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Six years ago, I sat through a Fontana raceday in what’s been termed the never-ending rain delay. After constant mist all weekend caused water to seep out of the asphalt, wrecking Dale Earnhardt Jr., among others, the race was mercifully stopped but never called. Hour after hour, water pelted what is now Auto Club Speedway, the stands empty while NASCAR bungled the weather forecast. By the time it was pushed back to the following day it was the following day — well, after 2:00 am EST on Monday morning. The stands for the finish, when it did get underway that afternoon, were as empty as I’ve ever seen at any track I’ve ever been to. And the racing? Dull would give it too much credit.
There was so much buzz then to tear up Auto Club Speedway, a facility built just a decade earlier, and start from scratch. Suggestions ranged from a “new Talladega” plate track, to a half-mile short track, to progressive banking seen at places like Homestead-Miami Speedway. Instead, the answer was … to do nothing. Fans screamed in protest. Teams complained to the powers that be. Media wrote as if they were trying to shame the owners, International Speedway Corporation, into shuttering the facility for good.
Six years later, the once-troubled oval in the desert is labeled one of the finest intermediate tracks in NASCAR. With Sunday’s sellout crowd for the Auto Club 400, a second straight white-knuckle finish and aging pavement, it’s now one of the sport’s hottest tickets. One week ago, the legendary Bristol short track played to half-filled seats and weary crowds. Could it be that Fontana has now replaced it as “Most Popular” outside of February’s Daytona 500?
As crazy as it sounds, numbers on paper may say yes. And in a sport filled with change, who would have guessed that “sit back and do nothing” would have ever worked out?
If only they could have taken a breath, sat back and done nothing to NASCAR’s championship system … but I digress. “Through the Gears” we go, post-Fontana and hopefully we don’t blow a tire while doing so.
FIRST GEAR: Tire trouble or teams taking risks?
The finish of the Auto Club 400 was as March Madness as you’ll ever get it (in NASCAR, of course). Kyle Busch, whose car was junk three to four laps after a restart, took advantage of a green-white-checker ending to surge towards the front from fifth place. After Clint Bowyer’s spin set up the final yellow, a bunched-up field was all the No. 18 team needed to jump ahead of Stewart-Haas Racing’s Kurt Busch and Tony Stewart.
Busch’s opportunity, however, was due to a lack of tire problems, part of a Joe Gibbs Racing program that was in the minority. Throughout the race, half the field suffered through at least one flat; typically, it was a left-rear or left-front tire. It cut short the green-flag racing — spectacular at times — in producing a track record 35 lead changes. Instead, attention turned away from where it should, towards a troubling pattern of blowouts where drivers started pointing the finger at, well, everyone around them.
“Twelve pounds,” said Busch’s crew chief Dave Rogers, placing the blame on teams running low air pressure. “You put 12 pounds in left sides and you're going 1,200 miles-an-hour in California, you might have a left-side tire problem. That's awful low. That's dangerous.”
Rogers wasn’t alone, as several crew chiefs claimed aggressive setups didn’t take into account higher speeds and new 2014 rules allowing teams rear camber approaching dangerous levels. Goodyear, for its part, stood firm in its opinion that poor setup strategy caused the problems; after all, the tire itself was the same compound brought to the track last year. No one was complaining about the racing then, so why now?
“The tires weren't wearing,” added NASCAR Vice President Robin Pemberton. “At some parts of the race, the tires were abused a little bit, so I guess that's why the failures.”
Jimmie Johnson, at the very least, would beg to differ. After blowing a left front while leading with less than seven laps remaining that cost his No. 48 team a win, he and crew chief Chad Knaus were highly critical on the radio. “It’s all our fault,” Knaus snapped sarcastically before listing all the tracks these past few years where Goodyear has brought a faulty compound — only to blame drivers and teams.
The real answer lies somewhere in between. Comparisons to NASCAR’s big tire disaster, the 2008 race at Indianapolis where teams blew tires every 10-12 laps, is a little dramatic. In that one, drivers literally had to run at 70 percent in almost single-file procession to finish the race. By comparison, Sunday’s race found drivers running all out and passing at will, capable of moving through traffic with ease. I doubt fans, whether watching on TV or in the stands, felt cheated.
But you also don’t have nearly two dozen teams with three different manufacturers suffer blowouts and pretend all’s OK. There was clearly a breakdown in communication between what Goodyear thought the setups would or should be, how crew chiefs chose to evolve, and some laziness — simply assuming last year’s compound would work without spending the money to update.
NASCAR, as we know, is a sport where teams fall behind the second they take a rest. Goodyear, while not completely at fault, also needs to learn a lesson: go back to the drawing board and get better for other intermediates. Softer tires? Sign me up. But this one was borderline dangerous.
SECOND GEAR: Hendrick’s California crumble
Hard to believe that, with 10 laps left, Hendrick Motorsports was headed toward a 1-2 finish. Jimmie Johnson, who had dominated on short runs, was in a comfort zone up front in the No. 48. Even after a blown tire, Jeff Gordon stepped up from second and was in his own time zone, poised to coast toward victory. After falling to the back not once, but twice throughout the race, his drive up through the pack was simply remarkable.
Instead, Bowyer’s spin changed the outcome as the leaders were forced down pit road. A four-tire stop for Gordon, as opposed to two for many others, left the 24 car a sitting duck as he faded to a 13th-place finish.
“They gave me the most incredible race car today,” said Gordon of his crew. “And it is just so disappointing for it to end like that.”
So Gordon and Johnson, two of the strongest cars of 2014, remain on the outside looking in on Victory Lane. And with five different winners in the first five races it’s increasingly important to break through and get that Chase bid on file. Expect both to be hungry at Martinsville this weekend; it’s one of their best tracks and where Gordon scored the victory last fall.
THIRD GEAR: Kyle Larson’s coming out party
The hyped 2014 rookie class has been underwhelming thus far — until this weekend. Young Kyle Larson had himself a breakthrough, first winning a nail-biting Nationwide Series race where he held off both Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick on Saturday. It was as good a competition as you’ll ever see, with Larson running cleanly and maneuvering perfectly to kill any runs coming behind him.
Then, the California native followed through with a solid, top-15 run all day on Sunday. And when chaos reigned during the green-white-checker ending, he found a hole from ninth place, dug deep and passed traffic like it was stopped.
“I was stuck in the middle,” he said. “I guess it was pretty hectic, but nothing too scary for me, either.”
Exactly what you expect a fearless 21-year-old to say. What you don’t expect is for him to come out second, nearly challenging Busch for the victory when 99 other drivers would have gotten loose and wrecked. This Larson is going to be something, and with Chip Ganassi Racing improving its cars quickly (see: teammate Jamie McMurray, sixth place) he could wind up in Victory Lane far sooner than anyone thought.
FOURTH GEAR: Finally … we’ve got a feud!
One of the knocks on NASCAR of late is there hasn’t been a full-out rivalry among drivers. Well, one year after Denny Hamlin vs. Joey Logano, we got the “B” level undercard version that at least puts some criticism to rest. Aric Almirola, after getting turned by Brian Scott, ripped into the rookie over the incident that ended his day on Lap 65.
"The 33 (Scott) was obviously a dart without feathers and coming across the racetrack," Almirola said. "Man, he came from all the way at the bottom of the racetrack and ran into me. He's not even racing this series for points. He's out there having fun because his daddy gets to pay for it and he wrecked us. That's frustrating.”
It’s also not the first time the two have bumped heads. In 2011, the shoe was on the other foot as Scott got angry at Almirola for rough competition when the two ran the Nationwide Series full-time. There’s no proof that one was ever fully settled, and with Scott running Cup later this season for the No. 33 he’d be wise to do so now. It’s rare to see the mild-mannered Almirola that fired up, and after a career-best finish at Bristol a week ago, driving Richard Petty’s No. 43 he’s ready to run over anyone standing in his way of success.
So much for the Denny Hamlin – Joey Logano rematch. In a major surprise, Hamlin was pulled from his ride just before the start due to a sinus infection. Owner Joe Gibbs said it sent his driver to the hospital, where tests are pending because Hamlin’s vision was affected. Hamlin, who dropped to 11th in points will still be eligible for the Chase should he make it due to NASCAR’s “medical exemption” policy. Meanwhile, Logano wrecked his car in practice, leaving him starting from the rear and then broke a rear-end gear in-race. The No. 22 car wound up in 39th place. … Give a call to Sam Hornish Jr., the reigning Nationwide Series champion who’s spent most of 2014 unemployed. Hamlin’s last-minute replacement, starting dead last on the grid, fought all the way to 17th. Passed over for a full-time Cup ride by owner Roger Penske and left in just a part-time Nationwide ride for Gibbs, Hornish made a case to other owners that choice was a big mistake. … For the second straight week, NASCAR had problems with its lighting system. A red light indicating pit road was closed failed to change under a mid-race caution that left Brad Keselowski, Bowyer and Gordon out on-track. The teams argued to no avail the lighting was faulty, costing them precious track position as they pitted a lap later than everyone else (or not at all). One week after the caution light snag at Bristol, how can NASCAR keep having such bungles? … Danica Patrick quietly came back from tire issues and running over debris, dropping her a lap down at one point, to finish 14th. It’s the first time in her brief Cup career she’s posted back-to-back top 20s, slight but steady improvement as the spotlight shines on others at SHR.
Injuries and a struggling defense derailed Georgia’s East Division title hopes last season. But with a full offseason to recover from last year’s ailments, combined with the addition of Jeremy Pruitt as the team’s defensive coordinator, two of the biggest question marks facing the Bulldogs have been answered.
However, Georgia opened spring practice with one glaring question mark on offense. Is Hutson Mason ready to replace Aaron Murray? Mason started the final two games last season and has waited for his chance to start. This is Mason’s first spring to work as the starter, so all eyes in Athens will be on his performance.
Georgia has claimed at least a share of the East Division in two of the last three years. If the defense takes a step forward as expected, and Mason settles into the starting role, the Bulldogs could be the team to beat in a top-heavy East.
Georgia Bulldogs 2014 Spring Preview
2013 Record: 8-5 (5-3 SEC)
Spring Practice Opens: March 18
Spring Game: April 12
Three Things to Watch in Georgia’s 2014 Spring Practice
|Nov. 22||Charleston Southern|
1. Hutson Mason’s development: Prior to 2013, Mason threw just 47 passes in a Georgia uniform. But once Aaron Murray was lost for the year against Kentucky, he was pressed into his first extended action. Mason performed well in his limited audition, throwing for 299 yards and two touchdowns in a win over rival Georgia Tech, and he completed 21 of 39 passes for 320 yards in an awful weather day in the Gator Bowl. As with any first-year starter, Mason has room to grow and will have his share of ups and downs. And Mason’s development took a hit this spring, as top receiver Malcolm Mitchell is out due to a leg injury. Georgia is also breaking in three starters on the line, but center David Andrews should ease Mason’s transition into the full-time role. This spring is Mason’s first chance to have a full offseason of workouts with the No. 1 offense, which should pay huge dividends for his performance in 2014.
2. New faces on the line: Three starters are gone from a line that allowed only 22 sacks last year. As mentioned above, the key cog in the line will be center David Andrews, who should be a candidate for All-SEC honors. Having Andrews back is a huge plus for a team breaking in a new quarterback, but the Bulldogs still need to round out their starting five. Kolton Houston and John Theus are expected to win the starting jobs at tackle, while Mark Beard, Watts Dantzler and Brandon Kublanow appear to be the frontrunners to battle for time at the guard spots. Line coach Will Friend has plenty of options and talent at his disposal and finding the right mix is crucial with two talented defenses to open the season (Clemson and South Carolina).
3. Pruitt’s stamp on the defense: Georgia’s hire of Jeremy Pruitt is one of the top coordinator additions of the offseason. Prior to his highly successful one year at Florida State, Pruitt was an assistant at Alabama, so he’s no stranger to life in the SEC. Despite having one of the league’s most-talented rosters, the Bulldogs have not finished higher than fourth in the SEC in total defense since 2008. Considering previous coordinator Todd Grantham ran a 3-4 approach, Pruitt’s multiple looks on defense should make for an easy transition. Talent certainly isn’t an issue for Georgia, as 10 starters are back, and the linebacking corps could be the best in the SEC. The Bulldogs created only 15 takeaways last year, so creating more turnovers will be a priority for Pruitt this spring.
2014 Early Projected Win Range: 9-11
Picking a favorite in the East will be an interesting discussion among preseason prognosticators. A case can be made for Georgia, South Carolina and Missouri, and Florida shouldn’t be forgotten about thanks to a favorable home schedule. Even though the Bulldogs are replacing a prolific quarterback in Aaron Murray, there’s enough returning to make a run at the SEC title. Running back Todd Gurley should be an All-American in 2014, and assuming Malcolm Mitchell returns to full strength, the receiving corps will be one of the best in the SEC. With Pruitt calling the plays, Georgia’s defense will take a step forward in 2014. Road trips to South Carolina and Missouri, but there’s enough talent on this roster for Mark Richt’s team to win the East Division.
A new era has begun in Austin.
Like other coaching changes at Michigan, Tennessee and Florida State, Charlie Strong takes over a powerful but dormant blue-blood program. The Longhorns boast the most powerful athletic department in college athletics but it hasn't translated into wins, as the program grew stale under Mack Brown.
Strong brings a new staff with a renewed focus and energy on restoring the Texas brand name in the Lone Star State. The story at Texas is one that fans have heard before. This team appears to be extremely talented, yet very unmotivated.
So Strong enters his first spring on the 40 Acres with holes to plug (along the O-Line), questions to answer (along the D-Line) and an entirely new business culture to instill.
And he probably needs to find a quarterback as well.
|Sept. 20||Bye Week|
|Nov. 22||Bye Week|
Texas Longhorns 2014 Spring Preview
2013 Record: 8-5 (7-2 Big 12)
Spring Practice Opens: March 18
Spring Game: April 19
Three Things to Watch in Texas' 2014 Spring Practice
Find depth under center
David Ash returns to camp but is one hard hit away from his career being over. Strong and co-offensive coordinators Joe Wickline and Shawn Watson will need to be sure Texas has a backup plan in case Ash gets hurt or doesn't return to form. The best bet is on the latter. That leaves only sophomore Tyrone Swoopes this spring who can compete for legitimate snaps. Help could be en route as potential USC transfer Max Wittek — who has narrowed his list to Texas, Hawaii and Louisville — and incoming freshman Jerrod Heard would help bolster the depth chart immensely. (But that may not happen for a while.) The great news is that the Watson-Strong combo in Louisville built their offense around the power running game first and Teddy Bridgewater second. And with a loaded backfield of elite ball carriers, Texas could brag one of the nation's top running games, if it can…
Fill the holes along the offensive line
Three All-Big 12 blockers depart this roster in the form of left guard Trey Hopkins, left tackle Donald Hawkins and right guard Mason Walters. Those three played a lot of snaps in burnt orange uniforms and replacing them won't be easy. However, there is plenty talent and experience left on the roster. Dominic Espinosa is the leader of the bunch and will anchor the unit at the pivot, while other names like Sedrick Flowers, Kennedy Estelle and Kent Perkins look to grow into bigger roles. Wickline has a knack for pulling together excellent offensive lines and now he is working with what recruiting services think is the best roster in the league. With Wickline whipping this group into shape, and Strong obviously wanting to lean on his power running game, this unit has a chance to quickly define the first season of the new era of Longhorn football.
Develop playmakers up front on defense
Jackson Jeffcoat, Chris Whaley and Reggie Wilson are gone from the defensive line. And just like every other position on the roster, Texas has plenty of talented backups waiting their turn to vie for snaps. Cedric Reed anchors one end spot and needs to become the superstar some believe he can be, while Shiro Davis, Bryce Cottrell and Caleb Bluiett look to take the next step in their development. On the interior, Desmond Jackson, Malcom Brown, Hassan Ridgeway, Paul Boyette and Alex Norman will fight for playing time. This is a deep and talented group but Jeffcoat was a first-team All-Big 12 pick and Whaley had a knack for making big plays. New defensive coordinator Vance Bedford has superstar talent at linebacker and loads of experience returning in the secondary but likely wants to find guys who can make big plays along the defensive line.
2014 Early Projected Win Range: 8-10
Texas is in good shape, even if the hiring of Charlie Strong seemed like a lackluster maneuver. He is a no-nonsense coach who will grind his team into a well-oiled machine. He will rely on the running game and a stout defense to keep his teams in games. And with the overall level of athlete that fills the Texas two-deep, there is no reason for this team not to be extremely competitive in the Big 12. The schedule is not easy, in particular, in the non-conference early in the year. Road trips to Manhattan and Stillwater to face the hated Wildcats and Cowboys will make winning the Big 12 very difficult — but not impossible.
After six days, the field of 68 has been whittled to 16, but some of the absences seem more notable than who is left.
No more undefeated Wichita State. No more Doug McDermott. No more teams from North Carolina or Kansas.
Streaks ended but some others continued, including those for Michigan State and the state of Ohio.
With the first week of the NCAA Tournament, these are the statistical superlatives that struck us as the most important and most interesting.
14. Lead changes in Kentucky’s win over Wichita State
After the game, Kentucky coach John Calipari called this an Elite Eight-type of game. That’s not too far off. The game featured 14 lead changes before Kentucky finished with a 78-76 win to go to the Sweet 16. The Wildcats and Shockers combined to shoot 54.5 percent in the most tense game of the Tournament so far.
15. Points for Creighton’s Doug McDermott in his final game
McDermott’s career did not end with the fanfare it deserved as McDermott scored only 15 points in an 85-55 loss to Baylor in the round of 32. McDermott scored 15 or fewer points for only the second time as a senior and the 14th time in the final three years of his career. McDermott finished as the fifth-leading scorer in Division I history with 3,150 career points.
5. Teams to eliminate Duke in the first round under Mike Krzyzewski
Mercer joined an elite group of teams Friday, becoming the fifth team during the Mike Krzyzewski era to send Duke home from the NCAA Tournament after only one game. No. 14 seed Mercer defeated Duke 78-71 for the Tournament’s biggest upset in terms of seeding.
|Duke first-round exits from the NCAA Tournament under Mike Krzyzewski|
|2014||No. 14 Mercer||Atlantic Sun|
|2012||No. 15 Lehigh||Patriot|
|2007||No. 11 VCU||Colonial|
|1996||No. 9 Eastern Michigan||MAC|
|1984||No. 6 Washington||Pac-12|
3. SEC teams in the Sweet 16, most since 2007
The SEC was one of the weakest major conferences — or at least one of the most inconsistent after Florida. The Gators, Kentucky and Tennessee, though, went a combined 7-0 in the first weekend of the Tournament, starting with the Volunteers’ win over Iowa in the First Four. The last time the SEC sent three teams to the Sweet 16 in 2007, Florida won the national title and Vanderbilt and Tennessee topped out in the regional semifinals.
3. Pac-12 teams in the Sweet 16, most since 2008
Another formerly maligned major conference placed three teams in the Sweet 16 with the Pac-12 sending Arizona, UCLA and Stanford to the regional semifinal. That’s the most for the league since it sent Stanford, UCLA and Washington State to the Sweet 16 in 2008.
8. Consecutive seasons the state of Ohio has been represented in the Sweet 16, now the longest streak for any state
When Dayton defeated Syracuse 55-53 on Saturday, the Flyers ensured the state of Ohio would be represented in the Sweet 16. That’s impressive enough, especially considering that Dayton was the fifth school from the Buckeye State involved in that streak. Now, Ohio has the longest streak of any state in the Sweet 16. The regional semifinal will lack a North Carolina team for the first time since 1979 and a Kansas team for the first time since 2000.
|Ohio teams in the Sweet 16 since 2007|
|2012||Cincinnati, Ohio, Ohio State*, Xavier|
|2010||Ohio State, Xavier|
*reached Final Four
85. Points scored by Wisconsin in an NCAA Tournament game, most since 1994
How many times could we reiterate that this is not the same kind of Wisconsin team that has lost early in the NCAA Tournament in years past? How about this: Wisconsin was able to keep up with an explosive offense in the round of 32 when it defeated Oregon 85-77. The Badgers topped 80 points in an NCAA Tournament game for the first time since an 88-82 loss to North Carolina in the 2005 Elite Eight. Wisconsin’s 85 points was the most in a Tourney game for the Badgers since a 109-96 loss to Missouri in the second round in 1994.
11. Consecutive wins by Michigan State over teams seeded eighth or worse
Tom Izzo’s credentials as a coach in the NCAA Tournament are pretty clear: 41 wins, six Final Fours and one national title. One sure way to develop that reputation is to avoid the early upset. Izzo’s teams simply don’t lose to the bottom half of the bracket. Michigan State has won 11 Tournament games in a row to team seeded eighth or worse. The only team at No. 8 or lower to beat Michigan State since 2004 is George Mason, the team that reached the Final Four in 2006.
Minus-1. Rebounding margin between Tennessee’s Jarnell Stokes and Mercer
Rebounding margin is not a terribly effective statistic, but it probably means something when a single player comes close to matching an entire team in rebounds. Tennessee’s Jarnell Stokes grabbed 18 rebounds against Mercer as the Bears claimed 19. Stokes alone had more offensive rebounds (eight) than his opponent’s entire squad (seven).
5. Overtime games in the round of 64, a record
The NCAA expanded the Tournament by four games two years ago, but this year’s round of 64 delivered the most basketball. With five overtime games in the round of 64, this year’s Tournament broke the previous record of three overtime games in the first two days. The first week of the NCAA Tournament featured six total OT games, including one in the First Four (Tennessee over Iowa)
The round of 64 overtime games were:
No. 7 Connecticut 89, No. 10 Saint Joseph’s 81
No. 5 Saint Louis 83, No. 12 NC State 80
No. 12 North Dakota State 80, No. 5 Oklahoma 75
No. 4 San Diego State 73, No. 13 New Mexico State 69
No. 12 Stephen F. Austin 77, No. 5 VCU 75
6-2. Record of the No. 12 seeds in the round of 64 in the last two seasons
The last two NCAA Tournaments have brought back the 12-5 upset with NO. 12 seeds going 3-1 in the last two Tourneys. No. 12 seeds were 5-8 from 2010-12. What’s most striking perhaps is the character of the No. 12 seeds. In 2014, the upsets have come from one-bid leagues (Stephen F. Austin, Harvard and North Dakota State). In 2013, the upsets came from power conferences (Cal, Ole Miss and Oregon).
41. Points by Michigan State’s Adreian Payne against Delaware, most in the NCAA Tournament since 2004
Payne’s 41 points in the round of 64 against Delaware set a number of marks, but the most interesting may have been that Payne scored the most in an NCAA Tournament game since Syracuse’s Gerry McNamara scored 43 against BYU in 2004. The 41 points set a Tournament record for Michigan State that stood since 1979, when Greg Kelser scored 34 against Notre Dame on the way to the national championship.
1987. Last time Dayton defeated Ohio State
One look at the front page of the Dayton (Ohio) Daily News shows why Ohio State doesn’t play Dayton if the Buckeyes don’t have to (or, for that matter, why Kansas won’t face Wichita State). Dayton upset Ohio State 60-59 in the round of 64 for the Flyers first win over Ohio State since 1987, a span of a paltry four games. He also scored the second-most of any Big Ten player in a Tournament game, trailing only Purdue’s Glenn Robinson (44 against Kansas in 1994).
Wow, Dayton Daily News. Wow. pic.twitter.com/6BaGM1s1ab— Tim Reynolds (@ByTimReynolds) March 21, 2014
2. NCAA Tournament wins by Harvard in two seasons, the first Ivy team with NCAA wins in back-to-back seasons in 20 years
Harvard scored a pair of upsets in two seasons to give the Ivy League its first team to advance in the NCAA Tournament in back-to-back seasons since 1983. Princeton won three Tournament games in 1983 and two in 1984, both seasons included wins in the opening round.
1. Coach ejected in the first weekend
Nebraska ended an NCAA Tournament drought going back to 1998 by facing Baylor on Friday. Tim Miles ended another streak by becoming the first coach to be ejected from an NCAA Tournament game in 16 years. Nebraska lost 74-60 and trailed by a significant margin for most of the game.
1. Player to have 20 points, 10 rebounds, five assists and five steals in a Tournament game
In a losing effort, Oklahoma State’s Marcus Smart became the first player in NCAA Tournament history to stuff a stat sheet the way he did. Smart finished with 23 points, 13 rebounds, seven assists and six steals in an 85-77 loss to Gonzaga in the round of 64. Smart checked another box by airing grievances about officiating.
3. Teams to fail to make a 3-point shot in a game during the weekend.
When was the last time you watched a good team fail to make a 3-point shot? It happened three times during the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament. Saint Louis went 0 for 15 in the second round against Louisville. Syracuse went 0 for 10 against Dayton. And Stanford went 0 for 9 against Kansas. Stanford was the only one to win its game.
