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Ten days after the Cardinals’ postseason run ended just shy of their intended destination, a tragedy stunned the organization and sent its future in an unplanned direction. The prospect the Cardinals intended to unleash in right field and one who could partially answer their offensive needs, Oscar Taveras, was killed with his girlfriend in a single-vehicle crash in the Dominican Republic. Taveras was 22. Within a month the Cardinals had moved swiftly to reshape the lineup, even at the expense of a valued starter. In a four-player trade, the Cardinals acquired Jason Heyward from Atlanta to play right field. At 25, Heyward is entering the final year of his contract, but the Cardinals believe he’ll star and then stay as the club’s next cornerstone.

 

Adding a jolt to the offense was essential after the Cardinals averaged a run less per game in 2014. The division-champ Cardinals’ wheezing bats burdened the pitching staff, as 47 of their 90 wins came by a margin of two runs or fewer.

 

While the front office reshaped the roster in the weeks after Taveras’ death, manager Mike Matheny became a unifying force for the club. He felt the Cardinals would find “strength in being a family.” The Cardinals may have a new look, a new face and, they hope, a renewed lineup, but they are still defined by familiar October aspirations.

 

Rotation

Two trades cost the Cardinals two young members of their 2014 Opening Day rotation, Shelby Miller and Joe Kelly. Filling those spots is the least of the Cardinals’ pitching questions. Pillars of the rotation, ace Adam Wainwright and upstart Michael Wacha, are returning from ailments. Wainwright had an elbow cleanup after his second career 20-win season and expects to be at full strength for spring, something he rarely was last season despite success in the second half. Wacha missed several months with a stress reaction in his right shoulder — an unusual injury that has the Cardinals altering his workouts and budgeting his innings. Budding No. 2 Lance Lynn and veteran John Lackey offer required stability. Carlos Martinez and rookie Marco Gonzales will audition for the rotation’s vacancy, though the club has openly shown its eagerness to see how Martinez’s fastball allows him to sizzle as a starter.

 

Bullpen

The trade for Heyward also brought an arm that will add to the late-inning heat index. Righthander Jordan Walden, who signed a two-year extension, brings a hefty fastball and closing experience to the setup role. He, groundball guru Seth Maness and possibly Gonzales or a healthy Kevin Siegrist will build the bridge to closer Trevor Rosenthal and give Matheny the bullpen blueprint to maintain success like last year’s. Rosenthal overcame a heavy workload to fall just shy of being the Cardinals’ first 50-save closer. Adding multitasking veteran Matt Belisle to the bullpen frees up lefty Randy Choate for a specialist role and gives Matheny more flexibility to utilize Gonzales.

 

Middle Infield

For eight consecutive seasons, a new Cardinals shortstop arrived like tax day, every April. Jhonny Peralta brought an end to the turnstile position as he emerged as the NL’s best all-around shortstop in 2014. The veteran topped the team with 21 home runs and led all big-league shortstops with a .779 OPS and a .443 slugging percentage to go with dependable defense. He was the club’s isolated power early last season, though he’ll get added support this season from his sidekick at second, Kolten Wong. The Hawaiian finished third in NL Rookie of the Year voting, punctuating his season with a superb October. A jubilant player, Wong is set to emerge at second with what Peralta provided at shortstop — only for years to come.

 

Corners

A third baseman for most of his life, Matt Carpenter was an All-Star in 2013, his first year as a second baseman. Asked whether he’d prefer to be an All-Star at second or an everyday player at his natural position, Carpenter grinned: “Why not an All-Star at third?” The move back to third in 2014 didn’t slow his ascent as a top leadoff hitter or keep him from a second All-Star invite. His next move could be in the order. Carpenter, who hit three homers in the NLDS, could see swings at No. 2 or 3. The thunder to hit behind Carpenter should come from first baseman Matt Adams. In 231 more at-bats in 2014, Adams hit two fewer home runs than in 2013. Vexed by defensive shifts, Adams seems to favor hitting for average over hitting for damage. He’s got the strength to hit over the shifts and will get the at-bats for a defining season.

 

Outfield

A rut in the Cardinals’ offense was right field, where the club had a .326 slugging percentage (30th in the majors) and a .609 OPS (also 30th). At a traditional power position, the Cardinals got the equivalent of an average middle infielder. Enter Heyward. The left-handed-hitting outfielder says he altered his approach to be the leadoff hitter Atlanta required. The Cardinals will use him elsewhere in the lineup to ignite his offense. He averaged 20 homers in his first three seasons and a .447 slugging percentage — the boost the Cardinals crave. Matt Holliday, a fixture hitting No. 3, had a career-low slugging percentage. He’ll elevate the offense with health and an early start to his annual second-half surge. Jon Jay was the only regular to hit better than .300, and he returns as the stated starter in center for the first time in his career. Peter Bourjos, a defensively gifted speedster, had hip surgery that should increase his comfort at the plate and allow him to run away with some additional at-bats.

 

Catching

The soul of the team and the shepherd of its rotation, Yadier Molina is entering the phase of his career where the Cardinals intend to be more proactive with time off. Molina, 32, remains a force behind the plate and strives to lead the majors in innings caught, a feat that knee soreness has interrupted in recent seasons. To keep him fresh and productive at the plate, the Cardinals want to script rest, preserving his strength for a late-season push. Tony Cruz remains the valued backup who models his game-calling after Molina’s.

 

Bench

Corner infielder Mark Reynolds is the right-handed complement at first base and brings seven consecutive seasons with at least 20 homers to a part-time role. His reputation and Randal Grichuk’s budding talent give the Cardinals pinch-hit pop that’s been lacking. Pete Kozma or newcomers Dean Anna and Ty Kelly offer the versatility required of infielders by Matheny.

 

Management

A nurturing defender of his players and gifted motivator, Matheny acknowledges that having never managed at any level means some of his learning is coming while contending. The club sees the questions of October adding to his answers going forward. A general manager who treasured the team’s young pitching depth has dipped into it twice for short-term and necessary moves. The Cardinals have “payroll muscle” they can flex in coming seasons, and John Mozeliak has used talent and financial wherewithal to stay ahead of the market. He calls it “pre-emptive.” It comes with a trace of urgency because the “sustained success” ownership seeks implies winning now and later.

 

Final Analysis

The Cardinals reached the NLCS for a fourth consecutive year but ended their season with a three-game losing streak for the third consecutive year. A 12th World Series title has eluded them, as an aging core and pitching depth thinned by trades now put the Cardinals at a pivot in this era, one of the most successful in franchise history. Changes may be afoot — forced upon them by tragedy or invited by them to address flaws — but one thing in St. Louis remains the same: championship expectations.

 

2015 Prediction: 1st in NL Central

 

Projected Lineup

3B       Matt Carpenter (L)    Since he moved to No. 1, no leadoff hitter in the NL has a higher on-base percentage than Carpenter’s .384.

RF       Jason Heyward (L)  Credited with 32 runs saved by Baseball Info Solutions, among the highest at any position.

LF       Matt Holliday (R)      Second-half surges the past three seasons have seen his SLG spike from .451 before the break to .509 after.

1B       Matt Adams (L)         Averaged a homer every 17.4 at-bats in 2013. At that pace as the starter in 2014, Adams would have hit 30.

SS       Jhonny Peralta (R)  Sure-handed fielder warmed to NL with 75 RBIs, the most by a Cards SS since Edgar Renteria’s 100 in 2003.

C         Yadier Molina (R)     Injury kept him from catching 1,000 innings for seventh straight year. Pitchers had a 3.38 ERA in his innings.

CF       Jon Jay (L)    A .295 hitter, Jay enters 2015 designated — for the first time in his career — as the planned starter in center.

2B       Kolten Wong (L)       First Cardinal in a decade with at least 10 homers and 20 stolen bases.

 

Bench

CF       Peter Bourjos (R)     Hip surgery should correct issue that slowed the speedster and had him unsteady at the plate.

INF      Mark Reynolds (R)   Will get chance to be right-handed-hitting complement at first and a power implement off the bench.

OF       Randal Grichuk (R) Athletic outfielder hinted at his potent power with two homers in October as he seized starting job.

INF      Pete Kozma (R)        Two years removed from his turn as everyday shortstop, Kozma either makes team or must clear waivers.

C         Tony Cruz (R)           Entering his fourth season as Molina’s trusted backup and scouting voice.

 

Rotation

RH      Adam Wainwright    Cardinals ace has finished second or third in Cy Young Award voting four times in the past six seasons.

RH      Lance Lynn   His 48 wins since joining the rotation in 2012 trail only four other pitchers, including Wainwright.

RH      John Lackey Had 2,202.2 innings in the AL before throwing his first pitch in the NL after trade to Cardinals.

RH      Michael Wacha        In 33 starts in two seasons (including playoffs), intriguing dynamo has 3.11 ERA, 13 wins in 202.2 IP.

RH      Carlos Martinez        Opportunity to start will give electric, lithe righty the role he wants and a stage to flaunt his 96 mph sinker.

 

Bullpen

RH      Trevor Rosenthal (Closer)  No closer threw as many pitches (1,263) or innings (70.1) as Rosenthal did on his way to 45 saves.

RH      Jordan Walden         Power righty Walden signed a two-year, $6.6-million extension to be setup man for Cardinals.

RH      Seth Maness            Sinkerballer will take a strong second half (2.76 ERA) into larger late-inning role.

RH      Matt Belisle   Cardinals targeted the versatile veteran reliever to fill several roles to free others for specialized jobs.

LH       Randy Choate          Held lefties to a .093 average with 28 strikeouts and seven hits allowed.

LH       Kevin Siegrist           Power lefty must show recovery from muscle tears in his left hand to reclaim shutdown reputation.

LH       Marco Gonzales       Polished prospect will be ticketed for prominence in bullpen if he’s not in the rotation.

 

Beyond the Box Score

Remembering Oscar While the Cardinals considered ways to memorialize Oscar Taveras after his death in October, his boyhood friend and closest teammate Carlos Martinez already had one. He wanted to wear Taveras’ No. 18 and approached the Cardinals with his idea. The process is more intricate than simple approval because of jersey merchandising. Martinez received permission, and a friend said he was “really moved” by the chance to wear 18 in 2015.

Curious clause John Lackey made a promise to the Cardinals when they traded for him in July that he hadn’t made in Boston: He would honor his 2015 contract, as odd as it is. Lackey, a 12-year veteran, will play this season for the minimum salary, $507,500. Lackey’s alternative was to retire. The reason for the unusual salary is an option on his five-year, $82.5-million contract with the Red Sox that triggered when he missed a year to injury.

Gold standard Although he missed a month with a thumb injury, Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina still won his seventh consecutive Gold Glove. Among catchers, only Ivan Rodriguez (13) and Johnny Bench (10) have more than Molina’s seven career Gold Gloves. They are the brightest ornaments on a career that Bench suggests could lead to Cooperstown. “If he stays healthy,” the Hall of Famer says, “call me in 10 years.”

Hitter homecoming St. Louis-area native Bill Mueller had never put on the hometown jersey until this spring. Displeased with his situation in Chicago, Mueller resigned as Cubs hitting coach and later accepted an assistant hitting coach role with the Cardinals. The former batting champ says he found the situation he wanted, and it was closer to his home. “It’s familiar, St. Louis,” Mueller says. “You can turn any corner and run into a friend.”

Going international The Cardinals expanded their international interests in 2014, signing a Cuban infielder and bidding on a Korean shortstop. GM John Mozeliak wanted the club to start acting on years of scouting and be more active in “emerging markets.” In March the Cardinals signed infielder Aledmys Diaz, but they failed in December to have the highest bid for Jung-Ho Kang. Diaz would be a top prospect if not for injuries interrupting his 2014.

 

2014 Top Draft Pick

Luke Weaver, RHP

The Cardinals revisited a familiar well with the 27th overall pick in the draft, selecting a refined starting pitcher from a major Division I college program. Less likely to zoom to the majors than Michael Wacha and Marco Gonzales before him, Weaver has some similar traits: an athletic delivery, potential velocity sizzle, and a strong changeup. As Florida State’s ace last spring, Weaver worked with an 88-92 mph fastball that scouts saw tickle 96 mph. Weaver has a wiry 6'2" frame that should add strength as he matures. He had a humbling start to his pro career — eight earned runs in 3.1 innings at High-A — but that’s barely a hiccup in his development. The Cardinals wanted to control his innings and will continue to do so in 2015 as they look for him to start in a Class A rotation and see where his stuff takes him.

 

Top 10 Prospects

1. Marco Gonzales, LHP (23) Former Gonzaga standout has poise and a wily changeup. Future is in the rotation, but his present assignment will be a multitasking and late-inning reliever in the majors.

2. Stephen Piscotty, OF (24) A high-average batter who sports a strong arm from right field. His tools should get him to the majors this summer.

4. Alexander Reyes, RHP (20) Has blossomed as a power pitcher who has used 98 mph fastball to record 205 strikeouts in 167.1 pro innings.

4. Randal Grichuk, OF (23) Known as the player the Angels drafted before Mike Trout; made a name for himself with slick fielding and a livewire bat.

5. Rob Kaminsky, LHP (20) Kaminsky flips a biting curve, and with a plus fastball, scouts believes he has burgeoning combo that will excel in relief.

6. Jack Flaherty, RHP (19) Flaherty’s $2 million bonus was the Cardinals’ second largest in 12 years. Young, strapping righty has four quality pitches, including a popping fastball.

7. Luke Weaver, RHP (21) The Cards’ top pick in the 2014 draft boasts a fastball that sits in the low 90s and an effective changeup.

8. Tim Cooney, LHP (24) Closest Cardinals pitching prospect to the majors who hasn’t already thrown a pitch there. Has a safecracker’s feel for his fastball, a good changeup and elite command.

9. Sam Tuivailala, RHP (22) Former infielder hits 100 mph on his fastball and has more strikeouts (170) than walks and hits (151) in the minors.

10. Charlie Tilson, OF (22) A strong 2014 allowed the high-energy center fielder to regain pace as a prospect after losing a season to injury.

Teaser:
St. Louis Cardinals 2015 Preview and Prediction
Post date: Wednesday, March 11, 2015 - 13:00
All taxonomy terms: NFL, News
Path: /nfl/early-winners-and-losers-nfl-starts-new-league-year-free-agency
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The NFL’s new league year isn’t even a day old but you wouldn’t think so based on all the moves that have already transpired. Not only has free agency gotten off to a furious start, but last week’s LeSean McCoy trade ended up being the appetizer to Tuesday’s swapfest.

 

The end result? Numerous All-Pros have switched teams, the AFC East suddenly got a lot more interesting, defensive players are getting paid, running backs aren’t and everyone is trying to figure out what Chip Kelly is doing. Even though it’s still early in free agency and there are probably more trades to come, it’s never too early to identify some winners and losers in the aftermath of all of these transactions. One thing is pretty clear; the biggest winner thus far has been NFL fans.

 

WINNERS

Ndadmukong Suh & Darrelle Revis

Suh got $114 million, including $60 million guaranteed, from the Dolphins to make him the highest-paid defensive player in NFL history. Revis got his Super Bowl ring with New England, saw his $20 million team option declined by the Patriots and still winds up with a $70 million deal ($39 million guaranteed) to go back to the Jets. These are two of the best players in the league period, and they certainly cashed in on their status as such.

 

Related: Dolphins Still Have A Lot of Work to Do, Even After Landing Ndamukong Suh

 

Other Defensive Players

Ndamukong Suh and Darrelle Revis aren’t the only defenders who capitalized on being a free agent this offseason either. While Revis left for the Jets, the Patriots did retain safety Devin McCourty, signing him to a five-year, $47.5 million contract ($28.5 million guaranteed). Cornerback Byron Maxwell is leaving Seattle after inking a six-year, $63 million deal from the extremely active Eagles.

 

Even All-Pro linebacker Justin Houston, who didn’t make it to free agency after Kansas City applied the franchise tag, is looking at a nice paycheck. Houston is set to make $13.2 million in 2015, assuming he and the Chiefs don’t come to agreement on a long-term deal before he has to sign his one-year tender. And that’s just the big names, as guys like Davon House, Buster Skrine, Pernell McPhee, Brooks Reed, Dan Skuta and Stephen Paea also fared pretty well contract-wise.

 

Julius Thomas & Owen Daniels

Thomas got the big bucks he was seeking from Jacksonville to the tune of $46 million over four years ($24 million guaranteed). However, Thomas’ departure from Denver turned out to be Daniels’ gain. He signed a three-year, $12 million deal to reunite with Gary Kubiak, his head coach in Houston and offensive coordinator last season in Baltimore, to join the Broncos and become Peyton Manning’s new favorite tight end.

 

Russell Wilson

The heart-breaking Super Bowl loss to the Patriots probably still stings, but you know Wilson was smiling from ear to ear when he found out Jimmy Graham was coming to Seattle. Not only does Wilson now have his new favorite target, he also has a big payday coming his way, as this is the last year of his rookie contract.

 

Detroit Lions

Yes, the Lions lost Ndamukong Suh, but Detroit rebounded nicely in acquiring Haloti Ngata from Baltimore. Ngata is just three years older than Suh and he is established in his own right as a two-time, first-team All-Pro and five-time Pro Bowler who won a Super Bowl with the Ravens.

