportunity, Rosales brings energy and versatility.
OF Delino DeShields Jr. (R) Former first-rounder needs to show improved work ethic to make the club.
C Carlos Corporan (S) Started 99 games behind the plate for the Astros the past two seasons, but hit just .230 during that span.
OF Nate Schierholtz (L) The eight-year veteran could have leg up on last bench spot because of need for a left-handed bat.
RH Yu Darvish Stuff so good that it seems like a no-hitter is possible each start, except vs. the A’s (1–8 lifetime).
LH Derek Holland 2014 was all but lost to a freakish knee injury, but his strong September should be a springboard into 2015.
RH Yovani Gallardo Had a solid campaign in 2014 statistically, although his record didn’t show it.
LH Ross Detwiler Pushed out of the Nationals’ rotation, he hasn’t started since 2013 but believes he can log 200 innings.
RH Colby Lewis A strong second half, thanks to “hip resurfacing” surgery, helped him earn a one-year contract for 2015.
RH Neftali Feliz (Closer) The closer finished strong, flashing his pre-Tommy John velocity and effectiveness; desire can be fickle.
RH Tanner Scheppers A move to the rotation resulted in a season-ending elbow injury. He’s back where he belongs.
RH Kyuji Fujikawa The Rangers scouted him extensively in Japan and liked him … before two disastrous years with the Cubs.
RH Shawn Tolleson The bullpen’s bright spot in 2014, Tolleson needs to be more efficient when called upon.
RH Roman Mendez He was the best of the young crop of relievers in 2014, and can be better with better mechanics.
LH Alex Claudio The Rangers need a southpaw in the ‘pen and this rookie’s multiple arm angels and quality secondary pitchers make him deceptive against lefty hitters.
RH Nick Martinez Started much of 2014, but showed well early as a multi-inning reliever.
Beyond the Box Score
First-timer Jeff Banister is a manager for the first time in his career, and he’s with a team other than the Pirates for the first time. Banister was drafted by Pittsburgh in 1986, became a player/coach in 1993 and a full-time coach in 1994. But the fact that he had a career in baseball is remarkable after he was diagnosed with two cancerous cysts in his ankle while in high school and after he suffered temporary paralysis and a broken neck following a collision at home-plate while he was in junior college. Banister is active on Twitter (@Bannyrooster28) and ends each tweet with #nevereverquit. He knows what can happen when someone never quits.
Stating his case Adrian Beltre continues to build his résumé for the Hall of Fame. The third baseman, who has two years left on his contract, is tied for 39th all-time in doubles (528), 56th all-time in homers (395) and 79th all-time in hits (2,604). The homer total is fifth all-time among primary third basemen behind Mike Schmidt (548), Eddie Mathews (512), Chipper Jones (468) and Darrell Evans (414). Beltre, George Brett and Jones are the three third basemen in MLB history with 300 homers and 2,500 hits. Beltre also has four career Gold Gloves.
All-Star assistants The Rangers are collecting an impressive stable of special assistants to GM Jon Daniels. The club added another in November with the hiring of Michael Young, a seven-time All-Star and the club’s all-time leader in most offensive categories. Young hopes to work extensively with minor leaguers during spring training and the regular season. He joins Hall of Fame pitcher Greg Maddux, 14-time All-Star catcher Ivan Rodriguez and 20-year veteran reliever Darren Oliver in the Rangers’ front office.
Unhappy reunion The acquisition of outfielder Delino DeShields Jr. in the Rule 5 Draft could make for a few awkward moments in spring training. DeShields is now teammates with right-handed reliever Phil Klein, who plunked DeShields in the cheek during a Double-A game last May, producing gruesome swelling and an infamous selfie that DeShields tweeted. DeShields, then in the Astros’ system, was out only a couple weeks, and Klein would reach the majors in August as injuries riddled the Rangers’ roster.
2014 Top Draft Pick
Luis Ortiz, RHP
The stuff that comes out of Luis Ortiz’s right arm is obvious to any scout. The fastball that can touch 96 mph. A slider that darts down and is an out pitch. The ability to command his two plus pitches. But the Rangers also saw something in Ortiz that told them he was their type of player — a self-made first-round pick who had very little coaching growing up and who lost weight to become more attractive to big-league teams. Ortiz was the 30th overall pick in the June draft, signing for $1.75 million and passing on an opportunity to play collegiately at Fresno State. The Sanger, Calif., native passed his first pro test over a handful of innings at Low-A Hickory. That’s pretty impressive for an 18-year-old, and Ortiz, now 19, could be vying for a Rangers rotation spot after only a few seasons in the minors.
Top 10 Prospects
1. Joey Gallo, 3B (21) Power like this doesn’t come along often. If Gallo can stick to the right approach, he could hit 40 homers a season.
2. Nomar Mazara, OF (20) The son of an officer in the Dominican Republic navy, Mazara has discipline and maturity. He could make a rapid climb to the majors.
3. Jorge Alfaro, C (21) The Rangers are waiting for his mental side to catch up to his physical tools. If that happens, watch out.
4. Alex Gonzalez, RHP (23) The pitcher nicknamed “Chi Chi” could crack the Rangers’ rotation this spring. Some scouts believe he will.
5. Jake Thompson, RHP (21) He’s still young, and it shows occasionally on the mound and in his preparation. He needs more polish, but has talent.
6. Nick Williams, OF (21) Oh, that bat speed. If he tightens up his discipline and plate approach, the Rangers could have a Carlos Gonzalez on their hands.
7. Luis Ortiz, RHP (19) The 2014 first-rounder attacks the strike zone with a plus fastball and plus slider. He could be a quick mover.
8. Ryan Rua, INF/OF (25) He should be in the Rangers’ mix in left field, a position he is still learning. The Rangers like his athletic ability and power.
9. Luke Jackson, RHP (23) A rocky first taste at Triple-A Round Rock kept him from his big-league debut, but he says he knows what needs to be fixed.
10. Josh Morgan, SS (19) A third-round pick in 2014, Morgan is an on-base machine who hits to all fields and defends and runs capably. Power will be the question.
This is your daily links roundup of our favorite sports and entertainment posts on the web for March 6:
• Meet Caitlin Arnett, possibly the world's hottest Rockies fan. Not that there's a huge pool.
• Syracuse just got its hand smacked by the NCAA, to the tune of 200 vacated wins and 12 lost schollies. Jim Boeheim, asleep at the switch when it comes to compliance.
• Today's big NFL news: Brandon Marshall to the Jets. But who will be throwing to him?
• Baby daddies aside, there's a scoring crisis in college basketball.
• You gotta watch this alley-oop video. Trust me.
• For your snow-bound enjoyment: Spring break fail GIFs.
• This blindfolded dunk failed to go as intended.
-- Email us with any compelling sports-related links at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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?