Anointed as the No. 1 team entering the season thanks to the best recruiting of all time, maybe Kentucky needed to be the underdog to unlock its potential.
The Wildcats entered a game against undefeated Wichita State with seven seed lines separating them on the bracket not to mention a 2.5-point spread. The narrative of Kentucky’s roster full of decorated one-and-done players losing to a group of under-recruited veterans seemed to be on deck for the Monday conversations.
Instead, Kentucky played its best game of the season against a Wichita State team able to answer over and over again.
Kentucky’s reward for defeating Wichita State 78-76 in a game that came down to one last missed shot as time expired by Shockers point guard Fred VanVleet is a game against the defending national champions and UK’s biggest rival, Louisville, in the Sweet 16.
In the most dramatic game of the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament, Kentucky responded with the kind of game John Calipari has been trying to coax out of his team for months:
• Julius Randle, the most consistent freshman for Kentucky all season, plowed through Wichita State for 13 points and 10 rebounds, but more important six assists.
• James Young, who showed streaky shot selection all season, hit 3-of-5 3-pointers against Wichita State, answering Wichita State shot for shot for a sequence in the second half.
• Andrew Harrison, who never appeared ready to put his name alongside other great Calipari point guards, scored 20 points.
The true value of Wichita State’s 35-1 season will be up for debate in some circles, but on Sunday, the Shockers were prepared to face Kentucky at its best.
For one of the rare times this season, Kentucky was able to oblige.
The most expensive reboot in baseball history — professional sports history — was a success. After buying the Dodgers for a record $2.15 billion in 2012, the Guggenheim Partners group green-lighted “spare-no-expense” blockbuster trades and mega-million-dollar free-agent acquisitions that produced a $230 million payroll. The results were good — an NL West division title, berth in the NL Championship Series and the highest attendance in the majors last season. The Dodgers now enter a new phase of their rebirth as a deep-pocketed West Coast superpower. The focus this winter was not on headline-grabbing moves but on maintaining the momentum built in 2013. In particular, new management, led by team president and CEO Stan Kasten and GM Ned Colletti, has focused resources on building the kind of self-sustaining player development system that can fuel perennial championship contention.
The best asset the Dodgers have going for them — and the reason they will enter 2014 as serious threats to unseat the St. Louis Cardinals as NL champion — is a deep starting rotation led by the best starting pitcher of his generation. Clayton Kershaw, who will be 26 on Opening Day, had yet another superb season in 2013, winning his second Cy Young Award in the past three years and leading the majors in ERA (1.83) for the third consecutive season — the first pitcher to do that since Greg Maddux in 1993-95. But it wasn’t just Kershaw. As a whole, Dodgers starting pitchers had the lowest ERA in the majors (3.13) and the most shutouts (22). Before the season, the Dodgers committed more than $200 million in signing Zack Greinke and Hyun-Jin Ryu. Both provided a return on the investment. Sidelined by a fractured collarbone early in the year, Greinke rivaled Kershaw for dominance in the second half, going 7–1 with a 1.58 ERA over his final 12 starts. Ryu won 14 games with a 3.00 ERA in his rookie season. Dan Haren has been added as a free agent this time around to bring stability to the back of the rotation, where both Chad Billingsley (Tommy John) and Josh Beckett (thoracic outlet syndrome) will be trying to return from major surgeries. Beckett, in particular, has looked completely healthy and sharp in the spring.
The Dodgers’ rotation is likely the best in baseball — and their bullpen could be the deepest in the majors as well. Going into spring training, the Dodgers will have nine relievers with at least one career save, and six with at least 17 saves in a single season — Kenley Jansen, Brian Wilson, Chris Perez, Brandon League, J.P. Howell and Javy Guerra, who is a long-shot even to make the team. Three of them — Wilson, Perez and League — were selected to All-Star teams as closers but won’t be closing for the Dodgers in 2014. That job belongs to Jansen after a season that saw him post a remarkable 111-to-18 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 76.2 innings. Veteran lefty Paul Maholm has a chance to make the team as a long man.
For all the attention garnered by Puig-mania last summer, the key to the Dodgers’ midseason rebirth — and possibly to their 2014 hopes as well — was Hanley Ramirez. The Dodgers were still muddling along in a win-one, lose-two rut for a few weeks after rookie Yasiel Puig’s arrival. It was Ramirez’s return from a hamstring injury that sparked their historic 42–8 run. He played at an MVP level when healthy. The Dodgers were a much better team with him in the starting lineup (51–26) than without (41–44). Unfortunately for the Dodgers, Ramirez was in the starting lineup for less than half of the team’s games. He must be healthier in 2014 for this team to reach its potential. His keystone partner, veteran Mark Ellis, has moved on as a free agent — a loss the team will feel both on the field and in the clubhouse — and the Dodgers are set to take another gamble on a Cuban defector. Alexander Guerrero was one of the best offensive players in Cuba’s top league, Serie Nacional, over the past seven seasons, primarily as a shortstop. The Dodgers gave him a four-year, $28 million contract in the hopes that he would bring that offense to the majors (and make the switch to the other side of the bag). His play hasn’t overwhelmed manager Don Mattingly, but the team still believes in him long-term. But for now, Dee Gordon will get an opportunity at second base. Defensively, the Dodgers believe he can be exceptional, and his speed is a weapon on the bases. It’s just the getting on base that’s been a problem.
Though he wasn’t quite the offensive force he was in San Diego or Boston, Adrian Gonzalez’s steady production was critical for the Dodgers during a 2013 season when injuries were constantly leaving potholes in the Dodgers’ lineup. Gonzalez drove in 100 runs, fifth in the National League, by batting .323 with runners in scoring position. That metronomic performance in the middle of the lineup figures to be a foundation piece for the Dodgers’ lineup again in 2014. Third base, on the other hand, was a black hole for most of last season with Juan Uribe, Nick Punto, Jerry Hairston Jr. and Luis Cruz offering little offensively — that is, until Uribe’s second-half rebirth. With a wafer-thin market of available options, the Dodgers crossed their fingers that Uribe’s revival was not a mirage (as Cruz’s 2012 breakout proved to be) and re-signed the veteran for two years rather than broach the delicate topic of a position switch for Ramirez.
Mattingly insists it’s “a good problem to have.” But the prospect of keeping four every-day outfielders — Puig, Matt Kemp, Andre Ethier and Carl Crawford — healthy, happy and productive in 2014 is daunting. The biggest challenge could be the health part. A year ago, the four were all available for the same game just twice after Puig’s promotion from Double-A — and Kemp ended each of those games with an injury. His recovery from a second shoulder surgery and ankle surgery in the fall will go a long way toward determining how the outfield dilemma plays out. In many ways, Puig has usurped Kemp’s standing as the most dynamic player in the Dodgers’ lineup. He provided just the spark the Dodgers needed to turn around their season last year and quickly stamped himself as one of the most compelling, must-see players in the game. It will be interesting to see how many of Puig’s rough edges the Dodgers can smooth off in his second season. Ethier and Crawford are more limited players. The two left-handed batters give Mattingly a built-in matchup excuse to juggle playing time when all four are healthy.
With all the big names and former All-Stars on the Dodgers roster, the contributions of catcher A.J. Ellis go largely unnoticed. But Ellis’ workmanlike approach to handling the Dodgers’ pitching staff, and the credit he deserves for bringing out the best in Kershaw, et al., should not be underestimated. Though his offensive contributions slipped in 2013, Dodgers pitchers had a 3.06 ERA when throwing to Ellis (lowest among major-league catchers). Ellis also threw out 24 of 59 base-stealers, a percentage of 44.4 that ranked third among MLB catchers. The Dodgers are hopeful that young reserve Tim Federowicz will one day grow into Ellis’ shoes.
If the Dodgers truly will have those four every-day outfielders available on a regular basis in 2014, the bench will benefit — one of that quartet will always be there. The rest of the reserve corps is very much a question mark, however. A trio of solid role players whose contributions to team chemistry will be sorely missed — Punto, Hairston and Skip Schumaker — departed over the winter. Journeymen Mike Baxter and Justin Turner will join Scott Van Slyke as the reserves this season.
Mattingly might have been within days (if not hours) of being fired during the Dodgers’ dark days in May 2013. The team’s turnaround saved his job, and their NLDS win over the Atlanta Braves activated a vesting option in his contract for 2014. But questions about Mattingly’s in-game decision-making remain. Bench coach Trey Hillman was dismissed. And acrimony seemed to flare between Mattingly and management during a postseason press conference. Colletti remains in Mattingly’s corner, but a shadow of dysfunction hovers over the manager-management relationship.
With all the turmoil of the past two years and massive roster turnover, the Dodgers came within two games (and perhaps one cracked rib in Ramirez’s side) of reaching the World Series for the first time since 1988. Kershaw and the best starting rotation in the National League provide the foundation for another deep October run.
RF Yasiel Puig (R)
Can the Dodgers smooth out his rough edges in 2014 — and should they want to?
LF Carl Crawford (L)
Manager Don Mattingly sees Crawford as a 120-game player, better when given frequent rest.
SS Hanley Ramirez (R)
Last year was first postseason appearance after 1,095 regular-season games.
1B Adrian Gonzalez (L)
One of three players with 100 RBIs in at least six of past seven seasons (Miguel Cabrera, Prince Fielder).
CF Matt Kemp (R)
Has played in just 143 of Dodgers’ 274 games since first of series of injuries struck in May 2012.
3B Juan Uribe (R)
Popular teammate is a placeholder until prospect Corey Seager arrives (assuming Seager plays third).
2B Dee Gordon (L)
The speedster has a .289 OBP over the past two season in the majors, but a .385 mark at Albuquerque last summer gives hope.
C A.J. Ellis (R)
Offensive contributions took a nosedive in 2013 but handled one of the best pitching staffs in NL.
OF Andre Ethier (L)
Did yeoman’s work as fill-in center fielder last year, but offensive numbers are in decline.
C Tim Federowicz (R)
Spent 2013 on shuttle between Triple-A and L.A.; Dodgers were 24–18 in his starts.
OF Mike Baxter (L)
Plucked off waivers from Mets, Baxter could compete with Scott Van Slyke for bench spot.
OF Scott Van Slyke (R)
Provides pop off the bench — 19 of his 40 big-league hits have gone for extra bases.
INF Justin Turner (R)
Hit .267 as a reserve with the Mets over the past three seasons. Can play all four infield positions, and maybe some outfield.
2B Alexander Guerrero (R)
An offensive force in his career in Cuba, but questions remain about how much will translate in MLB. Will likely begin the season in the minors.
LH Clayton Kershaw
Kershaw has won two Cy Youngs in past three seasons and has lowest career ERA in modern era.
RH Zack Greinke
After recovering from a broken collarbone, Greinke justified the Dodgers’ $147 million investment in him.
LH Hyun-Jin Ryu
Korean star made the jump to the bigs with relative ease, giving Dodgers consistent quality.
RH Dan Haren
Has shown wear the past two seasons but went 6–5 with 3.29 ERA in final 16 appearances with Nationals.
RH Josh Beckett
Dodgers are counting on Beckett to return from major surgery.
RH Kenley Jansen (Closer)
After disastrous start, bullpen stabilized when Don Mattingly made Jansen the closer last season.
RH Brian Wilson
It was assumed Wilson would leave for a closer’s job elsewhere, but he returns as $10 million setup man.
LH J.P. Howell
Another key free agent the Dodgers were able to bring back after career-best 2.03 ERA, 1.05 WHIP in 2013.
LH Paco Rodriguez
Rookie was one of NL’s best relievers until September fade; allowed 14 of 69 inherited runners to score.
RH Chris Perez
The Dodgers will benefit if his search for redemption in Los Angeles is successful.
RH Jamey Wright
Returns on a major-league contract, ending string of eight seasons making a team on a minor-league deal.
RH Brandon League
Re-signed for three years but lost closer job early in year, and had no role at all by end of 2013 season.
2013 Top Draft Pick
Chris Anderson, RHP
Having traded away a passel of pitching prospects in 2012, the Dodgers were shopping in bulk for pitching during the 2013 draft and started with Anderson. The Dodgers believe they got a bit of a sleeper akin to Cardinals phenom Michael Wacha, who slipped to 19th in the 2012 draft. Anderson was seen as a top-10 pick before his final college season when pitching for a mediocre Jacksonville University team depressed his statistics (though he struck out 101 batters in 104.2 innings with a 2.49 ERA). The 6'4", 215-pound Minnesota native is seen as a durable workhorse who could rise quickly through the Dodgers’ system. His innings were limited at Class A Great Lakes last year, but Anderson went 3–0 with a 1.96 ERA and 50 strikeouts in 46 innings over 12 starts.
OF Joc Pederson (21)
An outfield mate of Yasiel Puig’s in Class AA Chattanooga early in 2013, the left-handed corner outfielder could be ready to rejoin him in L.A. soon.
SS Corey Seager (19)
Seager’s potential was evident with an All-Star first half in the Midwest League last year.
LHP Chris Reed (23)
The Dodgers’ top 2011 pick out of Stanford was primarily a reliever in college, but Reed topped the 100-inning mark for the first time in 2013. He went 4–11 with a 3.86 ERA for Class AA Chattanooga.
RHP Zach Lee (22)
A Class AA All-Star, Lee was the Dodgers’ Minor League Pitcher of the Year in 2013; could challenge for a big-league spot soon.
LHP Julio Urias (17)
Was a Class A Midwest League standout despite being one of the youngest pitchers at that level in years.
RHP Chris Withrow (25)
First-round pick in 2007 shined in his MLB debut in ’13, giving up only 20 hits in 34.2 innings.
LHP Onelki Garcia (24)
Another Cuban defector, the lefthander got a taste of the big leagues and could be back after minor elbow surgery. He will be out until late May.
RHP Ross Stripling (24)
Michael Wacha’s college roommate at Texas A&M was making steady if slower progress through the Dodgers’ system. He underwent Tommy John surgery this spring, so he’s already looking to 2015.
Beyond the Box Score
One of the good guys A year after becoming the youngest player to win the Roberto Clemente Award (which recognizes a player’s commitment on and off the field), Clayton Kershaw had his charitable endeavors recognized again with the Branch Rickey Award following the 2013 season. The Rickey award honors a player who embodies the motto “Service Above Self.” Kershaw and his wife, Ellen, have founded Kershaw’s Challenge, a charitable organization that works to make a difference in the lives of at-risk children and communities in need in Kershaw’s hometown of Dallas as well as Los Angeles. The organization includes Arise Africa, which is building an orphanage called “Hope’s Home” in Zambia, among other projects.
Broadcast news Shortly after new ownership took over in 2012, the Dodgers secured a new TV rights deal that will bring in a record $8.5 billion over the next 25 years. That deal will kick in with the 2014 season, and the Dodgers will become the latest sports team to have its own regional sports network. A channel on the Time Warner Cable system, SportsNet LA, will be devoted to Dodgers coverage. Former MLB stars Nomar Garciaparra and Orel Hershiser have left ESPN to take on roles with the Dodgers’ broadcast team. Jerry Hairston Jr. retired following the 2013 season and will also be involved with Dodgers broadcasts in 2014.
About face Last season, the Dodgers became the fourth team in the divisional era (1969) to win a division title during the same season in which they were at least 12 games under .500 at one point. The Dodgers were 30–42 on June 21. They joined the 1974 Pittsburgh Pirates (14 games under .500 at one point), 1973 New York Mets (13 games under) and 1989 Toronto Blue Jays (12 games under) in rebounding to finish first in their division.
The Rockies improved by 10 wins to 74 victories under first-year manager Walt Weiss but are coming off consecutive last-place finishes for the first time in their 21-year history. The club gave Weiss a three-year contract and then embarked on a very busy offseason. The Rockies’ starters were last in the NL with a 4.57 ERA, and the back end of the rotation was a disaster. When Jorge De La Rosa, Jhoulys Chacin or Tyler Chatwood started, the Rockies went 49–32; otherwise, they went 25–56. Lefthander Brett Anderson, acquired from Oakland, could be an impact starter, provided he can stay healthy. That hasn’t been the case of late. The Rockies’ bullpen also was last in the NL with a 4.23 ERA, in large part because roles changed when closer Rafael Betancourt went on the disabled list three times, the last with an elbow injury that resulted in Tommy John surgery that will cost him the 2014 season. Free agent LaTroy Hawkins, a setup man for the Rockies in 2007 when they went to the World Series, will be given the opportunity to close. The Rockies also signed free agent Boone Logan and traded for Franklin Morales, who began his career in their organization. Along with Rex Brothers, they will give Weiss the luxury of three lefthanders in the bullpen. To replace retired franchise icon Todd Helton, the Rockies signed first baseman Justin Morneau, confident he will benefit from Coors Field and can still be productive despite a power drop-off in recent seasons largely due to two concussions. The Rockies seem poised to break their string of three straight losing seasons. Can they make a bigger leap and become a factor in the NL West race? Stars Carlos Gonzalez and Troy Tulowitzki will have to each play about 150 games. Anderson will have to log about 175 innings and make a major contribution. And the Rockies will need some luck.
De La Rosa, fully recovered from June 2011 Tommy John surgery, reached a career high in wins despite dealing with a painful bone bruise on his left thumb in his final 16 starts. The Rockies went 21–9 in his starts. Chacin missed significant time in 2012 but last year set career highs in innings (197.1) and wins (14) with a 3.47 ERA. He has been dealing with shoulder soreness for much of the spring. Chatwood was recalled from Triple-A on April 24 but missed all of August with right elbow inflammation. He found his niche in the rotation, going 8–5 with a 3.15 ERA in 20 starts. Anderson was Oakland’s Opening Day starter last year but has pitched only 163 innings the past three seasons as he dealt with Tommy John surgery, an oblique injury, and last year a stress fracture in his right foot. Juan Nicasio is the leading candidate for the fifth spot. Righties Jonathan Gray and Eddie Butler, the Rockies’ top two prospects, will begin 2014 in Double-A but are expected to be ready for the majors during the season.
Hawkins, 41, will have the opportunity to be the closer but could move back to a setup role if he falters. Brothers, a lefty who filled in for Betancourt, went 19-for-21 in save situations and averaged 10.2 strikeouts per nine innings. But he also averaged 4.8 walks, a reason the Rockies signed Hawkins to a one-year, $2.5 million contract. Logan and Morales give Weiss three capable southpaws in the bullpen. Adam Ottavino advanced from middle relief to the seventh inning. Matt Belisle and Wilton Lopez struggled last year but can be used in shorter bursts with a deeper bullpen.
The Rockies went 9–16 last year when Tulowitzki was out with a broken rib. He led National League shortstops with a .986 fielding percentage and was second in the league with a .931 OPS. Tulowitzki hit 25 home runs last season and has hit at least 24 every season in which he has at least 400 at bats. Second baseman DJ LeMahieu is solid defensively, making only three errors in 90 games at the position, and was third on the team with 18 stolen bases. He’s a reliable contact hitter who has gap power but doesn’t walk much.
Nolan Arenado became the first NL rookie third baseman to win a Gold Glove. He hit 29 doubles and 10 homers with 52 RBIs and should develop more power as he matures. Morneau suffered a concussion in 2010 and another in 2011 but no longer suffers from post-concussion symptoms. He still has some power — 17 homers for Minnesota last year, including nine in August before being traded to Pittsburgh — and should benefit from Coors Field and its spacious gaps. The left-handed-hitting Morneau hit .280 in 403 at-bats against right-handed pitchers and .207 in 169 at-bats against lefties. So right fielder Michael Cuddyer and catcher Wilin Rosario, both right-handed hitters, are options at first base against left-handed pitchers. Rosario has played only five games at the position and needs a lot of work.
Gonzalez, a three-time Gold Glove winner, will move back to center from left field following the trade of Fowler. Gonzalez sprained his right middle finger July 7 and re-aggravated it multiple times, making him a non-factor in the second half after leading the National League prior to the All-Star break in home runs, slugging percentage, extra-base hits and total bases. Gonzalez opted against surgery that might have compromised the flexibility in the finger and reported it felt good when he began swinging a bat lightly in December. Cuddyer, the reigning NL batting champion, likely won’t hit .331 again at age 35, having never hit .300 before last season. But he can be counted upon to produce runs and provide veteran leadership. His range and first-step quickness have declined. Charlie Blackmon and Corey Dickerson, both left-handed hitters, will vie for a portion of the left-field job that is likely to be a platoon with right-handed-hitting Drew Stubbs.
Rosario has a strong arm and improved defensively but is still below average at receiving, blocking and calling a game. His main asset is his power. He led all National League catchers in home runs (19 as a catcher, 21 overall) for the second straight season and overall has improved as a hitter, staying back better on breaking pitches and using the whole field. The Rockies decided that catcher was Jordan Pacheco’s best position after watching him play first and third. His throwing is below average, but the rest of his defense is sound. After a solid rookie season in 2012, Pacheco didn’t drive the ball well last year when he had just 247 at-bats and a .588 OPS.
Stubbs and infielder Josh Rutledge will provide power off the bench as will the left-handed-hitting Dickerson, if he doesn’t platoon in left field. But Morneau, who figures to start sparingly against lefthanders, will give the Rockies a legitimate threat off the bench to change a game in one swing, something they haven’t had since Jason Giambi left after 2012. Rutledge can play second base and shortstop, along with Charlie Culberson, who can also play left field. Rutledge and Stubbs are capable base stealers.
Weiss now has the security of a three-year deal, having shown the requisite leadership, communication, organization and decision-making skills. The Rockies moved quickly in the offseason, making four trades and signing three free agents. Trading Fowler freed up $7.35 million that was put toward the acquisitions of Morneau and Anderson. Trading Drew Pomeranz and a minor-league pitcher for Anderson was a wise alternative to paying considerably more for a mid-level free-agent starting pitcher. Poor drafts from 2006-08 ended up hurting the Rockies, but they have infused better players into the system recently, most notably Gray and Butler, two potential impact starting pitchers.
The Rockies can’t afford to lose Tulowitzki and Gonzalez for extended periods again. If Anderson stays healthy, he should give the rotation four dependable starters, and the bullpen should be better. Their first winning season since 2010 certainly seems possible. And with improved offense from Arenado to go with his magnificent defense and maybe a rejuvenated Morneau, the Rockies might truly surprise and end up playing meaningful games late in the season.
LF Charlie Blackmon (L)
Hit .332 in August and September with 14 doubles, one triple, five homers, 18 RBIs and 29 runs scored.
2B DJ LeMahieu (R)
Fielding percentage was .993 in 90 games at second base with three errors in 442 total chances.
CF Carlos Gonzalez (L)
Limited to 391 at-bats by finger injury but still led team with 26 homers, .591 slugging percentage, .958 OPS.
SS Troy Tulowitzki (R)
Second in NL in slugging (.540) and OPS (.931) and led NL shortstops with .986 fielding percentage.
RF Michael Cuddyer (R)
Hit .372 with five doubles, six HRs, 19 RBIs and 17 runs scored during franchise-record 27-game hitting streak.
1B Justin Morneau (L)
Hit .207 with .247 OBP and .278 slugging with two HRs and 16 RBIs in 169 at-bats against lefties.
C Wilin Rosario (R)
Broke his own franchise record for RBIs by a catcher with 79 after setting record with 71 in 2012.
3B Nolan Arenado (R)
Hit .298 with five HRs and 34 RBIs in 242 at-bats at Coors Field and .238-5-18 in 244 at-bats on the road.
C Jordan Pacheco (R)
Hit .351 (46-for-131) against left-handed pitchers as a rookie in 2012 but just .205 (23-for-112) last year.
OF Drew Stubbs (R)
Career marks include .226 average and .652 OPS against righties, .274 with .796 OPS against lefties.
INF Josh Rutledge (R)
Average fell from .274 in 277 at-bats as a rookie in 2012 to .235 in 285 at-bats in 2013.
OF Corey Dickerson (L)
OPS in 90 at-bats at Coors Field was 1.003 compared to .576 in 104 at-bats on the road.
UT Charlie Culberson (R)
His 20 pinch-hit at-bats were third-most on the Rockies despite not joining the team until July 29.
LH Jorge De La Rosa
Set career marks in wins (16) and ERA (3.49) and Rockies went 21–9 in his starts, winning the final seven.
RH Jhoulys Chacin
Had career highs in wins (14) and innings (197.1), and cut walk rate to 2.8 per nine innings.
LH Brett Anderson
Came back Aug. 28 and made 10 relief appearances after missing four months to stress fracture in foot.
RH Tyler Chatwood
Allowed two or fewer runs in 16 of 20 starts and gave up five home runs in 111.1 innings.