 

But perhaps the most important thing is that Ngata comes a lot cheaper, as he’s set to make $8.5 million in the final year of his contract, while the Dolphins will pay Suh $60 million through 2017 alone. The Lions still have work to do along its defensive line with several other free agents, but Ngata is a good piece to start off the post-Suh era with.

 

Todd Bowles

The Jets’ rookie head coach has been on the job less than three months and he’s already seen his general manager trade for wide receiver Brandon Marshall and quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick to beef up the offense. On defense, Darrelle Revis returns with a new running mate, former Brown Buster Skrine, along with veteran linebacker and team leader David Harris. And the team still has enough cap space to make a few more moves. If the Jets figure out their quarterback situation, Bowles’ debut season could turn out to be quite successful.

 

Anyone Who Covers the Eagles

Whether or not Chip Kelly’s wheeling and dealing pays off on the field remains to be seen, but he’s certainly provided plenty of subject matter for anyone who covers his team. Between trading the franchise’s all-time leading rusher to swapping quarterbacks with the Rams, Kelly has guaranteed that the Eagles will remain in the spotlight from now up through the draft, and probably beyond.

 

Related: Just Shut Up, Chip Kelly Knows What He's Doing

 

LOSERS

Running Backs Not Named LeSean McCoy

McCoy got traded from Philadelphia to Buffalo, where he got a new contract. As for the rest of his peers? Well, not much has happened, as the market is still sorting itself out. But it’s clear how teams are approaching their backfields has changed when you look at the fact that DeMarco Murray, the reigning rushing champion, not only is still waiting to sign, he also hasn’t exactly been actively pursued by his old team. And it’s not like there’ s a lack of options on the market, as Reggie Bush, Steven Jackson, Pierre Thomas and DeAngelo Williams are available after being cut by their former teams, as is Justin Forsett, Ryan Mathews, C.J. Spiller and a host of others.

 

Those that have already found new teams, aren’t exactly breaking the bank. Mark Ingram re-signed with New Orleans for $16 million over four years, less than half of that guaranteed, while Frank Gore is headed to Indianapolis for a modest $12 million ($6.5 million guaranteed) over three years. No wonder Jackson has started his “Save the Running Back” movement (check out savetherunningback.org), as ball carriers are quickly being thrust down the NFL food chain.

 

Drew Brees

Everyone knew New Orleans had cap issues, but few if any thought those woes would result in the trade of Jimmy Graham to Seattle. Not only did Brees lose his favorite target in Graham, the Saints also cut running back Pierre Thomas and linebacker Curtis Lofton because of their salary cap crunch. Running back Mark Ingram was re-signed, and New Orleans did bolster its offensive line by acquiring center Max Unger from the Seahawks along with their first-round draft pick. But Unger can’t catch passes and the Saints still have cap issues. These were probably not the changes Brees was expecting following a disappointing 7-9 showing last season.

 

New England Patriots

The Patriots have their ring, but the champs are finding out just how heavy is the head that wears the crown. Before free agency even started, the team cut ties with Vince Wilfork, the anchor of their defensive line, and declined options on both starting cornerbacks (Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner).

 

New England used its franchise tag on kicker Stephen Gostkowski and retained safety Devin McCourty, but Revis bolted for the big money the Jets offered and Browner seems likely to sign with a new team as well. To make matters worse, the division seems to be getting tougher with Miami adding Ndamukong Suh, Rex Ryan transforming the Bills by trading for LeSean McCoy and the Jets adding Revis and acquiring wide receiver Brandon Marshall from the Bears. The Patriots are the class of the AFC East until someone else beats them, but their streak of six straight division titles could be in jeopardy this season.

 

Related: What Now for the New England Patriots Without Darrelle Revis?

 

San Francisco 49ers

It has been an offseason to forget for the 49ers. First they lose Jim Harbaugh to Michigan because of an apparent internal power struggle. The end result is defensive line coach Jim Tomsula gets promoted to the top job while pretty much the rest of Harbaugh’s staff is sent packing.

 

Personnel-wise, not only has San Francisco already watched running back Gore and offensive lineman Mike Iupati sign elsewhere, All-Pro linebacker Patrick Willis announced his retirement. Yes, the 49ers signed wide receiver Torrey Smith to bolster the offense, but this team still has a dozen pending free agents meaning there are plenty of holes to fill. And there also are the reports that fans are already looking to bail on their season ticket commitments just one season into the tenure of Levi’s Stadium. With every other team in the NFC West making moves to get better, 2015 could turn out to be a rough season for Tomsula and the 49ers.

 

Oakland Raiders & Cleveland Browns

Entering free agency, the only team with more cap space at its disposal than Oakland and Cleveland was Jacksonville. While the Jaguars made a splash by singing tight end Julius Thomas (and is DeMarco Murray next?), the Raiders and Browns have not been as successful in their efforts. The Raiders have been rebuffed by several of their big targets and while they have been busy, their additions to this point (Malcolm Smith, Rodney Hudson, Roy Helu, Curtis Lofton, Dan Williams) don’t exactly grab your attention.

 

The Browns have even less to show for their efforts, adding only quarterback Josh McCown and wide receiver Brian Hartline, who were each cut by their respective teams. It’s still early, but it’s safe to stay that each of these teams, and especially their fan bases, were hoping for more.

 

College Basketball

It’s Championship Week on the college hardwood with Selection Sunday for the NCAA Tournament just days away. What’s that, you weren’t aware because the NFL has been dominating the news cycles, Twitter and basically any other medium you can think of? Don’t worry, March Madness will still get its due, but not until the NFL cedes the spotlight.

Teaser:
Early Winners and Losers as NFL Starts New League Year, Free Agency
Post date: Wednesday, March 11, 2015 - 12:45
Path: /mlb/pittsburgh-pirates-2015-preview-and-prediction
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It is almost hard to believe the Pittsburgh Pirates were the laughingstocks of baseball not long ago. They had 20 consecutive losing seasons from 1993-2012, the longest such streak of futility in major North American professional sports history.

 

However, the Pirates have put that in the past by winning the first NL wild card in each of the last two seasons. The expectations of the organization far exceed finishing .500 now, as the goal has become to reach the World Series for the first time since 1979. The Pirates are in position to contend again this season, and also for many years to come, as they have a talented core group of players in the major leagues — led by superstar center fielder Andrew McCutchen — and a solid farm system.

 

“Somewhere along the way I was asked if we were content not being one-year wonders,” says general manager Neal Huntington, who enters his eighth full season on the job. “Our goal is to not be two-year wonders. We’ve set the goal from the day we got in here, the day we arrived in Pittsburgh, our goal was to be a consistent championship-caliber organization.”

 

Rotation

Hard-throwing righthander Gerrit Cole is eventually going to be the ace of the staff and has already shown he can win big games. However, he is still just 24, and the Pirates have surrounded him at the top of the rotation with a pair of veterans in lefthander Francisco Liriano and righthander A.J. Burnett to ease some of the transition into being a No. 1 starter. Liriano was re-signed to a three-year, $39 million contract as a free agent in December after going 23–18 with a 3.20 ERA in 55 starts in his first two seasons with the Pirates. Burnett returned on a cut-rate deal, signing for one year and $8.5 million after spending last season with the Philadelphia Phillies, where he led the MLB in losses while going 8–18 with a 4.59 ERA in 34 starts. However, the 38-year-old wanted to pitch one final season before retiring and do so with the Pirates after going a combined 26–21 with a 3.41 ERA in 61 starts with the team in 2012-13. Righthander Charlie Morton will likely begin the season on the disabled list after undergoing hip surgery in late September but could be back sometime in May. Lefthander Jeff Locke, two years removed from being an All-Star, likely will begin the season in the rotation, and Vance Worley has the edge over fellow righty Brandon Cumpton and veteran lefthander Clayton Richard for the final spot. Worley was a revelation last season, going 8–4 with a 2.85 ERA in 18 games.

 

Bullpen

Huntington has consistently built first-rate relief corps on a tight budget. Closer Mark Melancon will anchor the bullpen again. In his two seasons with the Pirates, the righthander has compiled a 1.65 ERA in 144 games while allowing just 1.2 walks and 0.2 home runs per nine innings. Lefthander Tony Watson is an outstanding setup man and was selected to play in his first All-Star Game last season. He has a 2.63 ERA in his four-year career. Towering righthander John Holdzkom came out of nowhere — he was signed off the Amarillo roster in the independent American Association in June — to pitch high-leverage innings late last season. The Pirates are hopeful he can be their top setup reliever from the right side with his 100-plus fastball. Righthander Jared Hughes has compiled a 2.95 ERA in his first four seasons in the major leagues. Lefthander Antonio Bastardo was acquired from the Phillies in a trade for lefty pitching prospect Joely Rodriguez at the winter meetings after holding opponents to a .201 batting average in his six seasons in Philadelphia. Stolmy Pimentel has pitched just 42 major league innings but will almost certainly make the team out of spring training as a long reliever. He is out of minor league options and would be subjected to waivers if the Pirates tried to send him to Triple-A. The Pirates were so impressed by how well Radhames Liz pitched in winter ball in his native Dominican Republic that they signed him to a major league contract, even though the one-time top prospect is 31 and hasn’t pitched in the big leagues since 2009 with the Baltimore Orioles.

 

Middle Infield

The Pirates’ biggest offseason splash came when they signed 27-year-old Korean shortstop Jung-Ho Kang to a four-year, $11 million deal plus $5 million posting fee. Kang put together a monster season in the Korean league in 2014, hitting .356 with 40 home runs and 117 RBIs, but it remains to be seen how this will carry over to much stiffer competition in the U.S. Kang’s no lock for significant playing time, as he will need to unseat Jordy Mercer at shortstop. Seemingly an afterthought in the Pirates’ farm system for many years, Mercer spent his first full season as a starting shortstop in the major leagues last year and did well after an awful start. He ended up hitting .255 with 12 home runs in 149 games, but the biggest surprise was his above average defense. Switch-hitting second baseman Neil Walker is a dependable player and a hometown hero — he grew up in the northern suburb of Gibsonia, Pa. The six-year veteran belted a career-high 23 home runs last season while hitting .271 in 137 games.

 

Corners

Pedro Alvarez will make the move across the diamond from third base to first base in spring training after he developed a problem making routine throws last season that led to him leading the major leagues with 25 errors. He also hit just 18 home runs in 122 games, half of his NL-leading total of 36 in 2013. Josh Harrison will begin the year as the everyday third baseman after being one of the best stories in baseball last season. Harrison barely made the team in spring training and wound up playing in the All-Star Game as he hit .315 with 18 stolen bases in 143 games while, at various times, filling holes at second base, third base, left field and right field.

 

Outfield

McCutchen anchors a talented and athletic outfield that includes Starling Marte in left and Gregory Polanco in right. McCutchen had a better season in 2014 than when he won the NL MVP award the year before, hitting .314 with 25 home runs and 18 stolen bases in 146 games while leading the majors with a .410 on-base percentage. Marte didn’t have the breakout season many expected as he was distracted by tragedies in his personal life. Yet he still hit .291 with 13 homers and 30 steals in 135 games. Arriving to great fanfare in June, Polanco responded with a hit in each of his first 11 games. However, the league caught up to Polanco, and he finished with a .235 batting average in 89 games, though he hit seven homers and stole 14 bases.

 

Catching

Francisco Cervelli gets his long-awaited chance to be a starter after logging seven years as a backup with the New York Yankees, who traded him to the Pirates in November for left-handed reliever Justin Wilson. Cervelli is outstanding defensively and has a .278 lifetime batting average. However, he has been hampered by injuries throughout his career, and the Pirates plan to limit him to around 100 starts in an attempt to keep him healthy.

 

Bench

The Pirates could have their most powerful bench in years, especially if Kang’s power translates to his new league. Pittsburgh also added right-handed-hitting first baseman/outfielder Corey Hart, who was signed to a one-year, $2.5-million contract as a free agent. The Pirates traded with the Tampa Bay Rays for Sean Rodriguez, who can play all four infield spots and each of the three outfield positions. He also provides some pop. Slick-fielding middle infielder Pedro Florimon was claimed off waivers after spending the last three seasons with the Minnesota Twins. Veteran Chris Stewart will be the backup catcher to Cervelli, his former Yankees teammate.

 

Management

Clint Hurdle enters his fifth season as manager and has been the perfect fit in Pittsburgh. His positive attitude and the ability to connect with people and inspire them have not only left a mark on the franchise but also the city.

 

Final Analysis

The Pirates’ goal this season is to win the NL Central and avoid the wild card. They will have their hands full in a strong division but once again have the look of contenders with a good pitching staff, solid lineup and increased depth.

 

2015 Prediction: 2nd in NL Central (Wild Card)

 

Projected Lineup

3B       Josh Harrison (R)    Earned a promotion to full-time third baseman after thriving as utility player last season.

RF       Gregory Polanco (L)            Has more raw talent than anyone in the lineup but needs polish.

CF       Andrew McCutchen (R)      Missed out on back-to-back MVPs despite having another brilliant season.

2B       Neil Walker (S)         He is a steady run producer — especially for a middle infielder.

LF       Starling Marte (R)     A burgeoning star who seems poised for a breakout after two solid seasons.

1B       Pedro Alvarez (L)     Will be interesting to see how he handles making the transition from third base to first base.

SS       Jordy Mercer (R)       Not flashy in the field, but he gets the job done and can also hit.

C         Francisco Cervelli (R)         Longtime Yankee is a solid defensive backstop who has hit well when given the opportunity.

 

Bench

C         Chris Stewart (R)     Had his best offensive season in 2014 but is in the major leagues because of his defense.

1B/OF Corey Hart (R)         Will likely start at first base against lefthanders while trying to get his career back on track.

INF      Pedro Florimon (S) Provides excellent defense at the middle infield positions, but don’t expect any offense.

UT       Sean Rodriguez (R)            Versatility is his strength, and he can also pop an occasional home run.

SS       Jung-Ho Kang (R)   Everyone waiting to see if Korean League star can handle transition to MLB.

 

Rotation

LH       Francisco Liriano     Re-signed after testing the free agent market and will be the de facto ace of a strong staff.

RH      A.J. Burnett   Returns from a one-year hiatus in Philadelphia with hopes of winning a ring in his last season.

RH      Gerrit Cole     Former top pick is the No. 1 starter in waiting — and the wait might not last much longer.

LH       Jeff Locke      Former second-round pick of the Braves is a very capable major league starter — when he throws strikes.

RH      Vance Worley           One of the Pirates’ many pitching reclamation projects, Worley won eight games in 2014.

 

Bullpen

RH      Mark Melancon (Closer)     Thanks to an unhittable cutter, he’s had a sub-1.000 WHIP each of the last two seasons.

LH       Tony Watson            One of the most talented and durable left-handed relievers in the game.

RH      John Holdzkom        Pirates found a gem when they signed him from an independent league last June.

RH      Jared Hughes           Former fourth-round pick has been excellent at escaping mid-inning jams.

LH       Antonio Bastardo     Former Phillie provides a solid lefty option in the middle innings.

RH      Stolmy Pimentel       Has yet to be given the chance to show if he can pitch in high-leverage situations.

RH      Radhames Liz          One-time Oriole looks to return to the major leagues after a three-year stint in Korea.

 

Beyond the Box Score

Destination job There was a time not long ago when free agents who signed with the Pirates felt like they were going to the end of the baseball world. However, perceptions have changed following back-to-back postseason trips that came on the heels of 20 straight losing seasons. Throw in the fact that the Pirates have one of the most scenic homes in the major leagues in PNC Park, and Pittsburgh has become a destination. “We’re in a position now where agents are calling us, versus us having to chase their guys,” general manager Neal Huntington says. The Pirates were able to sign a pair of veteran starting pitchers as free agents in the offseason, bringing lefthander Francisco Liriano back on a three-year, $39 million contract and righthander A.J. Burnett on a one-year, $8.5 million deal. Both said they turned down more lucrative offers from other clubs.

Show me Agent Scott Boras isn’t quite sold on the Pirates having staying power as a contender, though. “How you build that World Series contender year after year is that when you bring these young players here and they become great players you have to sign not one or two, but you have to keep a core of them,” he says. “That’s the question that has yet to be answered as we go forward.” Boras represents Pirates righthander Gerrit Cole and first baseman Pedro Alvarez along with top first base/outfield prospect Josh Bell.

Finally home Super utility player Sean Rodriguez, acquired from Tampa Bay in an offseason trade for pitching prospect Buddy Borden, has seemingly always been a National League player trapped in an American League uniform. Rodriguez has played every position but pitcher and catcher in the major leagues, and that versatility should play well in the NL. “Whatever they ask me to do, I’m going to do it,” Rodriguez says.

Shagging flies Left fielder Starling Marte and right fielder Gregory Polanco spent part of the winter working out together in their native Dominican Republic, concentrating on tracking fly balls. “I think if people hit it that way, they have no chance,” Marte says of a potentially outstanding defensive outfield that also includes Gold Glove center fielder Andrew McCutchen.

 

2014 Top Draft Pick

Cole Tucker, SS

While the Pirates were mulling the idea of drafting Tucker from Mountain Pointe High School in Phoenix with the 24th overall pick, there were three people with ties to the organization who could vouch for him. Retired corner infielder Kevin Young coached Tucker in youth baseball. Current Pirates first baseman Pedro Alvarez has known Tucker, whose younger brother plays youth baseball with Alvarez’s brother-in-law, since 2008. Also, a son of former shortstop and hitting coach Jay Bell played with Tucker in high school. Though 6'3", Tucker has the athleticism, range and arm to stay at shortstop. He is a project offensively, however, as he is primarily a contact hitter and lacks pop, but the Pirates are confident that the 180-pounder will hit for at least some power as his body matures.

 

Top 10 Prospects

1. Tyler Glasnow, RHP (21) Fifth-round pick in 2011 has blossomed as a professional, winning the organization’s Minor League Pitcher of the Year in each of the last two seasons.

2. Jameson Taillon, RHP (23) The second overall pick in the 2010 draft missed the season after undergoing Tommy John reconstructive elbow surgery

3. Josh Bell, 1B/OF (22) His development was slowed by a knee injury in 2012. Finally healthy again last season, he was the Florida State League Player of the Year.

4. Austin Meadows, OF (19) The first of two first-round draft picks in 2013, Meadows has shown five-tool ability when healthy. However, he missed most of last season with a hamstring injury.

5. Nick Kingham, RHP (23) 2010 fourth-round pick has good command of a three-pitch mix. Could be the first starter called up from Indianapolis this season.

6. Reese McGuire, C (20) The Pirates’ second first-round pick in 2013 is considered one of the finest defensive catchers in the minor leagues.

7. Alen Hanson, 2B/SS (22) The Dominican native will likely wind up at second base because of a below-average arm. He has speed and some power.

8. Cole Tucker, SS (18) Tucker shows great maturity for his age and should be able to handle the jump to Low-A West Virginia this season.

9. Harold Ramirez, OF (20) The product of Colombia has speed and emerging power. However, his 2014 season was ruined by leg injuries.

10. Mitch Keller, RHP (19) A second-round pick in last year’s draft, he has a fastball that reaches 95 mph and a curveball that is developing into a weapon.

Teaser:
Pittsburgh Pirates 2015 Preview and Prediction
Post date: Wednesday, March 11, 2015 - 12:30
All taxonomy terms: College Basketball, News
Path: /college-basketball/8-slumping-teams-avoid-your-2015-ncaa-tournament-bracket
Body:

Earlier, Athlon Sports looked at the teams that are surging into the NCAA Tournament.

 

This is the flip side. These are teams that are limping their way into the field, provided some of them making at all.

 

For whatever reason — cold shooting, injury — these teams will be in the field but perhaps in name only. The teams you may have liked at one point of the season are giving off clear warning signs.

 

Pick them in your bracket at your own risk.

 

Indiana

Given the roller coaster of Indiana basketball this season, maybe a great postseason is in the works for the Hoosiers. Indiana was 15-4 on Jan. 22 and has gone 4-8 since. The defense in the last three games, in particular, has been dreadful, allowing 1.16 points per possession against Northwestern, Iowa and Michigan State.

 

Kansas

The Jayhawks expect Perry Ellis back for the NCAA Tournament. Make no mistake: That’s huge for their prospects. The junior forward has been carrying KU for the latter portion of the conference schedule. Even with Ellis, though, Kansas flashed some warning signs in losses to Oklahoma State, West Virginia and Kansas State, plus sluggish games against TCU and Texas. Kansas won its 11th consecutive Big 12 title and will be seeded well, but unless the Jayhawks do something great in the conference tournament, stay away.

 

Oklahoma State

At one point in February, Oklahoma State had defeated Baylor twice and Kansas once. Since Feb. 14, the Cowboys are 1-5 including two losses to West Virginia and losses to TCU and Texas Tech. Oklahoma State doesn’t have a ton of scoring depth and one of those options (Phil Forte) is prone to awful days from 3-point range.

 

Ole Miss

The Rebels are sliding off the bubble and may well find their way into the NIT if they can’t win a game or two in the SEC tournament. Since Feb. 25, Ole Miss lost at home to fellow bubble team Georgia and a Vanderbilt team that’s not going to get an at-large bid. The Rebels also lost by 10 on the road to LSU. Stefan Moody has been great at getting to the free throw line and converting when he’s there (35-of-37) in the last four games, but he’s shot 6-of-31 from long range during the same span. Live by the 3, die by the 3.

 

Texas

The Longhorns closed the regular season with victories over Baylor and Kansas State in what were essentially must-win games. Before that, Texas had underachieved all year with two four-game losing streaks contributing to a 6-10 Big 12 record at one point. Is Texas finally delivering on its potential or still a team to avoid?

 

Texas A&M

Like Ole Miss, Texas A&M is flirting with disaster if it can’t win in the SEC tournament. Unlike the Rebels, the Aggies don’t have as many quality wins — A&M swept the series against LSU whereas Ole Miss beat Arkansas and Oregon on the road and Arkansas on a neutral court. Texas A&M went from reasonably safe to losing nailbiters to Florida and Alabama.

 

Utah

The Utes were one of the best turnaround stories in the sport, and when Utah was 21-4, it was easy to get overly optimistic. The last three weeks of the season may have brought things down to Earth. Arizona completed a season sweep of Utah, and the Utes let a lead slip away in a 77-68 loss to a Washington team that won only five Pac-12 games all year. After Utah finished 2-3 in the Pac-12, watch the Utes carefully.

 

VCU

You’ll be tempted to pick VCU on name recognition and the Rams’ NCAA Tournament seed. Beware! The Rams lost the linchpin of the havoc defense, Briante Weber, on Jan. 31 and finished on a 5-6 slide. VCU had defeated only one KenPom top 100 team without Weber.

Teaser:
8 Teams Slumping Their Way Into March Madness
Post date: Wednesday, March 11, 2015 - 12:00
All taxonomy terms: NFL
Path: /nfl/little-girl-devastated-jimmy-graham-trade-seattle
Body:

Yes, New Orleans Saints fans were shocked and sad when news broke that their star tight end Jimmy Graham had been traded to the Seattle Seahawks. But perhaps no one was as upset as this 7-year-old girl, who sadly explains the devastation this has brought upon her world. 

 

 

 
Teaser:
Post date: Wednesday, March 11, 2015 - 11:53
Path: /mlb/milwaukee-brewers-2015-preview-and-prediction
Body:

Who, exactly, are the Milwaukee Brewers? Are they the team that led the NL Central for 150 days last season? Or are they the team that collapsed down the stretch? After an in-depth review of all aspects of baseball operations, general manager Doug Melvin is betting on the former, as picked up Aramis Ramirez’ option and traded for first baseman Adam Lind. However, a maxed out payroll led to one big change, trading ace Yovani Gallardo to Texas for three players. There’s still lots of proven talent returning, although much will be riding on the balky right thumb of right fielder Ryan Braun. But if he’s even close to his former MVP self and the pitching is again solid, Melvin’s gamble might well pay off.

 

Rotation

In Matt Garza, Kyle Lohse and budding ace Wily Peralta, the Brewers have a nice 1-2-3 punch atop their rotation. Peralta, a burly Dominican righty, won a career-high 17 games utilizing a fastball that ranked third in the majors in average velocity at 95.8 mph and a nasty slider that induced lots of ground-ball outs. Entering his second season in Milwaukee, Garza battled injury and inconsistency but showed flashes of his former dominance. Lohse remains a reliable workhorse, pitching right around 200 innings for each of the past four seasons. The Brewers are hoping the No. 4 spot in the rotation will be solidified by yet another righty, Mike Fiers, who came out of nowhere to go 6–4 with a 2.09 ERA in 10 late-season starts after a nondescript stint earlier in the season as a long man. Fiers was nothing short of incredible, posting a 14-strikeout game in his second turn in place of an injured Garza and then bouncing back mentally following his scary September beaning of Marlins slugger Giancarlo Stanton. The  Gallardo trade also opens up the final spot in the rotation for young, hard-throwing Jimmy Nelson.

 

Bullpen

Milwaukee was set to lean on veteran Jonathan Broxton, acquired from the Reds in a late-August trade, as its closer, that was until Francisco Rodriguez was brought back at the start of spring training. K-Rod signed a two-year deal to reclaim his closing duties, something he was quite effective at (44 of 49 opportunities) last season. His return and Broxton’s move back to a setup role gives the Brewers two veteran options to pair with its collection of ascending, but relatively unproven, arms. Lefty Will Smith and righty Jeremy Jeffress both figure to serve as the bridge between the starter and the finishers. Smith was a revelation early on with his devastating slider befuddling left-handed hitters, but he faded badly after being overused. Still, with 86 strikeouts in 65.2 innings, he certainly has stuff befitting a late-inning reliever. Jeffress, with a fastball that routinely touches the high 90s, does as well, and he went 1–1 with a 1.88 ERA in 29 appearances after the Brewers — the team that drafted him back in 2006 — rescued him off the scrap heap. The longest-tenured reliever is righty Brandon Kintzler, who scuffled his way to a 3–3 record and 3.24 ERA after a dynamite 2013. He had a lingering knee injury repaired in the offseason, and the hope is he’ll return to his old form. Melvin found himself in the hunt for another lefty when Zach Duke signed with the White Sox, which is why veteran Neal Cotts was signed in late January. Righties Jim Henderson and Tyler Thornburg are coming off shoulder and elbow injuries, respectively.

 

Middle Infield

There are major questions here. Most center around shortstop Jean Segura, who slumped badly in 2014 after turning down a $38 million extension from the Brewers in spring training and then having his newborn son unexpectedly pass away just before the All-Star break. The free-swinging Segura did himself no favors by continuing to swing at pitches out of the zone, giving opposing pitchers no reason to throw him strikes. He was expected to employ some changes at the plate while playing winter ball in the Dominican in the offseason, and if he can regain some consistency it would help solidify the bottom of the Brewers’ lineup. At second base, budding star Scooter Gennett finally gets a chance to be the full-time starter. He hit .289 with nine homers and 54 RBIs in a platoon in 2014, but the question remains: Can he hit left-handed pitching? He comes into 2015 having hit just .128 against lefties in 78 career at-bats.

 

Corners

Melvin hopes he solved the offensive black hole at first base by trading for Lind, whose left-handed bat should be a perfect fit in the middle of the lineup. And the belief is he can at least be an adequate defender. Lind has battled nagging injuries in recent years, but when healthy he murders right-handed pitching — a major plus in a division that features a lot of it. Jonathan Lucroy will likely be called upon in place of Lind with a lefty on the mound. At third base, Ramirez is coming off an All-Star season, but one in which he posted his worst offensive numbers since becoming a full-time player. He turns 37 in late June and announced at the start of spring training that this would be his last season. Ramirez has battled numerous leg issues since becoming a Brewer, but the hope is he can turn in one more respectable campaign.

 

Outfield

Braun’s return from his Biogenesis suspension did not go according to plan. A painful nerve issue in his right hand returned and got progressively worse over the course of the season. He underwent a little-known cryotherapy treatment in the offseason in hopes of eliminating the pain. Left fielder Khris Davis acquitted himself fairly well in his first season as a starter, banging 22 homers and driving in 69 runs. But his .244 average needs to improve, as does his selectiveness at the plate. Center field remains locked down by Carlos Gomez. He became the Brewers’ full-time leadoff hitter and displayed better plate discipline.

 

Catching

The Brewers might be better positioned here than any other team in the majors with an All-Star in Lucroy and an above-average backup in Martin Maldonado. Lucroy was a doubles machine, leading the majors with 53, while also improving defensively. He’s regarded as the finest pitch-framer in the game. Catching 133 games wore him down, so playing him more at first base should help keep him fresh this year. The next step for Lucroy is to become a bigger presence on a team with plenty of veterans but precious few vocal ones.

 

Bench

Switch-hitting Luis Sardinas was acquired in the Gallardo trade and can play all over the infield. In the outfield, the Brewers have a terrific insurance policy in two-time Gold Glover Gerardo Parra, who can play all three spots as well as provide a left-handed bat on a righty-heavy team. Luis Jimenez, a waiver claim from the Angels, is expected to be a backup at the corners. Outfielder Logan Schafer, another left-handed bat, will probably round out the bench.

 

Management

Principal owner Mark Attanasio was livid after his team’s slide out of playoff contention. After cooling off, he and Melvin chose to keep manager Ron Roenicke, determining that an offensive funk was mostly to blame. New hitting coach Darnell Coles will be tasked with teaching a more consistent approach at the plate, and it will be on Roenicke to rein in a group that has continually run into some baffling outs on the bases. The Brewers’ expected payroll of $110 million signals Attanasio’s desire to win despite his team’s small-market status.

 

Final Analysis

The Brewers’ struggles against the Cardinals have been well documented. Now, with the Cubs going all-in on the strength of their active offseason, the Central becomes that much tougher. Avoiding major injury and playing more consistently will be crucial for Milwaukee, which proved last year it had all the pieces needed to contend.

 

2015 Prediction: 3rd in NL Central

 

Projected Lineup

CF       Carlos Gomez (R)    Hit five leadoff homers in 2014, providing the Brewers with a terrific mix of power and speed atop the lineup.

2B       Scooter Gennett (L)             Diminutive gamer has plenty of pop in his bat, but he needs to show more patience at the plate.

RF       Ryan Braun (R)        A healed right thumb for the former NL MVP would do wonders for a team that badly needs his punch.

1B       Adam Lind (L)           Provides much-needed pop and lineup balance from the left side of the plate. But can he stay healthy?

C         Jonathan Lucroy (R)           Backstop was the model of consistency in 2014. More time at first base might help save his legs.

3B       Aramis Ramirez (R)             Milwaukee is hoping for one more productive year out of the aging slugger.

LF       Khris Davis (R)         Must become more selective and consistent to harness his full potential.

SS       Jean Segura (R)      Got himself out far too often in 2014 by swinging at everything.

 

Bench

INF      Luis Sardinas (S)     Came over from Texas in the Yovani Gallardo trade, can play everywhere in the infield but first.

OF       Gerardo Parra (L)     By virtue of his left-handed bat and two Gold Gloves, Parra will play much more than the usual substitute.

C         Martin Maldonado (R)         Solid backup catcher who could see more time behind the plate if Lucroy plays a lot at first.

INF      Luis Jimenez (R)      Backup corner infielder who was acquired off waivers in the offseason from the Angels.

OF       Logan Schafer (L)    Left-handed bat could be an asset on a righty-heavy team, but plate production (.181 in 116 AB in 2014) must improve.

 

Rotation

RH      Kyle Lohse    Coming off a fourth consecutive 30-start season, the veteran has been a model of consistency.

RH      Matt Garza     Alternated between terrific and troubling in 2014. Can be great when he’s healthy.

RH      Wily Peralta   Budding future ace who could well be Milwaukee’s next 20-game winner.

RH      Mike Fiers      Reclamation project who will have to prove this spring that his strong finish to 2014 was no mirage.

RH      Jimmy Nelson           Yovani Gallardo trade opens up spot in rotation for young righty after going 2-8 with 4.76 ERA in 12 starts last season.

 

Bullpen

RH      Francisco Rodriguez (Closer)       Back with Brewers after saving 44 in 49 chances last season.

RH      Jonathan Broxton (Closer) K-Rod’s return pushes Broxton back to setup role, but he could get his opportunities to close too.

RH      Jeremy Jeffress        Possessing a power arm, Jeffress might well find himself in a setup role if he can hit his spots consistently.

LH       Will Smith      Nasty slider makes him ultra-tough on lefties. Could also set up or even close on occasion in 2015.

RH      Brandon Kintzler      If he’s healthy, Kintzler could reclaim a big role in the Brewers’ bullpen.

RH      Jim Henderson         Former closer hoping to return from second career shoulder surgery.

LH       Neal Cotts     Could grab last bullpen spot simply because he’s a southpaw.

 

Beyond the Box Score

Doubling down Jonathan Lucroy became the first primary catcher in modern baseball history (since 1900) to lead his league in doubles by pounding out 53. Lucroy tied his 2014 teammate, Lyle Overbay, for the franchise record, with Overbay racking up 53 in 2004. Lucroy’s 46 doubles as a catcher set a new major league record, breaking the previous mark of 45 set by Ivan Rodriguez in 1996. It was a season to remember for Lucroy, who also started in the All-Star Game in his first trip as he replaced an injured Yadier Molina. Lucroy was just the second catcher in Brewers history to start an All-Star Game, joining Ted Simmons (1983).

Go-go Gomez Center fielder Carlos Gomez furthered his reputation as one of baseball’s pre-eminent speed and power threats by finishing with 24 home runs and 34 stolen bases. That gave him his second consecutive 20-homer, 30-stolen base season after hitting 23 homers and stealing 40 bases in 2013.