RH Juan Nicasio
Wore down late last season while pitching a career-high 157.2 innings.
RH LaTroy Hawkins (Closer)
Went 13-for-14 in save situations with the Mets when he took over for injured closer Bobby Parnell in August.
LH Rex Brothers
Had 32 consecutive scoreless outings totaling 30 innings from April 10-June 28, dropping his ERA to 0.27.
RH Matt Belisle
Fourth in franchise history with 326 appearances after pitching in at least 70 games for four straight seasons.
LH Boone Logan
Only season in the National League was 2009 with the Braves when he made 20 of his 420 career appearances.
RH Adam Ottavino
Fared better at Coors Field with 2.00 ERA in 45 innings compared with 3.51 ERA in 33.1 innings on the road.
RH Wilton Lopez
In disappointing first season with Rockies, allowed a .305 average and an .803 OPS to right-handed hitters.
LH Franklin Morales
Command has been issue throughout his career with averages of 4.5 walks and 7.7 SO/9IP.
2013 Top Draft Pick
Jonathan Gray, RHP
The Rockies took Gray out of Oklahoma with the third overall pick and signed him for a franchise-record $4.8 million. He had a 4.05 ERA and two walks and 15 strikeouts in 13.1 innings at rookie level Grand Junction, where he was allowed to throw only one slider per batter because he had thrown the pitch excessively at Oklahoma. That restriction was lifted at High-A Modesto, where Gray went 4–0 with an 0.75 ERA and 36 strikeouts in 24 innings. Gray, 22, will have three plus-pitches. He sits at 95-96 mph with his fastball and has hit 102 mph. He has a tight slider and a good feel for a developing changeup. He should begin 2014 at Double-A but could join the Rockies’ rotation during the season.
OF David Dahl (19)
Severe hamstring tear ended his season at Low-A after 10 games and 40 at-bats. The Rockies’ top draft pick I 2012 could open 2014 at High-A.
1B Kyle Parker (24)
Introduced to first base at Double-A last year and played the position exclusively in Arizona Fall League. Could reach majors in 2014 and be starting first basemen in 2015.
LHP Tyler Matzek (23)
Command has improved but is still very inconsistent. Might end up in bullpen after pitching there in Arizona Fall League following a season at Double-A.
LHP Christian Friedrich (26)
Recurrence of stress fracture in lower back ended season at Triple-A on April 21 after four starts.
RHP Eddie Butler (23)
He pitched at three levels last year, finishing at Double-A, and went a combined 9–5 with a 1.80 ERA in 149.2 innings.
SS Rosell Herrera (21)
The switch-hitter was MVP of Low-A South Atlantic League, which he led with .343 average along with 33 doubles and 16 homers.
C Tom Murphy (23)
He jumped from Low-A to Double-A during 2013 and finished with combined .289 average, 22 homers and 83 RBIs in 357 at-bats.
OF Raimel Tapia (20)
He hit safely in 29 straight games and led the Rookie level Pioneer League with .357 average and just 31 strikeouts in 258 at-bats.
RHP Rayan Gonzalez (23)
He compiled a 2.68 ERA and 12 saves in 53.2 innings at Low-A with 21 walks and 70 strikeouts.
SS Trevor Story (21)
He started slow and pressed but went back to using the entire field to finish a humbling season at High-A on a positive note.
3B Ryan McMahon (19)
The 42nd overall pick in the 2013 draft hit .321 and slugged .583 in Rookie ball last summer.
Beyond the Box Score
Road woes The Rockies take two three-city road trips this year, the last ending June 1. That’s in sharp contrast to 2013, when they made five such trips and went 13–35 on them. For the second straight season, Colorado finished with a 29–52 record away from Coors Field. In their 21-year history, the Rockies have had one winning record on the road, going 41–40 in 2009.
Golden Nolan Third baseman Nolan Arenado last year became the sixth Rockies player to win a Gold Glove, joining right fielder Larry Walker (five), outfielder Carlos Gonzalez and first baseman Todd Helton (three each), shortstop Troy Tulowitzki (two) and shortstop Neifi Perez (one). Offensively, Arenado hit .267 with a .301 on-base percentage, .405 slugging percentage, 10 homers and 52 RBIs. While he split those 10 homers evenly between Coors Field and the road, Arenado had a .793 OPS at home and .619 on the road.
Hot start The Rockies began the 2013 season with a record of 13–4, reaching that mark on April 20 with an eight-game winning streak that had been preceded by a five-game winning streak. But beginning April 21, the Rockies went 61–84 the balance of the season.
Outlier Michael Cuddyer, who won the National League batting title with a .331 average, entered 2013 with a career average of .271 and a previous best of .284, which he hit with Minnesota in both 2006 and ’11.
Lefty specialist Boone Logan made a total of 205 appearances the past three seasons with the Yankees, including 80 to lead the AL and tie for the most in the majors in 2012. But Logan, a left-handed specialist, pitched just 136 innings in that three-year span. Logan pitched 39 innings in 61 games last year, including a season-high 1.1 innings five times. The most pitches he threw in a game: 25 while giving up two hits and a walk in two-thirds of an inning July 4 at Minnesota.
Troy story Despite missing 25 games with a broken rib and playing 126 games, shortstop Troy Tulowitzki hit 25 home runs, the fourth time in his career he has hit at least 25 homers in a season. Tulowitzki is just one of six shortstops in major-league history with at least four seasons of 25 home runs or more. The others are Cal Ripken Jr. (eight seasons), Alex Rodriguez and Ernie Banks (seven), Miguel Tejada (six) and Nomar Garciaparra (four).
The Diamondbacks completed two major offseason trades, moves designed to “keep up with the Joneses,” as president/CEO Derrick Hall said at the winter meetings. The addition of proven power bat Mark Trumbo should provide a middle-of-the-order complement to Paul Goldschmidt, whose breakout 2013 season earned him an All-Star berth and a second-place finish in the NL MVP balloting. Closer Addison Reed is expected to firm up a shaky bullpen. With a return to health by some and a return to form by others, the retooled D-backs again could contend in the rugged NL West.
At this time last year, lefthander Patrick Corbin was one of three candidates for the final spot in the D-backs’ starting rotation. How things change. And then change again. Corbin entered the spring as the clear No. 1 this season after blossoming in 2013, winning 14 games and striking out 178. He was one of only nine NL pitchers to work at least 208 innings, and his 9–0 start through June led to his first All-Star team appearance. Then a twinge in his elbow has him sidelined and visiting a doctor named James Andrews, never a good sign for a pitcher. So the best-case scenario has Corbin rehabbing for most of the season. The most likely outcome is Tommy John surgery. Corbin’s teammates will have to step up a notch to fill the void. Righthanders Trevor Cahill and Brandon McCarthy will fill two of the top three spots, in some order, and both are looking to rebound after missing significant injury time a year ago. Cahill was struck in the right hip by a line drive in June and after two more starts was placed on the disabled list. While there, he tweaked his delivery to find a more consistent release point. Cahill’s hard two-seamer moves so much that he is tough to beat when he is commanding the strike zone, and the change seemed to help — he was 5–0 with 2.70 ERA in his last nine appearances. McCarthy missed nine weeks with shoulder inflammation, an issue that impacts him every year. Lefthander Wade Miley has had two consecutive double-digit win seasons and is an ideal fourth starter, keeping his team in most games. But he’ll be asked to be even better this season. Miley and Corbin finished in the top 10 in quality starts in the NL a year ago. Righthander Randall Delgado used the opportunity when Cahill and McCarthy were out to enter the rotation, and his work helped facilitate the trade of Ian Kennedy at the July 31 deadline. Long-time Cincinnati workhorse Bronson Arroyo signed with Arizona over the winter. He was brought in more or less as insurance and to give Delgado and Bradley plenty of time to develop. But now he must fill a key role. Top prospect Archie Bradley could crack the rotation at some point this season. Bradley continues to improve with a mix of a 98 mph fastball with a sharp curve.
Reed had 69 saves for the Chicago White Sox after becoming their closer two months into the 2012 season, and he should stabilize a bullpen hurt by injuries and ineffectiveness. D-backs relievers tied for the major-league lead with 29 failed save conversions and led NL bullpens with 59 home runs allowed in ’13. The D-backs recovered to win about half of the games in which there was a blown save, but the extra innings (and workload) made it more difficult on everyone. Submariner Brad Ziegler, the third pitcher used as closer, rescued the bullpen with 12 saves in the second half last year and was rewarded with a two-year, $10.5 million extension in the offseason. He is expected to return to his primary role as a setup man. Righthanders J.J. Putz and David Hernandez, bullpen horses in the D-backs’ 2011 NL West title run, look to bounce back from injuries (Putz) and ineffectiveness (Hernandez) in setup roles this season. Putz, who opened 2013 as the closer, was effective in the second half when he returned from an elbow strain. Righthander Josh Collmenter has created a niche for himself in long relief, and he was among the best in the game at that. Righthander Will Harris and lefthanders Joe Thatcher and Oliver Perez provide help.
Dual-threat second baseman Aaron Hill missed about 10 weeks after suffering a broken hand two weeks into 2013, and his production was sorely missed. Tentatively scheduled to be the cleanup hitter a year ago, he is a strong candidate to hit there again, between Goldschmidt and Trumbo. He also can hit in the No. 2 hole. Youngsters Didi Gregorius and Chris Owings could work into a platoon at shortstop, since Gregorius bats left-handed and Owings hits right. Owings was the Pacific Coast League MVP at Class AAA Reno in 2013 and has nothing left to prove at that level.
Goldschmidt signed a five-year, $32 million contract extension two days before the 2013 season and then proceeded to outperform it almost immediately. In a monster year, he tied for the NL lead with 36 home runs and led the league in most other production categories, including RBIs (125), slugging percentage, OPS and OPS-plus. He also won a Gold Glove and a Silver Slugger, and he led the D-backs in stolen bases. Martin Prado had a career-best 82 RBIs, and his 14 homers were one short of tying his career high in his first season with the D-backs. He was used at second base, third base and left field in 2013, but third base will be his spot this season unless injuries force a change. Prado is also versatile offensively and will likely hit second or sixth.
New left fielder Trumbo had 29, 32 and 34 home runs in his first three seasons with the Los Angeles Angels, and one veteran scout said he believed 35 dingers were possible in Chase Field, which is more hitter-friendly. Trumbo played mostly first base with the Angels, but he also took turns in left field and right field, and the D-backs believe he will be a competent defender. Gerardo Parra set career highs in six offensive categories, including doubles (43) and homers (10), in his first season as a full-time right fielder, and his arm is as much of a weapon as his bat. Parra led NL outfielders with a career-high 17 assists while winning his second Gold Glove in three seasons, first as a left fielder in 2011. A.J. Pollock, a long-shot to make the roster in 2013 until injuries struck, will play center field after finishing second among NL rookies with 12 stolen bases and 28 doubles last year. He is the best center fielder on the roster, and his breakout season made Adam Eaton expendable in the three-team trade that landed Trumbo. Adjustments will be made when Cody Ross returns from a broken hip, perhaps in May.
Miguel Montero played through lower back pain most of last season, certainly a factor in his least productive season since 2010, another injury-shortened year. At normal levels, Montero is one of the best offensive players in the league at his position, and even with a subpar 2013 has averaged 25 doubles, 15 homers and 72 RBIs the last three seasons. He provides the primary left-handed bat in the Arizona lineup.
Eric Chavez’s return is a big get for the D-backs. Chavez had 44 RBIs in 228 at-bats last season, and only Goldschmidt had a better ratio among regular contributors. Chavez will back up at first base and third base and be the prime left-handed pinch-hitter. Ross is not expected to return from his fractured hip until late April or May, at which point the D-backs will have decisions to make about outfield roles. Ross can play all three outfield positions. Cliff Pennington is an above-average defender at second base and shortstop, adding to the depth provided by Owings and Gregorius. Henry Blanco, whose defensive skills and clubhouse presence stand out, signed a minor-league contract in the offseason and will back up Montero.
Hall and managing partner Ken Kendrick demonstrated their commitment to winning now with their checkbook. With deferred salaries virtually gone and the new FOX-TV money combined with a reworking of several sponsorship arrangements, the D-backs had money to spend, and they spent it. The 2014 payroll will be the highest in team history, exceeding the approximately $102 million spent on the 2002 team in the year after the D-backs’ only World Series victory. GM Kevin Towers again was at his offseason best in landing Trumbo and Reed to fill obvious holes.
The D-backs have made it clear that they expect to compete with the defending division champ and deep-pocketed Los Angeles Dodgers and the every-other-year San Francisco Giants. Towers and manager Kirk Gibson are in the final years of their contracts. Each has two option years, but management needs to see progress for a team that faded down the stretch a year ago.
RF Gerardo Parra (L)
Hit five leadoff homers in his first extended time as a leadoff hitter in 2013.
3B Martin Prado (R)
Hit 14 home runs and had a career-high 82 RBIs in his first season with the D-backs.
1B Paul Goldschmidt (R)
The most productive hitter in the National League last season by virtually any measure.
2B Aaron Hill (R)
With health, his numbers should return to normal levels, deepening this lineup.
LF Mark Trumbo (R)
One scout suggests that 35 homers is not out of the question at Chase Field.
C Miguel Montero (L)
A workhorse, he has caught at least 1,000 innings in each of the last three years.
CF A.J. Pollock (R)
Speedy defender capped a strong rookie season by hitting .369 in his last 28 games.
SS Didi Gregorius (L)
He brings a strong arm and good range into his second season in Arizona.
INF Eric Chavez (L)
Averaged an RBI every 5.2 at-bats, second among the D-backs’ regular contributors.
OF Cody Ross (R)
Gamer remains optimistic that he can return from fractured hip in late April, early May.
C Henry Blanco (R)
Solid defender and steadying presence on the 2011 team returns to add skill and savvy.
INF Cliff Pennington (S)
A solid defender who can rise to the occasion, as his two walk-off hits in ‘13 suggest.
SS Chris Owings (R)
Earned 2013 Pacific Coast League MVP honors by hitting .330 with 31 doubles, 81 RBIs.
UT Matt Tuiasosopo (R)
The slugger appeared in 81 games for the Tigers last season and hit seven homers in 164 at-bats. He’ll provide some right-handed pop, at least until Ross is deemed fit.
LH Wade Miley
Over the final four months of 2013, the 2008 first-round pick was 7–5 with a 2.87 ERA.
RH Trevor Cahill
A midseason delivery adjustment seemed to take, boding well for the future for the former 18-game winner.
RH Brandon McCarthy
Looking to rebound from a career-high 11 losses in his first season with the D-backs.
RH Randall Delgado
Given opportunity, had career highs in wins (five), starts (19) and innings (116.1).
RH Bronson Arroyo
Made at least 32 starts each year for the past nine seasons, but carried a 4.10 ERA during that time.
RH Addison Reed (Closer)
Has 69 saves since becoming the White Sox’s full-time closer two months into 2012.
RH J.J. Putz
After recovering from elbow strain, held opponents scoreless in 22 of his final 24 appearances.
RH David Hernandez
His 241 strikeouts are sixth among National League relievers the last three seasons.
RH Brad Ziegler
Submariner leads major-league relievers by inducing 81 double-play grounders since 2008.
RH Josh Collmenter
His over-the-top “tomahawk” style is unorthodox, but the results scream effective.
LH Joe Thatcher
He has allowed 16 percent of inherited runners to score, fifth in the majors since 2009.
RH Will Harris
With a low 90s fastball and big-breaking curve, another bullpen find by general manager Kevin Towers.
LH Oliver Perez
The veteran appeared in 61 games for Seattle last season with 74 strikeouts in 53 innings.
2013 Top Draft Pick
Braden Shipley, RHP
Shipley needed a few outings to settle in at short-season Class A Hillsboro after being chosen from Nevada with the 15th pick of the first round of the draft, but he hit his stride shortly thereafter and did his best work after a late-season promotion to Class A South Bend for the playoff drive. Shipley gave up two earned runs or less in each of his four regular-season starts at South Bend to help the Silver Hawks into the playoffs, and he followed that with even better work, giving up only two earned runs in 13.2 innings in two playoff starts. Shipley is a converted shortstop who has only been pitching full-time since his junior year in high school, and because of that the D-backs see plenty of upside. His stuff is that of a top-of-the-rotation starter — he touches 97 mph with his fastball and uses a changeup as a second pitch.
C/OF Stryker Trahan (19)
After honing his catching skills in extended spring training in 2013, Trahan had 10 homers and 33 RBIs in 59 games at Class A Missoula.
RHP Archie Bradley (21)
The D-backs’ other 2011 first-round pick will bring his 98 mph fastball into competition for a rotation spot this spring.
RHP Matt Stites (23)
A bullpen component who was obtained in the Ian Kennedy trade; his fastball tops out in the high 90s.
RHP Jake Barrett (22)
A reliever who touches the high 90s; had a 1.21 ERA and 29 saves at two 2013 minor league stops.
3B Jake Lamb (23)
Showed good pop — 20 doubles, 13 home runs, 47 RBIs — in a 2013 season cut in half by injuries.
3B Brandon Drury (21)
Led the minor leagues with 51 doubles at Class A South Bend in 2013 after coming over in Justin Upton/Chris Johnson trade.
SS Chris Owings (22)
Did not appear overmatched at all in his 20-game audition last summer.
RHP Aaron Blair (21)
The 36th pick in the 2013 draft made 11 starts with seven no-decisions last season in the minors.
RHP Jose Martinez (19)
Made 10 starts in the Northwest League last summer. The good news is that he allowed just 20 hits in 38 innings. The bad news is that he walked 25.
Beyond the Box Score
Bad blood After the Los Angeles Dodgers clinched the NL West crown in Arizona on Sept. 20, a host of Dodgers moved their celebration from the visiting clubhouse to the Chase Field swimming pool, just beyond the right-center field fence. An unnamed Dodger admitted to relieving himself in the pool. Initially unfazed, D-backs righthander Brandon McCarthy spoke for many in the clubhouse when he said: “My presumption was that if it was just based on having fun and celebrating, that’s one thing. If you have some people going out of their way to be a**holes, that’s a whole ’nother thing. If it is something where you are going out to be disrespectful, then that is kind of a simple ‘grow up.’”
Inspiration Ben Petrick was not looking to get back into baseball, but when the D-backs moved into his Hillsboro, Ore., neighborhood and player personnel director Mike Bell came calling, Petrick found himself enjoying his role as a special assistant, basically a “life coach” for the D-backs’ first-year players. A storied high school athlete in Oregon and a five-year major leaguer, Petrick had his career curtailed by early-onset Parkinson’s, a journey chronicled in his autobiography, “40,000 to One.” D-backs No. 1 draft choice Braden Shipley, who started his pro career in Hillsboro last June, called Petrick “one of the greatest guys I’ve ever met. What I respect is how positive he is. That to me is inspiring. That shows me I don’t have it rough.”
Hip check Cody Ross is known as a baseball rat, willing and able to do all the dirty work required to excel. He is now a guinea pig. Ross suffered a fractured bone on the back of his right hip when his spike caught in the dirt as he approached first base on Aug. 11, and the injury is believed to be the first of its kind in baseball.
Man of his word A day after Mark Trumbo was traded to the D-backs on Dec. 10, he still made it a priority to attend the Los Angeles Angels’ annual children’s holiday party in Downtown Disney, an event he began attending while he was in the Angels’ minor-league system. He wore a plaid shirt instead of his uniform jersey, but the kids did not seem to mind as Trumbo read Christmas stories, signed autographs and traded high-fives.
Some of the best storylines in the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament will be settled in the final day before the Sweet 16.
Wichita State’s first game of the season against a national power will be a big one as the Shockers face the preseason No. 1 team in Kentucky.
Mercer took out Duke on Friday and gets to face a No. 11 see for a chance to reach the second weekend. But that No. 11 seed happens to be one of the most impressive statistical teams in the country. Mercer isn’t alone among small schools trying to reach the Sweet 16 when Stephen F. Austin faces UCLA.
Injuries, though, also will be a key factor in the day as Kansas tries to advance despite the absence of Joel Embiid. Meanwhile, Iowa State will need to recalibrate in a major way with a tournament-ending foot injury to Georges Niang.
NCAA Tournament Sunday Viewer’s Guide
All times Eastern
No. 2 Kansas vs. No. 10 Stanford
TV: 12:15 p.m., CBS
Site: St. Louis
Announcers: Jim Nantz, Greg Anthony
Kansas weathered the absence of Joel Embiid in the round of 64 game against Eastern Kentucky, but it wasn’t easy. The Jayhawks didn’t begin to pull away until the final seven minutes. KU won 80-69 thanks in part to major contributions from role players — guard Conner Frankamp scored 10 points and forwards Tarik Black and Jamari Traylor combined for 29 points and 19 rebounds.
No. 1 Wichita State vs. No. 8 Kentucky
TV: 2:45 p.m., CBS
Site: St. Louis
Announcers: Jim Nantz, Greg Anthony
On Selection Sunday, this was one of the top potential matchups of the first weekend ... provided Kentucky could make it past Kansas State. Kentucky handled K-State, and now the Wildcats draw the 35-0 Shockers. Wichita State gets its shot against a traditional power program and one filled with plenty of pro talent, even if Kentucky underachieved this season. The Wildcats have been more efficient in the defensive end in the postseason, but Wichita State point guard Fred VanVleet is one of the best floor generals in the country.
No. 3 Iowa State vs. No. 6 North Carolina
Site: San Antonio
Announcers: Marv Albert, Steve Kerr
Iowa State’s Final Four chances took a major hit when one of the Cyclones’ top three players was lost for the remainder of the tournament with a broken foot. Sophomore forward Georges Niang gave Iowa State versatility with his ability to play around the basket and shoot from the perimeter, leading Iowa State in overall shots from the field and 3-point attempts. Fred Hoiberg is one of the nation’s top offensive coaches, but he’ll have to adjust on the fly. North Carolina struggled in the defensive end against Providence, winning the game thanks to 17 offensive rebounds and 26 second chance points.
No. 11 Tennessee vs. No. 14 Mercer
TV: 6:10 p.m., TNT
Site: Raleigh, N.C.
Announcers: Kevin Harlan, Len Elmore and Reggie Miller
The stakes are quite different from the last time these two teams met in an NIT game in Knoxville after last season. Mercer won that meeting 75-67. The Bears are trying to become the second Atlantic Sun team to reach the Sweet 16 in the last two seasons, joining Florida Gulf Coast. Tennessee is looking to prove its own point. The Volunteers were a top-20 team according to Ken Pomeroy’s analytics, but Tennessee was an up-and-down team all season. With two wins in this Tournament already (UT beat Iowa in the First Four), Tennessee is performing closer to the analytics than its checkered regular season resume.
No. 4 UCLA vs. No. 12 Stephen F. Austin
TV: 7:10 p.m, TBS
Site: San Diego
Announcers: Andrew Catalon, Mike Gminski
A coach who has struggled to defeat underdogs in the NCAA Tournament now faces the hottest mid-major in the country. Defensive-minded Stephen F. Austin defeated VCU in overtime despite losing the turnover battle (VCU turned the ball over 17 times, SFA lost the ball 11 times). The Lumberjacks won instead by 60 percent inside the 3-point line. Stephen F. Austin will try to carry that over against UCLA team that ranked 133th in 2-point defense.
No. 3 Creighton vs. No. 6 Baylor
TV: 7:45 p.m., truTV
Site: San Antonio
Announcers: Marv Albert, Steve Kerr
This matchup has the potential to be the best offensive showcase of the first weekend. Both Baylor and Creighton rank in the top 10 nationally in offensive efficiency, and neither are known as defensive stalwarts. Creighton has stalled in this round in both NCAA trips during the Greg/Doug McDermott era, but both times, Creighton was the lower-seeded team against Duke in 2013 and North Carolina in 2012.
No. 1 Virginia vs. No. 8 Memphis
TV: 8:40 p.m., TNT
Site: Raleigh, N.C.
Announcers: Kevin Harlan, Len Elmore and Reggie Miller
Virginia trailed by 5 at the half against No. 16 seed Coastal Carolina in the round of 64, in part because the Chanticleers shot 9 of 19 from 3-point range. Virginia won 70-59, but the early stumbles set up an intriguing game against Memphis. The Cavaliers play stingy defense by forcing opponents to work deep into the shot clock, but Memphis likes to score in transition.
No. 1 Arizona vs. No. 8 Gonzaga
TV: 9:40 p.m., TBS
Site: San Diego
Announcers: Andrew Catalon, Mike Gminski
While the main storyline Friday was how dangerous a No. 9 seed Oklahoma State would be, Gonzaga snuck in and defeated the Cowboys 85-77. Maybe flying under the radar is a good thing for the Bulldogs, which earned a No. 1 seed last season before losing in the round of 32. Arizona leads the nation in defensive efficiency on KenPom, but Gonzaga may have the inside-outside balance to cause problems.
Jordan Sibert and Dayton had more to conquer that defeating Ohio State.
After a nail-biting finish, Dayton defeated Syracuse 55-53 to reach the Sweet 16 for the first time since 1984.
A bubble team entering the Atlantic 10 Tournament, 11th-seeded Dayton took its biggest win of the season down to the wire, giving Syracuse several opportunities to tie or take a lead late.
Sibert, an Ohio State transfer, had the dagger 3-pointer, but a few possessions later, he stepped out of bounds under pressure in the baseline corner after an in bounds pass. Dayton also went 10 of 18 from the free throw line.
Down by 1, Syracuse’s Tyler Ennis missed the long 2-point jumper with 11 seconds left. After Dayton made 1 of 2 free throws, Ennis’ final 3-point attempt bounced off the rim as Dayton sealed its win.
The loss ends a dismal final five weeks of the season for Syracuse. The Orange started 25-0 but lost six of their final nine games, including losses to Boston College, Georgia Tech, NC State and now Dayton.
Syracuse’s struggles on offense persisted until the end of the season. The Orange went 0 for 10 from 3-point range in their final game of the season.
Louisville handled the best shot from a coach who knew what the Cardinals were going to do before they did it. In the next game, Louisville handed the champions of the Atlantic 10, a league with six NCAA bids, its worst loss of the season.
Louisville had one of the most stifling defensive performances of the NCAA Tournament so far, holding Saint Louis to 16 points in the first half and 0 of 15 from 3-point range.
Then why does Rick Pitino seem so frustrated?
That defensive performance wasn’t enough. His star player is still struggling to adjust to how opponents guard him. His team is too turnover happy.
“The past three years have been one of the more wonderful experiences of my life in terms of the quality young men I'm coaching, but this is a difficult team to coach, very difficult.”
Louisville will head into the Sweet 16, a stage of the NCAA Tournament where Pitino is 11-0, with a handful of questions exposed by the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament.
“The past three years have been one of the more wonderful experiences of my life in terms of the quality young men I'm coaching, but this is a difficult team to coach, very difficult.”
-Louisville coach Rick Pitino
Russ Smith also had his moments, but the tug of war between Louisville’s star player and the Cardinals’ coach has resurfaced at the worst time.
“Russ Smith has grown so much as a basketball player, but he still has one thing left,” Pitino said. “I tried to explain this to him at halftime, but he has a very difficult time. He's a distracted young man, understanding this. ...
“He doesn't understand the scouting of the other teams. He's all Michael (Jordan), all Kobe (Bryant). But he doesn't get that those guys in the other locker room are a lot smarter than me. He doesn't get it."
Smith shot 6 of 19 from the field and turned the ball over 16 times during the weekend. Louisville’s 31 team turnovers in two games kept Manhattan and Saint Louis in striking distance.
The concerns didn’t end with the Cardinals enigmatic guard. Louisville shot 36 percent from the field against Manhattan, including a mere 38 percent from 2-point range. The ratios were better against Saint Louis, but turnovers meant Louisville averaged less that a point per possession for the first time since a March 1 loss to Memphis.
“Every team can play defense at this stage,” Pitino said. “So you've got to have great offense to win, and you've got to really execute and make free throws, do smart things.”
For a team that entered the NCAA Tournament with legitimate aspirations of repeating as national champions, those are major concerns.
If Thursday brought chaos, Saturday is the aftermath.
The first full day of the NCAA Tournament brought four overtime games, three double-digit seeds advancing and two title teams in trouble.
Saturday is what’s left, starting with a Florida team that stumbled through a win against Albany and then a Louisville team that survived Manhattan.
In the later games, a trio of mid-majors will try to reach the second weekend of the Tournament as Dayton, North Dakota State and Harvard continue to embrace their underdog roles.
Here’s your guide through the round of 32 with most of the action taking place in the evening.
NCAA Tournament Saturday Viewer’s Guide
All times Eastern.
No. 3 Syracuse vs. No. 11 Dayton
TV: 7 p.m., TBS
Announcers: Verne Lundquist, Bill Raftery
Dayton did not need a great offensive performance to defeat Ohio State, averaging 0.91 points per possession and shooting 23 percent from 3. The same might not be true against Syracuse. The Orange closed the season with a host of problems scoring, but Syracuse in the round of 64 against Western Michigan had its best offensive game in terms of efficiency since the Feb. 1 win over Duke. A big reason: Trevor Cooney found his outside shot (4 of 8 from 3-point range).
No. 2 Wisconsin vs. No. 7 Oregon
TV: 7:30 p.m., CBS
Announcers: Ian Eagle, Jim Spanarkel
Two of the more streaky regular seasons meet in Milwaukee for a chance to go to the Sweet 16. Oregon started 13-0, dropped eight of 11 and is now riding a 9-1 streak. Wisconsin started 16-0, lost five of six and finished 10-2. Oregon was the most efficient offensive teams in the Pac-12, but slumped because it couldn’t defend. This season’s Wisconsin team is not the typical Bo Ryan team — the balance and athleticism for the Badgers will cause Oregon problems.
No. 4 Michigan State vs. No. 12 Harvard
TV: 8:30 p.m., TNT
Site: Spokane, Wash.
Announcers: Spero Dedes, Doug Gottlieb
Michigan State is surging, no doubt. Big man Adreian Payne is coming off the best scoring performance in the NCAA Tournament in a decade by scoring 41 points against Delaware. Harvard, though, is chasing its own history. The Crimson are seeking to become only the second Ivy League team to reach the Sweet 16 since Penn went to the Final Four in 1989.
No. 1 Villanova vs. No. 7 Connecticut
TV: 9:30 p.m., TBS
Announcers: Verne Lundquist, Bill Raftery
The Big East has been reconfigured for less than a year, and already we’re getting some nostalgia for the old league. The game will be guard heavy with Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright facing Villanova’s big guards James Bell and Darrun Hilliard.
Dunk City may have only been an appetizer.
The same league that sent Florida Gulf Coast to the NCAA Tournament last year also provided the biggest upset so far when 14th-seeded Mercer took out Duke in the round of 64.
Mercer joined Lehigh, VCU and Eastern Michigan as the only teams in the last 20 years to hand Duke a one-and-done exit from the NCAA Tournament with a 78-71 win in the round of 64 Thursday.
The Bears, though, are not a fluke. Mercer has won back-to-back Atlantic Sun championships and won 78 games the last three seasons. Though the Bears haven’t been able to get to the Tournament until 2014, they have been a dangerous team to programs from major programs, including wins over Ole Miss, Seton Hall, Tennessee, Alabama, Florida State and Georgia Tech in the last three seasons.
None of which compares to Duke, so now, Mercer dances.
The best part of Kevin Canevari’s dance? He’s a senior who has averaged a point per game in his career. He attempted one shot against Duke.
Now, he’s the face of Mercer’s upset. And he’s not the only one excited.
After the upset, Florida Gulf Coast and Lehigh, the No. 15 seed that defeated Duke two years ago, welcomed Mercer to the club of Cinderellas.
Well played, @MercerMBB.— FGCU Men's Hoops (@FGCU_MBB) March 21, 2014
Although Mike Krzyzewski’s team endured one of the biggest flops of the postseason — star wings Rodney Hood and Jabari Parker combined to go 6 of 24 from the field and the Duke defense fell apart — the Blue Devils coach offered his own congratulations.
Mercer locker room stunned into silence as Coach K pops in and congratulates them. "We had to be beaten." Mercer player: "Oh. My. God."— Brian McNally (@bmcnally14) March 21, 2014
Watching Dustin Johnson hit soaring drives is like watching Picasso paint. It’s what he was born to do, an act of effortless genius. And now, the rest of his game — including the part that resides between the ears — seems to be catching up with Johnson’s prodigious talents off the tee.
Johnson is building an enviable resume. He enters the meat of the 2013-14 schedule as the PGA Tour’s biggest winner still in his 20s, a distinction he’ll hold until his 30th birthday on June 22. With eight career wins, the Columbia, S.C., native is one of only three players under the age of 30 with four or more PGA Tour wins; Rory McIlroy (six) and Webb Simpson (four) are the others. Johnson now has at least one PGA Tour victory in seven consecutive seasons (2008-current); only Phil Mickelson (10 consecutive years) has a longer active streak. (Tiger Woods had a 14-year winning streak from 1996-2009.) Johnson is the first player since Tiger (1996-2002) to win in his first seven consecutive seasons straight out of college (2008-current).
Johnson plans to fill the one remaining gap in his career ledger — a major championship — very soon. Athlon sat down with the Tour’s top power hitter to talk majors, Cups (Ryder and FedEx) and playing golf with The Great One.
You’re known as one of the real athletes on Tour. What role does athleticism play in the game today?
For me, I think golf is becoming more athletic. If you see the generations coming out now, both my generation and all the younger guys who are coming out, they’re all tall and big and strong. The breed of golfer now is just a lot bigger and stronger. Golf has definitely become a lot cooler for high school athletes to take up. Over the last 15-20 years, even the last five years, golf has become a cool sport to play.
Did Tiger play the key role in that?
For sure. There’s not one golfer who can’t thank Tiger for everything he’s done. He’s really made the game popular, and he’s made the game cool to play.
Clearly, the next step in your career is winning a major. You’ve had some painful near-misses. Have those left any scar tissue, or will you be better prepared for the moment next time?
When you fail, or something doesn’t go right, you learn a lot more about yourself than when it does go right. You always learn more from your mistakes. Those situations have helped me in my career. Majors are tough, and if you’re not spot-on, you’re not going to play very well. You’ve got to put four good rounds together. In China (at the WGC-HSBC in November) was one of the first times I played good four days. Got off to a bad start the first day, but turned it around and played really well the rest of the way, and then played really good on Friday and Saturday. I made a couple mistakes on Saturday, but played really good golf. And then on Sunday, I got off to a bad start, but then played exceptionally well after that. It was really the first time where I felt like I played well the whole time.
So you know what it takes now for a major.
Right. To win a major, you’ve got to do that. You’ve got to play four good days of golf.
You’d take any of them, but is there one major you’d value over the others?
For me, it’ll always be Augusta. I grew up an hour away from there. As a little kid on the putting green, it was never putts to win the U.S. Open. Living so close to Augusta, it was always putting on the putting green to win The Masters.
Do you feel like The Masters sets up well for your game?
I think it does. I like putting on fast greens, and the greens at Augusta are always fast. It’s a big golf course, and you have to drive it well there. It’s crucial to control your distance. It’s one of those courses, the more you play it, the more you learn. You learn something new every time you play at Augusta. There are just certain spots you cannot hit it. I think it definitely sets up well for me. I definitely think I’ll contend there.
It’s a Ryder Cup year, and the Ryder Cup obviously means a lot to you.
It’s just so different than what we’re used to, and so much fun. We enjoy everything about it — the dinners, the camaraderie, the team room. For me, being on the last two Ryder Cup teams, we lost both of them, and I did play well in the last one — I was 3–0 — but it’s a team event. It doesn’t matter how well I played, the team has to play well. I could have gone 5–0, and it doesn’t matter, and we lost. It sucks, especially going into singles with the lead we had. You can ask anybody who was on that team — it still stings.
Is the pressure a different kind of pressure?
It’s a completely different kind of pressure. But it’s so much fun. You’ve got your whole country rooting for you. It’s really a cool feeling. It’s really intense. You can’t describe it.
You called the WGC-HSBC in November 2013 the biggest win of your career thus far. The leaderboard on Sunday at the HSBC was basically you and half the European Ryder Cup team. It had to feel pretty good to stand up to those guys.
In that moment, I wasn’t really thinking about that, but obviously, I could see the leaderboard, and every player that was on it was a top-25 golfer in the world. It was a who’s who of a leaderboard on Sunday. For me to play that well coming down the stretch to win was very important to me, very important for my confidence, just to know and believe in myself that I can do that. It’s special.
That day, you got off to kind of a slow start while the guys you were playing with (Ian Poulter and Graeme McDowell) were on fire out of the chute, erasing your three-shot lead.
At that moment, there’s all kinds of thoughts going through your head. "Oh, no. Am I really going to do this?" I’m like, alright, we’re starting over. It’s Sunday, I’m one back and have 14 holes to play. Let’s see how good I can play. Let’s show these guys how good I am. I had to change my mindset.
Any opinion on the Brandel Chamblee-Tiger Woods controversy?
Honestly, I haven’t even seen it (Chamblee’s article insinuating that Woods was guilty of cheating in his brushes with the Rules of Golf in 2013). I’ve heard from guys what happened, but I don’t really pay attention.
Do guys care what analysts say about them?
It obviously depends on the person. I don’t watch the Golf Channel. It doesn’t bother me. People are entitled to their own opinion, I’ve got mine, they’ve got theirs. My opinion matters more than theirs.
How important is the FedExCup?
It’s really important. There’s 10 million reasons why it’s important. I think the first year, it’s like anything, guys were like, what is this? But now I think everyone really likes it. They’ve got it to a system that works. I think it’s great for the PGA Tour and the game of golf. You get a lot more interest, and you’re starting to see a lot more of the top Europeans playing the U.S. Tour because they want to play the FedExCup.
That brings up the global nature of the game. Do you anticipate playing more overseas?
That’s hard to say. I’m playing more overseas than I used to. My first few years out, I don’t think I played overseas at all, but the game’s definitely gotten more global. I definitely will be playing overseas, but you can only play so much. A few times a year.
When you really cut loose, how far can you hit a drive?
When I’m on the launch monitor, when I’m swinging really hard, which I never do on a golf course, I can get one 330-335 in the air. A normal swing when I’m on the golf course, it’s going to fly maybe 300. Anywhere between 290 and 300. Obviously, I can step it up once in a while and maybe fly one 310. But I never like swinging with that mindset. I don’t want to hit it hard. Maybe when I’m on the driving range and just goofing around I’ll smash ‘em sometimes for fun. But on a golf course, I might swing 85 to 90 percent at the highest.
Other than the driver, what’s your favorite club in the bag?
That’s a tough one. I like all my clubs. When I was growing up, you’d have a club like a 7-iron, or a 9-iron, that you hit better, where even if it was an 8-iron shot, I’d hit 7, or if it was a 6-iron, I’d hammer a 7 because I liked it. But now, there’s not one club I like more. My putter, maybe my 60 degree, my 3-wood. But I like them all. TaylorMade does a great job. I’ve got zero complaints. They’ve been very good to me, and they make the best equipment. I only need 10 or 11 clubs, I don’t need to play 13, but I have 13 of them. Every one of my professional wins has come with the same putter (a Scotty Cameron for Titleist Newport 2 Prototype). Every once in a while it’s got to sit in time-out, though (laughs). I bring out that white TaylorMade to get its attention and let it know who’s boss.
You played college golf at Coastal Carolina, not a traditional golf powerhouse. What role did that experience with coach Allen Terrell have in making you the player you are?
When I was looking at colleges, I remember it was the first week of summer, and I was going to the beach, and I passed by Coastal Carolina. I thought, that looks like it would be a fun school to go to. I called up the coach and sent him a resume. He called me back the next day and said, “Can we meet?” I went and met him. It was definitely a lifestyle change, but Coach Terrell has played a big part in my success, as a person and as a golfer. I don’t know what we were ranked my freshman year, but it wasn’t very good, maybe 100. Then I think by the end of my freshman year we were maybe in the 70s, then my sophomore year we got into the top 25, and my junior and senior year were top 10. So we became a powerhouse. He was really disciplined. Obviously, I tried to bend the rules as much as possible, so the whole time I was in school, we knocked heads. But I understood. It was what I needed — someone that wouldn’t put up with the BS. He helped me tremendously. Going to Coastal was the best thing I ever did — the best decision I ever made.
What first got you interested in the game?
My dad was a head pro at a golf course when I was little. Me and my brother would go to the golf course with him. Especially in the summer, we’d go every day. We had a swimming pool there, so we’d go play 18 holes, go to the pool, then go back out and play 18 more. Since my brother played too, it was fun for us to play together. Also, there was a driving range right by my house that my dad’s buddy owned. I’d be there until 10 o’clock at night.
Have you gotten Paulina (fiancée Paulina Gretzky) interested in golf?
No. She’ll go hit a ball or two every once in a while, but it’s not her thing.
Your future father-in-law (hockey legend Wayne Gretzky) can play, though.
Yeah, he’s a pretty good stick. He can shoot 74, or he can shoot 85. We’ve played a lot of golf together. He’s got game, for sure, and he’s fun to play with. We have a good time.
You’re joining the family of somebody who’s considered the greatest ever to play his sport. Is that inspiring? Intimidating? Does he still have the "Great One" aura?
Yeah, he does. I think just being around him and seeing how he handles everything and how he conducts himself and the way he treats people. He’s the greatest hockey player to ever play, and he probably will always be. Just to see the way he carries himself, and how nice he is to people. It takes a special person to be that way, and he does it better than anyone I’ve ever seen. He couldn’t be a nicer, more down-to-earth guy. When I’m out there we go play golf almost every day, and we’ll go the club and have a beer. It’s just fun.
Goals for 2014?
Definitely be more consistent. Contend more. I just want in 2014 to try to get better each week. Just put myself in position to try to win on Sundays. The more times you do that, the more you win. I need to contend in the majors, too. The majors are definitely something I’m looking forward to in 2014.
You’re known for your skills on the basketball court. If you were picking the Tour basketball team, who are some of the other athletes out there?
I’d have Gary Woodland on my team. Probably Kooch (Matt Kuchar). Me. We’re going tall; Gary can run point. There are just so many guys coming out now who are athletic and can play other sports. Keegan (Bradley) is pretty athletic. Even Sergio (Garcia) — you know, Sergio doesn’t play basketball, but he’s a really good soccer player and loves to play. It’s just a different breed of golfers today. Keegan can shoot a little bit. I don’t get to play that much any more. Ever since I had my knee surgery, I’ve stayed off the court. I love it, and I want to play, and I’ll go shoot around some. I used to play pick-up games, but I just don’t do it anymore.
How do guys typically unwind and recreate?
It depends on the person. For me, I like going on the boat, whether I’m going fishing or just going out and having a beer, cruising around and listening to music. That’s something I really enjoy doing. On Saturdays and Sundays, watching football.
Looking way ahead, 20 years from now, what kind of career numbers would you want to look back at and say, I’ve had the kind of career I envisioned?
I’ve never really thought about it. I want to look back and know that I helped grow the game of golf and had a career that people respect. One of my ultimate goals is to get to that 20-win mark. Once you get there, then you can look past that, but right now, getting there means you’re a lifetime member, and it does a lot of things for you. If I do get there, once I get there, then I’ll re-evaluate.
Each week, Geoffrey Miller’s “Five Things to Watch” will help you catch up on the biggest stories of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series’ upcoming race weekend. This week, Denny Hamlin’s return to Fontana, a sport’s continued — and inexplicable — lack of SAFER Barriers, Auto Club Speedway’s surprising raciness and Jimmie Johnson’s SoCal dominance highlight the major topics leading us into Sunday’s 400-mile race at Auto Club Speedway.
1. Hamlin returns to scene of 2013 accident
Denny Hamlin has only made four starts in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series since his latest win, and he’s coming off a weekend at Bristol that included a pole position and a sixth-place finish. He’s nabbed two top-10 finishes so far in 2014 and ranks seventh in the point standings. A year ago at this point — before the season’s fifth race at Auto Club Speedway — he was 10th in the standings.
For as much that looks the same for Hamlin, so much from the past year is so different.
Hamlin suffered significant back injuries in a last lap crash a year ago at ACS — injuries that knocked him out of four races and most of a fifth. A valiant attempt to get back into Chase contention quickly faded, and Hamlin soon went into obscurity as his finishes grew increasingly more disappointing. He won at Homestead-Miami Speedway to close the year 23rd in points.
His story will undoubtedly be the focus of the weekend and Hamlin likely has retribution in mind. Winning, though, won’t be the cure to it all. Hamlin basically lost a season of his career at his prime, and it’s forever valid to wonder if a driver is ever the same — physically or mentally — after a serious crash.
2. NASCAR remains too slow to SAFER response
Hamlin’s crash was a violent one at a horrible angle. He slid off the track at corner exit of Turn 4 and caught a perpendicular wall head-on in a brutal impact. The worst part? The wall — a poorly designed one, at best — wasn’t protected by the tried-and-true SAFER Barrier system used in so many other areas of today’s racetracks.
That fact undoubtedly contributed to the severity of Hamlin’s crash and resulting injuries.
The wall, according to track officials, is now covered by the SAFER system for this weekend’s on-track activities. Obviously that’s the right move. But is it enough?
The California track still has entire swaths of the frontstretch and backstretch outside walls unprotected. Other tracks, too, share similar gaps in safety all because NASCAR remains apathetic about the issue despite numerous examples of race cars hitting those dangerous barriers.
Hamlin being able to hit a solid concrete barrier was simply unacceptable. A year later, it’s unacceptable that a universal approach from NASCAR to wall safety doesn’t even seem to be on the horizon.
3. Will Sunday continue the vindication of California track’s racing prowess?
One the most loathed track on the season schedule — both for the snoozer shows of racing and its unfortunate role as the original substitute for NASCAR’s absent-minded removal of the Labor Day weekend Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway — Auto Club Speedway surprised an entire industry last season with an unexpected gem.
The racing was a welcome respite from years of single-file racing with limited passing. Drivers instead showed new abilities to roam the whole track and saw greater tire wear that substantially affected handling during the course of a run.
The last lap — despite Hamlin’s resulting injury — was a terrific battle between Hamlin and Joey Logano and the perfect on-track escalation of a simmering feud. Kyle Busch then surprised everyone by slipping by for the win.
The change is largely due to Auto Club Speedway not having to replace the track surface some 17 years after opening. It’s finally reached the perfect age where it’s abrasive and virtually the same speed in every lane. As a result, car handling is a forever moving target — forcing drivers to manage tires and seek new lines as a run progresses.
We can only hope to see more on Sunday.
4. Track surface could make for interesting qualifying session
Sprint Cup teams hit the track Friday at 4:30 p.m. local time (7:30 p.m. ET) for the three-round qualifying session to set the field for Sunday’s race. The previously-mentioned abrasiveness of ACS’ surface could lead to some varied strategies, ranging from boring to exciting.
Tire falloff is nearly immediate now at the track, meaning every lap a driver runs will typically get slower than the prior. By rule, teams get just one set of tires for use during the entirety of the qualifying session.
The result could be two rounds largely void of drama as teams who get a top lap in on their first go opt to stand on that time, believing it’s the best they could do and hoping to save rubber for the last run. However, the teams that make it in to the final round may have their hands full with worn tires — leading to lots of late action as drivers slip and slide around the two-mile oval in search of speed.
Frontstretch Foto Funnies: Maybe that was a Bad Idea …
5. Jimmie Johnson seeks return to California dominance
Native Californian Jimmie Johnson is six races removed from his last race win in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series — hardly a streak worth worrying about. Johnson, however, may be a bit anxious about his recent runs at ACS.
It is his home track, after all.
It’s not that Johnson’s finishes have been particularly bad in Fontana, it’s just that Johnson simply hasn’t been as dominant. The No. 48 has finished 10th and 12th in his last two starts, leading just two laps in the process. Those finishes stand out because Johnson finished worse than third just once (ninth, 2009) in eight consecutive races at ACS from 2007 to 2011. He nabbed a .500 winning average in that span with four victories.
Johnson leads nearly every statistical category available in NASCAR’s loop data at the track. He has the best average running position, best average start, best average finish, best average mid-race running position, the most fastest laps, most laps led, highest driver rating and the highest percentage of quality passes. He only trails in passing categories because, well, when you race up front, you don’t pass a whole lot.
Johnson will try for his sixth win in his 20th ACS start on Sunday.
They’re the cream of the major championship crop, circa 2014 — 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. 17: Steve Stricker
Born: Feb. 23, 1967, Edgerton, Wis. | Career PGA Tour Wins: 12 | 2013 Wins (Worldwide): 1 | 2013 Earnings (PGA Tour): $4,440,532 (7th) | World Ranking: 14
Brandel Chamblee's Take
Steve Stricker played the best golf of his life in 2013, yet he didn't win a PGA Tour event and played in only 13 events, stating early in the year that he was going to be semi-retired from now on. In those 13 events, he had eight top 10s, led the tour in scoring average, finished third in driving accuracy, second in greens in regulation, second in strokes gained-putting and was second in scrambling. If I knew how much and where he was going to play, I would put him near the top of this list. He hasn't had a top-five finish in a major since 1999, but it looks like Steve is better late than ever.