On Fiers Mike Fiers joined the Brewers’ rotation on Aug. 9 and made a total of 10 starts. Over that span, the righthander ranked second in the National League in strikeouts with 71 — second only to NL MVP and Cy Young Award winner Clayton Kershaw, who had 82. Fiers also ranked 10th in the NL in ERA at 2.09 from Aug. 9 on.

Khrush Davis Since July 23, 2013, the date of his first major league homer, left fielder Khris Davis is tied for third among NL outfielders in homers with 33. The top two long-ball outfield artists? Miami’s Giancarlo Stanton with 51 and San Diego’s Justin Upton with 40. Davis also finished 2014 tied for 10th in the NL with 61 extra-base hits.

 

2014 Top Draft Pick

Kodi Medeiros, LHP

With three picks in the top 50 overall, the Brewers went for upside in the 2014 draft, selecting three high schoolers. Medeiros was the first, coming off the board 12th overall. He impressed the Brewers during a late-spring workout at Miller Park with a fastball that consistently reached the mid-90s and a slider that was considered one of the best breaking pitches among all prep pitchers. Medeiros also throws from a low arm slot, making his breaking pitches even tougher to pick up. Many believed he profiled as a reliever coming into the draft, but the Brewers are going to give him every opportunity to prove he can start. Medeiros, a product of Waiakea High School, is the highest-drafted native Hawaiian ever, a great source of pride for him. He turned down a scholarship to Pepperdine to sign with Milwaukee.

 

Top 10 Prospects

1. Tyrone Taylor, OF (21) Speedy center field prospect who was drafted by the Brewers in the second round in 2012. He reached Class AA at the end of 2014 and should start there in 2015.

2. Orlando Arcia, SS (20) Terrific defensive shortstop whose hitting has improved, albeit without much power. He could push Jean Segura. 

3. Clint Coulter, OF (21) First-round pick of the Brewers in 2012 who has moved from catcher to the outfield. Had a big year at Class A Wisconsin.

4. Monte Harrison, OF (19) Big-time athlete who turned down a football/baseball scholarship with Nebraska to sign with the Brewers as the 50th overall pick in 2014.

5. Kodi Medeiros, LHP (18) At 6'2" and 180 pounds, Medeiros has a solid frame with room to grow. He struggled with command in the Arizona Rookie League in nine appearances.

6. Jacob Gatewood, INF (19) Had maybe the most raw power potential coming out of high school in 2014, when he was picked between Medeiros and Harrison at No. 41 overall.

7. Jorge Lopez, RHP (22) Long and lanky at 6'4", 165 pounds, Lopez is a starter who has a terrific curveball and developing fastball.

8. Devin Williams, RHP (20) The Brewers’ top pick in 2013 averaged around a strikeout per inning in rookie league in his first full season as a pro.

9. Victor Roache, OF (23) Roache is the classic boom-or-bust hitter with tons of power but the strikeouts to match. Taken 28th overall in 2012.

10. Taylor Jungmann, RHP (25) It’s been a long, slow climb for Jungmann. He’s finally on the big-league radar as a back-end starter.

Teaser:
Milwaukee Brewers 2015 Preview and Prediction
Post date: Wednesday, March 11, 2015 - 11:30
All taxonomy terms: Essential 11, Overtime
Path: /overtime/athlons-essential-11-links-day-march-11-2015
Body:

This is your daily links roundup of our favorite sports and entertainment posts on the web for March 11:

 

Enjoy some Charlotte McKinney swimsuit outtakes.

 

Amar'e Stoudemire is ripping his new Mavericks teammates, but at least he's looking sharp while doing so. 

 

It was a wild day in the NFL. And once again, SportsPickle managed to hack into Chip Kelly's voicemails. They're revealing.

 

• Will Ferrell is turning Cactus League into his own personal fantasy camp. He plans to play all nine positions in various games.

 

Michael Jordan is the highest-paid retired athlete, but 85-year-old Arnold Palmer just had his best endorsement year ever, making $42 million. Apologies to LeBron, but Arnie's still the King.

 

Watch a little kid execute a perfect topspin lob against Roger Federer.

 

Clay Travis points out that Oklahoma is strong against racism, but weak against domestic violence.

 

John Daly says the "randomness" of PGA Tour drug testing is bull----. Get out your checkbook, John.

 

Blues defenseman Barrett Jackman scored the game-winning goal from center ice.

 

Watch a fifth grade girl dunk on a 9-foot goal. I'm pretty sure I couldn't do that.

 

• Here's Loui Eriksson's amazing goal set to "Louie, Louie."

 

 

-- Email us with any compelling sports-related links at [email protected]

Teaser:
Post date: Wednesday, March 11, 2015 - 11:09
Path: /college-football/pac-12s-pre-spring-top-15-player-rankings-2015
Body:

The 2015 Pac-12 season is shaping up to be another year filled of intrigue in both division races. Oregon is the favorite in the North, but the Ducks have question marks on both sides of the ball. And the expected replacement for quarterback Marcus Mariota – Eastern Washington transfer Vernon Adams – won’t arrive until this summer. In the South Division, five out of the six teams have a strong case to be picked No. 1 in the league this year. Colorado is improving, but the Buffaloes are probably a year away from getting back into bowl contention.

 

With spring practice underway, it’s never too early to take a look at the top returning players in the Pac-12 for 2015.

 

Here’s a quick primer on the top 15 players in the Pac-12 for next season, as well as a few names to watch. 

 

Pac-12's Pre-Spring Top 15 Players for 2015

 

1. Scooby Wright, LB, Arizona

2015 Year of Eligibility: Junior

2014 Stats: 163 tackles, 29 TFL, 14 sacks, 6 FF

 

Wright was the best defensive player in college football last season and a big reason why Arizona won the South Division and played for the Pac-12 Championship. 

 

2. Myles Jack, LB, UCLA

2015 Year of Eligibility: Junior

2014 Stats: 88 tackles, 8 TFL, 1 INT, 7 PBU

 

Jack didn’t see much time on offense last season – only 28 carries – but he continued to provide plenty of punch for the UCLA defense. Jack was a second-team All-Pac-12 selection and is now the leader for the linebacking corps after Eric Kendricks expired his eligibility.

 

3. Cody Kessler, QB, USC

2015 Year of Eligibility: Senior

2014 Stats: 3,826 yards, 39 TDs, 5 INTs

 

Kessler loses standout receiver Nelson Agholor, but he opens spring practice as the Pac-12’s top quarterback after tossing 39 touchdowns to just five interceptions in 2014.

 

4. Su’a Cravens, LB/S, USC

2015 Year of Eligibility: Junior

2014 Stats: 68 tackles, 17 TFL, 5 sacks, 3 INT, 9 PBU

 

Cravens is one of the most versatile defenders in college football. The California native plays a hybrid safety/linebacker role for coordinator Justin Wilcox and has seven interceptions and 18.5 tackles for a loss in two years with the Trojans.

 

5. Max Tuerk, C, USC

2015 Year of Eligibility: Senior

 

Tuerk anchors a young and improving USC offensive line entering 2015. The California native enters spring practice with 33 career starts and earned first-team All-Pac-12 honors in 2014.

 

6. DeForest Buckner, DE, Oregon

2015 Year of Eligibility: Senior

2014 Stats: 81 tackles, 13 TFL, 4 sacks, 4 PBU, 1 FF

 

Buckner turned down the NFL for one more season in Eugene. With Arik Armstead off to the next level, it’s up to Buckner to shoulder more of the workload in the trenches this year. There’s no doubt Buckner is up to the task.

 

7. Jared Goff, QB, California

2015 Year of Eligibility: Junior

2014 Stats: 3,973 yards, 35 TDs, 7 INTs

 

Goff is one of the nation’s rising stars at quarterback and is only going to get better with another offseason in coach Sonny Dykes’ offense. Goff led all Pac-12 quarterbacks (conference-only games) by averaging 341.1 yards per contest last year.

 

8. Kyle Murphy, OT, Stanford

2015 Year of Eligibility: Senior

 

Stanford has placed a lineman on the Pac-12’s first-team unit for seven consecutive years. It’s a safe bet to pick Murphy to extend that streak to eight in 2015.

 

9. Royce Freeman, RB, Oregon

2015 Year of Eligibility: Sophomore

2014 Stats: 1,365 yards, 18 TDs, 16 rec., 158 yards, 1 TD

 

Freeman might not lead the Pac-12 in rushing due to a healthy Thomas Tyner as his backfield mate, but the sophomore might have the most overall talent of any running back in the conference.

 

10. Devontae Booker, RB, Utah

2015 Year of Eligibility: Senior

2014 Stats: 1,512 yards, 10 TDs, 43 rec., 306 yards, 2 TDs

 

Booker might be one of the nation’s most underrated players. Despite a struggling Utah passing offense last season, Booker ranked second in the Pac-12 with 1,512 yards and 10 scores. He should be the catalyst for Utah’s offense once again this year.

 

11. Paul Perkins, RB, UCLA

2015 Year of Eligibility: Junior

2014 Stats: 1,575 yards, 9 TDs, 26 rec., 201 yards, 2 TDs

 

Perkins quietly led all Pac-12 rushers with 1,575 yards last season, which included 190 against Oregon, 194 against Kansas State and 137 over Arizona. With quarterback Brett Hundley off to the NFL, Perkins may have to shoulder even more of the workload in 2015.

 

12.  Adoree’ Jackson, CB/WR, USC

2015 Year of Eligibility: Sophomore

2014 Stats: 49 tackles, 4 TFL, 10 PBU, 10 receptions, 138 yards, 3 TDs

 

Jackson is a name that could easily climb this list by the end of the 2015 season. Coach Steve Sarkisian hopes to get him a handful of snaps on offense after catching three of his 10 passes for scores in 2015. However, Jackson will be tough to remove on defense, as he broke up 10 passes and made 49 stops in 13 games last season.

 

13. Anu Solomon, QB, Arizona

2015 Year of Eligibility: Sophomore

2014 Stats: 3,793 passing yards, 28 TDs, 9 INTs, 291 rush yards, 2 TDs


Solomon had his share of ups and downs in 2014 but still finished with 28 touchdowns to nine interceptions in his first year as the starter. Getting Solomon back to 100 percent after a late-season ankle injury should help the sophomore take a step forward this offseason.

 

14. Nick Wilson, RB, Arizona

2015 Year of Eligibility: Sophomore

2014 Stats: 1,375 yards, 16 TDs, 12 receptions, 90 yards, 1 TD

 

Wilson was the other standout freshman performer for coach Rich Rodriguez in 2014. In 13 contests, Wilson rushed for 1,375 yards and contributed 16 rushing scores. His numbers should only climb in 2015.
 

15. Nelson Spruce, WR, Colorado

2015 Year of Eligibility: Senior

2014 Stats: 106 catches, 1,198 yards, 12 TDs

 

Spruce made sure Colorado’s passing game didn’t miss a beat without Paul Richardson at receiver. The California native tied Washington State’s Vince Mayle for the Pac-12 crown in receptions (106), while Spruce tied two other players for first in touchdown receptions.

 

Players to Watch

 

Ishmael Adams, DB, UCLA

Adams was on the cusp of making our pre-spring top 15 players. The first-team All-Pac-12 defensive back could crack the list with a strong 2015 season.

 

Vernon Adams, QB, Oregon

Eastern Washington transfer won’t arrive on campus until this summer. Where does Adams fall in the pecking order of Pac-12 quarterbacks?

 

Budda Baker, S, Washington

Baker was a standout freshman for coach Chris Petersen and is only going to improve with another offseason in Seattle.

 

D.J. Foster, RB/WR, Arizona State

With the emergence of Demario Richard and Kalen Ballage, Arizona State plans to shift Foster into a hybrid running back/receiver role in 2015.

 

Peter Kalambayi, LB, Stanford

Should play a bigger role in the defense after recording 9.5 tackles for a loss and 6.5 sacks in 2014.

 

Gabe Marks, WR, Washington State

Marks is back in the mix for Washington State after a redshirt year in 2014. He caught 74 passes in 2013 and could push for the team lead in receptions, yards and touchdowns in 2015.

 

Gionni Paul, LB, Utah

Miami transfer had his 2014 season cut short by injury. However, Paul (when healthy) is an impact defender for coach Kyle Whittingham’s defense.

 

JuJu Smith, WR, USC

Smith is the likely replacement for Nelson Agholor after catching 54 passes for 724 yards and five scores in 2014.

 

Storm Woods, RB, Oregon State

Woods closed out 2014 by rushing for 128 yards against Oregon. Will he be a bigger part of the new offense under coach Gary Andersen?

Teaser:
Pac-12's Pre-Spring Top 15 Player Rankings for 2015
Post date: Wednesday, March 11, 2015 - 11:00
All taxonomy terms: Darrelle Revis, NFL Free agency, NFL, News
Path: /nfl/what-now-new-england-patriots-without-darrelle-revis
Body:

Darrelle Revis is headed back to the New York Jets with a record-setting, five-year, $70 million deal with $39 million guaranteed, leaving the New England Patriots to wonder what happened to the elite secondary that helped them win their elusive fourth Super Bowl title just last month.

 

Securing Revis was thought to be the Patriots’ top priority for the offseason, but once the numbers left the Pats' ballpark they tapped out on Revis, letting him walk back to their hated rival and the team that drafted Revis in 2007. Revis might come out of it looking like a mercenary, but he sure is a rich one and no one can question Revis' ability to maximize his leverage.

 

The Patriots used Revis' rare ability to its fullest, having him shut down top opposing receivers from the regular season all the way to the Lombardi Trophy. Revis' impact for the Pats was undeniable and now, with the Pats also declining to pick up Brandon Browner's option, Bill Belichick must overhaul his outside cornerbacks for the second time in as many seasons.

 

Revis and Browner had the critical strength of playing tight man-to-man coverage, an absolute necessity in today's NFL. While Browner's return remains a possibility, the lack of size at cornerback could be a big problem.

 

The cupboard is not entirely empty. Safety Devin McCourty, the leader of the secondary, returned to the team with a five-year extension. Veteran Kyle Arrington was benched in the Super Bowl, but he's one of the best slot corners in the NFL and he effectively shut down T.Y. Hilton in the AFC Championship Game, albeit with over-the-top help from McCourty.

 

Malcolm Butler is a household name now after his Super Bowl-clinching interception, but he's still fairly unproven, though his ball skills are undeniable. With a full season under his belt, Butler could blossom into a legitimate NFL starter. There's more pressure on Butler to develop now.

 

Alfonzo Dennard showed promise in his first two seasons and is a feisty outside corner despite his lack of size, but he struggled when they tried to move him to the slot in 2014 and eventually ended up in Injured Reserve. Logan Ryan also showed promise as a rookie in 2013, but was often picked on this past season and was inconsistent at best.

 

Despite their flaws, having four experienced cornerbacks means the Pats don't have to panic. Still, the position cannot be called a strength and there must be additions for the Patriots to effectively matchup with wide receiver groups within the AFC East like the Jets' new tandem of Brandon Marshall and Eric Decker.

 

There's no one exciting left on the corner market, so the Pats will have to resort to their tried and true methodology of taking a shot on undervalued veterans with a rookie draft pick or two sprinkled in. Bringing back Browner might make the most sense, otherwise names like Antonio Cromartie and Jimmy Wilson are others who might be of interest.

 

In 2014 the Pats had the perfect personnel to execute the perfect scheme in their secondary. They won't have that luxury in 2015, but with a talented front seven, an improved pass rush up front could make up the difference without Revis. Dominique Easley, last year’s first-round pick out of Florida, could be one name to add a spark to the Pats up front.

 

Despite their personnel losses over the years, Bill Belichick has never blinked from his philosophy of building a 53-man roster that is strong from the top to the bottom. For Belichick, it's about building a team, not collecting talent, but replacing an All-Pro standout like Revis might just be the biggest test of that philosophy yet.

 

— Written by Mike Dussault, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and writer/editor of PatsPropaganda.com (@PatsPropaganda), a comprehensive blog covering the New England Patriots.

Teaser:
Darrelle Revis Needs to be New England Patriots' Top Priority in Free Agency
Post date: Wednesday, March 11, 2015 - 10:45
Path: /mlb/cincinnati-reds-2015-preview-and-prediction
Body:

The way the Reds dealt with their four free-agent-to-be starters was supposed to indicate their intentions for the upcoming season. By trading Mat Latos and Alfredo Simon, it showed the team wasn’t all-in for 2015, but by hanging on to Johnny Cueto and Mike Leake, the Reds showed they weren’t in complete rebuilding mode either. Instead, they are doing what they did in 2014, hoping that things fall their way. It didn’t work last year, but they hope … hope Joey Votto is healthy, hope Jay Bruce is back to his old ways, hope Brandon Phillips stays healthy, hope the bullpen bounces back and hope that the rotation is good enough.

 

Rotation

With Latos and Simon gone, there are openings in the rotation, but with Cueto, Leake and Homer Bailey back, the open spots are in the back end. Cueto proved to be a bona fide ace in 2014, putting together probably the second-best season in baseball. He won 20 games for the first time and either led or tied for the league lead in starts (34), innings (243.2) and strikeouts (242). Despite Cueto’s unquestioned status as the team’s ace — or at least unquestioned after last season — it is Bailey who received the ace’s ransom in the form of a six-year, $105 million deal signed last February. Bailey’s 2014 season ended after undergoing elbow surgery in September, and while he is progressing in his recovery, he is not expected to be ready to pitch by Opening Day. Leake is often overlooked because he lacks the pure stuff of some of the Reds’ recent top-line starters, but he’s done nothing but produce solid numbers. The 27-year-old has 142 starts under his belt, going 53–42 with a 3.92 ERA. Lefthander Tony Cingrani and righty Dylan Axelrod are in position to earn the final two spots in the rotation. Cingrani was terrific in 2013 — he went 7–4 with a 2.92 ERA — but took a step back in ’14 as he went 2–8 and his ERA ballooned to 4.55. Axelrod started four games last year, his first with the Reds.

 

Bullpen

The Reds had the most dominant closer in baseball — and still their bullpen was an issue. It wasn’t the ninth inning that was a problem; even when Aroldis Chapman was sidelined due to his horrific injury in spring, Jonathan Broxton ably held down the fort. It was the rest of the bullpen that was lacking. Even with Chapman (2.00 ERA) and Broxton (1.86 ERA with the Reds), the team’s 4.11 bullpen ERA was the second worst in the National League. Take away those two, and it was an astronomical 5.13. That many runs from the bullpen means a lot of losses, especially for a team that struggled to score runs. Except for Broxton, the Reds expect to have mostly the same faces — J.J. Hoover, Sam LeCure, Jumbo Diaz, Manny Parra and Sean Marshall. Parra and Marshall dealt with injuries, while Hoover and LeCure were simply ineffective. The team didn’t tender contracts to Logan Ondrusek and Curtis Partch and traded for Matt Magill from the Dodgers. The Reds could also decide to bring up righthander Raisel Iglesias to help fortify the bullpen, but they will look at him as a starter first.

 

Middle Infield

Defensively, few teams can boast a better middle infield than Zack Cozart and Phillips. Offensively? Not so much. Cozart played Gold Glove-caliber defense, but his .221/.268/.300 slash line left much to be desired. Newcomer Eugenio Suarez could push him in the spring. While not the defensive shortstop Cozart is, Suarez does have more offensive upside. In 2011, Phillips won the Silver Slugger and the Gold Glove, but every season since, his batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage have fallen. The former 30–30 man had just eight home runs in 2014 and was caught stealing (three) more times than he was successful (two).

 

Corners

The Reds will be better off if Todd Frazier only starts at third base in 2015. He started 37 games at first in 2014, weakening the team’s defense at both positions. That was necessary because Votto was limited to 62 games because of a knee injury. While Frazier made his first All-Star team, Votto missed it for the first time since 2009. The best-case scenario is for the Reds to have All-Stars at first and third — both have the potential, but Votto has to bounce back from knee surgery. Even when healthy, Votto didn’t look like the guy who slugged 37 home runs in his MVP season of 2010. In 62 games, he hit .255 with only six home runs and 23 RBIs.

 

Outfield

The trio of Bruce, Billy Hamilton and Marlon Byrd could be one of the best defensive outfields in the game — but this isn’t a team hurting for defense. The Reds traded for Byrd in hopes that he could be an impact bat in the middle of the order. He’s had at least 24 home runs and 85 RBIs in each of the last two seasons; the Reds got just 10 homers and 57 RBIs out of their left fielders in 2014. Bruce had the worst season of his young career while dealing with a knee injury. He missed only 15 games after undergoing knee surgery but never fully recovered. In center, Hamilton was one of the game’s most exciting players — or at least he was for half of the season. At the All-Star break, Hamilton was hitting .285/.319/.423 with 38 steals and was running away with the Rookie of the Year Award. Then he hit a wall, hitting .200/.254/.257 after the break and .123/.219/.154 in September, a month that had him caught stealing more times (three) than he was successful (two). Reds manager Bryan Price has reiterated this offseason that the team is committed to Hamilton in the leadoff spot, believing he can improve his on-base skills and be a game-changer on the bases.

 

Catching

GM Walt Jocketty sent a message to Devin Mesoraco last offseason, trading away Ryan Hanigan, more or less handing the keys to the position to Mesoraco. The former first-round pick delivered, making his first All-Star appearance despite two first-half trips to the disabled list. He still played a career-best 114 games and hit .273 with 25 home runs and 80 RBIs, developing into a middle-of-the-order slugging catcher. Brayan Pena is in the second year of a two-year deal as the backup, but Tucker Barnhart is ready to take over at any time.

 

Bench

For years, outfielder Chris Heisey was among the game’s most dangerous bats off the bench. He’s gone, however, after the team traded him to the Dodgers to free up payroll. It’s unclear who will get those at-bats now. Utility man Skip Schumaker, signed to bolster the bench, started and ended his first season as a Red on the disabled list and sandwiched his least productive season in between. Rookie Yorman Rodriguez, who showed promise in his September call-up, could be in line for more work. Kristopher Negron, a shortstop in the minors, showed he can be an offensive spark, but that was in a limited role late in the season. Of all the Reds’ question marks, the bench seems to have the fewest answers.

 

Management

Jocketty signed a new two-year deal after the 2014 season, and Price, the team’s manager, enters the second of a three-year deal. This team is not built to contend this season, but there will no doubt be pressure on Price to show improvement after the Reds dipped to 76 wins a year ago — the franchise’s fewest since 2008.

 

Final Analysis

In the ultra-competitive NL Central, the Reds seem to have done the least among the five teams to improve their fortunes from the year before, and a failure to keep up with the Cardinals, Pirates, Brewers and Cubs is hardly a reason for optimism. But if this team stays healthy and some of the ‘ifs’ that management is counting on come through, the Reds could compete. If they don’t, the fourth-place finish in 2014 could seem like the good ol’ days.

 

2015 Prediction: 5th in NL Central

 

Projected Lineup

CF       Billy Hamilton (S)     Rookie season marred by second-half slide; he hit just .200 after the All-Star break.

1B       Joey Votto (L)            Played in just 62 games for the Reds because of a knee injury, but was still second on team with 47 walks.

C         Devin Mesoraco (R)            Rewarded team’s decision to make him the starter by hitting 25 homers, the most by any catcher in baseball.

3B       Todd Frazier (R)       Led all MLB third basemen with 29 home runs — though he played 43 games at first base.

RF       Jay Bruce (L)            Must bounce back from career lows in average (.217), on-base percentage (.281) and home runs (18).

LF       Marlon Byrd (R)        Walt Jocketty said he wanted Byrd at the trade deadline in 2013; finally got him this offseason.

2B       Brandon Phillips (R)           He still produces defensively at a Gold Glove level, but his Silver Slugger days appear to be behind him.

SS       Zack Cozart (R)        Had just four homers after hitting double-digits in each of his first two full seasons.

 

Bench

C         Brayan Pena (S)      Signed to be a backup, Pena was forced into a career-high 115 games due to injuries.

UT       Skip Schumaker (R)            Utility man was a non-factor in his first season with the Reds, due in part to injuries.

INF      Kristopher Negron (R)         Made the most of his opportunity to play at the big-league level, hitting .271 with six homers.

INF      Eugenio Suarez (R)            Acquired from Detroit, he can provide some offense at shortstop and can also play second.

OF       Jason Bourgeois (R)           Can be a valuable piece off the bench with his defensive prowess and speed.

 

Rotation

RH      Johnny Cueto          In nearly any other year, Cueto would have had a real shot at the Cy Young after going 20–9 with a 2.25 ERA.

RH      Homer Bailey            September surgery to repair a torn flexor mass tendon in his right forearm cut his season short.

RH      Mike Leake    The righthander pitched 200-plus innings for the first time in 2014 but lost a career-high 13 games.

LH       Tony Cingrani          Was demoted in June and didn’t pitch the rest of the year because of a shoulder issue.

RH      Dylan Axelrod           Made four starts before oblique injury; battled back to pitch in relief in the season’s penultimate game.

 

Bullpen

LH       Aroldis Chapman (Closer) Struck out a record 52.5 percent of the batters he faced in 2014 and allowed only 21 hits in 54.0 IP.

RH      Sam LeCure Finished the season with a 3.81 ERA, but it was 5.45 in his final 42 appearances.

RH      Jumbo Diaz   The 30-year-old made his big-league debut after dropping more than 60 pounds in the offseason.

LH       Manny Parra Despite dealing with multiple injuries, Parra pitched in 53 games but logged only 36.2 innings.

LH       Sean Marshall          The Reds hope he is finally healthy enough to help for a full season, something he hasn’t done since 2012.

RH      J.J. Hoover    The hard-throwing righthander was demoted during the 2014 season after suffering his 10th loss.

RH      Matt Magill     A starter with the Dodgers, the Reds believe he’s better suited for the bullpen.

 

Beyond the Box Score

Streaking Devin Mesoraco’s solo home run against the Pirates on June 19 started a streak in which he hit a homer in five straight games in which he played. But more interesting was perhaps what kind of homers he hit. The home run against the Pirates was a solo shot. The next day he hit a two-run homer against Toronto, followed by a three-run homer against the Blue Jays the next game. After a day off, Mesoraco hit a grand slam off of the Cubs to complete the homer cycle. He tried to start the cycle over again, hitting a solo homer in his next game, but his next long ball was another solo shot. He did tie a team record for consecutive games with a home run.

Wasted money The Reds will be paying Ryan Ludwick and Jack Hannahan a total of $6.5 million not to play for them this season after declining options on the two veterans.

Queen City Classic The 2015 All-Star Game will be held at Great American Ball Park, the fifth time the game will be held in the Queen City. Crosley Field hosted in 1938 and 1953, while the game was at Riverfront Stadium in 1970 and 1988.

Revolving door Since Adam Dunn was traded to the Diamondbacks on Aug. 11, 2008, the Reds have had 26 different players start in left field: Chris Dickerson, Jolbert Cabrera, Jerry Hairston Jr., Wilkin Castillo, Laynce Nix, Jonny Gomes, Wladimir Balentien, Darnell McDonald, Drew Sutton, Chris Heisey, Jim Edmonds, Fred Lewis, Dave Sappelt, Yonder Alonso, Jeremy Hermida, Todd Frazier, Ryan Ludwick, Xavier Paul, Willie Harris, Derrick Robinson, Donald Lutz, Shin-Soo Choo, Skip Schumaker, Jason Bourgeois, Roger Bernadina and Yorman Rodriguez.

Second-half struggles The Reds hit just .222 after the All-Star break, the lowest mark in team history since the All-Star Game debuted in 1933. It’s the lowest by a team since the 1974 Padres hit .212 after the break.

Heavy workload Cinncinnati’s starting pitchers threw a combined 1,023.1 innings in 2014, the most in the major leagues. Two starters threw well over 200 innings — Johnny Cueto (243.2) and Mike Leake (214.1) — and a third came close (Alfredo Simon with 196.1).

 

2014 Top Draft Pick

Nick Howard, RHP

Over the last few years, the Reds have drafted several college closers and turned them into starters. They did it with Tony Cingrani in 2011, as well as with Michael Lorenzen in 2013. Howard was one of the college game’s best closers in 2014, recording 20 saves for Virginia. Howard features a hard fastball and a plus slider. He pitched in 11 games and made five starts at Low-A Dayton before working exclusively as a starter in the Arizona Fall League. Because of the depth of righthanders in the system, the Reds can let Howard develop at his own rate and don’t have to rush him. If Howard doesn’t develop as a starter, he could quickly move up the system as a reliever.

 

Top 10 Prospects

1. Robert Stephenson, RHP (22) Stephenson’s numbers at Double-A weren’t all that great (7–10, 4.74), but the stuff is undeniable. He has the chance to be a front-line starter in the big leagues.

2. Jesse Winker, OF (21) Winker’s left-handed swing is a thing of beauty. He led the Arizona Fall League in batting average and on-base percentage and was second in OPS and slugging.

3. Raisel Iglesias, RHP (25) The Reds signed Iglesias out of Cuba for $27 million over seven years. They want him eventually to be a starter, but he could end up in the bullpen in the short term.

4. Nick Howard, RHP (22) Fastball hit the high 90s during his time as a closer at Virginia; was in the 90-93 range when he was a weekend starter.

5. Michael Lorenzen, RHP (23) Perhaps the system’s best athlete, Lorenzen can throw in the high-90s. He shined at Double-A (4–6, 3.13) in his first year as a starter.

6. Anthony DeSclafani, RHP (24) Acquired from the Marlins in the Mat Latos trade, DeSclafani should challenge for a spot in the Reds’ rotation this spring.

7. Jonathon Crawford, RHP (23) The Tigers’ first-round pick in 2013 came over to the Reds in the trade that sent Alfredo Simon to Detroit.

8. Phil Ervin, OF (22) The center fielder struggled in his first full pro season, hitting just .237/.305/.376 at Low-A Dayton.

9. Nick Travieso, RHP (21) The team’s first-round pick in the 2012 draft, big righthander went 14–5 with a 3.03 ERA at Low-A Dayton.

10. Alex Blandino, SS (22) Taken No. 29 overall in the 2014 draft, Blandino will play shortstop until he proves he can’t. He’s shown the ability to hit, no matter the position.

Teaser:
Cincinnati Reds 2015 Preview and Prediction
Post date: Wednesday, March 11, 2015 - 10:30
All taxonomy terms: College Football, Iowa Hawkeyes, Big Ten, News
Path: /college-football/iowa-qb-jake-rudock-transferring-michigan-his-next-stop
Body:

Iowa quarterback Jake Rudock is leaving the program and will be eligible to compete in 2015 at another FBS program as a graduate transfer. But this is where the intrigue begins. Could Michigan be a possible landing spot for Rudock?

 

According to FoxSports.com’s Bruce Feldman, Rudock is taking a visit to Ann Arbor next week to explore a possible transfer to Michigan.

 

Rudock started the last two seasons for the Hawkeyes and threw for 4,819 yards in that span. He also tossed 34 touchdowns and completed 60.3 percent of his throws.

 

New Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh opened spring practice with a major question mark at quarterback. Junior Shane Morris is considered the frontrunner, but freshmen Alex Malzone and Zach Gentry, along with sophomore Wilton Speight are pushing for time.

 

Although all four of those quarterbacks will have an advantage in learning the offense, Rudock is a two-year starter and would be Michigan’s most-established option at the position if he transfers to Ann Arbor.

 

For Iowa, Rudock’s transfer clearly means C.J. Beathard is the team’s starter in 2015. Beathard has played in 14 games over the last two years and has thrown for 824 yards and six scores.

 

Beathard was going to push Rudock for time this spring, especially since the Tennessee native has a stronger arm and the potential to provide Iowa's offense with more of a downfield passing threat.

 

However, Rudock’s transfer means Beathard is the man to beat for coach Kirk Ferentz this spring.

 

And Rudock could be starting in the Big Ten – just not with the Hawkeyes. Michigan needs an answer at quarterback. Harbaugh clearly subscribes to the theory that you can never have enough quarterbacks. A two-year starter that’s already proven commodity in the Big Ten would be a good asset for Harbaugh to have in his first year at Michigan.

Teaser:
Iowa QB Jake Rudock is Transferring - Is Michigan His Next Stop?
Post date: Wednesday, March 11, 2015 - 10:28
All taxonomy terms: Graeme McDowell, Golf
Path: /golf/top-30-golfers-2015-majors-no-21-graeme-mcdowell
Body:

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. 21: Graeme McDowell

 

Born: July 30, 1979, Portrush, Northern Ireland | Career PGA Tour Wins: 2 (10 on European Tour) | 2014 Wins (Worldwide): 1 | 2014 Earnings (PGA Tour): $2,077,387 (41st) World Ranking: 22

 

Brandel Chamblee's Take

McDowell is one of the game’s brightest players and perhaps its best interview, which is a good thing, because we will very likely being hearing a lot from the Ulsterman this year in the majors. Having grown up in Portrush, Northern Ireland and won the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, McDowell is clearly comfortable in the windy conditions one faces by the sea or water, particularly relevant this year at three of the four majors. His ability to hit fairways and go on flag-hunting tears combined with his talent on the greens (he led the tour in strokes gained putting in 2014) make him an almost certain multiple winner around the globe this year, as he has been in each of his last two seasons.

Major Championship Résumé
Starts: 37
Wins: 1

2014 Performance:
Masters - Cut
U.S. Open - T28
British Open - T9
PGA Championship - T46

Best Career Finishes: 
Masters - T12 (2012)
U.S. Open - 1 (2010)
British Open - T5 (2012)
PGA Championship - T10 (2009)
Top-10 Finishes: 5
Top-25 Finishes: 15
Missed Cuts: 13

 

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

 

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.

Teaser:
Post date: Wednesday, March 11, 2015 - 10:18
Path: /nba/lebron-shedding-his-headband-again-amar%E2%80%99e-pissed-mavs
Body:

When somebody enters the rare air that LeBron James has, we tend to overanalyze their most minute details. Like, you know, a headband.

 

James took the fixture off during a win over the Phoenix Suns in Cleveland over the weekend, telling reporters that “it just happened.” He hasn’t worn it since, going with a naked head through the Cavs’ 127-94 stomping of the Dallas Mavericks in Texas last night.