Major Championship Résumé
Masters - T20
U.S. Open - T8
British Open - DNP
PGA Championship - T12
Best Career Finishes:
Masters - T6 (2009)
U.S. Open - 5/T5 (1998, 1999)
British Open - T7 (2008)
PGA Championship - 2 (1998)
Top-10 Finishes: 11
Top-25 Finishes: 28
Missed Cuts: 14
Athlon's 2014 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, Dustin Johnson, also takes you tee to green with full-swing instruction and short game essentials. BUY IT NOW.
Last fall in the visiting clubhouse at Fenway Park, as jubilation swirled outside, the Cardinals quietly came to grips with a sudden October ending. Several luminaries, like Carlos Beltran and retiring star Chris Carpenter, would not be returning, but general manager John Mozeliak surveyed the room and wanted the players to see past the disappointment and recognize a chance for continuation. “We’ve got a good team,” he said. “We’ve got a young team.” The Cardinals, who won a league-best 97 games, claimed their fourth National League pennant in 10 years. They reached the Fall Classic with the youngest roster in the playoffs after a season that featured 11 major-league debuts. And the Cardinals have outfitted a ring-bearing core of Matt Holliday (three World Series), Adam Wainwright (three World Series), and Yadier Molina (four World Series) with young, hotshot pitchers set to carry the club through many autumns to come.
Young and talented are the two words to describe the Cardinals’ rotation. A pitcher 26 or younger started 109 of the Cardinals’ 162 games, and rookies threw 50 percent of the innings in the World Series. In September, Joe Kelly (25) and Lance Lynn (26) combined for a 2.11 ERA, and Michael Wacha (22) had a 1.72 ERA. Shelby Miller (23) won 15 games total. All four cram into a crowded competition for starting spots after Wainwright (32), who tied for the NL lead in wins (19) and led in innings pitched (241.2). “We haven’t seen (their) ceiling,” manager Mike Matheny says. Lefty Jaime Garcia (27) was expected to return from shoulder surgery to arm the Cardinals with a rotation that could go eight deep with sky-high potential, but his shoulder did not respond well in spring training. He’s out indefinitely…again.
Matheny started the 2013 offseason with a pronouncement about 2014: Trevor Rosenthal will be the closer. The flamethrowing righty claimed the ninth inning in September and blazed through four saves and a scoreless 11.2 innings in October. An infusion of power jolted the bullpen for the postseason and will mark the late innings again. Former closer Jason Motte (elbow surgery) is back, giving the Cardinals at least five relievers who throw 98 mph or better. Lefty Randy Choate and Motte will serve as sages for a green group that could include lefty Kevin Siegrist, Seth Maness, and rookie Carlos Martinez. With Rosenthal at the end, Matheny can bridge leads from starter to closer with a familiar late-inning recipe: fast, faster and then fastest. Righties Keith Butler and Pat Neshek will cover any innings that might be available until Motte is completely sound.
When newcomer Jhonny Peralta debuts at shortstop on Opening Day, he’ll continue a Cardinals trend before trying to end it. Peralta, 31, will be the eighth different starting shortstop in eight consecutive Opening Days for the Cardinals. That instability is surpassed to Peralta’s left. Veteran Mark Ellis or rookie Kolten Wong will be the ninth different Opening Day second baseman in 12 years. The Cardinals moved All-Star Matt Carpenter back to third base to allow for Wong, a former first-round pick who brings speed, solid defense and high-average potential. With a .774 OPS vs. lefties since 2011, Ellis offers a right-handed-hitting complement to Wong and alternative starter if he falters. Peralta brings offense that the Cardinals haven’t seen at short in years. The position has averaged a .336 slugging percentage the past four seasons and provided 11 homers total since 2012. Peralta had that many in 2013. The Cardinals crave his production to stop their middle infield merry-go-round. The Redbirds will lose some defense, but Peralta is sure-handed and makes all the routine plays.
The first major move of the offseason was a farewell. The Cardinals packaged favorite son, St. Louis native and former World Series MVP David Freese in a deal with the Angels. The third baseman’s production drifted in 2013, and, due a raise through arbitration, he was in enough demand for the Cardinals to reshape the look of the infield and team defense with a trade. After leading the league in hits, runs and doubles, leadoff hitter Carpenter offers a defensive upgrade at third, and coaches believe he’ll flex more power to offset the loss of Freese and Beltran. Increased thump must come from first base, where Matt Adams takes over full-time. The left-handed-hitting slugger had 17 home runs in 108 games — a pace that would yield 29 homers given 500 at-bats. However, should top prospect Oscar Taveras prove he’s ready for a promotion this season, Allen Craig will move back to first and Adams will resume his roll off the bench.
In exchange for Freese, the Cardinals received center fielder Peter Bourjos, who is in position to win the starting job, or at least share it with incumbent Jon Jay. Bourjos’ 2013 season was hampered by a wrist injury that eventually required surgery, but he is a dynamic fielder with flashes of offensive upside. Jay, who fought fits of inconsistency, did post a .311 second-half average. Bourjos and Wong will add a new speed dimension to the lineup, one built on OBP and timely damage. The pillars of the Cardinals’ lineup bookend Bourjos — Holliday in left and Allen Craig in right. Relocated from first, cleanup hitter Craig would have two consecutive 100-RBI seasons if not for fluke injuries. He’s primed to challenge for an MVP. Annually, Holliday is one of the most productive (and underrated) outfielders — a metronome good for 90 RBIs, 20 homers and .490 slugging. On the horizon looms Taveras, the wunderkind whom the Cardinals call the best hitting prospect they’ve had since Albert Pujols. He missed much of 2013 with an ankle injury that eventually required surgery. He’ll need at least three months at Triple-A this year.
The meteoric arc of his career, from defensive whiz to arguably the best catcher of his generation, can be mapped on Molina’s arms, where he has tattoos for each of the achievements, like Gold Glove awards and championships. Molina’s average climbed to a career high (.319) for the third consecutive season in 2013, and he shepherded a rookie-rich rotation to a career-low catcher’s ERA (3.16). Recurring knee troubles for Molina reinforced the Cardinals’ need to get trustworthy backup Tony Cruz more starts. Molina is one of only two NL catchers with at least 1,000 innings behind the plate for three consecutive seasons, and in that time the discussion of his career has accelerated from MVP candidate to one of the best all-around players in the game.
In two seasons with Matheny as manager, the Cardinals have tried different approaches with the bench. First they went young and then spent $5 million to add seasoning in the second summer. Neither plan worked. Diminished by injury and lacking power, the bench faded by October. The team moved to correct that by constructing a blended bench for 2014 — part veteran, part prospect. Ellis offers seasoning, and Taveras, if he makes the team, could be a power source. Matheny does not let his backups gather rust, but he should now get more production in exchange for the playing time. There will basically be two spots for holdovers Daniel Descalso, Pete Kozma and Shane Robinson.
To lead their team in a direction reliant on homegrown talent and on-the-job development, Cardinals chairman Bill DeWitt Jr. and Mozeliak identified a manager who, like the coming players, was more prospect than proven. The payoff has been obvious. In two years, Matheny has nurtured the shift without any lag in the standings. A players-first motivator, Matheny, 43, has a mentor’s touch with young players as he refines his managerial skills. The Cardinals’ commitment to growing with him came with a new three-year extension through 2017. Mozeliak’s fingerprints are all over an organization that remains the envy of the industry. In three swift offseason moves, Mozeliak added a new shortstop, extra right-handed offense and improved defense, all without reaching into his purse of cost-controlled pitching or raising payroll. He has been described by his staff as the organization’s compass, pointing it toward contention.
During their third consecutive run deep into the postseason, the Cardinals spoke frequently about their organizational philosophy, “The Cardinal Way.” The form-fitting phrase was applied to their fundamentals, how prospects are cultivated, and the club’s championship expectations. With a returning core, blossoming pitchers, and additions grafted to the roster’s weak spots, the Cardinals enter 2014 set to prove that “The Cardinal Way” isn’t just a style of play but a direction — one always steering them back to October. Says Matheny: “Let’s see if we can be the best team for a long time.”
3B Matt Carpenter (L)
Returns to third after season at second surpassed in club history only by Hall of Famers like Rogers Hornsby.
CF Peter Bourjos (R)
Had a .333 average and .392 on-base percentage when hit by pitch that led to wrist surgery.
LF Matt Holliday (R)
Holliday surged to finish at .300, his 10th consecutive season with .290 average or higher.
RF Allen Craig (R)
With runners in scoring position, he’s batted .427 (109-for-255) the past two seasons.
1B Matt Adams (L)
Set club rookie record with eight homers in September, batting .315 with a .609 slugging that month.
C Yadier Molina (R)
Is the first catcher since Mike Piazza in the 1990s to have two consecutive top-five finishes in NL MVP vote.
SS Jhonny Peralta (R)
Hit .344 with a .563 slugging percentage in nine postseason starts for Tigers.
2B Kolten Wong (L)
Breakout season with Class AAA Memphis included .303 average, 10 HRs, 20-for-21 in stolen base attempts.
INF Mark Ellis (R)
Slick-fielding veteran offers needed right-handed complement and challenger to rookie Wong.
OF Jon Jay (L)
Sluggish start cost him job as leadoff hitter, though he took advantage of lower spot for a career-best 67 RBIs.
INF Daniel Descalso (L)
.199 average and .237 OBP in second half contributed to club’s search at shortstop.
INF Pete Kozma (R)
Best fielder at short on the team could lose roster spot if Cards go with another outfielder.
C Tony Cruz (R)
Reliable backup who has maintained his edge despite increasingly scarce playing time behind Molina.
OF Shane Robinson (R)
Not likely to get the 170 or so at-bats in 2014 that he has the past two years.
RH Adam Wainwright
In his second season back from elbow surgery, led majors in innings, (276.2, including playoffs).
RH Michael Wacha
Rookie won four postseason games; first pitcher born in 1990s to win World Series game.
RH Shelby Miller
First Cardinals rookie with 15 wins and 169 strikeouts since Hall of Famer Dizzy Dean had 18 and 191 in 1932.
RH Joe Kelly
Versatility could cast him in long relief, but 3.03 ERA as starter gives him claim to rotation spot.
RH Lance Lynn
His spot threatened by August struggles, Lynn finished first 200-inning season with a 2.12 ERA in September.
RH Trevor Rosenthal (Closer)
With 108 strikeouts, hard-throwing righty became first full-time reliever with 100 Ks in Cardinals history.
RH Jason Motte
Flamethrower missed all of last season recovering from a ruptured ligament in his pitching elbow.
RH Carlos Martinez
Will vie for a starting job, but electric stuff — 100 mph heat, biting sinker, darting slider — also fits setup role.
RH Seth Maness
Sinkerballer carved out role with runners on base with uncanny ability to coax double plays — 16 in 62 innings.
LH Randy Choate
Hired to serve as neutralizer for Joey Votto (and others), veteran served also as sage for young bullpen.
LH Kevin Siegrist
Riding a power fastball, sported 0.45 ERA, lowest since at least 1901 for reliever with 35 or more appearances.
RH Pat Neshek
For his career, right-handed batters have hit .181, lefties .237.
2013 Top Draft Pick
Marco Gonzales, LHP
With the 19th overall pick for the second consecutive season, the Cardinals returned to many of their familiar draft archetypes — college pitcher, athletic delivery, record of success, and steady, reliable statistics. Gonzales, a two-way player at Gonzaga, is a left-handed mirror-image of the previous year’s pick, Michael Wacha. His fastball hits around 91 mph, but it’s his command, cutter and elite changeup that made him a first-round pick. Gonzales had his innings carefully monitored during his debut and threw only 23.1 innings in eight games at two different levels. He did well and, more important, finished healthy. Gonzales is earmarked for the High-A rotation, though he’s expected to move swiftly up the system, like, well, other college picks before him.
OF Oscar Taveras (21)
Uncommonly gifted hitter poised to swing into majors this season, a year late because of ankle surgery.
OF Stephen Piscotty (23)
Made a claim for the Arizona Fall League’s MVP award with .371 average and .506 slugging, vaulting him toward majors.
LHP Tim Cooney (23)
Tall lefty downshifts from his above-average fastball to unnerve hitters, an approach he used for 148 strikeouts in 154.1 innings.
RHP Alex Reyes (19)
Power righty with 97-mph fastball relocated from New Jersey to the Dominican Republic and signed $950,000 bonus as amateur free agent.
SS Aledmys Diaz (23)
The young Cuban was signed in March to a four-year, major league deal.
Beyond the Box Score
By the book The Cardinals have done more than talk about “The Cardinal Way.” They put it in writing. Officials spent recent years organizing teachings from luminaries like longtime coach George Kissell, catching guru Dave Ricketts and pitching coach Dave Duncan into a handbook for managers, coaches and players. Manager Mike Matheny penned the chapter on attributes of a Cardinals catcher. The book isn’t for sale, but every draft pick receives a copy when he first reports.
Draft status Five players drafted in 2009 — leadoff hitter Matt Carpenter, 15-game winner Shelby Miller, starter Joe Kelly, closer Trevor Rosenthal, and cleanup slugger Matt Adams — had prominent late-season roles, and 18 of the 25 players on the World Series roster were homegrown. The Cardinals’ draft emphasis peaked in recent years by hoarding picks and speeding promotions. NLCS MVP Michael Wacha and leading prospect Stephen Piscotty were both drafted in 2012 with compensation picks acquired when Albert Pujols signed with the L.A. Angels.
Wacha mania In his final start of September, Wacha came one out shy of a no-hitter when an infield single tipped off his glove. He was just getting started. An ascendant young ace, Wacha, at 22, won four games in October and became a fall sensation. Fozzie Bear references proliferated. (Wacha is pronounced “wocka” as in the Muppet’s “Wocka, wocka, wocka!”) An area sandwich shop named a milkshake for Wacha. And St. Louis native Andy Cohen, host of Bravo’s “Watch What Happens Live,” adopted a beagle and named him Wacha.
Peralta backlash The Cardinals took a prominent role in baseball’s new morality when they became the first team to sign a player suspended due to the Biogenesis probe. Shortstop Jhonny Peralta served his 50-game suspension, but his new contract was met with criticism and howls on Twitter, some of them from players. Pitcher Brad Ziegler jabbed owners for “encouraging PED use.” Manager Mike Matheny understood the critical questions. “There are people out there that may not like our stances, (that) think of us as hypocritical,” he said. “So be it. We see a guy who made a decision that he regrets. Now we’re part of his future.”
This is your daily link roundup of our favorite sports and entertainment posts on the web for March 21.
• I normally find sideline reporters utterly useless. I'll make an exception for CBS' Allie LaForce (pictured).
• Another highlight of Day One: North Dakota State's locker room celebration.
• The lasting image of Thursday: the Arizona State bench after Texas' buzzer-beater.
• The breakout star of March Madness: Phil Martelli's grandson.
• Not to be outdone, the Red Wings had a buzzer-beater of their own last night.
• Michigan and other teams have turned to an old-fashioned energy drink: chocolate milk.
• Tiger Woods has a bulging disc. Sportscasters everywhere woke up all night in cold sweats at the thought of mispronouncing that diagnosis.
• In the market for a new home? Oscar Pistorius' murder house is for sale.
• One-time March legend Steph Curry has taken his game to another level.
-- Email us with any compelling sports-related links at email@example.com
The Pirates want to prove themselves again in 2014. Last year, they ended a string of 20 consecutive losing seasons — the longest in major North American professional team sports history — and also reached the postseason for the first time since 1992. The goal is now to sustain that success rather than be dismissed as a one-year wonder. “Our focus from the start has been to put an organization in place that has a chance to be successful year in and year out,” general manager Neal Huntington says. “It’s a very difficult thing to do.” The Pirates have been building toward being a perennial contender since Huntington was hired late in the 2007 season. Those efforts started moving in the right direction when manager Clint Hurdle was hired, as the Pirates’ win totals have jumped from 57 to 72 to 79 to 94 in his three seasons. Despite last year’s success and the second-highest attendance in club history, Huntington has still been given a mandate by ownership to keep the payroll among the lowest in the game. Thus, the Pirates are going to do things the Tampa Bay Rays way and try to build a winner on the cheap.
Lefthander Francisco Liriano takes over for righty A.J. Burnett as the No. 1 starter after winning 16 games last season and one more in the postseason while capturing the National League Comeback Player of the Year Award. Liriano seems to have found a home in Pittsburgh after spending his entire career in the American League. Righthander Gerrit Cole had a solid rookie season after being called up in June and excelled in the final month. It is realistic to believe he could be the staff ace by the end of this season. Veteran lefthander Wandy Rodriguez is a big question mark. Rodriguez, who did not make a start after June 5 last season because of elbow problems, did not need surgery, but he was found to have arthritis in the joint. Righty Charlie Morton made a strong comeback from Tommy John surgery and signed a three-year, $21 million contract extension with a club option that could keep him with the Pirates through the 2017 season. Pitching coach Ray Searage has developed a reputation for being able to fix broken pitchers — Liriano being a case in point — and his pet project this year will be righthander Edinson Volquez, who was signed to a one-year, $5-million contract as a free agent. The Pirates have built good organizational depth with their starting pitching — lefthanders Jeff Locke and Andy Oliver and righthanders Jeanmar Gomez, Brandon Cumpton and Phil Irwin are options at some point in the season, along with top prospect Jameson Taillon, a 22-year-old righty.
Former journeyman Jason Grilli was a revelation last year in his first season as a closer, converting 33-of-35 save opportunities despite missing a month late in the season with a strained forearm. Grilli was impressive in the postseason, and there is no reason to believe he won’t have another big year in 2014. Righthander Mark Melancon teams with Grilli to give the Pirates a dynamic late-inning tandem. Both were All-Stars a year ago, when Melancon had a 1.39 ERA in 72 games while notching 16 saves as the backup closer. Lefthander Tony Watson has developed into a key member of the bullpen; he is both effective and durable. The Pirates have a number of other big relief arms, including lefty Justin Wilson and righthanders Stolmy Pimentel, Vin Mazzaro and Jared Hughes.
Jordy Mercer will be the starting shortstop after gradually taking playing time away from veteran Clint Barmes last season. Mercer’s offense is ahead of his defense at this stage of his career, although he did make strides with his glove in 2013. Switch-hitting second baseman Neil Walker is a dependable player who is solid in all phases of the game. His one drawback, though, is a lack of power from the right side.
Third baseman Pedro Alvarez took a step toward stardom last season when he hit 36 home runs to tie for the NL lead with Arizona’s Paul Goldschmidt. Alvarez would likely increase the homer total even more by exercising better plate discipline. Most of right-handed-hitting first baseman Gaby Sanchez’s starts have come against lefthanders since the Pirates acquired him in 2012 in a trade with Miami, but they believe he can handle righthanders if given the chance. Veteran Travis Ishikawa has made strides this spring toward making the team, and could be a nice complement to Sanchez at first base. Rookie Andrew Lambo, a lefty who hit 32 home runs between Triple-A Indianapolis and Double-A Altoona last season, could wind up platooning with Sanchez or at least starting against tough righties. But the club may want to give Lambo a full season at Triple-A.
Center fielder Andrew McCutchen affirmed his spot among the best players in the game as he won the NL Most Valuable Player award last season, getting 28 of 30 first-place votes. He is the face of the franchise, and the Pirates will go as far as he can take them. Left fielder Starling Marte had a fine season in his first full year in the bigs. He has the tools to earn his way into the MVP race, too, with power, speed and a strong arm. Jose Tabata will likely be the Opening Day right fielder after finishing last season strong. However, inconsistency has been Tabata’s problem throughout his career, which is why the door could be open for Lambo or Travis Snider to gain playing time.
Russell Martin turned out to be the perfect fit for the Pirates last season after he was signed as a free agent. He provides outstanding defense, power hitting and credibility as someone who has played in All-Star games and won a Gold Glove and a Silver Slugger.
Chris Stewart was acquired from the Yankees in a trade to serve as the backup catcher, but a knee injury in mid-March sent him to the operating room. Tony Sanchez, the Bucs’ first-round pick in 2009, will fill that role. With Martin approaching free agency at the end of this season, the Pirates may be inclined to give Sanchez some additional starts to groom him for 2015. Barmes agreed to come back on a one-year, $2-million contract, taking a $3.5-million pay cut, to back up the middle infield positions and continue to mentor Mercer. Utility player Josh Harrison could be the top right-handed pinch-hitting option despite a .250 batting average and .282 on-base percentage in his three-year career. Assuming that Gaby Sanchez and Tabata play regularly, Snider could be the primary left-handed bench bat.
It took Huntington six years to rebuild the major-league club, the farm system and the scouting department, but the payoff came last season when the Pirates reached the postseason. Many fans and some media members called for Huntington’s firing following the 2012 season when the Pirates collapsed during the season’s final two months for the second consecutive season. To Huntington’s credit, he never deviated from the plan he put in place after being hired away from Cleveland’s front office. Hurdle has proven to be the perfect fit for the Pirates and won NL Manager of the Year honors last season. The most important thing Hurdle has done is change the mindset of everyone in the organization, making them believe the Pirates could be winners from the day he was hired in November 2010. He also has become an integral part of the Pittsburgh community with his charitable work and willingness to connect with the fans.
A lot of things went right for the Pirates to reach the postseason last year, and for a team that will have one of the lowest payrolls in the game — they were 26th among the 30 major-league teams last season — there is little margin for error. A solid core group of players is in place for at least the next few years, headlined by McCutchen but also including Alvarez, Marte, Walker, Cole and Morton. The Pirates also have a strong farm system. However, the team failed to make any splashy moves over the winter, declining to build on the momentum it gained last season and improve a roster weakened by the free-agent losses of first baseman Justin Morneau and right fielder Marlon Byrd. While that doesn’t mean the Pirates will return to mediocrity (or worse), it is tough to envision them winning 94 games again or reaching the postseason, especially playing in the NL Central, which includes two other 2013 postseason participants in St. Louis and Cincinnati.
LF Starling Marte (R)
Third player in Pirates history to have 10 triples, 12 home runs, 40 stolen bases in a season.
2B Neil Walker (S)
First Pirates second baseman to have four straight double-digit home run seasons.
CF Andrew McCutchen (R)
Was NL MVP last season, becoming first Pirates player to win the award since Barry Bonds in 1992.
3B Pedro Alvarez (L)
Former No. 2 overall pick led the NL in home runs (36) and strikeouts (186) last year.
C Russell Martin (R)
Was responsible for four of the nine walk-off wins at PNC Park in 2013.
1B Gaby Sanchez (R)
Former Miami Hurricane hit .325 in his final 50 games last season.
SS Jordy Mercer (R)
Hit .347 in September last season to seize control of the starting job.
RF Jose Tabata (R)
Venezuelan is a career .296 hitter at PNC Park, .252 on the road.
C Tony Sanchez (R)
After hitting .288 in 76 games at Triple-A last season, he hit .233 with two homers in 60 at-bats for the Pirates.
INF Clint Barmes (R)
Opening Day starter at shortstop each of the past two seasons but will now serve as a reserve.
UT Josh Harrison (R)
Two of his three home runs last season were as a pinch-hitter.
1B Travis Ishikawa (L)
Career .262 average vs. righthanders is not exactly overwhelming.
OF Travis Snider (L)
Former first-round pick of the Blue Jays underwent left foot surgery in October.
LH Francisco Liriano
3.02 ERA last season was his lowest since posting a 2.16 mark for Minnesota as a rookie in 2006.
RH Gerrit Cole
Went 4–0 with a 1.69 ERA in five September starts last year to win NL Rookie of the Month.
LH Wandy Rodriguez
Missed final 15 weeks of the 2013 season with an elbow injury.
RH Charlie Morton
Was 4–1 with a 2.67 ERA over his last 11 starts of the season.
RH Edinson Volquez
Gave up an NL-worst 108 earned runs with San Diego and the Dodgers last season.
RH Jason Grilli (Closer)
Was leading the NL with 30 saves on July 22 when he strained his forearm.
RH Mark Melancon
His 1.39 ERA last year was a team record for a pitcher who worked at least 50 innings exclusively in relief.
LH Tony Watson
Made 21 consecutive scoreless appearances, covering 20.1 innings, to end last season.
RH Jeanmar Gomez
Bucs were 8-0 in his eight starts last May and June.
LH Justin Wilson
Reverse platoon splits in 2013 as righthanders hit .189 and lefthanders batted .200.
RH Vin Mazzaro
Was “The Magnificent Mazzaro” last season, stranding 28 of 32 inherited runners in the regular season.
RH Stolmy Pimentel
Likely to make the team as a long reliever/spot starter as a rookie since he is out of minor-league options.