 

Is there any difference in the way LeBron plays, with or without fabric around his forehead? Not really — he’s excellent either way. He had 27 points, eight assists and seven rebounds to lead the way over the Mavs, while also breaking the record for most career assists with the Cavs in the contest. For LeBron, that’s standard fare.

 

The surreal vision of James without his trademark accessory is about as weird to see as footage of Michael Jordan with a head of hair. It also evokes the last time James lost the garment, which was in the sixth game of the 2013 NBA Finals.

 

That time — unlike this one — losing the headband was not intentional, as it simply fell off, and the King led his team to one of the most memorable comeback wins of all time, against the San Antonio Spurs. James’ aggressive, unbridled play seemed to be symbolized by the loss of the headband, back then.

 

The losing Mavericks, meanwhile, have been on a slow decline for months. Their trade for Rajon Rondo seems to have backfired, as their offense has become less efficient and the defensive improvement they expected on the perimeter has not materialized.

 

Newcomer Amar’e Stoudemire is pissed. "This is something we can't accept,” he told reporters after the loss. “We've got to find a way to refocus. We've got to key into the details of the game of basketball.”

 

— John Wilmes

@johnwilmesNBA

Teaser:
Post date: Wednesday, March 11, 2015 - 10:08
All taxonomy terms: Chicago Cubs, National League, NL Central, MLB, News
Path: /mlb/chicago-cubs-2015-preview-and-prediction
Body:

After three years of rebuilding the farm system at the expense of the major league roster — and big-league results — the Cubs are back in the hunt for the first time in team president Theo Epstein’s regime. Not “all in,” not “selling out” for 2015, says Epstein, who makes clear the focus is still on a sustained competitive window. But several players said in September they expected to compete in ’15, and the front office bolstered the expectations with a $250 million holiday shopping spree that included one of the top managers in the game, Joe Maddon, and new $155 million ace Jon Lester. Since those two additions, the Las Vegas odds on a Cubs championship went from 50-1 to 10-1.

 

Rotation

Even before the Cubs landed their top free-agent target in Lester, they seemed to strike gold at the front of the rotation with Jake Arrieta, the righthander with exceptional stuff who finally had a breakout season in ’14. By bringing back effective veteran Jason Hammel as a free agent a few months after trading him to Oakland, and installing 2014 rookie success Kyle Hendricks into the top four, the Cubs have a rotation to build on — and, along the way, might have eliminated the need to rely on free-agent bust Edwin Jackson (the NL’s worst starter the past two seasons). Arrieta still hasn’t thrown more than 176.2 innings — his total last year between a minor league rehab stint and 25 big-league starts — in a season at any level, and Hendricks has all of 13 big-league starts to his name. But in Lester, the front office believes it has not only a reliable, durable No. 1 but also a focused, driven tone-setter who can show others the way to play playoff-caliber baseball.

 

Bullpen

What the front office believes Lester can do for the young guys in the rotation it hopes Jason Motte can do in the short term for a group of young, back-end bullpen arms. The former NL saves leader and World Series winner in St. Louis appears to be at full strength following 2013 Tommy John surgery. Motte joins a crew that includes power-armed, young back-end righthanders Hector Rondon (the de facto closer in a pen without a labeled ninth-inning guy), Neil Ramirez (1.44 ERA as a rookie) and Pedro Strop (2.21 ERA). For all the inherent volatility of bullpens, the front office considers this the deepest and most talented pen it’s had since taking over. After losing their top lefty relievers to a trade and a non-tender decision, the Cubs could have two lefties fall to the pen from the spring rotation mix. Also, southpaw Joe Ortiz, a 5'7" strike-thrower, is an intriguing waiver pickup who could serve as a matchup specialist.

 

Middle Infield

The Cubs front office has spent three years stockpiling and hoarding shortstops, from three-time All-Star Starlin Castro to Addison Russell, a top-five MLB prospect acquired in July from Oakland in the Jeff Samardzija/Hammel deal. Second baseman Javier Baez is a converted top shortstop prospect who has the best power on the projected Opening Day roster — along with one of the most vicious, strikeout-prone swings in baseball. Defensively, Baez is a downgrade, at least in the short term, from departed Gold Glover Darwin Barney. The Cubs have the potential for the most prolific keystone tandem in the league, or a strikeout-filled work in progress that requires plugging in some of the alternatives in the system.

 

Corners

Slugging first baseman Anthony Rizzo, already a patient hitter, matured into an All-Star run-producer with a more aggressive approach in the zone that led to the No. 2 homer total in the NL. He also dramatically improved his performance against lefthanders (including a .421 OBP) in an impressive bounce-back after struggling much of his first full season in the big leagues a year earlier. But the Cubs’ corner guy under the biggest spotlight is not expected to be on the roster until around the first of May (for service-time reasons) — top prospect Kris Bryant, the third baseman who led pro baseball with 43 homers in his first full season out of college. The trade of Luis Valbuena for center fielder Dexter Fowler gives Mike Olt another shot at winning the starting job. Olt struggled mightily at the plate last season and even if he turns it around, he’s likely just a placeholder until Bryant arrives.

 

Outfield

Fowler’s arrival from Houston not only gives the Cubs a solid glove in center, it also gives them the leadoff option they have lacked in recent seasons. Right fielder Jorge Soler was impressive enough in a month-long debut to enter 2015 on a short list of Rookie of the Year candidates, assuming he can reverse a three-year trend of landing on the DL. And left fielder Chris Coghlan, a minor league free agent a year ago, capitalized on increased playing time as the season wore on, producing his best season since winning Rookie of the Year in 2009. He’s earned a big place in the Cubs’ plans this year.

 

Catching

The Welington Castillo era ended before it had much of a chance to gain steam as the physically gifted starter didn’t hit well enough, stay healthy enough or improve his receiving skills (framing, etc.) enough to keep his job. After the front office finished second to the Blue Jays in their pursuit of top free-agent catcher Russell Martin, the Cubs turned their focus toward trading for their next choice — All-Star Miguel Montero. The front office considers Montero another clubhouse-presence acquisition, and he’s under contract for the next three seasons. He’s also the kind of left-handed bat they coveted to help balance a lineup in which most of the top-rated young hitters coming through the system are right-handed.

 

Bench

Backup catcher David Ross serves not only as an accessory to the Lester signing — as Lester’s favored catcher in Boston — but also as a clubhouse glue-guy the brass emphasized over the winter. Arismendy Alcantara, another intriguing prospect, already has been a regular starter at two positions. He could be Maddon’s jack-of-all-trades or he could end up stealing starts away from either Baez at second or Olt at third. The Cubs also traded for second baseman Tommy La Stella for his low-strikeout, strong-on-base skills that the roster lacks. Ryan Sweeney and Chris Denorfia provide several platoon options in the outfield for a bench that should only improve with the arrival this year of Bryant — and other projected cornerstone players behind him.

 

Management

A year after firing hand-picked manager Dale Sveum and casting the first big doubt on whether the magic in Boston could translate to the Cubs, Epstein pounced when he got the chance to hire Maddon. It required mistreating sitting manager Rick Renteria, leaving him to twist in the wind before firing him with two years left on his contract. But from a sheer baseball/business standpoint, Maddon was universally seen as the right manager at the right time for the Cubs’ process — a motivator, innovator and communicator who consistently did more with less in Tampa Bay for nine years.

 

Final Analysis

Conventional wisdom among believers in Epstein’s rebuilding plan had the first year of competitive traction coming in 2016, but a strong player development year for the organization’s top prospects in 2014 moved up the timeline. A .500 season is probably a reasonable expectation for the pivot-point year of a process transitioning into the buildup phase. The only thing for sure is that the clock is ticking again on the pursuit of a title — and on Epstein’s plan to start producing results on the field.

 

2015 Prediction: 4th in NL Central

 

Projected Lineup

CF       Dexter Fowler (S)     Fowler is a dynamic player when healthy because of his ability to get on base and hit the occasional homer.

LF       Chris Coghlan (L)   Best season since winning ’09 Rookie of the Year included .317/.371/.489 leading off an inning.

SS       Starlin Castro (R)    At 24, has as many career All-Star selections (three) as Hanley Ramirez, Jimmy Rollins.

1B       Anthony Rizzo (L)     All-Star was third in NL with .913 OPS last year; even better vs. LHP: .300, .421 OBP, .928 OPS.

RF       Jorge Soler (R)        Tailed off after blistering start but .903 OPS in 24-game debut; Rookie of the Year in ’15?

C         Miguel Montero (L)  Cubs plan to ease workload some after MLB-leading 516 games caught last four years.

2B       Javier Baez (R)         Struck out 225 times in 156 combined games at Class AAA (130) and major leagues (95) in 2014.

3B       Mike Olt (R)   Trade of Luis Valbuena offers another shot to start, but production must improve with Kris Bryant looming.

 

Bench

C         David Ross (R)        Veteran should catch Lester’s starts (as he did in Boston) and see time vs. lefthanders.

UT       Arismendy Alcantara (S)    Versatility could make him Maddon’s new Ben Zobrist, playing all over the diamond.

2B       Tommy La Stella (L)           Cubs brass coveted him for on-base skills in minors for years before November trade.

OF       Ryan Sweeney (L)   Played only 147 games last two years because of injuries; career .290 hitter with men on base.

OF       Chris Denorfia (R)   Veteran struggled last year with the Padres and Mariners, hitting .230 with three HRs in 330 ABs.

 

Rotation

LH       Jon Lester     Quality frontline lefthander has won at least 15 games in six of the last seven seasons.

RH      Jake Arrieta   His 2.53 ERA would have ranked sixth in NL if he had pitched 5.1 more innings to qualify.

RH      Jason Hammel        Coming off career year fueled by renewed health, rapport with pitching coach Chris Bosio.

RH      Kyle Hendricks         Hitters not so smart vs. Dartmouth grad with men on (.216) or in scoring position (.232).

LH       Travis Wood At crossroads after huge decline (5.03 ERA) in ’14 following All-Star season in ’13 (3.16).

 

Bullpen

RH      Hector Rondon (Closer)    2013 Rule 5 Draft pick grew into closer in ‘14, dominated second half (0.62, 18 saves).

RH      Jason Motte Tommy John grad looked close to former closer self by end of last season.

RH      Neil Ramirez            Cubs’ top rookie last year (1.44 ERA) gets chance to increase role, workload.

RH      Pedro Strop  One-time Cubs closer candidate thrives in eighth inning (2.52 ERA career; 1.52 last year).

RH      Justin Grimm           Former starter made successful switch to relief after ‘13 trade to Cubs.

RH      Edwin Jackson        Worst starter in baseball in 2013-14 has two years, $26 million left on a brutal contract.

LH       Tsuyoshi Wada        Japanese veteran especially tough on lefties (.184); will compete for fifth starter job.

 

Beyond the Box Score

No seats for the bums The ballpark more famous for its bleachers than any other will open the season on Sunday night national TV against rival St. Louis — without the iconic bleachers in either left or right fields. Unforeseen problems with a water main and record cold weather has conspired to delay the $375 million renovation work, forcing the Cubs to make contingency plans for relocating bleacher season-ticket holders. Between the work stoppages and other delays, the left and center field bleachers are tentatively scheduled to open on May 11 with the right field section looking at an early June time frame. The bleachers needed to be removed to allow for new structural support both in left and right fields for new video boards and signage.

My kind of interview Because Joe Maddon already was on his annual cross-country trip in the 43-foot RV he calls “Cousin Eddie” when the Cubs tried to beat the market to set up an interview, Epstein and GM Jed Hoyer agreed to intercept him on his route. Maddon found an RV park on a beach near Pensacola, Fla., and waited for the execs to drive in from the nearest airport they could find. Most of the “interview” was done in lawn chairs, on the beach behind the RV, along with Maddon’s wife, Jaye, and a bunch of cold beers. “It was really cool,” Epstein says. It turned out pretty cool for Maddon, too. After five 90-win seasons with the Rays — then promises of a Cubs’ World Series during his first Chicago media conference — Maddon gets more resources, more expectations and more scrutiny than he’s had in almost 40 years in the game.

Tenement on wheels Within a day or two of Maddon’s hiring, “Cousin Eddie” pulled into Mesa, Ariz., where Maddon’s kids live, where the Cubs train and where the RV sat the rest of the winter — not far from where Maddon will reside in it during spring training. It’s nicer than any condo or hotel room, he says.

On the hunt With $155 million in guaranteed money on the table from the Cubs, $168 million in potential guaranteed money from the Giants and the heartstrings tugging from Boston despite far less money, Jon Lester found his way to Chicago by going deep into the woods. To shoot something. “I went duck hunting in the morning and then deer hunting in the afternoon,” he said. “I had to clear my brain a little and get back to neutral before we could make a decision.” The next day he accepted the Cubs’ offer.

 

2014 Top Draft Pick

Kyle Schwarber, C

The Cubs felt sure he would hit when they took the lefty slugger fourth overall in June out of Indiana, and he did a lot of that at three levels throughout the summer. But nobody  knew if he could improve enough behind the plate to become a big-league catcher and avoid the move to an outfield corner that many scouts project. Cubs officials, however, believe in Schwarber’s makeup even more than his bat — a focused, driven player whose passion they view as a future clubhouse force. They sent him to Mesa during instructional league to work solely on catching skills with Cubs minor league coordinator Tim Cossins. If he succeeds, his value as a hitter soars.

 

Top 10 Prospects

1. Kris Bryant, 3B (23) Less than two years out of college, the 2013 No. 2 overall pick was an Arizona Fall League MVP (in ‘13) and led all of professional baseball with 43 homers last year.

2. Addison Russell, SS (21) Some say the centerpiece of last July’s trade of Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel to the A’s is the best shortstop in an organization loaded with them.

3. Jorge Soler, OF (23) Prior to his 24-game big-league debut, Soler had an incredible slash line of .340/.432/.700 at three minor league levels in 2014, with 40 extra-base hits in 62 games.

4. Kyle Schwarber, C (22) Hitting .344 with 18 homers in 72 games overall, Schwarber earned Player of the Week honors in three different leagues during his 11-week professional debut.

5. C.J. Edwards, RHP (23) After the Cubs forced a long, cautious rehab for a bout of April shoulder inflammation, the tall, thin, hard-throwing Edwards finished strong at Double-A.

6. Albert Almora, CF (20) Theo Epstein’s first draft pick with the Cubs (No. 6 overall in 2012) salvaged a strong finish after a slow start at Double-A.

7. Pierce Johnson, RHP (23) Hamstring and calf injuries disrupted his Double-A season, and control issues didn’t help.

8. Billy McKinney, OF (20) The “other” prospect in the Samardzija/Hammel trade is a bona fide center fielder and lefty hitter with on-base skills.

9. Jen-Ho Tseng, RHP (20) In his first season after signing as a $1.6 million free agent, the Taiwanese prospect was named the organization’s Minor League Pitcher of the Year.

10. Dan Vogelbach, 1B (22) Seems likely to get to the majors with another team because of a lack of defensive versatility and a 25-year-old All-Star at first for the Cubs.

Teaser:
Chicago Cubs 2015 Preview and Prediction
Post date: Wednesday, March 11, 2015 - 10:00
All taxonomy terms: College Football, News
Path: /college-football/bo-pelini-driving-little-weird-these-days
Body:

Former Nebraska (and current Youngstown State coach) Bo Pelini is driving a little strange these days. Or maybe it's just the rain. 

 

Thanks a quick video from his son Patrick, Pelini was filmed driving in an interesting (and quite hilarious) position, along with a little background music from The Carpenters.

 

Check out Pelini’s awesome driving technique:

Teaser:
Bo Pelini is Driving a Little Strange These Days
Post date: Wednesday, March 11, 2015 - 09:34
Path: /college-football/2015-acc-football-schedule-analysis
Body:

Never before has scheduling been a bigger issue than the 2014 College Football Playoff.

 

The committee clearly took a stance on Baylor’s weak non-conference matchups and it cost the Bears a chance at the national championship. That shouldn’t ever be the issue in the ACC with Notre Dame and a litany of constant SEC foes dotting the non-conference slate.

 

The balance of power still appears tilted towards the Atlantic Division with Florida State, Clemson and Louisville. But the Coastal always delivers parity and entertainment.

 

Scheduling is a huge part of Athlon Sports’ process of making predictions. Here is what you need to know about the ACC’s football schedules in 2015.

 

Atlantic’s best game: Florida State at Clemson (Nov. 7)

These are the two best teams in the conference and DeShaun Watson could be a superstar by November. This game was ugly in Death Valley two years ago but was much closer last fall. This one could decide half of the ACC title game matchup.

 

Coastal’s best game: Georgia Tech at Miami (Nov. 21)

Virginia Tech and North Carolina will challenge Georgia Tech as well but the trip to Miami is always interesting and it comes in the second to last weekend of the year. The division title could hang in the balance.

 

Best crossover: Florida State at Georgia Tech (Oct. 24)

A rematch of the ACC title game? Yes, please. Late in October, Florida State travels to Atlanta to take on the Coastal Division front-runner. Look for another classic showdown and a likely playoff elimination game for what could be two highly ranked opponents.