2013 Top Draft Pick
Austin Meadows, OF
The Pirates had two top-15 picks for the first time in their history and used the first one, at No. 9 overall, to take the multi-talented Meadows, a high school outfielder from Grayson, Ga. He is often compared to another left-handed-hitting outfielder, Cincinnati right fielder Jay Bruce, and the Pirates would love if Meadows turned into a player who regularly hit 30 home runs and drove in 100 runs. He got off to a good start, hitting .294 with five home runs in 43 games with the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League Pirates, then going 9-for-17 in a five-game stint with short-season Jamestown. Meadows comes from athletic stock; his father played baseball and was a punter at Morehead State, and his mother played softball at Georgia Southern and Georgia State.
OF Barrett Barnes (22)
The Pirates top pick in 2012 has speed and power but has been unable to stay healthy as a pro. Former Texas Tech Red Raider has 308 at-bats in two seasons in the minors.
RHP Jameson Taillon (22)
Tall Texan has a good fastball/curveball mix and figures to make his major-league debut this season.
OF Josh Bell (21)
Switch-hitter who was the Pirates’ second-round pick in 2011 is starting to gain his footing in pro ball after an early knee injury set him back.
RHP Tyler Glasnow (20)
The tall, thin righthander had 164 strikeouts in 111.1 innings last season at Low-A.
SS Alen Hanson (21)
A dynamic player with speed and moderate power but may have to move to second base.
RHP Luis Heredia (19)
Conditioning issues contributed to something of a lost season in 2013, but he is still very talented.
OF Gregory Polanco (22)
A five-tool talent who played at three minor-league levels last year and will make his major-league debut this season.
Beyond the Box Score
Silver screen Rinku Singh has won just 10 games in the Pirates’ farm system and has yet to get past the Low-A level. Yet the left-handed reliever will be the subject of a major feature film along with former Pirates minor-league pitcher Dinesh Patel. “Million Dollar Arm”, scheduled to reach theaters May 16, tells the story of how Singh and Patel were signed to minor-league contracts by the Pirates after appearing on the reality show of the same name in their native India. Jon Hamm stars as agent J.B. Bernstein, who came up with the idea for a contest to find the hardest thrower in India. More than 37,000 tried out for the show before the pool was cut to 30 contestants. Singh won the contest and the $100,000 grand prize, while Patel, who was released by the Pirates following the 2010 season, was second. Neither had ever played baseball; they were training to be javelin throwers.
Professing his love Center fielder Andrew McCutchen and girlfriend Maria Hanslovan got engaged in December after dating for four years. The 2013 NL MVP popped the question on national television while appearing on the talk show “Ellen.”
Dapper Dans In addition to winning NL Manager of the Year, Clint Hurdle was honored during the offseason with the Dapper Dan Sportsman of the Year award, which is presented annually to the year’s top Pittsburgh sports figure. McCutchen won the award for 2012. The Pirates hadn’t won in back-to-back years since Willie Stargell followed Dave Parker, who was honored in 1978.
Bought-in Buc Righthander Charlie Morton did not hesitate to take below market value when he signed a three-year, $21-million contract, which bought out his last year of salary arbitration and first two years of free agency. “The way I looked at it was, I wanted to be a Pirate,” Morton says. “The only way I'm going to be a Pirate is if I sign with the Pirates.”
Despite coming off their worst season in nearly a decade, the Milwaukee Brewers largely stood pat heading into 2014. While on the surface that might seem crazy, there was a method behind the madness for general manager Doug Melvin. He’s banking on his team not being hammered by injuries, the starting pitching showing up for the first half and Ryan Braun returning to his 2011 National League MVP form after being suspended for the final 65 games of 2013 for his role in the Biogenesis scandal. It’s an awfully fine line to walk for the Brewers if they want to compete in what was the toughest division in baseball a year ago. But the belief is that there’s more than enough talent returning to catch lightning in a bottle and get back into the mix with the Cardinals, Reds and Pirates.
Milwaukee forfeited its first-round draft choice by signing free agent Kyle Lohse at the end of spring training in 2013. And while the reasoning was solid, it took the veteran righthander and the rest of the Brewers’ starters half a season to get up to speed. By then, the team was well out of the race. So, this winter, the Brewers acted a bit more quickly to bring Matt Garza into the fold, the only significant addition over the winter. The former Twin, Ray, Cub and Ranger signed a four-year, $50 million deal with Milwaukee. He isn’t a superstar by any means, but he should fit nicely into this established rotation. Last season, Lohse & Co. rebounded in the second half in a big way, posting one of the best staff ERAs in the majors at 3.31 over the final 81 games. The belief is that Lohse, Yovani Gallardo, Garza, Wily Peralta and Marco Estrada can build off the momentum from that and hit the ground running in 2014. The biggest question will be whether Gallardo can return to form. His velocity was down and his pitch counts up last season, leading to a 12–10 record — and trade rumors. Gallardo has lots of mileage on his right arm but is still only 28, which works in his favor. With a full winter off, he should be rested up and looking at a bounce-back campaign. Peralta is the future ace of the staff with a high-90s fastball and devastating sinker that produces lots of ground balls. If he can continue to keep his emotions in check when facing adversity, he could become the team’s next 20-game winner. Estrada racks up big strikeout numbers with a deceptive fastball and effective changeup but hasn’t been able to be counted on for a full season since becoming a full-time starter. That needs to change this year.
The Brewers’ relief corps was one of the only areas of the team that actually surpassed expectations last season. Two of the most pleasant surprises — Jim Henderson and Brandon Kintzler — return to the closer and setup roles, respectively. Henderson is still relatively new to the job, however, and relying almost exclusively on his fastball can be dangerous. Kintzler pitched his way into the setup role after beginning 2013 as something of an unknown quantity, and it’s possible he might even get a chance to close games at some point. The Brewers brought Francisco Rodriguez back for another tour. Rodriguez had 10 saves in 25 games with Brew Crew last season prior to a trade to Baltimore. At the time of the trade, Rodriguez had a 1.09 ERA and 1.054 WHIP. He wasn’t as effective with the Orioles, but both strikeout and walk ratios improved. Tom Gorzelanny and Will Smith figure to be the team’s two left-handed relievers, and both can provide length as long men as well. The rest of the bullpen could feature youngsters Donovan Hand and Rob Wooten who made their debuts with the Brewers in 2013. The hope is the starting pitching won’t place as big of a burden on the relievers as it did early on a year ago.
The Brewers are excited about their projected starting middle infield, and rightly so. Jean Segura is coming off his first All-Star nod, and second baseman Scooter Gennett blossomed as the team’s starter after Rickie Weeks was lost to injury early last August. Both are only 24 years old. Segura showed in 2013 that he could do it all. A late-season slump left him just short of .300, but he flashed some decent power with 12 homers while also banging out 12 triples, finished second in the NL with 44 stolen bases and also played a strong shortstop. Gennett, meanwhile, seized his opportunity when Weeks went down and led the NL by hitting .358 from Aug. 5 through the end of the season. Gennett hit .324 overall with a surprising six homers while playing a better-than-advertised second base. Weeks could earn the opportunity to play against lefthanders. His $11 million salary, age, injury history and declining skills make him tough to trade, and the Brewers aren’t likely to release him. Either Segura or Gennett will fill the leadoff role left vacant by the trade of Norichika Aoki.
The Brewers need major bounce-backs at both first and third base a year after injuries to Corey Hart and Aramis Ramirez killed their lineup. First base figures to be a work in progress. Hart signed a free-agent deal with Seattle, leaving Melvin to work with a group that included Juan Francisco, Mark Reynolds and Lyle Overbay. Prospects Sean Halton, Taylor Green and former minor-league Player of the Year Hunter Morris may see some action there before the summer is over, but for now it’s likely a platoon between Reynolds and Francisco. Both players feature terrific raw power, prodigious strikeout totals and shaky defense. It’s not likely that the club will keep both Francisco and Overbay — both left-handed hitters — on the roster. Ramirez, meanwhile, is aiming to return to his normal productive self after appearing in just 92 games due to a left knee injury he suffered in spring training. The Brewers need him back in the cleanup spot and driving in runs, and the 35-year-old Ramirez needs a healthy, productive season if he has any hopes of securing another long-term contract.
While Carlos Gomez will continue to man center and look to build on a career year both offensively and defensively, there will be major changes in the corners as Braun moves from left field to right to make room for up-and-comer Khris Davis in left. The thinking in the moves is that Davis’ substandard throwing arm makes him only a candidate for left, while Braun is athletic enough and has enough of an arm to make the switch to right. The Brewers thought enough of Davis, who hit 11 home runs in 136 at-bats with Milwaukee last season, to trade the popular Aoki to clear space for him as a starter. Now he’ll need to deliver.
Jonathan Lucroy enjoyed the best season of his young career in 2013, with his 18 homers and 82 RBIs ranking him among the league leaders at his position. He was also durable, avoiding injury for the first time and playing 147 games. Lucroy’s next challenge is to continue to improve defensively while also continuing to hone his game-calling. He has become one of the team leaders.
Manager Ron Roenicke hasn’t had the veteran pinch-hitters he prefers since his initial season in Milwaukee in 2011. He probably won’t have any again this season, although outfielder Logan Schafer has shown the ability to succeed in the role. The non-starting half of the Reynolds-Francisco combo will also be available, as well as Weeks. Schafer is also terrific defensively and will likely be a frequent late-inning substitute in left field. Jeff Bianchi can play every position in the infield, making him a valuable piece if he can avoid injury. Catcher Martin Maldonado doesn’t hit much, but he adds so much defensively and in the clubhouse that he’ll remain the backup.
Melvin is hamstrung by the Brewers’ small-market status. And while team principal owner Mark Attanasio has shown a willingness to spend on a case-by-case basis — see the Lohse signing last spring — it’s not expected that Milwaukee’s payroll will deviate much from the mid-$80 million mark. So Melvin will continue to scour the bargain bins looking for ways to buy low and catch lightning in a bottle. The minor-league system has been bereft of impact talent at the top levels since Melvin traded much of it away in an attempt to make a run in 2011. Just about anyone deemed close to major-league ready got a shot with the Brewers in 2013. The majority of high-ceiling talent has yet to make it above Class A in the organization. Roenicke is well-regarded by his players and within baseball. He’s done a nice job under some difficult circumstances.
Melvin resisted a complete tear-down and rebuild, believing his team can compete if it stays healthy and performs up to its capabilities. Those are big ifs, however. The top of the NL Central will be tough to crack with St. Louis, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati all expected to be strong once again, meaning that even if everything goes according to plan it still might not be enough for the Brewers to get back to the playoffs for the first time since 2011.
SS Jean Segura (R)
Coming off first All-Star Game appearance, but hit leadoff only twice in ’13. Needs more plate discipline.
2B Scooter Gennett (L)
Possesses surprising pop, and his left-handed bat is a nice piece for a righty-heavy lineup.
RF Ryan Braun (R)
Returns to his customary No. 3 spot, where he hit .298 with nine HRs and 38 RBIs over 61 games in 2013.
3B Aramis Ramirez (R)
His left knee wasn’t right all season, and his 12 homers were his fewest as a full-time player in the majors.
C Jonathan Lucroy (R)
Became a run-producer by default last year, and he delivered career highs in homers (18) and RBIs (82).
CF Carlos Gomez (R)
Hit in every spot in the lineup in 2013, and responded with career highs in virtually every offensive category.
LF Khris Davis (R)
Averaged a homer every 12.4 at-bats in 153 plate appearances, finishing with 11 and 27 RBIs.
1B Juan Francisco (L)
Big power, but 138 strikeouts in 385 plate appearances in 2013 don’t suggest that he’s a viable everyday player.
INF Jeff Bianchi (R)
Singles hitter whose greatest value lies in the fact he can play any infield position, as well as in the outfield.
OF Logan Schafer (L)
Tremendous outfielder. Has proven he can deliver as a pinch-hitter, which will likely be his role once again.
C Martin Maldonado (R)
Great defensive catcher whose rapport with Wily Peralta has made him a valuable piece of the puzzle.
1B-3B Mark Reynolds (R)
Batting average hasn’t touched .225 since his 44-homer season in 2009.
2B Rickie Weeks (R)
Three-year batting average decline (.269-.230-.209) has Brewers concerned his career is approaching an end.
RH Kyle Lohse
His 11–10 record in 2013 was deceiving. His bulldog mentality and veteran leadership are much needed.
RH Yovani Gallardo
Took a big step back last season as his velocity dropped and his numbers suffered.
RH Matt Garza
The veteran is 5-6 with a 4.62 ERA in his career against the Reds, Pirates and Cardinals.
RH Wily Peralta
Big righthander has ace-type stuff and began to show his tremendous promise in the second half last year.
RH Marco Estrada
Has been dominating in stretches, but just can’t stay healthy. Has also performed well in long relief.
RH Jim Henderson (Closer)
The big Canadian became Brewers’ regular closer in 2013, when he converted 28-of-32 save opportunities.
RH Brandon Kintzler
Came out of nowhere to become Brewers’ setup man with a decent fastball and great slider.
RH Francisco Rodriguez
Held left-handed hitters to a .156 average last season; curiously, righties hit a robust .342.
LH Tom Gorzelanny
Coming off shoulder surgery. Can both start and relieve but was more consistent out of the bullpen in 2013.
RH Alfredo Figaro
Fireballer had his moments as both starter and long man, but couldn’t get his breaking balls over regularly.
RH Rob Wooten
Pitched like a savvy veteran rather than the rookie he was in some tough late-inning situations last season.
LH Will Smith
Gave up 24 hits and struck out 43 in 33.1 innings with the Royals last season.
2013 Top Draft Pick
Devin Williams, RHP
The Brewers lost their first-round pick for signing free-agent pitcher Kyle Lohse toward the end of spring training in 2013. They were delighted when Williams fell to them in the second round, where they snapped him up with the 54th overall pick. Milwaukee went 33 percent over slot in giving Williams a $1.35 million signing bonus, but needed to in order to persuade him to pass on a scholarship to the University of Missouri. The 6'3" fireballer already has team officials excited with his power arm and high ceiling. In 34.2 innings of Rookie ball, he gave up 28 hits and struck out 39. Williams, only 19, is still a long way away from the big leagues, but the future appears bright for the Hazelwood, Mo., native.
CF Tyrone Taylor (20)
Considered the team’s best overall prospect, he dominated the Rookie League as an 18 year old in 2012. His progressed continued last season at Low-A.
OF Victor Roache (22)
Taken 28th overall in 2012 by the Brewers, the slugger hit 22 bombs and drove in 74 at Low-A Wisconsin last summer.
RHP Johnny Hellweg (25)
Pacific Coast League Pitcher of the Year in 2013 who struggled mightily in two separate major league stints. Still shows promise.
1B Hunter Morris (25)
Morris hit 24 homers in Triple-A in 2013, but the Brewers don’t feel he’s a finished product. Needs improvement defensively.
1B Jason Rogers (26)
Former 32nd-round pick who was named Brewers’ Minor League Player of the Year in 2013. Being tried at third base and in the outfield as well.
OF Mitch Haniger (23)
Advanced former college player who stood out in the Arizona Fall League. Should debut in Double-A some time this season.
RHP David Goforth (25)
Went 4–3 with 3.28 ERA and 1.07 WHIP after call-up to Class AA last season.
C Clint Coulter (20)
He was drafted in the first round in 2012 as a potential impact bat, but he has played only 33 games above rookie level heading into 2014 and is quickly falling out of favor.
RHP Taylor Jungmann (24)
Former college star who’s likely ticketed for Triple-A. Lacks electric stuff. Projects as a No. 4 or 5 starter in the majors.
Beyond the Box Score
Day-zed and confused Among the more confounding issues for the Brewers in 2013 was their inability to compete when the lights weren’t on. Milwaukee finished the season with an 18–35 record in day games, including an 8–20 record in day games played at Miller Park. Shadows creeping across the playing surface under the afternoon sun have been an issue at home since Miller Park opened in 2001, and the Brewers hit just .234 during the day compared to .261 at night.
Golden once again Carlos Gomez ended a 31-year streak for the Brewers by winning the Rawlings Gold Glove in center field in 2013. The last Milwaukee player to be so honored was Robin Yount at shortstop in 1982, when the Brewers were still in the American League. Gomez was dynamic, being credited with 38 defensive runs saved — tops among all MLB centerfielders — to go along with 12 assists. Gomez also made five home run-saving catches, far and away the most for a single season in that category.
Miserable May The Brewers knocked themselves out of contention almost from the get-go in 2013, tying a franchise record for futility in a single month by going 6–22 in May. That left them 15 games behind the pace in the NL Central — far too big of a deficit in the best division in baseball. Poor starting pitching was mostly to blame for the Brewers’ struggles, and an injury-riddled offense missing some of its big bats just couldn’t make up the frequent early deficits.
Worst at first With Corey Hart, Mat Gamel and Taylor Green all out for the season with injuries, the Brewers had no choice but to fill the void at first base with stopgaps. That left seven different players — none of whom had ever started a game at first previously in the majors — to split the position. The result: an MLB-low combined .629 OPS and spotty defense.
Youth was served All the injuries and inconsistency allowed the Brewers to get a good look at their top advanced prospects. In all, 10 different players from Class AAA Nashville — five pitchers and five position players — made their debuts. One, leftfielder Khris Davis, played himself into a starting spot for 2014, while others like pitchers Donovan Hand and Rob Wooten and outfielder Caleb Gindl proved they could at least contribute in the bigs.
It’s amazing how much perspectives can change in one year. The Reds were expected to win the NL Central in 2013 and challenge for the league pennant but fell short, settling for a spot in the wild card game against Pittsburgh. Winning 90 games and reaching the playoffs three of the last four seasons weren’t enough for Dusty Baker to keep his job, so former pitching coach Bryan Price takes over with the challenge of turning a talent-laden team into a legitimate postseason threat. It’s not as if the Reds are trying to climb out of the cellar, but when the defending NL champions (St. Louis) and an up-and-coming team with momentum (Pittsburgh) are playing in the same division, it can feel that way. The Reds have legitimate star power in first baseman Joey Votto, second baseman Brandon Phillips and right fielder Jay Bruce, but their lineup got exposed last season for having too many holes over the 162-game schedule. One guy who wasn’t a hole was leadoff hitter Shin-Soo Choo, now gone to Texas as a free agent. Speedy phenom Billy Hamilton will be the starting center fielder and leadoff hitter whether he’s fully ready for those jobs or not.
The Reds can win with this group. Mat Latos turned a corner in 2013 when he took the mantle of the No. 1 starter from an injured Johnny Cueto. Latos is more consistent, and the Reds generally win games he starts (43–22). Cueto must show he’s healthy — not just physically, but also psychologically. He had three stints on the DL last season because of a strained lat and was shelled in the wild card loss at Pittsburgh. Homer Bailey had a career-high 199 strikeouts last season in a career-high 209 innings, while Mike Leake set career highs for starts, wins, innings pitched and strikeouts. They all learned from Bronson Arroyo in the past but will not have his veteran presence in the clubhouse this season. Lefty Tony Cingrani should earn the final spot. He’s got a power arm but needs to show more consistency and confidence in his off-speed pitches to become truly effective as a starter.
Forget about the thought of Aroldis Chapman becoming a starter; he’s realized that he enjoys closing games. But a scary moment late in spring when Chapman was hit in the face by a line drive off the bat of Royals catcher Sal Perez had everyone in Reds camp holding their breath. He had surgery to repair some broken bones, but should heal completely and is expected to return to the mound at some point this season, perhaps before the All-Star break. That leaves a huge hole in the Reds’ bullpen heading into the season. J.J. Hoover, Sam LeCure and Manny Parra all stepped into bigger roles in 2013, and now must step into even larger roles in 2014. Hoover is probably the best candidate to close until Chapman returns. Parra became the lead left-handed setup pitcher — because of left shoulder injuries to Sean Marshall — and he stranded 24 of the last 28 runners he inherited. A healthy Marshall this season would give Price more options out of the bullpen. The same could be said for the healthy return of Jonathan Broxton from a torn flexor muscle in his right arm. Alfredo Simon has grown into this role as the long arm out of the bullpen, but he’s not exclusive to mop-up situations. Pedro Beato could log a few innings while the Reds wait for Broxton to heal surgery last August.
There was talk about trading Phillips in the offseason in part because of some of his words and actions last season that didn’t sit well with upper management. But he’s owed $50 million over the next four seasons, so the Reds will have to settle for a Gold Glove, 100-RBI second baseman who is popular with fans. Phillips will likely start the season hitting in the No. 2 hole in the lineup, but you can put him anywhere in the batting order, and he is adaptable to any role. While unlikely, he could be flipped with Votto into the No. 3 spot. Shortstop Zack Cozart had a solid final two months with an OPS of more than .700 after Aug. 1. He’s an above-average fielder (.977 fielding percentage, 83 double plays turned) with good range.
All Votto did in 2013 was get on base more than anyone else in the history of the Reds, appropriate for a player who signed a contract worth $263 million over 13 years. Opposing pitchers will do just about anything not to let Votto beat them, and he’s not about to help them. He has the most discerning eye for the strike zone in baseball — maybe too discerning at times — and he’s led the NL in on-base percentage the last four seasons and is the active career leader at .419. The Reds will need more production out of Todd Frazier at third base. He had a solid .407 slugging percentage in his first full season as a starter, but he’s prone to hot and cold streaks.
Much of the focus this spring and early summer will be on Hamilton. He spent last season at Triple-A Louisville learning to play center field after starting his career as a shortstop. The Reds aren’t concerned about his defense. He will cover any ground Bruce and Ryan Ludwick don’t in the corners. Hamilton has made his name from his work on the basepaths. He stole 13 of 14 bases as a September call-up, but that was mostly as a pinch-runner. Now he’s being asked to be the team’s leadoff hitter and get on base at the MLB level. Bruce continues to improve each season. He was top 10 in the NL in home runs, RBIs, total bases, doubles, extra-base hits and outfield assists in 2013. He earned a second consecutive Silver Slugger award last season, and he’ll be just 27 years old this season. His continued development gives the Reds a consistent threat in the middle of the lineup. Ludwick played in only 38 games because of a torn right shoulder labrum. He spent the last month of the season getting into playing shape and finding his swing. The Reds would like to keep him penciled in as their cleanup hitter, batting in between Votto and Bruce. He also is a strong clubhouse presence, something that was missed in 2013.
Veteran Ryan Hanigan was traded to Tampa Bay in the offseason to make room for Devin Mesoraco. A former first-round pick, Mesoraco showed greater command calling games behind the plate in 2013 when Hanigan was out with injury. He hit nine homers last season, and his power numbers should increase this year, but he will be in the lineup because of his defense. The Reds signed former Detroit backup Brayan Pena to fill the same role in Cincinnati this season.
Skip Schumaker, formerly with the Cardinals and Dodgers, can play just about anywhere on the field. He’ll be able to spell Hamilton in center at times, but if he’s playing there too much because Hamilton struggles at the plate, then the Reds are in trouble. There isn’t much power off of the bench, although Chris Heisey has shown that capability at times. Jack Hannahan is solid defensively as a corner infielder and gives the Reds a left-handed bat. Veteran infielder Ramon Santiago, a switch-hitter, will most likely be given the 25th spot on the roster.
The Reds have a commitment to winning from the front office of owner Bob Castellini on down. They are proactive in the community and at the stadium, all with an eye on being a championship-caliber organization. General manager Walt Jocketty and Baker had a contentious relationship that finally came to a head after the Wild Card loss at Pittsburgh. Naming Price as the new manager was a no-brainer; he built the pitching staff into one of MLB’s best the past four seasons and is respected in the clubhouse.
The Reds will again be in contention for the NL Central title and the postseason if for no other reason than their starting pitching. They have to get better production offensively from the shortstop, third base, left field and catcher positions this season, and figure out the back end of the bullpen in Chapman’s absence. Too often last season there wasn’t enough balance in the order, with the back end not contributing enough on a consistent basis. Hamilton can’t be expected to be as good as Choo leading off, but if he continues to improve throughout the season, the Reds should be fine. Another 90 wins and a postseason berth are hardly guaranteed, but this is a club capable of much more than it showed at the end of 2013.
CF Billy Hamilton (S)
Stole 13 of 14 bases in September call-up. Trick this season will be getting on base consistently.
2B Brandon Phillips (R)
Tied for MLB lead with 19 game-winning RBIs and was third with 35 go-ahead RBIs.
1B Joey Votto (L)
Has led NL in walks in three straight seasons and on-base percentage in four straight seasons.
LF Ryan Ludwick (R)
Tore labrum in shoulder on Opening Day but returned to play 37 more games. Will start 2014 healthy.
RF Jay Bruce (L)
Joined Dave Parker and Frank Robinson as only Reds with 40 doubles, 30 HRs, 100 RBIs in a season.
3B Todd Frazier (R)
Was fourth on the team with .407 slugging and .721 OPS despite just a .234 batting average.