 

Other crossovers to watch:

Miami has two tough crossovers (more on that in a second) and both are must-see TV against Florida State and Clemson. Like the Noles, the Tigers also have to face the Yellow Jackets (home) and Hurricanes (road) in crossover. NC State has two interesting tests with rival North Carolina at home in the season finale and a road trip to Virginia Tech in early October.

 

Coastal’s toughest schedule: Miami

The Hurricanes play both Florida State (road) and Clemson (home) from the Atlantic and will have to face Nebraska (home) and Cincinnati (road) in non-conference action. Toss in road trips to North Carolina, Duke and Pitt as well as home games with Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech, and Miami has the toughest slate of any Coastal contender. The Cavaliers have an equally tough slate but miss both the Noles and Tigers in crossover.

 

Coastal’s easiest schedule: Duke

Northwestern is the toughest non-conference game in a division with Notre Dame, Georgia, South Carolina, Ohio State and UCLA also on the slate. The Blue Devils' Atlantic foes this season are Boston College at home and a road trip to Wake Forest. And both Georgia Tech and Miami have to come to Durham. 

 

Atlantic’s toughest schedule: Wake Forest

First, the Deacons don’t get to play the Deacons, so that makes their schedule tougher than almost everyone else in the division. Second, they play at North Carolina and Duke at home in crossover action. Finally, Wake Forest travels to Notre Dame and Army as well as hosting Indiana in non-conference play. Don’t forget games with Florida State, Clemson, Louisville, NC State and Boston College.

 

Atlantic’s easiest schedule: Florida State

Crossover play is tough with Miami (home) and Georgia Tech (road) as well as a non-conference trip to Florida. But the rest of the schedule is one game: At Clemson (Louisville visits Doak Campbell and will be a heavy underdog). Not having to face Florida State almost guarantees the Noles the easiest path to the title game every year.

 

Top 10 Non-conference games:

 

 AwayHomeDate
1.Oct. 3
2.Nov. 28
3.Sept. 19
4.Sept. 5*
5.Nov. 28
6.Sept. 7
7.Nov. 28
8.Sept. 19
9.Sept. 3*
10.Nov. 7

* - neutral site

Teaser:
2015 ACC Football Schedule Analysis
Post date: Wednesday, March 11, 2015 - 09:30
All taxonomy terms: College Basketball, News
Path: /college-basketball/college-basketball-expert-poll-who-are-best-announcers
Body:

March Madness is upon us, which means a healthy dose of quick channel surfing ... or switching among live streams, if that’s your thing.

 

Either way, you’re counting on a broadcast team to deliver the goods on the moment — the exact situation, what it means and what each team might be likely to do.

 

The third in our series of questions for our college basketball expert survey deals with the sport’s top television broadcasters.

 

We asked more than two dozen college basketball experts in the media to name their top three play-by-play announcers and their top three color analysts. Like our poll of the top three coaches Monday, we did not ask our panelists to rank the announcers, simply to name a top three. Nor did we ask for broadcast duos.

 

Nevertheless, one broadcast duo was an overwhelming No. 1 in our voting.

 

Athlon Sports College Basketball Expert Poll

 

Question 3: Who are the top college basketball announcers?

 

Play-by-playVotesColorVotes
Dan Shulman, ESPN19Jay Bilas, ESPN22
Sean McDonough, ESPN11Bill Raftery, CBS13
Ian Eagle, CBS6Dan Dakich, ESPN10
Gus Johnson, FOX/BTN5Fran Fraschilla, ESPN9
Mike Tirico, ESPN5Doris Burke, ESPN5
Dave Pasch, ESPN4Clark Kellogg, CBS3
Dave Flemming, ESPN3Dick Vitale, ESPN3
Kevin Harlan, CBS3Stephen Bardo, FOX/BTN2
Verne Lundquist, CBS3Bill Walton, ESPN2
Jim Nantz, CBS3Shane Battier, ESPN1
Brent Musburger, ESPN2Dan Bonner, ACC Network1
Brad Nessler, ESPN2Sean Farnham, ESPN1
Marv Albert, CBS1Seth Greenberg, ESPN1
Adam Amin, ESPN1Andy Katz, ESPN1
Rece Davis, ESPN1Jon Sundvold, ESPN1
Mark Jones, ESPN1  
Dave O'Brien, ESPN1  
Jon Sciambi, ESPN1  
Joe Tessitore, ESPN1  

 

• ESPN’s No. 1 team of Dan Shulman and Jay Bilas ran away with the voting. Bilas appeared on 22 of 25 ballots, and Shulman appeared on 19 of 25. Hard to imagine a single announcing team in any sport being as universally respected.

 

• Ian Eagle was the top-voted play-by-play analyst from CBS/Turner, the broadcast partner of the NCAA Tournament, yet Jim Nantz is on the call for the Final Four. Perhaps our panel thinks of Nantz more as an NFL or golf announcer whereas Eagle is a full-time voice on college basketball.

 

• Speaking of the Final Four, Bill Raftery was a strong No. 2 among color analysts. Raftery will be on the Final Four call this year with Nantz and Grant Hill. Raftery, who has trademark calls of “Onions!” and “with a kiss,” will replace Greg Anthony while he serves a suspension.

 

• One response: “Jay Bilas, Clark Kellogg and, in a sick, twisted sort of way, Dan Dakich.” 

 

• This was a tough year for ESPN’s Dick Vitale, as he was taken off a Duke-North Carolina game for the first time in his career. Some of our panelists still have a soft spot for the iconic Dickie V: “Dick Vitale, like the Beatles, in a category all his own.”

 

• One respondent had a tough time narrowing the field for play-by-play announcer: “This is difficult. I think Dan Shulman is terrific. I like everything Gus Johnson. Jim Nantz adds real gravitas, and Kevin Harlan is a favorite.”

 

• We knew anecdotally that ESPN’s Doris Burke had the respect of her peers. She finished with more votes than Clark Kellogg, Dick Vitale and Doug Gottlieb.

 

• Marv Albert is best known for his NBA work, but he is a play-by-play broadcaster for CBS/Turner in the NCAA Tournament. “at 100 Marv will still be great.”

 

• We didn’t ask about the top sideline reporters. Should we have?

 

• One of our panelists who answered other questions in the survey declined these two, citing a “conflict of interest.”

 


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

Teaser:
College Basketball Expert Poll: Who are the Best Announcers?
Post date: Wednesday, March 11, 2015 - 09:00
All taxonomy terms: College Basketball, News
Path: /college-basketball/8-teams-surging-march-madness-2015
Body:

Sometimes winning in the NCAA Tournament is more about who has the hottest team rather than the best team.

 

Take, for example, last year’s national finalists. UConn and Kentucky did nothing during the regular season to indicate they’d be championship contenders before catching a hot streak in the postseason.

 

A few of the teams with momentum we know all too well — Wisconsin, Duke, Villanova and of course this year’s version of Kentucky.

 

Instead, here we'll highlight some of the teams further down the bracket, if they’re on a mock bracket at all at this point.

 

These eight teams have already caught fire late in the season and may have what it takes to continue their hot streaks into the conference and NCAA tournaments.

 

Baylor

The Bears were 6-6 in the Big 12 on Valentine’s Day before winning five of their last six during the regular season, the only loss in the road in overtime to a desperate Texas team. Some of the wins were a little lightweight — Baylor played Big 12 No. 10 seed Texas Tech twice in the final six. But Baylor also beat Iowa State on the road and Kansas State and West Virginia at home. Guard Taurean Prince is averaging 19.5 points per game off the bench in this span.

 

Boise State

The Broncos did plenty of damage to their at-large hopes in a two-week span during the holidays, losing to Loyola (Ill.), Utah State and Wyoming amid a four-game losing streak from Dec. 23-Jan. 10. A dismal non-conference schedule and a loss to Fresno State in February didn’t help, either. Still, Boise State may have saved itself by winning 14 of its final 15, including a season sweep of San Diego State.  Senior Derrick Marks, who is carrying the team solo since Anthony Drimic was hurt in December, will try not to let this moment slip away.

 

BYU

The Cougars were 7-5 in the West Coast Conference on Feb. 5, but rebuilt their NCAA resume thanks to eight consecutive wins, including a 73-70 win at Gonzaga to finish up the regular season. Kyle Collinsworth picked up his sixth triple-double of the season in the WCC semifinal against Portland. If he can pick up one more in the NCAA Tournament, he’ll break the career record set by LSU’s Shaquille O’Neal.

 

Cincinnati

The Bearcats helped their case for NCAA Tournament inclusion in the final week of the season by defeating Tulsa 56-47 on the road and Memphis 77-65 at home. After back-to-back narrow losses to Tulane and Xavier in February, Cincinnati won five in a row to clinch bye in the American tournament. Not bad for a program that’s been under interim coach Larry Davis since December.

 

Davidson

Bob McKillop has his most dangerous team since Stephen Curry was on campus. The Wildcats closed the regular season with nine consecutive wins to claim the Atlantic 10 regular season title in only their first year in the league. Davidson is a machine on offense, averaging 1.21 points per possession during the nine-game winning streak. During that span, Davidson is making 11.3 3-pointers per game at a 41-percent clip.

 

Maryland

The Terrpains started the season 14-1 with the only loss coming to Virginia. The Terps finished the regular season on a seven-game win streak to clinch the No. 2 seed in the Big Ten tournament. Maryland has been excellent on the defensive end, highlighted by holding Wisconsin to 0.96 points per possession in a 59-53 upset of the Badgers on Feb. 24.

 

Oregon

Dana Altman earned Pac-12 coach of the year honors after his team surged through the end of the season. The Ducks won nine of their last 10 after a 90-56 loss at Arizona on Jan. 28. During that span, Oregon defeated Utah and potentially knocked Stanford out of the NCAA Tournament. The Ducks perhaps already played their way into the field, but they could help their seeding if they can beat both Utah and Arizona on the way to an automatic bid.

 

Vanderbilt

The Commodores aren’t an at-large candidate, but they have the potential to wreak havoc in the SEC tournament. Vandy has won their last five and eight of their final 10. The only losses have come by a combined six points in overtime (Tennessee) or on the road (Florida). The Commodores have been torching opponents from 3-point range, averaging 11 3s per game at a 50.9 percent rate. If the ‘Dores can defeat Tennessee in their tournament opener, Vanderbilt could be a nightmare matchup for Arkansas, Ole Miss or Georgia. The latter two are trying to stay in the field.

Teaser:
8 Teams Surging into March Madness 2015
Post date: Wednesday, March 11, 2015 - 08:30
All taxonomy terms: Fantasy Football, Jimmy Graham, NFL, Fantasy, News
Path: /fantasy/jimmy-graham-trade-analyzing-fantasy-implications-seattle-and-new-orleans
Body:

NFL free agency has just begun, but it’s the trade of Jimmy Graham from New Orleans to Seattle that’s rocked the fantasy football landscape. While not the only trade that was announced as the new league year kicked off with a bang, this one carries the biggest fantasy implications.

 

The most productive tight end in the NFL over the past four seasons, Graham has caught 355 passes for 4,396 yards and 46 touchdowns since 2011. Much of Graham’s success was due to his status as Drew Brees’ No. 1 target in the Saints’ pass-happy offense.

 

As talented as Graham is, it’s pretty safe to assume he won’t see near the same volume of targets with the Seahawks, who operate a much more run-oriented, deliberate (some would say conservative) offense. Marshawn Lynch’s presence has a lot to do with that, but so does a defensive-minded philosophy that has resulted in back-to-back trips to the Super Bowl.

 

Consider that Brees led the league with 659 pass attempts last season, while Russell Wilson finished 19th  with 452. That’s a pretty big gap. While Graham immediately becomes Seattle’s top pass-catcher, it’s just not in the Seahawks’ m.o. to throw a ton of passes.

 

This trade doesn’t change the type of player Graham is, as his addition could be a difference-making move in Seattle’s quest to return to the Super Bowl for the third straight season. However, fantasy-wise, this trade definitely impacts Graham’s value in a negative way.

 

Had Graham remained in New Orleans, there would have been an interesting debate between him and New England’s Rob Gronkowski for which should be the first tight end taken in a fantasy draft. Now, Gronk is clearly the No. 1 choice at his position because of Graham’s change of scenery.

 

And while Graham’s numbers will go down, there’s no reason to expect them to plummet. Between this trade and Julius Thomas signing with Jacksonville, how everyone lines up behind Gronk in the rankings figures to be a fluid situation. At this point, the safest think to assume is that it will take a lot more upheaval across the league to knock Graham from top-five status among his TE peers.

 

As for the quarterbacks…

It’s fair to say that Brees’ loss is Wilson’s gain, but exactly how much will either be impacted? Even though Brees loses a dynamic, explosive target that is a matchup nightmare and was a great fit in New Orleans’ offense, don’t expect the Saints to change their spots.

 

Brees will still throw a ton of passes and the beneficiaries figure to be Brandin Cooks, Kenny Stills and Marques Colston, along with whomever the Saints get to replace Graham at tight end. While the loss of Graham may seem like a big blow, I am still comfortable ranking Brees as a top-five fantasy QB.

 

As for Wilson, don’t expect him to become a gunslinger now that he has Graham to throw to. That’s not how the Seahawks operate, and given their results since Wilson became the starter, there’s no reason for them to change their ways. Also keep in mind that even though he didn’t throw a ton of passes, Wilson provides value with his legs, which is why he finished sixth in fantasy points this past season.

 

Guess who finished fifth? That’s right, Brees. And that’s exactly how I have them ranked at this point headed into 2015.

Teaser:
Jimmy Graham Trade: Analyzing Fantasy Implications for Seattle and New Orleans
Post date: Tuesday, March 10, 2015 - 17:09
Path: /college-football/cover-2-college-football-podcast-2015-big-12-early-preview
Body:

 

Hosts Braden Gall and Steven Lassan go in-depth with an early 2015 Big 12 conference preview.

 

The guys debate TCU vs. Baylor at the top of the league. Who should be the frontrunner? Who has more coming back? Which team has bigger holes to fill?

 

Can Oklahoma or Texas return to prominence? Is this a vintage Sooners team and can Charlie Strong get anything from his QB?

 

Will Oklahoma State or Texas Tech improve enough to challenge? What should fans make of the middle of this league? Are Kansas State and West Virginia the exact same team? What do we make of the new coach at Kansas?

 

The fellas touch on every team and how the predictions might shake out in the Big 12 in 2015.


Send any ideas, questions or comments to @BradenGall or @AthlonSteven or email [email protected]. The podcast can be found on athlonsports.com, iTunes, Stitcher and our podcast RSS feed.

Teaser:
Cover 2 College Football Podcast: 2015 Big 12 Early Preview
Post date: Tuesday, March 10, 2015 - 16:25
Path: /nba/ranking-nbas-best-hair
Body:

6. Joakim Noah

The Chicago Bulls’ emotional leader has long, flowing, wavy hair that acts as a metaphor for his generous spirit. Last year’s Defensive Player of the Year, excellently referred to by some as “The Lion King,” is as goofy as he is relentless, with his locks matching the insane energy he brings to the floor. With Derrick Rose’s most recent knee injury hitting Chicago hard, we’ve had the silver lining of watching Noah run the Bulls’ offense again. And seeing his mane bounce around in a bun is almost always a sign that we’re in for some fun.

 

5. Dennis Schröder

The Atlanta Hawks have been basketball’s best team this season, alongside the Golden State Warriors. They’ve done it with depth and an amazing, taut, selfless system that sees hardly any drop-off when substitutes jump in for starters. Sophomore Dennis Schröder, from Germany, has been part of Atlanta’s vaunted second unit as the backup to All-Star point guard Jeff Teague. He’s also quite the NBA eccentric as an admitted skateboard addict, and he has a touch of endearing gold in his hair. The youngster known as “Baby Rondo” will be charming fans for years.

 

4. Iman Shumpert

The Cleveland Cavaliers made a big trade earlier this season, sending Dion Waiters away and bringing in some loot from the New York Knicks. A resurgent J.R. Smith has paid major dividends, and a subsequently acquired Timofey Mozgov has worked miracles in the paint. But Cleveland also upgraded big time in the style department with their flurry of player movement, because they brought Iman Shumpert’s towering, crisp flat top onto the roster. Shumpert is a hounding perimeter defender, with the veritable monument that grows from his follicles making for a difficult obstacle to shoot or pass over.

 

3. Elfrid Payton

One of the season’s most exciting rookies plays for the struggling Orlando Magic. While winning may be at a low point in central Florida, personality is certainly not. Elfrid Payton’s madness of a hairstyle, in tandem with the cocky Victor Oladipo, has made for one of the most entertaining backcourts in recent memory. How else to describe Payton’s style? Like Noah’s, he must hope that it becomes even more symbolic of his playing style than it already is; an unpredictable, cagey defender who can turn a simple inbounds play into a sudden scrum, Elfrid should aspire to create stormy confusion as consistently as his locks do.

 

2. James Harden

James Harden’s indelible beard has long been imprinted in the imagination of the NBA. As an upcoming star with the Oklahoma City Thunder, he turned heads with his unusual style off the court before impressing onlookers by what he was doing on it. Eventually, though, his singular footwork and creativity in the open court came to define the offense of the Houston Rockets, and the imitation strap-on beards that Thunder fans once wore so proudly began to seem like a dooming omen, as Harden now thrives through an MVP campaign and OKC fights for their playoff lives.

 

1. Nerlens Noel

The winner of our hair-off plays for a club that seems to value economic victories more than basketball victories — the Philadelphia 76ers. Nerlens Noel is having a superb rookie season beneath the moralist roar about whether what Philly’s doing is okay or not. A rim-protector who could very well be one of the game’s best in a few years, Noel has sky-high hair that makes him almost impossible to forget. Nerlens is just 20 years old, and already the seventh most effective paint-clogging center, with a defensive real plus-minus of 3.17. Just imagine how big that number will get when he grows into his towering 'do.

 

— John Wilmes

@johnwilmesNBA

Teaser:
Post date: Tuesday, March 10, 2015 - 15:02
All taxonomy terms: Fantasy Baseball, MLB, Fantasy
Path: /fantasy/2015-fantasy-baseball-rankings-shortstops
Body:

Opening Day of the 2015 MLB season is less than a month away, which means fantasy baseball is just around the corner. For some leagues, drafts have already begun or will soon begin and Athlon Sports is here to help.

 

Besides providing our comprehensive Fantasy Baseball Big Board, we also have our positional rankings, courtesy of Bruce Herman. These are pulled straight from this year’s 2015 MLB Preview magazine, which is available at newsstands everywhere and for purchase online.

 

Rankings Key

A: FRANCHISE PLAYER — You need one to compete, two to win, three to dominate.

B: CAREER YEAR — Veteran with a strong possibility of delivering his best season.

C: SLEEPER — Could be a great acquisition at a price or draft slot below his true value.

D: ROADBLOCKED — Rank has been lowered because there is no current opportunity to play regularly.

E: DECLINER — Expect moderately to significantly worse stats than in 2014.

F: INJURY RISK — Has had a recent injury that could affect performance.

G: INVESTOR’S SPECIAL — Top prospect whose immediate impact may be minimal.

 

Batting stats are expressed AVG-HR-RBI-R-SB. Positional eligibility for specific players may vary depending on league, as well as other Web sites and resources.

 

2015 Fantasy Baseball Rankings: Shortstops

 

TIER 1

1. Troy Tulowitzki, Rockies (F)

Tulo was the third player (Ted Williams, Pudge Rodriguez) with a .340-21-52 line in fewer than 100 games. And if he had sustained his 1.035 OPS over qualifying PAs, it would have been the third-highest ever by a shortstop. Those statements are fraught with mixed messages, since he’s been able to marshal just one proper season since 2009.

2. Ian Desmond, Nationals

Desmond is queued up to become the second shortstop ever to string together four straight 20-20 seasons. He’s yet to drive in 100 runs or score 80, and his AVG (.255) is being cannibalized by an alarming mid-career SO spike (183).

3. Jose Reyes, Blue Jays

Reyes isn’t the force of nature he once was, but he assembled a nice sequence of 30 (SBs), 31 (age), 32 (SBAs), 33 (doubles). Hasn’t hit below .279 since 2005, and scores reams of runs when healthy. The confluence of age and a spindly lower half must be considered. 

4. Starlin Castro, Cubs (F)

Polarizing because of his great talent, “unusual” makeup, adventurous defense and ubiquity in trade rumors. More objectively, Castro is on pace for a 2,500-hit career with enough power to have been the Cubs’ first shortstop to hit cleanup since Ernie Banks.

5. Alexei Ramirez, White Sox

Ramirez shrugged off his worst season to sweep the power categories for AL shortstops with 15 HRs, 75 RBIs, 52 XBHs and a .408 slugging percentage. He’s also twice as good a base-stealer in his 30s (24 per year) as he was in his 20s (12).

 

TIER 2

6. Elvis Andrus, Rangers

At 26, Andrus is going in the wrong direction, his two weakest seasons coming back-to-back. If Texas can follow him in the lineup with something better than last year’s sub-4.0 runs/game bunch, he could be that 90-run/60-RBI/30-SB asset again.

7. Xander Bogaerts, Red Sox

Bogaerts’ full-season debut began with one homer in 43 games, peaked in June when he was hitting .304, slogged through a 22-for-151 tarpit and wrapped with a .320 AVG after Aug. 30. He’ll regain equilibrium to be a top-10 shortstop now and top-three later.

8. Alcides Escobar, Royals

If you’re looking for a shortstop to tag-team 90 runs, 50 RBIs and 30 SBs, the only other place you would have found that grouping in 2014 was Reyes. Escobar’s power is nil and his AVG erratic, but since 2011, he’s normed 28 thefts and has missed only 15 games.

9. Jean Segura, Brewers

Nagging injuries and a family tragedy conspired to make Segura a shell of the player he was in 2013. After a June/July/August in which he batted .204 with no pop whatsoever, his .319 in September resuscitated hope. At the least, his 20 SBs should creep back towards 40.

10. Chris Owings, Diamondbacks (C,F)

Batting .300 into May, Owings was corroborating our sleeper code, but then he slumped, recovered and got hurt. A smoother ride in 2014 could make him one of the value plays of the summer. Recall his .330-12-81-104-20 Triple-A campaign of two years ago.

11. Jed Lowrie, Astros

Lowrie’s robust two-year run ended with an unexplained thud, and the A’s let him walk. He quickly chose to return to Minute Maid Park, where he’s hit 11 HRs in only 222 ABs. He’s not a candidate for stardom, but he is for a resilient comeback.

 

TIER 3

12. Erick Aybar, Angels

Aybar is the flannel pajamas of shortstops — not one of the more aesthetic options, but very comfy. Over six look-alike seasons, he’s normed .280-7-52-70-19 and played in 88% of possible games. Stolen base element is evaporating.

13. Brad Miller, Mariners (C)

If Miller doesn’t win the Seattle shortstop post it’s only because Chris Taylor out-gloved him. If he does, he’s going to hit enough to be one of the year’s better buys. That’s not readily apparent from his results to date, but — trust us — he can rake.

14. J.J. Hardy, Orioles

His fantasy value has been tied to his five 20-HR years. His collapse to nine pushed him deep down into the pack. Despite a pathetic SO/BB ratio (3.6), the O’s re-upped him at nearly double his salary. You, conversely, should pay half.

15. Jordy Mercer, Pirates

Mercer, another of our 2014 sleepers, weathered an appalling start (.199 AVG, 1 HR through May) to do a .278-11-48-44-4 the last four months and cement himself as a top-half shortstop. Further advancement would not surprise.

 

16. Jhonny Peralta, Cardinals (E)

17. Andrelton Simmons, Braves

18. Brandon Crawford, Giants (B)

19. Jimmy Rollins, Dodgers (E)

 

TIER 4

20. Eduardo Escobar, Twins (B,C)

21. Wilmer Flores, Mets

22. Adeiny Hechavarria, Marlins

23. Jose Ramirez, Indians

24. Jose Iglesias, Tigers (F)

25. Marcus Semien, Athletics

26. Didi Gregorius, Yankees

27. Yunel Escobar, Rays

28. Zack Cozart, Reds

29. Freddie Galvis, Phillies

 

TIER 5

30. Francisco Lindor, Indians (G)

31. Nick Ahmed, Diamondbacks

32. Alexi Amarista, Padres

33. Chris Taylor, Mariners

34. Ruben Tejada, Mets

35. Jonathan Villar, Astros (D)

36. Clint Barmes, Padres

37. Eugenio Suarez, Reds

38. Stephen Drew, Free Agent

39. Marwin Gonzalez, Astros

40. Andrew Romine, Tigers

Teaser:
2015 Fantasy Baseball Rankings: Shortstops
Post date: Tuesday, March 10, 2015 - 12:00
All taxonomy terms: Essential 11, Overtime
Path: /overtime/athlons-essential-11-links-day-march-10-2015
Body:

This is your daily links roundup of our favorite sports and entertainment posts on the web for March 10:

 

Dustin and Paulina's unconventional love story, in pictures.

 

• Speaking of the happy couple, Dustin's kid is already talking smack with his onesies.

 

Some guys jumped Mississippi State quarterback Dak Prescott and two teammates at a Wacka Flocka concert, then bragged about it on Twitter

 

Check out this classic Belichick-themed wedding save-the-date card.

 

Longform thoughts on reversing the unwatchability of college basketball.

 

The Dummies' Guide to March Madness. I think I qualify.

 

The fallout of the racist OU frat video is already having recruiting implications. For his part, Barry Switzer is sticking up for the frat boys.

 

• Interesting question: Is Patrick Willis, who will retire never having played in his 30s, a Hall of Famer?

 

Gronk & Co. had a bro-down at the Clippers game.

 

Derek Zoolander and Hansel made an appearance at a fashion show. Hansel is so hot right now.

 

• The real Michael Bolton makes an appearance at Initech.

 

-- Email us with any compelling sports-related links at [email protected]

Teaser:
Post date: Tuesday, March 10, 2015 - 11:46
All taxonomy terms: Fantasy Baseball, MLB, Fantasy
Path: /fantasy/2015-fantasy-baseball-rankings-third-basemen
Body:

Opening Day of the 2015 MLB season is less than a month away, which means fantasy baseball is just around the corner. For some leagues, drafts have already begun or will soon begin and Athlon Sports is here to help.

 

Besides providing our comprehensive Fantasy Baseball Big Board, we also have our positional rankings, courtesy of Bruce Herman. These are pulled straight from this year’s 2015 MLB Preview magazine, which is available at newsstands everywhere and for purchase online.

 

Rankings Key

A: FRANCHISE PLAYER — You need one to compete, two to win, three to dominate.

B: CAREER YEAR — Veteran with a strong possibility of delivering his best season.

C: SLEEPER — Could be a great acquisition at a price or draft slot below his true value.

D: ROADBLOCKED — Rank has been lowered because there is no current opportunity to play regularly.

E: DECLINER — Expect moderately to significantly worse stats than in 2014.

F: INJURY RISK — Has had a recent injury that could affect performance.

G: INVESTOR’S SPECIAL — Top prospect whose immediate impact may be minimal.

 

Batting stats are expressed AVG-HR-RBI-R-SB. Positional eligibility for specific players may vary depending on league, as well as other Web sites and resources.

 

2015 Fantasy Baseball Rankings: Third Basemen

 

TIER 1

1. Anthony Rendon, Nationals

More of a jolt than Rendon’s .287 AVG* and 21 HRs were his 17 SBs and NL-leading 111 runs. Those are serious numbers at a position that, in fantasy terms, has become something of a joke. (* Exactly .287 in the first half, in the second half, in August and on grass fields.)

2. Josh Donaldson, Blue Jays

Having been a much better hitter away from O.co, the thinking is that Donaldson can edge past the 30-HR/100-RBI levels that have barely eluded him. Average-wise, he’s closer to his .255 of 2014 than the .301 of the year before.

3. Kyle Seager, Mariners

As Seattle’s batting order deepens, Seager’s RBI total — up to 96 from 69 last year — reaps the rewards. While he’ll stay steady in the 25-HR/.265-AVG neighborhood, there’s no reason he can’t score a lot more than 71 times.

4. Adrian Beltre, Rangers

Beltre’s .324 AVG was his best in a decade, but an accumulation of dings and the pall in Texas trimmed 42% off his three-year HR average and 23% off his RBIs. He’s a warrior with plenty left, though. Passed Brooks Robinson last year as the all-time total base leader at the hot corner.

 

TIER 2

5. Evan Longoria, Rays

“Stagnation” would be a positive in this case, but “regression” is the more appropriate word for Longoria, whose .881 OPS of his first three seasons has tumbled to .815 since (.724 in 2014). He’s capable of boomeranging back, but opponents have zero reasons to pitch to him.

6. David Wright, Mets (F)

Another former fantasy VIP whose decline has diluted the position. His OPS is .133 lower at Citi Field than it was at Shea, and he’s missed major time in three of the last four seasons. Still, no NL player has had more hits over the past decade, and it’s not like he’s too old to pull it together.

7. Nolan Arenado, Rockies (B)

Had he not been sidelined almost two months, Arenado’s numbers might have paralleled Rondon’s. He constructed a hitting streak of more games (28) than his final walk total (25), which denotes both his merits and chief shortcoming.

8. Matt Carpenter, Cardinals

The synthesis of an epic 2013 season at second base and a just-OK 2014 at third is that Carpenter was the NL leader in hits and runs (by a whopping 28) during that span. Despite what you saw in the playoffs, his big-boy categories are deficient for the position.

 

TIER 3

9. Pablo Sandoval, Red Sox

It would seem at first blush that Panda and Fenway are a match made in sabermetrics, but AT&T (where his OPS was .853, compared to .771 on the road) was never a deterrent to him. Five-year average of .283-16-70-59-1 should hold up if his body does.

10. Josh Harrison, Pirates

The waiver wire pickup of the milennium. Harrison began the year without a real job (two April starts) yet nearly won the batting title. His .315-13-52-77-18 line was one of only two of its kind (Michael Brantley). There weren’t any fluke flags, but betting big on upstarts is rarely prudent.

11. Todd Frazier, Reds (E)

Speaking of flukes and upstarts, Frazier’s 29-HR/20-SB combo was no more predictable than Harrison’s emergence. His three-year average of .259-22-73-69-10 is more illustrative of his reality.

12. Manny Machado, Orioles (F)

We’re flying blind here for the second year in a row, trying to reconcile his potential with the warning shots of two blown-out knees at the age of 22. Before his second, last August, his HR and BB percentages were up significantly from 2013.

13. Yasmany Tomas, Diamondbacks

Grades out as Longoria at the top end and Mike Moustakas at the bottom. Scouts agree that this year’s Cuban “it guy” will hit the longball, but that’s where the comparison to Jose Abreu ends. If he can’t cut it third, he’ll move to left, with Jake Lamb sliding in.

14. Martin Prado, Marlins

Prado has long been a stealth fantasy fav for his stability, deceptively useful numbers and positional versatility. You could do a lot worse than his six-year means of .290-12-63-74-6.

15. Brett Lawrie, Athletics (F)

Lawrie’s unrelenting medical bills are now someone else’s problem, and he’s got a new one of his own: the park dimensions in Oakland relative to Toronto. He’s only 25 and has flashed stardom in spurts (mid-20s HR pace last year before hurting his back), so he can’t be written off.

 

16. Chase Headley, Yankees

17. Nick Castellanos, Tigers

 

TIER 4

18. Mike Moustakas, Royals

19. Trevor Plouffe, Twins

20. Casey McGehee, Giants (E)

21. Lonnie Chisenhall, Indians

22. David Freese, Angels

23. Juan Uribe, Dodgers (E)

24. Kris Bryant, Cubs (C,G)

25. Chris Johnson, Braves

26. Aramis Ramirez, Brewers (E)

27. Matt Dominguez, Astros

28. Cody Asche, Phillies

29. Conor Gillaspie, White Sox (E)

30. Will Middlebrooks, Padres

31. Maikel Franco, Phillies (G)

32. Luis Valbuena, Astros

33. Jake Lamb, Diamondbacks (D)

34. Ryan Flaherty, Orioles

35. Mike Aviles, Indians

36. Yangervis Solarte, Padres

37. Danny Valencia, Blue Jays

38. Justin Turner, Dodgers (E)

39. Cory Spangenberg, Padres

40. Mike Olt, Cubs

Teaser:
2015 Fantasy Baseball Rankings: Third Basemen
Post date: Tuesday, March 10, 2015 - 11:30
All taxonomy terms: Brooks Koepka, Golf
Path: /golf/top-30-golfers-2015-majors-no-22-keegan-bradley
Body:

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. 22: Keegan Bradley

 

Born: June 7, 1986, Woodstock, Vt. | Career PGA Tour Wins: 3 | 2014 Wins (Worldwide): 0 | 2014 Earnings (PGA Tour): $2,828,638 (28th) World Ranking: 34

 

Brandel Chamblee's Take

Bradley spent last year working with a new coach, and his game suffered, if only slightly. But it was enough to keep him from reaching the season-ending Tour Championship for the first time in his career. Those swing changes and the impending anchored putting ban may slow Keegan down in 2015, but he is just too good to ignore in key areas. He has length, a good wedge game and is one of the best on Tour with a mid to long iron, which is why from 2011-2014 he has finished 13th, 10th, 11th and 28th, respectively, on the money list. Winless for the last two years, if he finds a level of comfort with the swing changes, Bradley will put an end to that drought.

Major Championship Résumé
Starts: 13
Wins: 1

2014 Performance:
Masters - Cut
U.S. Open - T4
British Open - T19
PGA Championship - Cut

Best Career Finishes: 
Masters - T27 (2012)
U.S. Open - T4 (2014)
British Open - T15 (2013)
PGA Championship - 1 (2011)
Top-10 Finishes: 3
Top-25 Finishes: 6
Missed Cuts: 3

 

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

 

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.

Teaser:
Post date: Tuesday, March 10, 2015 - 10:48

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