C Devin Mesoraco (R )
Had .874 OPS vs. lefthanders but just .576 vs. righthanders last season.
SS Zack Cozart (R)
Hit .304 in final 31 appearances last season and had a career-high 15-game hitting streak in second half.
INF Jack Hannahan (L)
Had nine pinch hits to tie for the team lead and started games at three different positions.
OF Chris Heisey (R)
Injuries limited him to career-low 87 games, including 42 as the starter in left field after Ludwick injury.
C Brayan Pena (S)
Hit .297 in a career-high 243 plate appearances as backup in Detroit in 2013.
INF Ramon Santiago (S)
Batted just .215 in 433 at-bats over the past two seasons as the Tigers’ primary backup infielder.
UT Skip Schumaker (R)
Started at least eight games at four different positions for the Dodgers in 2013.
RH Johnny Cueto
Has a 2.92 ERA over last four seasons but poor start in playoffs at Pittsburgh haunted offseason.
RH Mat Latos
Went at least six innings in 28 of 32 starts, including last 12 while pitching career-high 210.2 innings.
RH Homer Bailey
Has lowered his ERA every season since 2009, including 3.49 in career-high 209 innings last season.
RH Mike Leake
Showing signs of getting physically stronger, including scoreless streak of 20.1 innings in September.
LH Tony Cingrani
Made 18 starts out of 23 appearances, allowing more than three runs in just one of those starts.
LH Aroldis Chapman (Closer)
Had 38 saves in 43 opportunities but didn’t have save chance in final nine games, including playoffs. After taking a liner to his face in a spring game, he’ll probably miss the first half of the season.
RH Jonathan Broxton
Veteran reliever is making his way back from torn flexor muscle in right arm.
RH J.J. Hoover
Led the pitching staff with 69 appearances, including scoreless streak of 26.1 innings over 23 appearances. The closing job probably falls to him.
LH Sean Marshall
Shoulder issues limited him to only 16 appearances in 2013 after averaging 77 games previous three seasons.
RH Sam LeCure
Only gave up 50 hits and had 66 strikeouts in 61 innings pitched last season.
LH Manny Parra
Revived career in 2013, stranding 30 of 35 inherited runners for the season.
RH Alfredo Simon
Long reliever tossed at least two innings in 20 of his 63 appearances last season.
2013 Top Draft Pick
Phillip Ervin, OF
Ervin had a successful first season in pro ball after the Reds selected him 27th overall in the draft. Ervin, a centerfielder from Samford University in Alabama, played in 46 games between Rookie League Billings and Class A Dayton of the Midwest League. He hit .331 with nine home runs, 35 RBIs, with a .425 on-base percentage and 14 stolen bases while getting thrown out just once. If he starts at Dayton this year, don’t expect him there too long. The Reds really like Ervin — a former MVP of the wood bat Cape Cod League while in college — and are going to give him every chance to move up through the organization quickly. He is already rated as their No. 4 prospect by MLB.com.
RHP Nick Travieso (20)
The Reds’ top pick in 2012 pitched in 17 games at Low-A Dayton with 4.63 ERA in 81.2 innings last season.
RHP Robert Stephenson (21)
Progressed from Low-A to Class AA last season. Went a combined 7–7 with a 2.99 ERA and 1.111 WHIP in his three stops in the minors.
OF Yorman Rodriguez (21)
The slender outfielder is still developing power. Last season he hit .259 with 35 doubles combined at High-A and Double-A.
OF Jesse Winker (20)
Played full season at Class A Dayton and finished with .281/.379/.463 line with 76 RBIs in 112 games.
RHP Michael Lorenzen (22)
Was second of two picks Reds had in 2013 first round. Reds like his arm enough to move him quickly from Arizona League to Double-A Pensacola last season.
RHP Daniel Corcino (23)
Struggled at Class AAA Louisville last season, giving up 141 hits in 129 IP and finishing 7–14 with 5.86 ERA. Still just 23.
LHP David Holmberg (22 )
Acquired in three-team offseason trade that sent Ryan Hanigan to Tampa Bay. Former second-round pick (2009) of the Chicago White Sox.
2B Ryan Wright (24)
Solid season at Class A Bakersfield, playing in 100 games with eight home runs, 23 doubles and 52 RBIs.
Beyond the Box Score
Left out The Reds were counting on Ryan Ludwick to provide a big bat in the middle of the lineup, but when he tore his right shoulder labrum on Opening Day sliding head-first into third base, it put a crimp in the lineup. Even with Ludwick’s return in the middle of August, Cincinnati left fielders hit just .250 with a .313 on-base percentage and .374 slugging percentage. They had a combined 14 home runs and 65 RBIs.
Inspiring fear Joey Votto has led the National League in walks three straight seasons, making him the first Reds player to do so and just the ninth player in the NL ever to accomplish the feat. Barry Bonds (2000-04) was the last player on that list. Votto’s power numbers were down last season (24 home runs, 30 doubles, 73 RBIs), but there was concern he hadn’t fully healed from two knee procedures in 2012. Let’s see how much his approach changes this season.
Stability at short Zack Cozart is expected to make his third straight Opening Day start at shortstop this year. It’s not an extraordinary streak except that he will become the first Reds shortstop to do so since Barry Larkin retired in 2004. From 1970-2004, Dave Concepcion and Larkin started 32 of 35 Opening Day games at shortstop for Cincinnati. Since Larkin’s retirement, the Reds have had seven different shortstops start on Opening Day. Only Alex Gonzalez (2007, ’09) started more than once before Cozart.
Superstar For the first time in his career, Jay Bruce didn’t increase his home run totals. He still hit 30 homers last season, and his all-around game improved. He had a career-high 43 doubles and 109 RBIs, allowing him to join Frank Robinson (1962) and Dave Parker (1985) as the only Reds players to have 30 homers, 40 doubles and 100 RBIs in a season.
Lost leader The Reds allowed Bronson Arroyo to become a free agent without offering him a qualifying contract this offseason. This was a tough move for the team but one in keeping with their player development philosophy. They’ve got young arms in Tony Cingrani and Robert Stephenson ready to push for time with at the MLB level, but Arroyo’s contributions the past eight seasons can’t be underestimated. He led the National League with 105 wins, 265 starts and 1,690.1 innings in that span. His 265 starts also led all of MLB.
At this point, mediocrity would be considered a major upgrade. The Theo Epstein era is heading into its third year, and the results from the first two are some of the most hideous in team history. The Cubs lost 197 games over this stretch, which represents the worst two-year period ever experienced by the North Side club. Epstein, the savior credited for Boston’s success, has a long-range plan, but Cubs fans seem to have short-term expectations. The fact that current management signed manager Dale Sveum to a three-year deal and then axed him after the second season caused some to wonder how well this plan is working. Most fans are willing to give Epstein and his staff time to get things turned around, but there is no denying that the product on the field has been uninspiring, and there don’t appear to be many reinforcements on the way in the very near future. There aren’t many players on the 2014 roster to get excited about other than befuddling shortstop Starlin Castro and first baseman Anthony Rizzo, whose first full season in the majors produced decent-but-not-great numbers. Outfielder Junior Lake could command some buzz judging by a 64-game dress rehearsal last year. But most of the other players on the roster are cost-effective patchwork pieces who could end up elsewhere at any time in order to keep feeding the beast in the minors. When new manager Rick Renteria was hired in November, he had so much pain in his hips — following October surgery — that he couldn’t make a trip to Chicago to be introduced to the media. He may be in for some equally painful moments this season.
There was some speculation that Jeff Samardzija would be a guy the Cubs would build their pitching staff around, but now it appears he is on the trade market. They didn’t deal him during the winter meetings, but he could be on the block during the season. The former Notre Dame two-sport athlete leads a staff that had moments of brilliance last year but not enough to guide the Cubs to a winning mark. He threw 213.2 innings and struck out 214 hitters but also had a 4.34 ERA to go with an 8–13 record. Travis Wood will battle Samardzija for the job as the No. 1 starter. Wood had a 3.11 ERA and made the All-Star team in 2013 but also had a losing record (9–12). He could be the subject of trade talks during the season if he continues to give up runs at a stingy pace — and if the Cubs, as expected, are out of contention early. The first year of Edwin Jackson’s surprising four-year deal resulted in 18 losses and a 4.98 ERA. Because there are three years left on the contract, it’s likely he’ll be sticking around this season since he would be difficult to move. Jake Arrieta entered spring training as a favorite for a spot in the rotation, but shoulder soreness has delayed his progress. James McDonald and Jason Hammel will likely complete the quintet, although lefthander Chris Rusin, a former fourth-round pick, gave up just 66 hits in 66.1 innings last season.
Up-and-down closer Carlos Marmol finally departed last year, and his successor Kevin Gregg (33 saves) is also gone. The Cubs signed well-traveled Jose Veras initially for the closer’s role, but there could be a couple of other candidates. The Cubs also inked a deal with lefthander Wesley Wright, who has 51 career holds. Righthander Hector Rondon concluded the 2013 season on a high note, allowing no runs and one hit over nine innings in his final nine appearances in September. Southpaw James Russell and righthander Pedro Strop will settle into roles in the bullpen as well. Strop, who struck out 42 in 35 innings after joining the Cubs last season, was considered a serious candidate for the closer’s job before Veras’ signing.
Castro went from a .307 hitter with 207 hits in 674 at-bats in his first full season in 2011 to a .245 hitter with 163 hits in 666 at-bats in 2013. He has frustrated his previous managers, but Cubs officials believe that Renteria might be able to get through to the enigmatic shortstop. Castro’s fielding remains inconsistent; he’s brilliant at times but is prone to concentration lapses. Second baseman Darwin Barney is one of the best defensive players the Cubs have had in years. He has committed only seven errors in two seasons and won a Gold Glove Award in 2012. But his .208 batting average in 2013 could find him scrambling to keep his starting job if any of the young infield prospects are ready to break into the majors.
Rizzo’s first full season in Chicago was slightly disappointing since expectations were so high. He hit 23 home runs with 80 RBIs but only hit .233 with a .419 slugging percentage. General manager Jed Hoyer is still high on the former sixth-round pick of the Red Sox, so look for Rizzo to get every opportunity to succeed in Chicago. Luis Valbuena, who hit only .218 in 331 at-bats last season, likely will be the Opening Day starter at third base, but he is simply a stopgap. If top shortstop prospect Javier Baez is ready to break into the majors anytime soon, the Cubs may toy with moving Castro to third. The Cubs also haven’t ruled out prospect Mike Olt at third this season. He struggled a Triple-A Iowa last summer after his trade from Texas, but this spring he appears completely rid of lingering concussion issues that plagued him in 2013.
The brightest spot on the team is the outfield. Lake, the left fielder, played well in his 64-game tryout last year. The 24-year-old Dominican hit .295 with 14 stolen bases in Class AAA before his call-up on July 19 and proceeded to hit .284 with the big club. Lake was known for having one of the strongest arms in the minor leagues. Center field will likely be divvied up between right-handed hitting Justin Ruggiano and left-handed hitting Ryan Sweeney. Sweeney was the Cubs’ top hitter at .295 until a rib injury suffered in June sidelined him for two months. Ruggiano showed some pop last year for Miami, hitting 18 home runs in 424 at-bats, but he struck out 114 times with a .298 on-base percentage. Nate Schierholtz hit 21 homers in 137 games playing right field last year in his first season with the team. He will be expected to be a top run-producer in 2014.
Welington Castillo had a solid season at the plate, hitting .274, and he continues to show significant improvement defensively. He missed the final two weeks after undergoing arthroscopic surgery to repair a torn meniscus in his right knee. Castillo is one of the few current players likely in the team’s long-range plans.
Veteran infielder Donnie Murphy could challenge for time at third base, or maybe even second if Barney’s bat continues to go soft. Olt will likely stick on the major league roster, even if he isn’t the everyday third baseman. Renteria believes he can get him enough at-bats to warrant keeping him in the bigs. George Kottaras, who has never played more than 85 games in a major-league season, will be Castillo’s backup behind the plate. Non-roster invitee Emilo Bonifacio apparently has earned a roster spot. His blazing speed and ability to play all over the field make him a valuable reserve.
The brass signed Renteria, who has no major-league managing experience, for three years with two one-year club options, which indicates that the Cubs are not just looking at him to be a caretaker over a rebuilding club. Expectations will remain low this season — and probably in 2015 — but the team is confident that Renteria will be the right man to take them to high places after the team starts to resemble a contender. For the most part, just about everyone from the old regime is out of the front office — as well as off the field — and it is pretty much full speed ahead with Epstein’s people. The Cubs owners, the Ricketts family, might be getting a little impatient about the losing, the lack of buzz and the declining attendance. Look for the team to market its MVP — Wrigley Field — heavily during the team’s 100th year at the park this season.
The Cubs’ roster has a lot of moveable — and removable — parts, and like in the past two seasons, there could be a lot of players coming and going as Epstein and his staff continue to strengthen the farm system. Renteria, a rookie manager, will have an opportunity to learn on the job in his inaugural season with the team. A run at .500 may still be an unrealistic goal for a team still working its way through a lengthy rebuild.
SS Starlin Castro (R)
He’s hit just about everywhere in the Cubs’ lineup, but leadoff might be his best option.
3B Luis Valbuena (L)
Light hitter can make himself valuable by bunting Castro to second when he reaches base.
RF Nate Schierholtz (L)
Supplied decent power last year with 21 home runs and 68 RBIs in 462 at-bats. Was it a fluke?
1B Anthony Rizzo (L)
Led the team in homers (23) and RBIs (80) last year, but that wasn’t a spectacular accomplishment.
LF Junior Lake (R)
Had a 27.8 line-drive rate in his 64-game debut. Will be dangerous if he continues at that pace.
C Welington Castillo (R)
Hit .295 in day games last year, and the Cubs still play more day games than anyone else in the majors.
CF Ryan Sweeney (L)
Veteran was leading the team in hitting (.295) before crashing into a wall in late June.
2B Darwin Barney (R)
Ace defender, but he needs to step up his offense or he could be riding the bench.
OF Justin Ruggiano (R)
Hit 18 HRs in 128 games with Miami in 2013. Should get plenty of starts against left-handed pitching.
C George Kottaras (L)
Career backup is on his fifth team in six seasons. Has solid power but strikes out a ton.
INF Donnie Murphy (R)
Broke into the majors in 2004, but has played in only 290 games, including 46 with the Cubs last year.
UT Emilio Bonifacio (S)
The switch-hitter who turns 29 in April has started as many as 20 games at six different positions in his seven-year career.
3B Mike Olt (R)
Has shown decent power in the minors, but struggled to keep his average propped up.
RH Jeff Samardzija
Ace? Trade bait? Maybe a little of both on a team that isn’t picked to do much this season.
LH Travis Wood
Won only nine games in 32 starts, but his ERA was 3.11 with a 1.145 WHIP.
RH Edwin Jackson
Opponents hit .281 off of him last year, and he was 1–7 in his final 10 starts.
RH Jake Arrieta
Went 4–2 with a 3.66 ERA and a 1.123 WHIP in nine starts after trade from Baltimore on July 2.
RH Jason Hammel
Began 2012 8-2 over first 14 starts for Baltimore with a 2.61 ERA and 1.115 WHIP. But injuries cost him about a dozen starts.
RH James McDonald
Could make a few spot starts until Arrieta is completely healthy.
RH Jose Veras (Closer)
The biggest acquisition the Cubs made at the winter meetings, Veras is the favorite to win the closer’s spot.
RH Pedro Strop
Pegged as the main setup man but could be used as a closer if Veras falters.
LH Wesley Wright
Had a 3.69 ERA in 70 appearances with Houston and Tampa Bay in 2013; will serve as a setup man in ’14.
LH James Russell
After a 7–1 mark in 2012, fell to 1–6 last year but his WHIP dropped from 1.298 to 1.215.
RH Hector Rondon
Righty reliever who held left-handed batters to a .192 average but struggled against righties (.306).
RH Blake Parker
A sparkling 2.72 ERA in 49 games got the attention of the Cubs’ brass.
RH Carlos Villanueva
Has started 44 games over last three seasons with the Blue Jays and Cubs.
LH Chris Rusin
Former Kentucky Wildcat had a 2–6 record in 13 starts but was able to keep his ERA under 4.00.
2013 Top Draft Pick
Kris Bryant, 3B
Bryant is two degrees separated from Ted Williams. Bryant learned a lot about hitting from his father, Mike. Mike Bryant was a Boston Red Sox farmhand in the 1980s and was coached by Williams. That alone won’t get a lot of notice, but slamming 31 homers in 62 college games will, and that’s what Bryant did as a junior at the University of San Diego. The Cubs snapped up the 6'5" third baseman with the No. 2 overall pick in the draft. Bryant hit well last summer — a combined .336 with nine home runs in stops in Rookie ball and Low-A and High-A — but was even more impressive in the fall. He hit .364 with six homers and 17 RBIs in the Arizona Fall League and was named the league MVP. He’ll probably start in Class AA this year, and if he does well, the Cubs could be tempted to bring him up in September.
OF Albert Almora (19)
Shelved with an injury after hitting .329 and slugging .466 in 61 games for Class A Kane County. Former No. 6 overall pick is a career .326 hitter in the minors.
SS Javier Baez (21)
Top prospect could be called up to the bigs this season. Hit a combined 37 home runs last year and slugged .638 in 54 games with Class AA Tennessee. Still considered a top shortstop, he’s expected to play some second base this season in the minors.
OF Jorge Soler (22)
A left tibia injury slowed his progress, but the Cuban star still has a high ceiling as a power hitter.
3B Mike Olt (25)
He struggled at Class AAA Iowa after the Cubs acquired him in a trade, but he was dealing with issues related to a concussion.
RHP Pierce Johnson (22)
Quickly moved up the Class A ladder and is ready for bigger challenges.
RHP C.J. Edwards (22)
Had a 1.96 ERA in six starts with Class A Daytona.
1B Dan Vogelbach (21)
Has slammed 37 HRs and driven in 144 runs in first 198 minor-league games.
2B-SS Arismendy Alcantara (22)
The switch-hitter may be blocked by both Baez and Castro, but he had 36 doubles and 31 steals at Double-A last summer, splitting time between second and short.
Beyond the Box Score
100 years at Wrigley In honor of the team’s 100th season at Wrigley Field, the Cubs began to unveil 100 Great Times at Wrigley Field at their convention in January. During spring training and every regular-season home game, the team will unveil another memorable moment. Fans will also be able to follow the tributes via social media.
Back where he started Eric Hinske, who recently retired after 12 years in the big leagues, has been named the Cubs’ new first base coach. Hinske played five seasons with Toronto and also played with Boston, Tampa Bay, Pittsburgh, the Yankees, Atlanta and Arizona. He won World Series titles with Boston in 2007 and the Yankees in 2009. But few remember that Hinske was selected by the Cubs in the 17th round of the 1998 draft out of the University of Arkansas. He never played with the parent club and was traded to Oakland for Miguel Cairo in 2001.
Legal issues Shortstop Starlin Castro hit just .245 last year, and he may be blaming some of his struggles on a lawsuit filed in his native Dominican Republic. He is being sued by a baseball school for $3.6 million because of a contract his father signed when Castro was 16. Castro’s camp countersued, and his attorneys maintain that the original suit had a “direct impact on his duties as a professional ballplayer, leading to one of his worst-ever statistical performances.”
Walk this way First baseman Anthony Rizzo helped raise $100,000 in Parkland, Fla., in his second “Walk Off For Cancer” event in December. Rizzo, diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma in May 2008, has been cancer free for five years. The money will go to the Joe DiMaggio Children’s Hospital Foundation.
Does this add up? The Cubs ranked second in the National League in home runs (172) and first in extra-base hits (487) yet finished next-to-last in the league with only 602 runs scored. It was the fewest runs scored by the Cubs in a full season since the 1992 team only scored 593. The Cubs also ranked 27th in the majors in batting with a .238 team average.
Walk this way The Cubs’ pitchers issued 540 walks last season, the most in the NL and the third-most in the majors. Jeff Samardzija led the team and ranked seventh in MLB with 78 walks.
There is no secret what is wrong with the Florida Gators. The offense has been horrendous.
Florida scored 14 rushing touchdowns and 11 passing touchdowns a year ago en route to what is arguably the worst season in school history on the football field. During the 2008 national title season, the Gators scored 75 offensive touchdowns — 42 of which came from Tim Tebow alone. In fact, Florida scored 204 offensive touchdowns from 2007-09.
Certainly, injuries ravaged this unit along both the offensive line and among the skill players. It began before the season and continued for six painful months of ineptitude. But a change had to made and Will Muschamp hired his third offensive coordinator in four years.
Enter Kurt Roper.
The former Duke coordinator has plenty of SEC experience but no one on this current Gators roster resembles anyone named Manning. The new-look coaching staff's first order of business is to energize the offense and create a more balanced team overall.
The Gators have plenty of talent — the No. 2-ranked roster in the nation — and will be nasty on defense once again. But if this offense doesn't take major strides in 2014, not only will Florida not compete for an SEC title but Muschamp could find himself out of work.
|Sept. 27||Bye Week|
|Oct. 25||Bye Week|
|Nov. 22||Eastern Kentucky|
Florida Gators 2014 Spring Preview
2013 Record: 4-8 (3-5 SEC)
Spring Practice Opens: March 19
Spring Game: April 12
Three Things to Watch in Florida's 2014 Spring Practice
Complete a forward pass
It helps when all of your quarterbacks are healthy, of course, but Roper has his work cut out for him in terms of developing a quarterback. A big reason why Roper was hired as the Gators' new coordinator is because he honed his knowledge of signal-callers and the passing game under QB-guru David Cutcliffe for many years. Jeff Driskel is back and appears to be healthy but will have to take it easy while young gun true freshman Will Grier has been drawing a lot of ink from those who follow the team closely. Driskel is the odds-on favorite to start out of the gate but fans can bet that Roper won't have any loyalty to the incumbent. At wide receiver, the return of Andre Debose, the maturation of Demarcus Robinson and the continued development of players like Quinton Dunbar also will help as Roper installs his up-tempo shotgun passing attack. The new coordinator has brought a renewed energy to the Florida offense but there is still a lot of work left to be done before this team can brag about any sort of offensive prowess.
Rebuild the offensive line
Injuries tend to be relatively fluky and no position on this team was more impacted by that in 2013 than the O-line. Two of the only stable names along the line last year, Jonotthan Harrison and Jon Halapio, have both moved on as well as other contributors Ian Silberman and Kyle Koehne. There is a lot returning in terms of overall talent but this unit needs to stabilize and, more importantly, stay healthy. Star left tackle D.J. Humphries played six games, fellow tackle Chaz Green missed the entire season, Tyler Moore played in just six games, and Trenton Brown made just five starts. Max Garcia played both guard and tackle last year and is the only returning player with more than six starts from a year ago. If Roper wants to develop a passing game and keep his quarterbacks healthy, this unit must grow together quickly this spring.
Reload at the back end of the defense
Jaylen Watkins (52 tackles) and Cody Riggs (51) were veteran players who had a lot of SEC snaps under their belts. Both are gone and that leaves a void at the back end of what should still be a very talented secondary. The cornerback unit on this team is among the best in the nation despite the loss of Loucheiz Purifoy and Marcus Roberson, but someone needs to develop in center field. Brian Poole got plenty of playing time last year (32 tackles) and Keanu Neal, Jabari Gorman and Marcus Maye will step into bigger roles as well. There really isn't any glaring weakness on the Gators' defense but replacing two veteran leaders on the back end might be the top order of business for a unit that is loaded with elite prospects on every level.
2014 Early Projected Win Range: 6-8
More so than most teams in the nation, Florida fans can't wait to forget about 2013 and are welcoming the Playoff Era with open arms. Ideally, Kurt Roper will be the saving grace for embattled head coach Will Muschamp. The current Gators regime has proven it can recruit in a big way and has proven it can get to a BCS bowl but it also lost to an FCS team that didn't complete a pass. And Muschamp doesn't get any favors with Alabama and LSU on the crossover slate this fall. But this team is entirely too talented not to return to the postseason and the rest of the SEC East — Mizzou, Georgia, South Carolina — could be taking small steps back in '14. This team will be in games and have lots of chances to win but will need to stay healthy, find balance on offense and finish games with a killer instinct if it wants to compete in the East.
Gus Malzahn had quite a first year at Auburn.
Not only did he become just the third first-year coach to win the SEC championship, he also produced the greatest turnaround in SEC history. From winless to within seconds of a BCS national championship doesn't happen every day.
Essentially, Malzahn is now a victim of his own success as anything less than a repeat will appear lackluster to a rabid fan base like Auburn. Nick Marshall returns with a talented set of receivers around him as he enters spring as a seasoned veteran under center. And the defensive depth chart is stacked with rising stars, in particular, all over the front seven.
But this team almost has to take a step back in 2014. Offensive superstars Tre Mason and Greg Robinson have moved on to the NFL while cult heroes Dee Ford and Chris Davis are gone from the defense. Other holes at defensive line, in the secondary and fullback are concerning as well.
Auburn could be the top challenger to Alabama in the SEC West this fall but before Malzahn leads his team into what appears to be a brutal schedule, the Tigers must address some needs in spring camp.
|Sept. 13||Bye Week|
|Oct. 18||Bye Week|
Auburn Tigers 2014 Spring Preview
2013 Record: 12-2 (7-1 SEC)
Spring Practice Opens: March 18
Spring Game: April 19
Three Things to Watch in Auburn's 2014 Spring Practice
Establish balance on offense
Running backs Corey Grant and Cameron Artis-Payne were excellent backups to Tre Mason a year ago and should be able to carry the offensive load this fall. And no, Malzahn will never throw the ball 50 times per game. But developing quarterback Nick Marshall as a passer in an effort to find some balance could make this team virtually unstoppable on offense. There are a lot of names in the receiving corps but no elite playmakers other than possibly Sammie Coates — which is why newcomers like D'haquille Williams and Stanton Truitt are already drawing first-team reps. Williams has the ability to stretch the field with his big frame while Truitt provides speed and elusiveness from the slot. Of course, replacing uber-athlete Greg Robinson at left tackle to protect Marshall's blindside would go a long way in helping to create this desired offensive balance.
Develop the youth up front on defense
Dee Ford, Nosa Eguae, Kenneth Carter and Craig Sanders are all gone from the defensive line. While losing four contributors, including a first-team All-SEC playmaker, would hurt any defense, Malzahn and coordinator Ellis Johnson shouldn't be too worried about the front seven. Gabe Wright anchors the line but also will be asked to provide an example for his younger peers this spring. Rising true sophomores Carl Lawson, Montravius Adams and Elijah Daniel have elite ability and upside but need to be groomed as starters in their first full offseason. Filling a hole left by the steady Jake Holland at linebacker will also be critical but most of the last season's depth chart returns — including Cassanova McKinzy and Kris Frost. This unit may take some lumps this spring and into the fall as some of these players develop, but there's no disputing their talent and potential. Should they become all-league players this fall, Auburn could actually be improved on defense by season's end.
Organize the secondary
Two safeties, Ryan White (54 tackles) and Ryan Smith (68 tackles), have moved on and star cornerback Chris Davis graduated as well. The Tigers' secondary is arguably the biggest area of concern for Auburn this spring and after injuries moved the depth chart around last fall, Malzahn is likely looking to settle on a rotation. Jonathon Mincy returns to one corner spot but depth needs to be developed around him. Robenson Therezie and Jermaine Whitehead got plenty of experience a year ago and ideally will become one of the SEC's better safety tandems. Elsewhere, look for former running back Johnathan Ford and early enrollee Derrick Moncrief to get looks while both Joshua Holsey and Jonathan Jones recover from injuries. There were a lot of moving parts in this department for Auburn last year and organizing the depth chart is key this spring.
2014 Early Projected Win Range: 9-11
The Tigers literally went from worst to first and won't sneak up on anyone in 2014. Teams will be more focused on stopping Marshall and the Auburn defensive front is going to be very young. This roster's talent is much closer to the 12-2 record of last year than the 0-8 team from two years ago so optimism should fill Jordan-Hare Stadium. This team is an SEC contender without a doubt, but the Tigers face a nasty schedule this fall befitting a former conference champion. Road games at Alabama, Georgia, Ole Miss and Mississippi State are brutal, as is a trip to The Little Apple to face Kansas State in non-conference action. Toss in home games with LSU, South Carolina and Texas A&M and Auburn will be hard-pressed to win the West once again. However, as we all learned last season, strange things can happen down on The Plains.
Other than the SEC, the Big 12 is the only league in the nation that brags two different national champions during the BCS Era.
Texas and Oklahoma dominate this league unlike two teams in any other league in the nation. Fifteen of the top 25 players hail from either Austin or Norman. But the rise of other programs like Oklahoma State, Baylor, Texas Tech and Kansas State during the last 16 years has made this league incredibly balanced and particularly deep — despite the turnover created by realignment.
The Big 12 also was the place to be during the BCS Era for quarterbacks. Four Heisman Trophy winners, seven BCS National Championship Game appearances from six different signal-callers, two national titles and a guy who set the record for most wins by a college quarterback say as much. Another one set the NCAA record for passing touchdowns, another topped 16,000 yards passing and 21 separate times someone threw for at least 4,000 yards.
The SEC has two 4,000-yard passing seasons in its eight-decade history. The SEC has perfected the "super quarterback" (Tim Tebow, Cam Newton, Johnny Manziel) but the Big 12 invented it.
Needless to say, trying to narrow this list down to 25 names was nearly impossible but here are Athlon Sports' Top 25 Big 12 players of the BCS Era. Frankly, it's a testament to the depth of the Big 12 that names like Earl Thomas, Quentin Griffin, Tavon Austin and Jeremy Maclin just missed the cut. The only stipulation is that you must have played at least one season between 1998-13 in the conference.
1. Vince Young, QB, Texas (2003-05)
Stats: 6,040 yds, 44 TDs, 28 INTs, 61.8%, 3,127 yds, 37 TDs
The Texas quarterback was the most unstoppable single force of the BCS Era. Just ask Kansas. Or Colorado. Or USC even. He earned Rose Bowl MVP honors following his ridiculous performance against Michigan to finish his sophomore season. It was a sign of things to come as he was named Big 12 Player of the Year in 2005. The Longhorns' offense averaged more than 50 points per game, he was a consensus All-American, led the Big 12 in passing efficiency, won the Davey O'Brien, Manning and Maxwell Awards while finishing second on the Heisman ballot. His smooth running skills led to an all-time Big 12 career record 6.8 yards per carry. And no one will ever forget his second Rose Bowl MVP performance against USC in the greatest game of the BCS Era, returning the national championship to Austin.
2. Adrian Peterson, RB, Oklahoma (2004-06)
Stats: 747 att., 4,045 yds, 41 TDs, 24 rec., 198 yds, TD
The BCS version of Herschel Walker or Bo Jackson was the three-year star from Palestine (Texas) High. A three-time, first-team All-Big 12 runner finished No. 2 in the Heisman Trophy voting as a true freshman in 2004. His 1,925 yards was an NCAA record for a true freshman and it earned him unanimous All-American honors. Despite missing chunks of time with injuries in each of his next two seasons, “All Day” Peterson still topped 1,000 yards and 12 touchdowns. His natural blend of power, speed, size and balance has never been duplicated during the BCS era. He rushed for 970 yards for the Vikings in 2011 in a season shortened by a torn ACL, the only time since high school that A.D. hasn’t rushed for at least 1,000 yards. He is the Sooners' No. 3 all-time leading rusher.
3. Ndamukong Suh, DT, Nebraska (2005-09)
That one name that stands above the rest is the Boy Named Suh. The star defensive tackle from Portland, Ore., won the 2009 Outland and Nagurski Trophies as well as the Lombardi, Bednarik and Willis Awards. He was the first defensive player to win AP Player of the Year honors since its inception in 1998 and finished fourth in the Heisman Trophy voting in ’09. That year Suh claimed the Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year award and he came just seconds shy of leading the Huskers to their first conference championship since 1999. He finished his career with 215 tackles, 57.0 for a loss, 24.0 sacks and six blocked kicks.
4. Ricky Williams, RB, Texas (1995-98)
Stats: 1,011 att., 6,279 yds, 72 TDs, 85 rec., 927 yds, 3 TDs
The power back from San Diego gave fans in Austin a preview of things to come when he rushed for 990 yards as a true freshman fullback. His two-year run as an upperclassman may never be matched, as he posted back-to-back seasons with at least 1,800 yards and 25 rushing touchdowns. Williams was a two-time consensus All-American, a two-time Doak Walker Award winner, a two-time Big 12 Offensive Player of the Year and claimed the Maxwell Award, Walter Camp Award and Heisman Trophy as a senior. He left school as the NCAA’s all-time leading rusher (since broken) and he is one of four players to ever score at least 70 rushing touchdowns.
5. Robert Griffin III, QB, Baylor (2008-11)
Stats: 10,366 yds, 78 TDs, 17 INTs, 67.1%, 2,254 yds, 33 TDs
Right alongside Andrew Luck will always be RG3, as the duo will forever be linked in football history. Griffin III beat out the Cardinal signal-caller to win the 2011 Heisman Trophy while leading Baylor to back-to-back bowl games. He led the NCAA in passing efficiency (189.5) — a Big 12 single-season record — and posted the fourth-best season in terms of total offense in conference history (4,992 yards, the most by any non-Texas Tech quarterback). He was a consensus All-American and won the Davey O'Brien and Manning Awards to go with his stiff-armed trophy. In fact, few players at any position in any league have meant more to their school than Griffin III. His impact on Baylor Bears football is immeasurable and could continue for decades. Had he been healthy for his entire career — he missed nine games in 2009 — his numbers might have been the best the BCS Era has ever seen.
6. Roy Williams, S, Oklahoma (1999-2001)
7. Sam Bradford, QB, Oklahoma (2007-09)
Stats: 8,403 yds, 88 TDs, 16 INTs, 67.6%, 5 rush TDs
It didn't take long for the three-star recruit to establish himself as one of Oklahoma's best of all-time. He set a school record for yards in a half in the first half of his career and broke another school record for consecutive completions the next game (22) — still a Big 12 record and two shy of the NCAA mark (Tee Martin). By season's end, Bradford owned the NCAA's all-time freshman passing touchdowns record (since broken) with 36. He also won the Big 12 championship. The following season, Bradford led the Sooners to the BCS title game against Florida and beat out Tim Tebow and Colt McCoy for the Heisman Trophy. He won Sammy Baugh and Davey O'Brien honors as well. Bradford owns the NCAA record for career quarterback efficiency at 175.6 making him the most efficient quarterback in the history of the game. He also owns the NCAA mark for yards per play (8.7) and 86 of his 88 career touchdown passes came in just two seasons.
8. Michael Crabtree, WR, Texas Tech (2007-08)
Stats: 231 rec., 3,127 yds, 41 TDs
No player has been as productive in just two seasons as the Dallas, Texas native. As a redshirt freshman, Crabtree set NCAA records for receptions (134), yards (1,962) and touchdowns (22) and won the Biletnikoff Award as the nation’s top wideout. He also won Big 12 Newcomer and Offensive Player of the Year honors and still owns the single-season league record for receptions and yards as just a freshman. He became the first player in NCAA history to win a second Biletnikoff Award when he caught 97 passes for 1,165 yards and 19 touchdowns for the 11-2 Red Raiders the next year. He finished fifth in the Heisman balloting in ’08 — one of just four wide receivers to finish in the top five during the BCS Era. Certainly, Mike Leach’s system inflated the two-time consensus All-American’s numbers, but the 6-foot-2, 215-pound wideout was — and still is — easily the most talented Texas Tech receiver in program history.
9. Colt McCoy, QB, Texas (2006-09)
Stats: 13,253 yds, 112 TDs, 45 INTs, 70.3%, 1,571 yds, 20 TDs
Few players got more out of their abilities than McCoy. He was a two-time consensus All-American as a junior and senior, finishing second in the Heisman as a junior and third as a senior. McCoy was the 2009 Big 12 Player of the Year and claimed the Walter Camp, Maxwell, Manning, Unitas and Davey O'Brien Awards over his last two seasons. En route to the 2009 BCS National Championship Game, he produced 30 touchdowns and over 3,900 yards of total offense on the unbeaten Big 12 champs. He left school with more wins than any quarterback in NCAA history (since broken), owns the NCAA single-season record for completion percentage (76.7) and is the most efficient passer in Big 12 history (70.3 percent).
10. Terence Newman, CB, Kansas State (1999-2002)
Newman did a little bit of everything for Bill Snyder and Kansas State. He returned kicks and punts and even played some wide receiver. The lockdown cornerback was a two-time All-Big 12 pick, a unanimous All-American, the Jim Thorpe Award winner as the nation’s top DB and a first-round pick by the Cowboys in 2003. The 2002 Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year also was a two-time Big 12 outdoor track champion in the 100 meters and the league champ in the indoor 60 meters.
11. Derrick Johnson, LB, Texas (2002-04)
The big-play machine from Waco, Texas, was one of the greatest linebackers in Longhorns program history. He finished his career with 458 tackles, 65.0 tackles for loss, 10.5 sacks, nine interceptions and 11 forced fumbles. Johnson was a three-time All-Big 12 selection and a two-time All-American. He capped his career with the Butkus, Lambert and Nagurski national awards as well as Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year honors before being taken 15th overall by the Chiefs in the 2005 NFL Draft. He helped build a team that went on to win the national title the year after he departed and was a part of a Cotton and Rose Bowl championship teams.
12. Rocky Calmus, LB, Oklahoma (1998-01)
A three-time, first-team All-Big 12 selection and a two-time All-American, Calmus is one of the most important Sooners of all-time. As a senior in 2001 he won the Butkus and Lambert Awards for the nation's top linebacker, but his play in '00 will go down in Oklahoma history. He led the vaunted Sooners defense to a perfect record and spearheaded arguably the greatest defensive performance of the BCS Era by holding Florida State to zero offensive points in the BCS National Championship Game. Calmus was a third-round pick in the 2002 NFL Draft.
13. Darren Sproles, RB, Kansas State (2001-04)
Stats: 815 att., 4,979 yds, 45 TDs, 66 rec., 609 yds, 2 TDs, 1,224 ret yds, TD
Few players have ever been as valuable to their school as the diminutive Sproles was to Kansas State. The all-purpose dynamo rushed for at least 1,300 yards in three straight seasons and he helped lead the Wildcats to an improbable Big 12 championship in 2003. His 323 yards from scrimmage and four total touchdowns against Oklahoma in the title game will go down in history as arguably the greatest single-game performance by any Wildcat in history. The Sunflower State native finished fifth in the Heisman voting that year as his 2,735 all-purpose yards is the best single-season performance by any Big 12 running back during the BCS Era (fourth all-time). Sproles has proven himself by carving out an extremely productive niche in the NFL as an all-purpose talent.
14. Brian Orakpo, DE, Texas (2005-08)
The trophy case for the former Longhorn defensive end is packed with a Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year, Nagurski, Lombardi, and Hendricks trophies. He was an All-American who played in 47 career games in Austin, posting 132 tackles, 38.0 tackles for a loss, 22.0 sacks and six forced fumbles in his tenure. The Big 12 Freshman of the Year and Freshman All-American saw his career slowed by a knee injury in 2007 or else his totals would be even higher. He was a contributing member in all 13 games of the 2005 BCS national championship run and was taken 13th overall in the 2009 NFL Draft.
15. Tommie Harris, DT, Oklahoma (2001-03)
Harris was a dominant interior lineman for three of the better Sooners teams of the BCS Era. He helped lead his team to the BCS championship game in 2003 while claiming the Lombardi and Willis Trophies. He was a two-time consensus All-American selection as the Sooners went 35-6 during his three-year tenure. Oklahoma won the Cotton and Rose Bowls before losing in the Sugar Bowl in his final season. Harris was downright unblockable in Norman and was the 14th overall pick in the 2004 NFL Draft.
16. Cedric Benson, RB, Texas (2001-04)
Stats: 1,112 att., 5,540 yds, 64 TDs, 69 rec., 621 yds, 3 TDs
The Longhorns' running back is one of the most productive in history. He finished sixth in the Heisman Trophy voting two separate times and is one of only six players to score at least 60 rushing touchdowns. The Midland (Texas) Lee star posted four seasons of at least 1,050 yards and 12 touchdowns while in Austin — one of just eight players in NCAA history to post four 1,000-yard seasons. He won the ’04 Doak Walker and carried more times (1,112) than any Big 12 back in history.
17. Derrick Strait, DB, Oklahoma (2000-03)
As the Big 12 Defensive Newcomer of the Year, Strait helped lead an undefeated (13-0) Sooners team to the BCS National Championship as a freshman. By his senior season, Strait had led Oklahoma back to the BCS national title game and was recognized nationally with the Thorpe and Nagurski Trophies as the nation’s top defensive player and top defensive back. Strait also was the Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year in 2003 and finished his career with 14 interceptions returned for a Big 12-record 417 yards and three touchdowns. Strait was selected in the third round of the 2004 NFL Draft.
18. Jammal Brown, OL, Oklahoma (2001-04)
Starting his career as a defensive tackle, Brown exploded onto the national scene as a blocker as a sophomore. He helped lead the Sooners to the BCS National Championship Game twice and was recognized as the nation’s top offensive lineman in 2004 when he was awarded the Outland Trophy. The consensus All-American paved the way for Adrian Peterson’s NCAA record-setting freshman season. Brown was the 13th overall pick by the Saints in the 2005 NFL Draft and also was awarded the Jim Parker Trophy as the nation’s top offensive lineman before he left college.
19. Justin Blackmon, WR, Oklahoma State (2009-11)
Stats: 252 rec., 3,564 yds, 40 TDs, 136 rush, TD
Similarly to Crabtree, Blackmon’s numbers are inflated due to an elite offensive system. But make no mistake, he is the one of the greatest pass-catchers to ever play. He posted back-to-back seasons with at least 1,500 yards and 18 touchdowns, earning consensus All-American honors twice. The Ardmore (Okla.) Plainview product also became just the second player in NCAA history to claim two Biletnikoff Awards. Blackmon won Big 12 Offensive Player of the Year honors in 2010 and capped his illustrious career with a Big 12 championship and Fiesta Bowl MVP performance against Stanford. At a program with a long track record of elite wideouts, Blackmon has to be considered the best. He is one of just four wide receivers to finish in the top five for the Heisman Trophy (5th, 2010) during the BCS Era.
20. Chase Coffman, TE, Missouri (2005-08)
Stats: 247 rec., 2,659 yds, 30 TDs
It didn’t take long for Tigers fans to see what they had in Coffman as he earned first-team Freshman All-American honors in 2005. He then broke Mizzou tight end receiving records with 58 receptions, 638 yards and nine touchdowns as just a sophomore. After two straight All-Big 12 seasons, Coffman claimed the John Mackey Award as a senior as the nation’s top tight end after posting 90 receptions, 987 yards and 10 touchdowns in 2008. Missouri went 22-6 over his final two seasons in what many believe to be the best two-year run in program history. And the 6-foot-6, 250-pound Coffman was a huge part of that success.
21. Dat Nguyen, LB, Texas A&M (1995-98)
Arguably the most decorated Texas A&M defender, Nguyen was a three-time, first-team All-Big 12 selection and his 517 career tackles are an Aggies record. His career in College Station culminated in 1998 with a historic and adorned senior season. Nguyen was named the Bednarik, Lombardi and Lambert trophy winner and earned Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year honors as well. He led Texas A&M to the only Big 12 championship it would ever win that year as well — its last conference crown of any kind. The unanimous All-American was a third-round pick of the Dallas Cowboys in 2004.
22. Dominic Raiola, C, Nebraska (1998-00)
At a school known for its big uglies, Raiola is the Huskers’ best of the BCS Era. He was the first freshman O-lineman to start since 1991 when he took the field in '98. The following two seasons he set school records for knockdowns. As a junior, Raiola was the Rimington Trophy winner as the nation’s top center, was an Outland Finalist and earned consensus All-American honors before leaving school early for the NFL. The Huskers were 31-7 during his three seasons and won their last conference championship with Raiola leading the way in ‘99.
23. Josh Heupel, QB, Oklahoma (1999-2000)
Stats: 7,242 yds, 53 TDs, 30 INTs, 63.8%, 43 yds, 12 TDs
He wasn't the most talented quarterback to play in Norman but he might have the best understanding of the position. He won AP Player of the Year and Big 12 Player of the Year honors, was a consensus All-American, earned the Walter Camp Trophy, finished second in the Heisman and led the NCAA in completion percentage (64.7) in 2000. More importantly, he led Oklahoma to arguably the biggest win in program history over Florida State in the BCS championship game in 2000. He posted back-to-back seasons of at least 3,400 yards passing and 27 total touchdowns.
24. Brad Smith, QB, Missouri (2002-05)
Stats: 8,799 yds, 56 TDs, 33 INTs, 56.3%, 4,289 yds, 45 TDs
Smith is one of only five players in the 6,000-4,000 club after becoming the first player to accomplish the feat back in 2005. He is arguably the most dynamic playmaker in the history of the program and was nearly unstoppable in the backfield. His 799 rushing attempts are fifth all-time in Big 12 history and his 4,289 yards rushing are fourth while his 45 touchdowns rank ninth all-time. All of this on the ground from a guy who also ranks ninth all-time in passing yards, sixth in attempts (1,484) and seventh in completions (835)..
25. Justin Blalock, OT, Texas (2003-06)
The star blocker for the Horns helped return Texas to the promised land by paving the way for Vince Young on the 2005 BCS title team. He was an absurd four-time, first-team All-Big 12 selection and earned Big 12 Lineman of the Year honors in 2006 as a senior. He was a consensus All-American that year and was a second-round pick of the Falcons in 2007. He led the way for some of the greatest offenses in Texas and Big 12 history.
The Next 10:
The Tulsa, Okla., native played in all 12 games for the 2000 BCS National Champions as a freshman. He was a three-year starter for the Sooners after that, posting 117 tackles and 19.0 TFL and earning the Butkus and Bednarik Awards while leading Oklahoma back to the BCS national title game in 2003. He was a two-time All-American and Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year and was a second-round pick of the Lions in the 2004 NFL Draft. Oklahoma was 48-6 during Lehman’s four years and won two Big 12 titles.
27. Brandon Weeden, QB, Oklahoma State (2008-11)
Stats: 9,260 yds, 75 TDs, 27 INTs, 69.5%, 1 rush TD
The Pokes quarterback set all the important school passing records in 2011 and then returned to Stillwater in '12 and surpassed his previous benchmarks. His 4,742 yards passing in 2011 is the best single-season by a Big 12 quarterback not from Texas Tech. He led Oklahoma State to its first-ever Big 12 title and first-ever BCS bowl win. His 69.5 percent completion rate is third all-time in Big 12 history and he ranks eighth in league history in passing yards and ninth in touchdowns in just two seasons as a starter. Weeden went on to be a first-round draft pick of the Browns in the 2012 NFL Draft.
28. Casey Hampton, DL, Texas (1996, 98-00)
From 1997-2000, Hampton started 37 straight games for the Horns and finished with 54 tackles for a loss — fifth all-time in Big 12 history. He posted an absurd 329 tackles from his line position and forced nine fumbles. He was a consensus All-American, two-time, first-team All-Big 12 pick and the Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year in 2000. The All-Pro Super Bowl champion was taken in the first round of the 2001 NFL Draft with the 19th overall pick.
29. Jermaine Greshman, TE, Oklahoma (2006-09)
Stats: 111 rec., 1,629 yds, 26 TDs
Had the 6-foot-6, 260-pound star tight end stayed healthy and played his fourth season at Oklahoma, Gresham likely would have been the best player at his position during the BCS era. He scored 25 touchdowns in two seasons as the starter from 2007-08 — just eight shy of the NCAA tight end record (33). His All-American junior season features Sooners' tight end records for yards (950) and touchdowns (14) — one shy of Mark Clayton’s all-time single-season record regardless of position. He was arguably the top playmaker for a Big 12 champion and BCS National Championship runner-up that year as well. His season-ending knee injury prior to the start of his 2009 campaign left those in Norman wondering what could have been.
30. Cyril Richardson, OL, Baylor (2010-13)
31. Michael Huff, S, Texas (2002-05)
The superstar safety from Texas was a Freshman All-American in 2002 before earning back-to-back first-team All-Big 12 honors as a junior and senior. Huff was a unanimous All-American on the 2005 BCS National Championship team and was named the Jim Thorpe Award winner as the nation’s top defensive back. He posted 87 tackles, 9.0 for loss, two sacks, two interceptions and three forced fumbles on the historic ’05 squad. Huff was the seventh overall pick in the 2006 NFL Draft.
34. Von Miller, LB, Texas A&M (2007-10)
After an up and down but promising first two seasons, Miller exploded onto the scene as a junior in 2009. He led the nation in sacks with 17.0 and posted 21.0 tackles for loss for a team that lost seven games. As a senior, despite being slowed by an ankle injury, Miller posted 10.5 sacks and 17.5 tackles for loss en route to the Butkus Award as the nation’s best linebacker for a team that won nine games. Miller was a two-time, first-team All-American and All-Big 12 pick and was the No. 2 overall pick in the 2011 NFL Draft by the Denver Broncos.
35. Ryan Broyles, WR, Oklahoma (2008-11)